(The Other) Red Storm Rising: INDO-PACOM China Military Projection

Click on image to download PDF-version of full briefing

Some Missile Numbers Do Not Match Recent DOD China Report

By Hans M. Kristensen

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command recently gave a briefing about the challenges the command sees in the region. The briefing says China is the “Greatest Threat to Global Order and Stability” and presents a set of maps that portray a massive Chinese military buildup and very little U.S. capability (and no Allied capability at all) to counter it. With its weapons icons and a red haze spreading across much of the Pacific, the maps resemble a new version of the Cold War classic Red Storm Rising.

Unfortunately, the maps are highly misleading. They show all of China’s forces but only a fraction of U.S. forces operating or assigned missions in the Pacific.

There is no denying China is in the middle of a very significant military modernization that is increasing its forces and their capabilities. This is and will continue to challenge the military and political climate in the region. For decades, the United States enjoyed an almost unopposed – certainly unmatched – military superiority in the region and was able to project that capability against China as it saw fit. The Chinese leadership appears to have concluded that that is no longer acceptable and that the country needs to be able to defend itself.

In describing this development, however, the INDO-PACOM briefing slides make the usual mistake of overselling the threat and under-characterizing the defenses. Moreover, some of the Chinese missile forces listed in the briefing differ significantly from those listed in the recent DOD report on Chinese military developments. As military competition and defense posturing intensify, expect to see more of these maps in the future.

Apples, Oranges, and Cherry-Picking

The INDO-PACOM maps suffer from the same lopsided comparison and cherry-picking that handicapped the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: it overplays the Chinese capabilities and downplays the U.S. capabilities (see image below). While he briefing maps includes all of China’s military forces, whether they are postured toward India or Russia, it only shows a small portion of U.S. forces. INDO-PACOM mapmakers may argue that it’s only intended to show the force level in the Western Pacific theater, but INDO-PACOM spans all of the Pacific and the maps ignore other significant U.S. forces that are operating in the region to oppose China.

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The INDO-PACOM map gives the impression that the United States only has 175 fighter-jets, 12 bombers, 50 maritime patrol aircraft, 1 aircraft carrier, four amphibious assault ships, 12 modern multi-warfare warships, 10 submarines, and 2 THAAD missile defense batteries in the region to deter China. In reality, the U.S. military forces based or assigned missions in the INDO-PACOM area of responsibility are significantly greater. The map excludes everything based in Hawaii, in Alaska, on the U.S. west coast, and elsewhere in the continental United States with missions in the Pacific or forces rotating through bases in the Indo-Pacific region. Examples of mischaracterizations of U.S. forces include:

Fighter aircraft: The map lists only lists 175 fighter-jets, but Pacific Air Forces says it has “Approximately 320 fighter and attack aircraft are assigned to the command with approximately 100 additional deployed aircraft rotating on Guam.”

Bombers: The map lists only 12 bombers, but the United States has more than 150 bombers, many of which would be used to counter Chinese forces in a war. Moreover, those bombers are considerably more capable than Chinese bombers and are supported by tankers to provide unconstrained range in the Pacific, something Chinese bombers cannot do.

Submarines: The map lists only 10 U.S. submarines, but according to the U.S. Naval Vessel Register the U.S. Navy has more than three times that many (35) in the Pacific, including 25 attack submarines, 2 guide missile submarines, and 8 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) homeported in Pacific ports. The omission of the 8 Pacific-based SSBNs is particularly problematic given their important role of targeting China – and that they are assigned up to eight times more nuclear warheads than China has in its entire nuclear weapons stockpile.

The INDO-PACOM briefing does not show that the United States has any ballistic missile submarines in the Pacific, even though eight U.S. Pacific-based SSBNs play a central role in targeting China. Just two of these Ohio-class SSBNs can carry more warheads than China has in its entire nuclear stockpile. This image shows the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN-735) during a port visit to Guam in 2016.

Aircraft carriers: The map lists only one U.S. aircraft carrier, but according to the U.S. Naval Vessel Register the U.S. Navy has six aircraft carriers based in the Pacific (two of them in shipyard). Moreover, unlike China’s single aircraft carrier (a second is fitting out), U.S. carriers are large flat-tops with more aircraft.

