Strategic Weapons: China Gets A BMEWS

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April 5, 2021: In early 2021 China and Russia agreed, after more than a year of negotiations, to develop a joint BMEW (Ballistic Missile Early Warning) system. This involves Russia providing the tech needed to bring Chinese BMEW equipment up to Russian standards. As an incentive for Russia to cooperate, and provide the needed tech, Chinese Internet censors were ordered to allow open discussion about Chinese claims on a quarter of the Russian Far East and most of the prime coastal areas. China never cancelled these claims, even in the 1940s and 50s when China was very dependent on Russia. Once China got what it wanted, censors were ordered to block any talk of regaining border areas that are now Russian but claimed by China.

China has begun working on a BMEW system since the 1960s and continued this effort into the 1980s. The Chinese built two long-range radars but never got beyond that. There were more important priorities, like figuring out how to censor the Internet in China and hack the Internet outside China.

After 2000 China revived its BMEWS project but did not have much success, at least not compared to what the Russians and Americans had accomplished. It took nearly two decades but the Russians managed to replace their Cold War era BMEW radars with modern models. That new system was completed in 2021. Russia was still having problems building and maintaining the space satellites that are a key feature of any BMEWS. China has surpassed Russia in the ability to build and launch satellites. It is assumed that China will contribute some of this space-based BMEW tech to Russia while the Russians will provide China with the tech to build modern ground-based radars. Both China and Russia realize that the United States has upgraded its ground and space-based BMEW equipment and this new Chinese-Russian BMEWS will close the capability gap both nations have with the Americans.

After the 1990s Russia worked hard to rebuild its Cold War era BMEWS. That did not go well with the space-based component. In 2014, one of the three remaining Russian satellites built to detect ICBM launches failed. The failed satellite was an Oko-1 that was launched in 2012 and was supposed to last 5-7 years. Russia began launching the Oko-1 satellites in 1991 but only two of them lasted more than five years. The Oko-1s are GTO (high stationary orbit) type satellites costing $45 million each and two are needed to provide worldwide coverage. The older satellites are in lower, non-stationary orbit and with only two of the pre-Oko-1 satellites left  can detect American ICBM launches for only about three hours a day. Russia was not completely blind as it was having more success rebuilding its network of long range (over-the-horizon) radars. These provide less warning, and less time to decide what to do.

Despite budget problems, Russia moved forward more quickly that earlier believed in building and deploying its new Voronezh-M early-warning radar. All nine of the new radars were operational by 2018. The government considers these radars essential to protect Russia from the growing possibility, according to Russian leaders, of nuclear attack by Western nations like America, Britain and France.

These new radars replaced the Daryal radars and the even older models than Daryal were still in service. The older early-warning radars were usually in areas that were part of the Soviet Union but since 1991 are no longer in present-day Russia. The new early warning system provides detection for missiles coming from all directions. Russian leaders proclaim NATO to still be the major threat but some of the radars face China, just in case.

For a long time, Russia was seriously concerned about Chinese aggression in the Far East. In the early 1960s the Russians discreetly approached the United States to see if they were interested in a joint nuclear attack against the Chinese to neutralize a “mutual threat.” The U.S. declined. Tensions between China and Russia escalated and by 1969 there were a number of border battles resulting in hundreds of casualties. By late 1969 a ceasefire had been agreed on, at the same time the United States was discussing a peace deal that would include the U.S. recognizing China and not the Taiwanese “government-in-exile” as the legitimate government of China. By 1972 that diplomatic switch had been achieved and the Russians were not happy.

After the Soviet Union dissolved and the new, much reduced Russia realized that its Far Eastern region contained about 40 percent of their territory but only about right percent of their population. China had historical claims on much of that Far East region and Russia had far fewer resources to resist such an attack.

In 2008, after nearly have a century of hostility, China and Russia settled disputes over exactly where their border was. As part of the deal, Russia returned two islands in the Amur River, and China dropped claims on some other river islands. This did not eliminate Russian fears of a Chinese attack.

In late 2013 Russian defense officials proposed reversing the plans to create a brigade-based combat force and return to the use of divisions and rebuilding a large reserve force that Russia had favored for over a century. The reason for this was the possibility of a large war in the east. The only major foe out there was China but China was not mentioned. Nevertheless, China is the major potential threat to Russia. At that time the Chinese Army was already three times larger than Russia’s and had 15 tank and mechanized infantry divisions it could place on the Russian border. China was also reorganizing its ground forces into one based on brigades rather than divisions. Still, China had three times as many brigades in 2013. Officially, Russia has ceased to consider Chinese ground forces a threat, as Russian nuclear weapons were supposed to be what would stop a Chinese ground assault. Traditionalists in the Defense Ministry are pointing out that nuclear war would destroy both nations and that the current situation allows China to quickly grab the Russian Far East, which China has long claimed, and then call for a peace conference. This is the sort of tactic China has used in the past and the Chinese are big fans of their imperial past. The pro-brigade leaders won this debate and it is apparently agreed that a brigade-centric army would be more successful in fighting the Chinese threat.

The new joint BMEWS does not erase that Chinese threat but does solidify the new Russian-Chinese defenses against their mutual enemies.

 


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