WASHINGTON — China could strike the United States with nuclear-capable precision weapons in the future in a surprise attack, a top Pentagon official said Friday.
Vice Adm. James Kilby, commander of the US Strategic Command, said new rapid-deployment hypersonic weapons developed by China could pose a real danger to the United States.
“I believe that China is developing capabilities to deliver low-yield nuclear weapons with precision strikes against American targets, just as we have introduced hypersonic glide vehicles with low explosive payloads to provide such strike capability,” Kilby said, speaking to a Washington audience.
“Under such circumstances, I believe that the US nuclear triad (of land-, sea- and air-based missiles) would be overcome by the limited targeting effect of Chinese nuclear weapons,” he said.
Kilby’s comments come amid increasing concerns about China’s rapidly developing hypersonic weapons. China has been developing weapons such as the DF-ZF and DF-21 missiles that can travel at speeds comparable to those of hypersonic aircraft.
US officials have pressed China and other nations to halt the development of hypersonic weapons. The president-elect recently told a Fox News interviewer that he was concerned about China “developing a capability and a weapon to go after our infrastructure” and that “I would fight and win, frankly, that trade war.”
Under the multilateral Missile Technology Control Regime, developed in 1987 and originally designed to foster nuclear disarmament, members agreed to limit development of new weapons that could reliably fly Mach 5 or faster, according to a research note from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. China is not currently part of the regime.
China does not give its actual size, but in 2015 officials said it contained between 9,000 and 13,000 warheads, comprising a low-, medium- and high-yield variety. The large nuclear arsenal provides a political lever with which Beijing can use to pressure the United States. In September, the top US-China diplomat said Beijing will have more weapons than the United States by 2025.
Kilby spoke to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Aerospace Forces Symposium, which was hosted by the Boeing Defense, Space & Security division. At the same time the talk was being given, another US official, spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban, issued a statement about Kilby’s remarks about China.
“The Vice Adm.’s point about China’s active denial of developing its own nuclear capable short- or medium-range ballistic missiles is one he made at a high-level, often unreported military forum at U.S. Pacific Command,” Urban said. “While no longer affiliated with the US Secretary of Defense’s or the president’s offices, Pacific Command provides the Defense Department and US forces in the Pacific with the operational military leadership for the region and its threats. It is important that the secretary and the Pentagon understand the views of those who are on the front lines of ongoing nuclear competition.”
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, Department of Defense officials declined to directly address Kilby’s comments about China’s role in nuclear warfare.
“China is developing its own capabilities, but we do not see a threat to the United States’ nuclear triad,” said the officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Those officials also declined to say whether a U.S. nuclear strike against China would be a preemptive first strike, but said it would be vital to respond to what the Pentagon considers an imminent threat.