Amphibious assault ships: The map shows four U.S. amphibious assault ships, but the U.S. Pacific Fleet says it operates six (although one was recently damaged by fire). Moreover, the amphibious assault ships are being upgraded to carry the F-35B VSTOL aircraft, significantly improving their strike capability.

Missile defense: The map shows only two THAAD batteries but does not mention the Ground Based Midcourse missile defense system in Alaska. Nor are missile defense interceptors deployed on cruisers and destroyers listed.

ICBMs: One of the most glaring omissions is that the maps do not show the United States has any ICBMs (the map also does not list U.S. SLBMs but nor does it list Chinese SLBMs). Although U.S. ICBMs are thought to be mainly assigned to targeting Russia and would have to overfly Russia to reach targets in China, that does not rule out they could be used to target China (Chinese ICBMs would also have to overfly Russia to target the continental United States). U.S. ICBMs carry more nuclear warheads than China has in its entire nuclear stockpile.

The INDO-PACOM briefing shows China with 100 ICBMs and the United States with none. This infrared image shows a U.S. Minuteman III ICBM test-launched from Vandenberg AFB into the Pacific on September 2, 2020.

A modified map, apparently made available by U.S. Pacific Air Forces, is a little better because it includes Australian, Japanese, and South Korean forces. But it still significantly mischaracterizes the forces the United States has in the Pacific or are assigned missions in the region. Moreover, the new map does not include the yellow highlights showing “hypersonics” missiles and portion of aircraft, ships, and submarines that are modern (see modified map below).

A modified map released after the INDO-PACOM briefing also shows Australian, Japanese, and South Korean forces – but still mischaracterizes U.S. military forces in the Pacific.

Inconsistent Missile Numbers

The INDO-PACOM maps are also interesting because the numbers for Chinese IRBMs and MRBMs are different than those presented in the 2020 DOD report on Chinese military developments. INDO-PACOM lists 250 IRBMs/MRBMs, more than 100 missiles fewer than the DOD estimate. China has fielded one IRBM (DF-26), a dual-capable missile that exists in two versions: one for land-attack (most DF-26s are of this version) and one for anti-ship attack. China operates four versions of the DF-21 MRBM: the nuclear DF-21A and DF-21E, the conventional land-attack DF-21C, and the conventional anti-ship DF-21D.

There is also a difference in the number of SRBMs, which INDO-PACOM sets at 1,000, while the DOD report lists 600+. The 600+ could hypothetically be 1,000, but the INDO-PACOM number shows that the high-end of the 750-1,500 range reported by the 2019 DOD China report probably was too high.

A comparison (see table below) is complicated by the fact that the two reports appear to use slightly different terminology, some of which seems inconsistent. For example, INDO-PACOM lists “missiles” but the low IRBM/MRBM estimate suggests it refers to launchers. However, the high number of SRBMs listed suggest it refers to missiles.

Several of the Chinese missile estimates provided by INDO-PACOM and DOD are inconsistent.

2025 Projection

The projection made by INDO-PACOM for 2025 shows significant additional increases of Chinese forces, except in the number of SRBMs.

The ICBM force is expected to increase to 150 missiles from 100 today. That projection implies China will field an average of 10 new ICBMs each year for the next five years, or about twice the rate China has been fielding new ICBMs over the past two decades. Fifty ICBMs corresponds to about four new brigades. About 20 of the 50 new ICBMs are probably the DF-41s that have already been displayed in PLARF training areas, military parades, and factories. The remaining 30 ICBMs would have to include more DF-41s, DF-31AGs, and/or the rumored DF-5C, but it seems unlikely that China can add enough new ICBM brigade bases and silos in just five years to meet that projection.

