Apocalypse Fifth Chinese Horse. China’s Strategic Nuclear Forces

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Andrey Gubin PhD in Political Science, Director of Scientific Programs of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies at Regional Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies, Assistant Professor at the International Relations Department of Far Eastern Federal University, RIAC Expert

China is rightly considered a new center of power in the modern multi-polar world. However, the growth of the US-China rivalry increases the risk of destabilizing the Asia-Pacific region and the world. China’s economic growth is objectively accompanied by enhanced geopolitical ambitions and an intensified development of its armed forces. Under these new conditions, strategic nuclear forces appear to be the only Beijing’s tool to deter the US and its allies, and, perhaps, to maintain its global status in the future.

Hidden power or concealed impotence?

Of the five countries that officially possess nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, China is the only one not to provide any information on its armed forces, including their nuclear component [1].

Beijing has repeatedly asserted that the Chinese nuclear forces are small in number, and has pledged never be the first to use nuclear weapons. Having faced a nuclear attack, the country will allegedly retaliate against the aggressor within two weeks, which makes little sense from a military point of view, since China’s nuclear infrastructure is quite vulnerable. The official nuclear doctrine of China is commonly perceived by experts as a propaganda document, if only because it is the preemptive strike that attaches any value to China’s strategic nuclear forces [2].

Under these new conditions, strategic nuclear forces appear to be the only Beijing’s tool to deter the US and its allies.

Many assessments of the current state of Beijing’s nuclear potential vary greatly and create an extremely confusing picture. Formally, the strategic nuclear forces of China (The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, PLARF, formerly the Second Artillery Corps) are a nuclear dyad composed of land-based ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles. The Air Force can perform tactical tasks with the use of nuclear weapons, but its strategic capabilities have not yet been reliably confirmed. Their total capacity is estimated at 400 nuclear warheads, of which 260 are formally deployed on strategic carriers. At that, views on this issue vary a lot. For example, some experts believe that, as of 2010, China had a total of 240 nuclear weapons, of which only 175 were on duty [3], while others, on the contrary, assert that Beijing has more than 3,500 nuclear weapons and every year produces another 200 new generation warheads. Each launcher is equipped with up to five missiles, which is viewed by some as a testimony of the country’s reluctance to reveal the real size of its arsenal, which is usually measured by the number of carriers, and of its readiness to launch a nuclear strike in several waves.

China’s nuclear weapons stockpile of some 300 warheads mounted on strategic delivery vehicles, including fission bombs of 15-40 kt and 3 mt yield as well as 3 to 5 mt and more modern 200-300 kt missile warheads, appears to be a more realistic estimate. Another 150 warheads can be deployed on ballistic intermediate and shorter-range missiles and, possibly, on cruise missiles.

For a long time, China’s strategic nuclear forces consisted of rather primitive and bulky liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which require several hours of preliminary preparation due to the warheads’ separate storing and the missile’s refueling. According to scenarios described by P. Saunders and J. Yuan, experts of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, back in 2010, or 5 years ago, China was to reach the level of minimal deterrence by possessing about 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles, mainly road/rail-mobile, three-stage solid propellant ballistic missile Dong Feng 31 (NATO reporting name: CSS-9), carrying one warhead (once installed, the missile is ready for launch within 10 minutes) and a range of 8,000 km. About 18 old liquid-fueled, two-stage, silo-based DF-5a ICBMs with a range exceeding 13,000 km were to be left to enhance the striking capability [4].

According to forecasts by US experts, by 2020, China could achieve the potential of the so-called limited nuclear deterrence. Up to 200 silo-based and road-mobile ICBMs will be put on full alert. Dong Feng НА and Dong Feng 41 with a range of 11,000 km and 14,000 km, respectively, will make the basis of the arsenal, while DF-41 may carry up to 10 multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (both warheads and decoy targets). A missile early-warning system, which China does not currently have, is the main innovation planned [4].

Previously, it was thought that China was not able to create a compact system of multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), but at the end of the 1990s, the country managed to illegally obtain sophisticated technologies from US companies. Certain technical solutions were possibly plagiarized, following the contract with Motorola on the simultaneous launch of several satellites in 1996. In 2000, the State Department fined Lockheed Martin $13 million for unauthorized sharing of data on missile technology with a Hong Kong company Aviasat, which is connected with the Chinese state company Great Wall Industries.

