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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Chinese Views of Future Warfare, Part Three

Institute for National Strategic Studies

Major General Wu Jianguo

Major General Wu Jianguo is a former Associate Professor and Dean of the Antichemical Warfare Academy. This paper was published in China Military Science, no. 4 (Winter 1995).

The development of weaponry has undergone a long historical process. Nuclear weapons came into being in the middle of this century, creating a place for themselves in the history of weapons development and on the war arena. Along with the rapid development of modern science and new technology, high-tech weaponry has played an enormous role in some of the recent local wars and demonstrated a broad range of development. We are now entering an era in which high-tech weaponry is used in combat operations. In such an era, are nuclear weapons still useful? Will nuclear warfare break out? Is nuclear deterrence still effective? These are issues for debate about future high-tech warfare that cannot be avoided. This article expresses my humble opinions about them.

The Development of Nuclear Weapons Will Continue

The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 by U.S. troops proclaimed the advent of a nuclear era. With their unprecedented tremendous power, it shocked people's hearts, became a significant bargaining chip of military strength, and cast a nuclear shadow over warfare. Between the 1960s and 1970s, the role of nuclear weapons was inappropriately exaggerated. The prolonged situation of the Cold War and particularly the emergence of high-tech weapons and high-tech warfare have made people understand more clearly the limitations of nuclear weapons. However, we must note that the existence of a large number of nuclear weapons and the continuous development of nuclear technology are facts that brook no argument. We cannot simplistically think that the emergence of high-tech weaponry has replaced the position and role of nuclear weapons, neither can we believe that because of their extremely gigantic destructive power, nuclear weapons have totally negated their own prospects for use.

For several decades after World War II, various military powers vied with one another in the research and development of nuclear weapons. At present, countries possessing nuclear weapons include the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China, and the total number of nuclear warheads currently throughout the world exceeds 20,000. Of this total, 95 percent are in the hands of the United States and Russia, who have the power to destroy the world many times. A series of treaties and agreements on nuclear disarmament has been concluded in recent years. However, even after they have been completely implemented, in the year 2003, the United States will still possess 3,500 strategic nuclear warheads, with a total equivalent weight of approximately 900 million tons, and 999 carrier vehicles; Russia will still possess 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads, with a total equivalent weight of more than 700 million tons, and 975 carrier vehicles. If we compare the above two sets of figures with the amount of bombs dropped by the U.S. troops during their 3-year war of aggression in Korea and the 8-year war in Vietnam, which totaled 680,000 tons and 1.5 million tons, respectively, it is not difficult to imagine that the force of the "remnant" nuclear weapons is still extremely formidable.

Since the Cold War ended, the danger of a world war has been growing smaller and smaller, but local military conflicts have never ceased. In light of the issues cropping up in various local wars, especially in the Gulf War, and to meet the requirements of the new pattern of military strife, some military powers stepped up their research and production of new-type nuclear weapons with very small TNT equivalents. Such small-sized nuclear weapons have a degree of destructive power, yet the possibility of using them will not be negated because their equivalent weights are not too big and the destruction they cause is not too disastrous.

As disclosed in the autumn 1992 issue of Strategic Review, some people proposed that three kinds of nuclear weapons with small TNT equivalents should be developed:

  • One is a small-size, ground-penetrating nuclear weapon with an equivalent of 10 tons. It explodes at 10 to 15 meters beneath ground surface, and its pressure will reach 25 meters deep, with a capability to destroy heavily fortified command posts and all underground defense works except bunkers. The shock waves produced by the nuclear explosion cause only slight damage to the building facilities within about 100 meters, and the danger of radiation is also controlled within a relatively small range. This kind of nuclear weapon can also effectively wreck enemy airports and other important military facilities. During Desert Storm, the multinational troops repeatedly bombed Iraqi airports, but that did not produce a satisfactory result because the craters blasted by the bombs were rapidly filled in. However, a ground-penetrating nuclear warhead is capable of creating a strong radioactive crater with a radius of 15 meters and a dimension of 3,000 cubic meters, which is very hard to repair. Hence, it can disable the functions of an airport.
  • The second is a small-size, anti missile nuclear weapon with an equivalent of 100 tons. If an antimissile missile is equipped with a nuclear warhead with a small equivalent, it will not only accurately intercept the attacking missile in the sky, but also disable the nuclear, biological, and chemical warheads of the attacking missile.
  • The third proposed nuclear weapon is a small-size, ground-to-ground or air-to-ground nuclear weapon with an equivalent of 1,000 tons. According to the article, "the appropriate scale of U.S. nuclear weapons could prevent the recurrence of the tragic retreat in Dunkirk. When the U.S. emergency troops arriving at the war zone were unable to hold back the enemy's attack, a display of a small-sized nuclear weapons with an equivalent of 1,000 tons would probably have made the enemy submit obediently."
Certainly, the future development of nuclear weaponry is far beyond the issue of size; indeed, the focus is on other aspects, including the individualized antipersonnel and destructive effect, the method of lead-in explosion, the technology of adjustable equivalent (with plug-in component), and the enhanced ability to penetrate defense lines and survivability, all of which are well along in development. All this has added to the flexibility of nuclear use in actual operations. As a matter of fact, both the United States and Russia clearly understand that the existence and continued development of nuclear weapons is an objective reality in the present world. Because so many of nuclear weapons still exist and their functions are further improving, then there is a material foundation for using them. In this regard, nuclear weaponry is still the sword of Damocles hanging over the people of the world.

A Nuclear Environment in Future Battlefields

Today, the world is in a historical period of drastic changes, the pattern of multipolar forces is taking shape, the international situation is moving toward relaxation, and peace and development have become the theme of the present world. Therefore, we can anticipate that a new world war will not break out and nuclear warfare is avoidable. However, the world today is not trouble free, hegemony and power politics still have not withdrawn from the historical arena, the international situation is still very complicated, and the flames of war arising from local conflicts have never died out. Owing to multifarious factors, the nuclear shadow still cannot be cast away from future battlefields.

Warfare is violent action. More than 100 years ago, the capitalist strategist Clausewitz pointed out, "The use of violence knows no bounds. Therefore, a belligerent will oblige its opponent to use force as it will itself, thus producing a kind of interaction. As viewed from this conception, such interaction will inevitably lead to extreme." Warfare is the continuation of politics, and a kind of bloody politics at that. Nuclear warfare and high-tech warfare are both instruments subordinate to the purposes and requirements of wars. When countries possessing nuclear weapons and high-tech conventional weapons are involved in a war in which the conflict is intensifying, the possible use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. Nuclear weapons, therefore, are still a trump card in the hands of nuclear nations.

Thomas F. Ramos, science adviser to the senior officer responsible for nuclear weapons in the U.S. Department of Defense said: "No reasonable evidence indicates that conventional weapons will be reliable shelters to cope with enemies possessing and intending to use nuclear weapons." His remarks express the consensus of some military strategists studying the Gulf War.

As estimated by some Western specialits/analysts, there are at least 12 countries which claim to have ballistic missiles and at least 25 countries that have probably developed or are developing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Using this estimation, some Western publications maintain that "the world has ushered in an age of nuclear proliferation." In 1974, India carried out its first nuclear blast, which kicked off the nuclear emulation in South Asia. In 1988, India successfully developed the PRITHVI medium-range ground-to-ground missile with a range of 2,000 meters, and the capability of carrying nuclear warheads. On March 24, 1993, South African President De Klerk addressed a special session of the National Assembly, saying that South Africa worked out a limited nuclear deterrent program in 1974 and had produced six atomic bombs by the end of 1989, and that all the said nuclear weapons had been dismantled and destroyed in early 1990. It was also revealed by the South African media that if the expansion of nuclear powers shown an intimidating color, South Africa will install warheads into its missiles and will probably develop and deploy neutron weapons. Israel is one of the countries that had nuclear weapons in its possession relatively earlier. Moreover, it was prepared to use them during the fourth Middle-East war.

Other data also stated that countries like Argentina and Brazil will also be able to manufacture nuclear weapons. With the rapid development of science and technology, the technology of making nuclear weapons has almost become an open secret. The disintegration of the former Soviet Union not only resulted in a brain drain of a vast number of scientists engaged in nuclear weapon development, but also threw the supervision of nuclear materials into chaos, considerably enlarging the scope of nuclear proliferation. A terrorist organization or a maniac could, some day, claim possession of an atomic bomb and use it as a tool of intimidation and blackmail, and no one would think that this was a tale from the Arabian Nights.