The briefing also projects that 50 of the 150 ICBMs by 2025 will be equipped with “hypersonics.” The reference to “hypersonics” as something new is misleading because existing ICBMs already carry warheads that achieve hypersonic speed during reentry. Instead, the term “hypersonics” probably refers to a new hypersonic glide vehicle. It is unclear from the briefing if INDO-PACOM anticipates the new payload will be nuclear or conventional, but a conventional ICBM payload obviously would be a significant development with serious implications for crisis stability. Even if this expansion comes true, the entire Chinese ICBM force would only be one-third of the size of the U.S. ICBM force. Nonetheless, a Chinese ICBM force of 100-150 is still a considerable increase compared with the 40 or so ICBMs it operated two decades ago (see graph below).

The INDO-PACOM briefing appears to show a greater increase in ICBMs projected for the next five years than DOD reported in the past decade.

The IRBM/MRBM force is projected to increase to 375, from 250 today. That projection assumes China will field 125 additional missiles over five years, or 25 missiles each year. That corresponds to a couple of new brigades per year, which seems high. Yet production is significant and IRBM launchers have been seen in several regions in recent years. The IRBM/MRBM force presumably would include the DF-17, DF-21, and the DF-26.

About 75-87 of the IRBM/MRBM force will be equipped with “hypersonics” by 2025, according to INDO-PACOM. That projection probably refers to the expected fielding of the DF-17 with a new glide-vehicle payload, although that would imply a lot of the new launcher (enough for 4-6 brigades). Another possibly is that a portion of other IRBMs/MRBMs (perhaps the DF-26) might also be equipped with the new payload or have their own version. China has presented the DF-17 as conventional but STRATCOM has characterized it as a “new strategic nuclear system.” Adding new hypersonics to IRBMs/MRBMs that are already mixing nuclear and conventional seems extraordinarily risky and likely to further exacerbate the danger of misunderstandings.

The INDO-PACOM does not list any DF-17s but projects that 75-87 of China’s IRBMs/MRBMs by 2025 will carry some form of hypersonic payload that is different from what they carry today.

The status and projection for the surface fleet are also interesting. The INDO-PACOM briefing lists the total number of aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and modern multi-warfare combatant vessels at 54, of which 46 are modern multi-warfare combatant vessels. The briefing doesn’t specify what is excluded from this count, but it differs significantly from the count in the DOD China report.

One of the puzzling parts of the INDO-PACOM briefing is the projection that China by 2025 will be operating four aircraft carriers for fixed-wing jets. China is currently operating one carrier with a second undergoing sea-trials. How China would be able to add another three carriers in five years is a mystery, not least because the third and fourth hulls are of a new and more complex design. The projection also doesn’t fit with the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, which predicts the third carrier won’t be commissioned until 2024.

The INDO-PACOM briefing says China will operate four aircraft carriers by 2025 but ONI estimates the third won’t be commissioned until 2024.

Bombers are projected to increase from 175 today to 225 in 2025, an increase of nearly 30 percent. Since 2025 is probably too early for the new H-20 to become operational, the increase appears to only involve modern version of the H-6 bomber. Although the bomber force has recently been reassigned a nuclear mission, the majority of the Chinese bomber force will likely continue to be earmarked for conventional missions.

Submarines and surface vessels will also increase and some of them are being equipped with long-range missiles. Combined with the growing reach of ground-based ballistic missiles and air-delivered cruise missiles, this results in the INDO-PACOM maps showing a Chinese “anti-access area denial” (A2AD) capability bleeding across half of the Pacific well beyond Guam toward Hawaii. But A2AD is not a bubble and weakens significantly in areas further from Chinese shores.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The INDO-PACOM maps project China’s military modernization will continue at a significant pace over the next five years with increases in delivery platforms and capabilities. This will reduce the military advantage the United States has enjoyed over China for decades and further stimulate modernization of U.S. and allied military forces in the region. As forces grow, operations increase, and rhetoric sharpens, insecurity and potential incidents will increase as well and demand new ways of reducing tension and risks.

The Trump administration is correct that China should be included in talks about limiting forces and reducing tension. So far, however, the administration has not presented concrete ideas for what that could look like. Like the United States, China will not accept limits on its forces and operations without something in return that Beijing sees as being in its national interest. Although China is modernizing its nuclear forces and appears intent on increasing it further over the next decade, the force will remain well below the level of the United States and Russia for the foreseeable future. Insisting that China should join U.S.-Russian nuclear talks seems premature and it is still unclear what the United States would trade in return for what. In the near-term, it seems more important to try to reach agreements on limiting the increase of conventional forces and operations.

