China May Be Putting Its Nukes on Hair-Trigger Alert

According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Beijing is considering a small but scary change to the way it stores its nuclear weapons. China may be reversing its decades-old nuclear policy and putting its nuclear weapons on permanent high alert. This would make China’s nuclear deterrent more credible, but also heighten the possibility of accidental nuclear war.

China is thought to have approximately 250 nuclear weapons. Unlike most nuclear powers, China keeps most its weapons at a low state of readiness, partially disassembled and hidden in underground tunnels. It would take hours to ready a Chinese nuclear weapon for launch. The rationale had been that as a relatively poor country, there was little China could do about a full-scale nuclear strike. Instead, it would ensure that at least a handful of missiles would survive such an attack and be used to destroy enemy cities. The reasoning was that nobody would trade Washington D.C. or Moscow just to rid China of nuclear weapons.

The United States and Russia, both of whom maintain a “launch on warning” nuclear posture to deter surprise attack, maintain networks of early warning radars and satellites to warn them of incoming missiles and bombers. China doesn’t even bother with that, reasoning that just having the weapons is deterrent enough.