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China's Low-Yield Battlefield Nuclear Weapons: A Threat Assessment

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[Technical Report, Monograph]

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US Army School for Advanced Military Studies

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The Peoples Republic of China PRC possesses the worlds third largest nuclear arsenal and sustains the most aggressive missile development program on the planet. While discussions of strategic nuclear capabilities are not infrequent in Western analysis of the Peoples Liberation Army PLA, assessments of its non-strategic nuclear weapons are extremely limited. Is the US accurately assessing the threat posed by Chinas nuclear arsenal - specifically, its low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons LYBNW To answer the question, this paper explores Beijings intent and capability to employ LYBNWs against US ground forces in the Indo-Pacific region. Regarding the former, emerging domestic political and geostrategic factors, when interpreted through the lens of behavioral psychology, exert pressure on Chinese leaders that may increase the appeal of tactical nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, LYBNWs align neatly with likely PLA operational objectives in a war against the US. Chinas evolving non-strategic nuclear capabilities corroborate the growing appeal of these weapons. Today, the PLA is reinvigorating its LYBNW arsenal, which is rapidly increasing in number and diversity. In sum, an analysis of the strategic, operational, and psychological factors incident to possible US-PRC military conflict reveals that Beijings use of LYBNWs is more plausible than existing literature suggests. Although the overall likelihood of theater nuclear war is low, the consequences of US ground forces being caught unprepared are catastrophic.

Subject Categories:

  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics
  • Nuclear Weapons

Distribution Statement:

[A, Approved For Public Release]