Unfortunately, the INDO-PACOM briefing does a poor job in comparing Chinese and U.S. forces and suffers from the same flaw as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review by cherry-picking and mischaracterizing force levels. It is tempting to think that this was done with the intent to play up the Chinese threat while downplaying U.S. capabilities to assist public messaging and defense funding. But the Chinese military modernization is important – as is finding the right response. Neither the public nor the Congress are served by twisted comparisons.

It would also help if the Pentagon and regional commands would coordinate and streamline their public projections for Chinese modernizations. Doing so would help prevent misunderstandings and confusion and increase the credibility of these projections.

Finally, these kinds of projections raise a fundamental question: why does the Pentagon and regional military commands issue public threat projections at all? That should really be the role of the Director of National Intelligence, not least to avoid that U.S. public intelligence assessments suffer from inconsistencies, cherry-picking, and short-term institutional interests.

 

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Russian Pacific Fleet Prepares For Arrival of New Missile Submarines

By Hans M. Kristensen

Later this fall (possibly this month) the first new Borei-class (sometimes spelled Borey) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is scheduled to arrive at the Rybachiy submarine base near Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

[Update September 30, 2015: Captain First Rank Igor Dygalo, a spokesperson for the Russian Navy, announced that the Aleksander Nevsky (K-550) arrived at Rybachiy Submarine Base at 5 PM local time (5 AM GMT) on September 30, 2015.]

At least one more, possibly several, Borei SSBNs are expected to follow over the next few years to replace the remaining outdated Delta-III SSBNs currently operating in the Pacific.

The arrival of the Borei SSBNs marks the first significant upgrade of the Russian Pacific Fleet SSBN force in more than three decades.

In preparation for the arrival of the new submarines, satellite pictures show upgrades underway to submarine base piers, missile loading piers, and nuclear warhead storage facilities. Continue reading

A foolish consistency

EmersonConsistency is good – there’s a sense of security in knowing that some things will generally remain constant over time. We can always count on gravity, for example, to hold us firmly to the ground; politicians are typically pandering and self-serving; I can count on radioactivity to consistently decay away; and so forth. Of course, not all consistency is good – as Emerson noted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” We can also count on the American public to consistently question whether or not evolution actually occurs; many of us know that our perfectionist boss will always insist on yet another round of reviews and edits before letting a document go out the door; we will always find people who are apparently proud of their lack of knowledge; and we can expect that a certain category of blogger will continue to see the end of the world on the near horizon. It is this latter category I’d like to talk about this time – particularly the batch that continues to insist that the reactor accident at the Fukushima Dai’ichi site is going to kill millions.

Before launching into this piece I’d like to point you to a wonderful counter-example of what I just said – a blog posting by oceanographer and University of Washington professor Kim Martini. I have been accused of being part of the pro-nuclear and/or pro-radiation lobby because of my long years of experience as a radiation safety professional – Dr. Martini told me that she became interested in this topic, researched it herself, and came to her conclusions independently of the nuclear energy and radiation safety professionals. In short, she is scientifically competent, intelligent, and has no reason to be biased either pro- or anti-nuclear.

The latest round of Fukushima silliness is the contention that Americans need to evacuate the West Coast because of an apparently imminent release from one or more of the affected reactors and/or the Reactor 4 spent fuel pool. There are also those who blame the Fukushima accident for massive starfish die-offs, for sick animals along the Alaskan coast, and more – all of which (according to the good Dr. Martini) are far from accurate. And anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott has gone as far as to state that the entire Northern Hemisphere might need to be evacuated if things get as bad as she fears and the Unit 4 spent fuel pool collapses. So let’s see what the facts are, what the science can tell us, and what the real story might be.

Can the melted reactors go critical?