What merits our attention is that in a high-tech conventional war, a nuclear environment may still emerge even if nuclear weapons are not used. The more society advances, the greater the demands for energy will be. In order to satisfy the demands for energy, nuclear power stations were built. According to the data released by the International Atomic Energy Agency in March 1994, at the end of 1993 there were 430 nuclear power plants with a total installed capacity of approximately 345 million kw operating in various places throughout the world; these accounted for more than 17 percent of the world's gross power generation. It is predicted that by 2001, there will be 558 nuclear power generating units with a total installed capacity of approximately 460 million kw all worldwide, which will account for 24 percent of the world's gross power generation. The peaceful utilization of nuclear energy is a piece of joyous news to mankind.

Meanwhile, the extensive use of nuclear energy also constitutes a latent threat to peace and the existence of human beings. The accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that occurred in April 1986 inflicted air pollution on 16 Russian oblasts and victimized 250,000 people. In Ukraine, 370,000 people suffered injuries in varying degrees as land covering 40,000 square meters was polluted, and more than 2,000 residential areas were evacuated. In future high-tech warfare, if an enemy intentionally or unintentionally attacks nuclear power plants or other facilities using nuclear energy with high-tech conventional weapons, the secondary nuclear radiation produced and the nuclear environment brought about would likewise do harm. In June 1981, Israel dispatched four aircraft to launch a sudden attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor southeast of the capital Baghdad, dropping 16 tons of bombs in two minutes and hitting all the targets. Fortunately, the reactor was not yet operational; otherwise the attack would have resulted in very serious consequences.

Nuclear Deterrence Will Be Used in Local Wars

The local wars that broke out after World War II were mostly carried out under the conditions of nuclear deterrence if the Western powers were involved in them. During the Korean War, U.S. Commander-in-Chief MacArthur once threatened a sudden attack of atomic bombs on China's northeast and coastal strategic targets. After Eisenhower came to power, he again ordered the Pentagon to formulate a nuclear program aimed at China. During its war of aggression in Vietnam, the United States also made nuclear threats and was prepared to resolve the issue with nuclear weapons. After the armed conflicts on Zhenbao Island between China and the Soviet Union in 1969, Brezhnev considered initiating a nuclear attack on China in an attempt to ruin China's nuclear facilities. In the Malvinas Islands War, Britain carried tactical nuclear weapons on its huge fleet and was prepared to use them if its conventional operations failed. In particular, the multinational coalition troops headed by the United States used extremely advanced high-tech weapons in the Gulf War, and although they held the trump card, they still deployed 800 to 850 tactical nuclear weapons on three sides of Iraq. What is more, U.S. troops considered using radio flash bombs but, because of political considerations, they were not approved by U.S. President Bush. In response to Saddam's repeated threats to use chemical weapons, the British Government warned again and again that its troops would retaliate by using tactical nuclear weapons should Iraq resort to using chemical weapons. Bush also hinted that he would give field commanders freedom when necessary. These countries threatened to use nuclear weapons in conventional wars because they believed that with nuclear weapons in hand, psychologically they would be able to hold a dominant position, which would enhance troop morale and frighten the enemy on the one hand, and restrict the enemy's use of some conventional means on the other, thus changing the direction of the war. These past events should not be forgotten.

At present, nuclear deterrence is still a strategic pillar of military power. U.S. President Clinton thinks that the United States must build up military muscle that suits the new age, and this military muscle must have the capacity of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrent force is an effective form of security. The 1993 defense report submitted by the U.S. Defense Department to Congress proposed that an all directional global defense system of strategic nuclear deterrence to prevent limited nuclear attacks should be set up, under which the former nuclear deterrent strategy chiefly aimed at the Soviet Union should be readjusted to an all-direction and multilevel nuclear deterrent strategy aimed at both the former Soviet Union and other regions.

