Does a Russian-Chinese missile warning system protect against any unexpected U.S. attack?

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The Missile Attack Alert System (SPRN), which Moscow is currently helping Beijing set up, will dramatically increase China’s defense, protecting it against any possible “strategic surprise” from the US, experts say.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled these plans while speaking at the Valdai International Discussion Club last week. Russia has just set up a similar system covering its entire territory in 2017.

Protection against unexpected attack

Experts noted that the new Chinese system would avert the risk of any unexpected first attack from the United States, while noting that such an attack appears to be purely theoretical.

Miles Pomper, a senior member of the Washington office of Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Nonproliferation Studies Center, claims the system will primarily reduce the risk of China suffering a ‘strategic surprise’ from the United States.

Importance to China

The system, he said, also “opens the door for the deployment of Chinese ballistic missile defense and integrated antisatellite capabilities.”

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Nikolai Sokov of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation, in turn, noted that the early warning system was particularly important for China, whose arsenal is small compared to the US and that it could lose its weapons if forced to face an attack.

With robust early warning systems, she will be able to launch them before enemy warheads hit their targets, he explained. In addition, the new system will likely also increase China’s conventional deterrence.

If – as it seems possible – this capability includes warnings about cruise missile attacks, that would be even more important for China, which is seriously concerned about US conventional attack capability. Cruise missiles are the main tool for attacks […] and therefore the ability to detect them long enough would enhance not only China’s nuclear deterrence but also conventional deterrence, concluded Sokov.

Could change global balance?

When asked about the consequences that China would have on strategic stability by acquiring the missile early warning system, Pomper suggested that it would have a “mixed effect” on the US – Russia – China triangle.

A greater ability to avoid strategic surprises should increase strategic stability between the United States and China; however, missile defense and ASAT [anti-satellite weapons] capabilities are likely to undermine it to some extent by introducing new unpredictability in the balance. At the same time, the sale and potential sharing of data between Russia and China further cemented a growing de facto military alliance between countries that, by itself, is changing the global balance of power, he said.

Another point, he added, is that the system may become another reason why Washington will try to make future arms deals include China,” a country that is seeking to reach the US and Russia in military terms.

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