There have been predictions that the ruined reactor cores will somehow achieve criticality, producing more fission products and spreading more contamination into the water. While this is not strictly speaking impossible it is highly unlikely – sort of like saying that it is remotely possible that Bill Gates will leave me his fortune, but I’m still contributing to my 401(k) account. To achieve criticality (to a nuclear engineer or a reactor operator, “criticality” simply means that the reactor is operating at a constant power) requires reactor fuel that’s enriched to the right percentage of U-235, a critical mass of the uranium (enough to sustain a chain reaction), and it has to be in a configuration (the critical geometry) that will permit fission to occur. Also important in most reactors is a moderator – a substance such as water that will slow neutrons down to the point where they can be absorbed and cause the U-235 atoms to fission. In reactors such as the ones destroyed in Fukushima require all of these components to achieve criticality – take away any one of them and there will be no fission chain reaction.

The ruined reactor cores meet some of these requirements – since they’d been operating at the time of the accident we know that they had a critical mass of sufficiently enriched uranium present. Surrounded by water (either seawater or groundwater), they are likely also immersed in a moderator. But absent a critical geometry the cores cannot sustain a fission chain reaction. So the question is whether or not these cores can, by chance, end up in a critical geometry. And the answer to this is that it is highly improbable.

Consider, for example, the engineering and design that goes into making a nuclear reactor core. Granted, much of this design goes into making the reactors as efficient and as cost-effective to operate as possible, but the fact is that we can’t just slap some uranium together in any configuration and expect it to operate at all, let alone in a sustained fashion. In addition, reactors keep their fuel in an array of fuel rods that are immersed in water – the water helps slow the neutrons down as they travel from one fuel element to the next. A solid lump of low-enriched uranium has no moderator to slow down these neutrons; the only moderated neutrons are those that escape into the surrounding water and bounce back into the uranium; the lumps in a widely dispersed field of uranium will be too far apart to sustain a chain reaction. Only a relatively compact mass of uranium that is riddled with holes and channels is likely to achieve criticality – the likelihood that a melted core falling to the bottom of the reactor vessel (or the floor of the containment) would come together in a configuration that could sustain criticality is vanishingly low.

How much radioactivity is there?

First, let’s start off with the amount of radioactivity that might be available to release into the ocean. Where it comes from is the uranium fission that was taking place in the core until the reactors were shut down – the uranium itself is slightly radioactive, but each uranium atom that’s split produces two radioactive atoms (fission fragments). The materials of the reactor itself become radioactive when they’re bombarded with neutrons but these metals are very corrosion-resistant and aren’t likely to dissolve into the seawater. And then there are transuranic elements such as plutonium and americium formed in the reactor core when the non-fissioning U-238 captures neutrons. Some of these transuranics have long half-lives, but a long half-life means that a nuclide is only weakly radioactive – it takes 15 grams of Pu-239 to hold as much radioactivity as a single gram of radium-226 (about 1 Ci or 37 GBq in a gram of Ra-226), and the one gram of Cs-137 has about as much radioactivity as over a kilogram of Pu-239. So the majority of radioactivity available to be released comes from the fission products with activation and neutron capture products contributing in a more minor fashion.

This part is basic physics and simply isn’t open to much interpretation – decades of careful measurements have shown us how many of which fission products are formed during sustained uranium fission. From there, the basic physics of radioactive decay can tell us what’s left after any period of decay. So if we assume the worst case – that somehow all of the fission products are going to leak into the ocean – the logical starting place is to figure out how much radioactivity is even present at this point in time.

In January 2012 the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) used a sophisticated computer program to calculate the fission product inventory of the #1 and #3 reactors at the Fukushima Dai’ichi site – they calculated that each reactor held about 6.2 million curies (about 230 billion mega-becquerels) of radioactivity 100 days after shut-down. The amount of radioactivity present today can be calculated (albeit not easily due to the number of radionuclides present) – the amount of radioactivity present today reflects what there was nearly three years ago minus what has decayed away since the reactors shut down. After 1000 days (nearly 3 years) the amount of radioactivity is about 1% of what was present at shutdown (give or take a little) and about a tenth what was present after 100 days. Put all of this together and accounting for what was present in the spent fuel pools (the reactor in Unit 4 was empty but the spent fuel pool still contains decaying fuel rods) and it seems that the total amount of radioactivity present in all of the affected reactors and their spent fuel pools is in the vicinity of 20-30 million curies at this time.

