Military planners in the United States are shifting nuclear-missile targets away from old Cold War nemesis Russia and toward what many in the Pentagon believe is the next likely American military competitor – China.

According to a report in Geostrategy Direct – a weekly Internet-based intelligence digest, “the new strategic war plan will call for shifting the focus of targeting the [U.S.] nuclear arsenal – which could range from 1,500 to 2,500 warheads – from Russia to China,” according to Defense Department officials.

The Pentagon, said the report, has formed a new counseling board called the Deterrence Concepts Advisory Panel – which is part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s strategic posture review – to examine the implications of making the strategic shift.

The panel is headed by Keith B. Payne, president of the National Institute for Public Policy and a specialist in deterrence, and Kurt Guthe, a former analyst at that institute, said Geostrategy Direct.

“Defense officials said the strategic review is expected to recommend targeting large numbers of U.S. nuclear warheads on China as part of a new strategy of deterring Beijing, which is currently engaged in a major strategic nuclear arms buildup,” said the intelligence digest.

Details of the change in Pentagon nuclear strategy come as President Bush has offered to allay Chinese concerns about a future U.S.-built missile defense shield by offering Beijing details of the shield’s capabilities. Also, reports in the New York Times said the administration was willing to trade China’s acceptance of the shield for a buildup of nuclear missiles by Beijing.

Bush’s decision set off a storm of protest, both from Democratic and Republican leaders.

“I would not like to see the Chinese expand their nuclear capabilities,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., just back from a trip to China. “I think it is much too soon to even think about matters that offset our missile defense.”

The White House denied it was sanctioning any Chinese nuclear weapons buildup.

“This is part of the administration’s outreach to China and other nations such as Russia to discuss with them the reason why we are developing a missile defense system and how it is designed to protect us from rogue nations or accidental launches,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told Reuters in a telephone interview Sunday.

Currently, China only has about 22 ICBMs – mostly outmoded CSS-4 models – but is currently working on new ones, both of which are road-mobile.

One version, the DF-31, is nearing completion, while a longer-range version, the DF-41, is under development.

Also, Beijing is constructing a new class of guided missile submarines outfitted with marinized DF-31s, known as the JL-2, the newsletter reported.

China was removed from the Pentagon targeting list in the 1970s, but replaced in 1997.

The new China nuclear strategy is based on two factors: China’s arms buildup and recent Pentagon studies that reveal Beijing will not be deterred from using its nuclear arms unless it faces a massive retaliation threat from the United States, Geostrategy Direct said.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.