The Pentagon has warned lawmakers on Capitol Hill that China now has more ground-based facilities capable of launching nuclear missiles than the U.S., according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. But there’s one big catch: Many of China’s missile silos are sitting empty. And perhaps just as importantly, the count of China’s ground-based missile launchers doesn’t include submarine and aircraft-based nuclear capabilities, areas where the U.S. has a very real advantage.
U.S. Strategic Command wrote a letter late last month to both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, warning of China’s expanding nuclear capabilities, according to the Journal. But you have to read much further into the article to get the big caveats that many of the silos are empty, and that China doesn’t have nearly as many submarine-launched missiles and long-range bombers—the other two legs of the so-called nuclear triad that makes U.S. nuclear strike capabilities second to none.
The caveats are tremendously important because a build-up of more nuclear weapons by the U.S. will likely be a political football in the upcoming 2024 presidential elections, as both parties try to prove who’s tougher on China. And while the U.S. has nuclear treaties with one major New Cold War adversary—like the New START treaty with Russia—China isn’t a party to any treaty limiting its ability to produce nuclear weapons. That makes it difficult, of course, to know what to do in the face of any Chinese build-up of nuclear weapons.
The New Cold War is a very real fight that has consequences for the U.S. economy, whether it’s in the production of sensitive chip technology in Taiwan, or Apple’s decision to move some manufacturing out of China. But the New Cold War is also a conflict that’s caused real blood to be spilled, as we’ve seen play out in Ukraine, with the U.S. arming Ukraine’s military in the fight against Russia’s illegal invasion of the country.
But whatever you think of the politics involving a potential nuclear arms race with China, take some time to learn about the original Cold War stories of nuclear misses. Most people know about the Cuban Missile Crisis and that near-miss with nuclear apocalypse, but there’s also the time a computer simulation almost started a nuclear war in 1979, or the Soviet military officer whose hesitation over a false alarm likely saved the planet from World War III. The Able Archer exercise conducted by NATO in 1983 was yet another close call.
And none of that even touches on the psychological trauma of living under the constant threat of nuclear weapons. Some U.S. schools even handed out dog tags to little kids in the early 1950s so that any children killed in a potential nuclear war might be identified.
Bringing more nuclear weapons into the world gives humanity that many more times to mess up. And if you know anything about the first Cold War, it’s genuinely a miracle we made it out without blowing the entire world to pieces.