By comparison, the National Academies of Science calculated in 1971 (in a report titled Radioactivity in the Marine Environment) that the Pacific Ocean holds over 200 billion curies of natural potassium (about 0.01% of all potassium is radioactive K-40), 19 billion curies of rubidium-87, 600 million curies of dissolved uranium, 80 million curies of carbon-14, and 10 million curies of tritium (both C-14 and H-3 are formed by cosmic ray interactions in the atmosphere).

How much radioactivity might be in the water?

A fair amount of radioactivity has already escaped from Units 1, 2, and 3 – many of the volatile and soluble radionuclides have been released to the environment. The remaining radionuclides are in the fuel precisely because they are either not very mobile in the environment or because they are locked inside the remaining fuel. Thus, it’s unlikely that a high fraction of this radioactivity will be released. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that 30 million curies of radioactivity are released into the Pacific Ocean to make their way to the West Coast – how much radioactivity will be in the water?

The Pacific Ocean has a volume of about 7×1023 ml or about 7×1020 liters and the North Pacific has about half that volume (it’s likely that not much water has crossed the equator in the last few years). If we ignore circulation from the Pacific into other oceans and across the equator the math is simple – 30 million curies dissolved into 3×1020 liters comes out to about 10-13 curies per liter of water, or about 0.1 picocuries (pCi) per liter (1 curie is a million million pCi). Natural radioactivity (according to the National Academy of Sciences) from uranium and potassium in seawater is about 300 pCi/liter, so this is a small fraction of the natural radioactivity in the water. If we make a simplifying assumption that all of this dissolved radioactivity is Cs-137 (the worst case) then we can use dose conversion factors published by the US EPA in Federal Guidance Report #12 to calculate that spending an entire year immersed in this water would give you a radiation dose of much less than 1 mrem – a fraction of the dose you’d get from natural background radiation in a single day (natural radiation exposure from all sources – cosmic radiation, radon, internal radionuclides, and radioactivity in the rocks and soils – is slightly less than 1 mrem daily). This is as close as we can come to zero risk.

This is the worst case – assuming that all of the radioactivity in all of the reactors and spent fuel pools dissolves into the sea. Any realistic case is going to be far lower. The bottom line is that, barring an unrealistic scenario that would concentrate all of the radioactivity into a narrow stream, there simply is too little radioactivity and too much water for there to be a high dose to anyone in the US. Or to put it another way – we don’t have to evacuate California, Alaska, or Hawaii; and Caldicott’s suggestion to evacuate the entire Northern Hemisphere is without any credible scientific basis. And this also makes it very clear that – barring some bizarre oceanographic conditions – radioactivity from Fukushima is incapable of causing any impact at all on the sea life around Hawaii or Alaska let alone along California.

Closing thoughts

There’s no doubt that enough radiation can be harmful, but the World Health Organization has concluded that Fukushima will not produce any widespread health effects in Japan (or anywhere else) – just as Chernobyl failed to do nearly three decades ago. And it seems that as more time goes by without the predicted massive environmental and health effects they’ve predicted, the doom-sayers become increasingly strident as though shouting ever-more dire predictions at increasing volume will somehow compensate for the fact that their predictions have come to naught.

In spite of all of the rhetoric, the facts remain the same as they were in March 2011 when this whole saga began – the tsunami and earthquake killed over 20,000 people to date while radiation has killed none and (according to the World Health Organization) is likely to kill none in coming years. The science is consistent on this point as is the judgment of the world’s scientific community (those who specialize in radiation and its health effects). Sadly, the anti-nuclear movement also remains consistent in trying to use the tragedy of 2011 to stir up baseless fears. I’m not sure which of Emerson’s categories they would fall into, but I have to acknowledge their consistency, even when the facts continue to oppose them.

The post A foolish consistency appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.