The strategic nuclear forces of China are a nuclear dyad composed of land-based ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles.

In December 2014, China tested a DF-41 ICBM, carrying some maneuverable warheads, which, in a way, confirmed the country’s access to MIRV technology. According to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), DF-41 can mount up to 10 warheads. This technology will be also used to build DF-31B ICBMs. Thus, having mastered this technology, the PRC will to be able to deploy the missiles of its strategic nuclear forces multiple warheads and decoys, which will increase both the shock potential and warhead survivability in penetrating missile defense system.

Submarines in underground bases

According to forecasts by US experts, by 2020, China could achieve the potential of the so-called limited nuclear deterrence.

The thick veil of secrecy cast over the PLA Navy’s submarine fleet, especially its nuclear component, generates exceptional uncertainty surrounding it. The first Chinese nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) of the Type 092 (NATO reporting name: Xia-class) was commissioned in 1987 and is equipped with 12 ballistic missiles Julang-1 (literally: “Huge Wave-1”) with a range of up to 2,500 km. Until recently, she was not operational and homeported in Jianggezhuang (Laoshan) near Qingdao. Her sorties seem to be quite rare.

In May 2008, the PLA Navy carried out tests in the Yellow Sea of new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) Julang-2 (DF-31 naval version, estimated range 7,400 km), intended to be deployed on the new SSBN of the Type 094 (NATO reporting name: Jin-class) and of subsequent modifications and armed with 12 SLBMs. According to some reports, in the south of the island of Hainan a large underground submarine base has been built for up to 20 boats, out of sight from spying satellites. In May 2007, satellite images available on Google Earth showed two new SSBNs at the Huludao base. As of early 2010, the Chinese probably had three submarines of Jin-class, although it is not known if they carried missiles and were operational [5]. The current estimates are two submarines on permanent patrol. According to American data, the number of SSBNs in the PLA Navy’s service may reach eight by 2020. Some reports also indicate that China has been developing a new generation SSBN (the Type 096), the first of which could become operational in 2020.

The thick veil of secrecy cast over the PLA Navy’s submarine fleet, especially its nuclear component, generates exceptional uncertainty surrounding it.

According to the US Department of Defense’s Annual Report to Congress on the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China for 2014, China plans to pay more attention to the naval component of the nuclear deterrence in order to form a full-fledged nuclear dyad [6]. However, there is no reliable data on tactical nuclear weapons of the Chinese Navy in terms of nuclear warheads mounted on cruise missiles and torpedoes.

Strategic aviation has yet to be developed

China is facing certain problems with its strategic air arm: for a long time, it has actually been nominal, as old Xian H-6 (pinuin: Hōng-6) bombers could only carry ballistic bombs with a combat radius of up to 1,800 km. Only in 2011 did a thoroughly modified version appear of the aircraft, equipped with Russian engines, improved avionics and the capability of carrying six CJ-10A land-attack cruise missiles (Chinese copies of the Russian Kh-55). The combat radius of the H-6K was increased to 3,500 km, and missiles can hit targets at a distance of up to 2,500 km. Most likely, today the number of these aircraft in the Air Force of China is about 20, while some of the hundred available older versions of the aircraft will be upgraded and apparently be around for another 15-20 years. Armed with these missiles, the H6K can attack American bases on Okinawa and Guam without entering the air defense zone. China also has a significant number of tactical aircraft capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The most technologically advanced are Su-30s and their Chinese analogues (over 100 units): if necessary, they can be equipped with ballistic bombs and with cruise missiles in the longer term.

Stake on Wunderwaffe (wonder-weapon)

China is facing certain problems with its strategic air arm.

In all likelihood, the PLA is going to enhance its regional deterrence capabilities that can make up for the existing lack of military potential to stage a strike on the US mainland.

In January 2014, China conducted a test of a hypersonic missile, which can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, but subsequent launches failed, and accurate information about developments in this field is unavailable.

Also in 2014, China confirmed having a number of medium-range missiles DF-26C (range of 3,500 km), the so-called “Guam Killer” with nuclear warheads. Since 2007, some 40 to 55 CJ-10 cruise missiles with a range of 1,500 km have been deployed on the ground launchers: the total of their arsenal is estimated at 500 units; they can be launched from the H-6K bombers, as well as from surface ships and submarines in the longer term [7]. DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles can also serve as deterrent weapons, capable of hitting a moving surface target at a distance of 1,500 km with a conventional maneuverable warhead. The DF-21D ASBM, already dubbed the “carrier killer”, is expected to be deployed before the end of 2015 [8]. It can be argued that non-strategic range missiles are one of the priorities for the development of nuclear forces due to the presence of the US military infrastructure in the North and South-East Asia.