On September 25, 1995, President Clinton ordered the Energy Department to maintain the three major nuclear weapon laboratories to ensure that U.S. nuclear deterrent capacity remains effective. Russia set up a defense ministry in March 1992, then founded its nuclear strategic forces and made the development of strategic nuclear weapons a top priority in the future development of eight technical weapons. President Yeltsin said that a strategic nuclear force was the foundation of Russia's military strength. In November 1993, giving sanction to the new Russian military theory, he officially abandoned the Kremlin's 11-year-old commitment that in a conflict it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. In its 1992 defense report, France claimed that it merely wanted to have the "most rudimentary" nuclear deterrent for as a way to cope with various kinds of unexpected events and check possible encroachments on its interests by potential enemies.

In the meantime, France announced that it is continuing to focus on the development of a submarine-launched strategic nuclear missile system to ensure the reliability of its nuclear deterrent strategy. At his first news conference after assuming office as president on June 13, 1995, Chirac declared that France would resume its nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The French Defense Minister maintained that President Chirac had made a "very serious decision." British Prime Minister Major said, "As far as Britain is concerned, laying down the nuclear shield in whatever manner is an indiscreet move. Britain holds on to its views that as long as the CIS countries are still in possession of nuclear weapons, Britain should retain its own. The number of British nuclear weapons will not be determined by that of other countries, but by whether or not they are sufficient to make potential enemies feel incapable of sustaining their losses."

Deterrence and actual combat are complementary and closely interrelated. Generally speaking, the military strategy of all countries has a dual character of deterrence and actual combat. Before a war breaks out, a country will, by way of military deterrence, try to make the opposite side refrain from launching an attack rashly, so as to provide a powerful backing for its own political, economic, and diplomatic activities. Once military deterrence does not work, it will strive to win a victory through actual combat, so as to remove obstacles to its political, economic, and diplomatic activities.

Militarily, the immense effect of nuclear weaponry is that it can serve as a deterrent force and, at the same time, as a means of actual combat. Some countries, even those of the Third World, also consider possession of limited nuclear strength to be a significant way to contend against the deterrence of big powers or to deter one another in order to make up for the deficiency of their conventional forces. Military history after World War II has principally centered on the two superpowers that applied nuclear deterrence to each other and contended with each other for nuclear hegemony. After one of the superpowers disintegrated, a "crowd of heroes" rose up. As a result, conflicts that were in the past covered up by the Cold War surfaced with each passing day, and the collision and coalition of various political forces intensified simultaneously. Some regional powers were not weakened by the superpowers' relaxed control over them. On the contrary, they will, perhaps, go their own way even more willfully on the issues of possessing and using nuclear weapons. Both the United States and Russia believe that future nuclear threats will primarily stem from small nuclear nations in certain regions. Hence, the world situation of nuclear deterrence will be transformed from the previous global nuclear deterrence and confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union to multiple and regional nuclear deterrence and confrontation. In future high-tech local wars, the struggle between nuclear deterrence and counter nuclear deterrence will be even more complex.

We are materialists, so when we study an issue, we must proceed from the objective reality rather than from a subjective wish and, through investigation and study of objective reality, we derive our principles, policies, and measures. The study of issues concerning warfare can be conducted in the same way. Comrade Mao Zedong said a long time ago:

Investigation and study are very important. When we see someone hold something in his hand, we should look into the matter. What is he holding in his hand? It is a knife. What is the use of a knife? It can kill a person. Whom will he kill with the knife? He will kill the people. After probing into these matters, we should further the investigation: The Chinese people also have hands, and they can hold knives too. They can forge one if they have none. . . .

We love peace. China's development and possession of a small number of nuclear weapons is entirely for self-defense. Since the very first day when China had nuclear weapons in 1964, it solemnly proclaimed that it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances. China also made the commitment that it would never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons toward nuclear-free countries or regions. At the same time, we clearly understand that only by relying on the arduous work of the people all over the world can the objective of genuinely eliminating nuclear wars and genuinely obtaining world peace be realized: "It is a universal truth since ancient times that proficiency in warfare is not tantamount to bellicosity." The stronger our national defense muscle and the more sufficient our preparations for high-tech warfare under the condition of nuclear deterrence, the smaller the possibility of the outbreak of nuclear war.

We wish that the day will come when the nuclear shadow will disappear from the blue sky and the people the world over will live under the sunshine of genuine peace. To hail the early arrival of this day, we should work with greater stamina and diligence.

SOURCE: Chinese Views of Future Warfare
edited by Michael Pillsbury
Institute for National Strategic Studies

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