In all likelihood, the PLA is going to enhance its regional deterrence capabilities that can make up for the existing lack of military potential to stage a strike on the US mainland.

Basic research and development are currently focused on missiles’ enhanced capability to penetrate any anti-missile defense of the potential enemy. In this regard, the development includes maneuverable warheads; simple and sophisticated reentry decoys to be mounted on ICBMs and SSBNs with MIRVs; anti-satellite weapons generating kinetic and electronic effects. China’s defense industry is working to improve the accuracy of strategic and nonstrategic weapons systems, including the perfection of stellar correction and control systems.

Non-strategic range missiles are one of the priorities for the development of nuclear forces due to the presence of the US military infrastructure in the North and South-East Asia.

Experts of the competent Jane’s Intelligence Review believe that the greatest danger to the United States is posed by mobile-based MIRV ICBMs, as well as new Chinese SSBNs on patrol. In the next five years, Chinese strategic nuclear forces will seriously undermine the US strategy of deterrence and put an end to considering Japan and US military bases in Northeast and Southeast Asia as “unsinkable aircraft carriers.” In the end of 2015, the Chinese satellite fleet can have up to a hundred devices, which will considerably strengthen the C4ISR [9] architecture and enhance the efficiency of the armed forces in general.

In the next five years, Chinese strategic nuclear forces will seriously undermine the US strategy of deterrence and put an end to considering Japan and US military bases in Northeast and Southeast Asia as “unsinkable aircraft carriers.

It is remarkable that only the United States has expressed concern over the increased potential of the Chinese strategic nuclear forces. Japan expresses anxiety about the growth of the Celestial Empire’s military power in general and does not comment on its nuclear weapons, as it has no such weapons itself. As for potential regional rivals, namely ASEAN countries, they realize the futility of military competition with China and leave the nuclear factor out of the equation as well.

Russia today considers China a “strategic partner” and does not intend to view it as a potential rival.

Taking into account the comprehensive development of the PLA, it seems that Beijing will devote considerable attention to improving the mechanism of nuclear deterrence, which is represented by The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. It should be remembered that the current US-China confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region can develop in any way, varying from dividing areas of responsibility with Washington to establishing new global military-political blocs. In the future, China, possessing sophisticated and numerous enough strategic nuclear forces, could well become a guarantor of international stability, as its permanent membership in the UN Security Council suggests, or, on the contrary, destabilize the international situation, should it pursue a more radical foreign policy.

Russia today considers China a “strategic partner” and does not intend to view it as a potential rival. However, China’s non-adherence to the US-Russia START I process and the absence of any bilateral agreement in this area creates uncertainty regarding the strategic orientation of the Chinese nuclear forces. In all likelihood, a top-level dialogue between Russia and China will become an objective necessity in the near future to resolve issues related to the strategic nuclear forces of both countries in the specific conditions of partnership. Russia has not made public its position on the current trends in China’s strategic nuclear forces. According to the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, signed in 2001, the Parties do not aim their strategic nuclear missiles at each other. However, it appears that Beijing’s greater transparency in relations with Moscow on this issue will only promote our strategic partnership.

  1. Nuclear Reset: Reduction and Non-Proliferation of arms… p. 59
  2. Ibid. p. 60.
  3. Norris, R., Kristensen, H. Chinese Nuclear Forces 2010 // Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Volume 66, #6, November/December 2010. P. 134-141.
  4. Saunders, P., Yuan, J. China’s Strategic Force Modernization: Issues and Implications for the United States / Proliferation Challenges and Nonproliferation Opportunities for New Administrations. Ed. Barletta, M. Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 2000. P. 40-46.
  5. V. Fedorov, V. Mosalov, Chinese Navy Submarine Forces // Foreign Military Review, 2010, # 7. Pp. 52-61 [in Russian]
  6. U.S. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.”
  7. Lennox, D. “China’s New Cruise Missile Programme ‘Racing Ahead’,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 12 January 2000, p. 12
  8. “Ballistic Trajectory – China Develops New Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, 4 January 2010
  9. C4ISR – Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

Source: http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=7153#top-content

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