US-China Commission Underscores Growth in Chinese Nuclear Strike Potential


By Richard Weitz

In its 2012 annual report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted rapid improvements in China’s nuclear forces.

The Commission estimates that China is possibly within two years of attaining a genuine “nuclear triad,” consisting of land-based ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and air-dropped nuclear bombs.


The most developed of China’s existing three legs is the country’s land-based ballistic missile program, though the submarine capability is being developed rapidly. New intercontinental ballistic missile programs (ICBMs), including the DF-31A and the DF-41, are projected to contribute significantly to the range, reliability, and overall effectiveness of China’s nuclear arms.

Purported photo of DF-41 road mobile missile. Credit: Free Bacon

The U.S. Department of Defense currently estimates that China has 50-75 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the continental United States, with some DF-5s (have a range greater than 13,000 kilometers), DF-31As (greater than 11,200km range), and DF-31s (greater than 7,200km range).

Additionally, China successfully tested a DF-41 road-mobile missile on July 24, 2012; this program is generally thought to have a multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle (MIRV) capacity, able to carry and then release more one or more warheads against several targets or carry heavier decoys, which would enhance China’s nuclear deterrent.

The PRC also tested a new submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile (SLBM), the JL-2, as well as a DF-5A and a new DF-31A in August 2012. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has estimated that the number of Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike the continental United States may double by 2025.

With respect to its two other legs of the nuclear triad, China has nearly developed its first continuous sea strategic deterrent, namely its new JIN-class submarine (Type-094) and JL-2 submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile (SLBM) combination.

Two of the five planned submarines are already deployed within the PLA Navy, and the JL-2 program remains in development. In mid-August of 2012, it was announced that the PLA flight-tested a JL-2 from a JIN-class submarine. China’s strategic bomber capability is undeveloped. The PLA Air Force has at most 20 H-6 bombers, which, rely on gravity bombs. They may carry nuclear-armed DH-10 cruise missiles, but it is not known if they are currently equipped to do so by the PLA Air Force or whether or not that is a projected future improvement.

DOD analysts believe that China is aiming to develop new technologies like “maneuvering re-entry vehicles, MIRVs (multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles), decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding, and anti-satellite” capabilities. 

Furthermore, the Second Artillery has conducted exercises consistent with its goals of mobility, camouflage, and concealment. China has disclosed very little information as to any aspect of its nuclear arsenal, increasing concerns over its strength, size, and composition.

Additionally, China’s networks of underground nuclear weapons storage and transport tunnels make accurate assessments of its capabilities extremely difficult; estimates as to its stockpiles vary wildly depending on the sources, from 100-500 (Western assessments) to 1,600-18,000 (Russian estimates).

The Second Artillery uses an intricate combination of rail and road networks, and extensive underground facilities specially designed to shield China’s nuclear assets from a first-strike attack. The Second Artillery also uses underground facilities for command posts, communication facilities, storage for other weapons and equipment, and personnel protection. It remains a topic of debate how the tunnels affect estimates of China’s nuclear arsenal.

Some analysts say that the underground tunnels could hold thousands more warheads than would otherwise be estimated. However, others believe that the tunnels could simply be another play in Chinese deterrence strategy and an attempt to complicate targeting of the Chinese arsenal by enemies.

Traditionally, China’s senior leaders have maintained a “no first use” policy regarding its nuclear weapons, but the report notes conflicting messages emanate from other PLA elements, which espouse “gaining the initiative” and “active defense” by gaining first-strike advantages.

The vagueness of Chinese nuclear strategy, compounded with persistent lack of knowledge regarding the nature of its arsenal, makes it especially difficult to gauge what situations might prompt PLA nuclear use, and to what magnitude and purpose. It is known that Chinese military doctrine values highly the security of nuclear stockpiles and efficient nuclear command-and-control architecture, but the opacity of the Chinese command structure makes it difficult to tell what groups are authorized to launch warheads, how effective are existing and planned warhead security measures, and how civil-military leadership exchanges are managed.

The nuclear forces are specially organized to streamline command and control through the highly centralized Second Artillery Forces, an independent branch of the PLA that is mainly in charge of China’s nuclear weapons. A concern regarding this branch is that it has both conventional and nuclear missions, and their separation of command and control is unclear, thus leading to the possibility of swift escalation from conventional to nuclear strikes.

In practice, it is probably the Central Military Commission, to which the Second Artillery directly reports, that would authorize nuclear use. It is unknown if the CMC, technically a department of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee but also with senior military members, must also authorize conventional missile strikes.

The Commission recommends to Congress that its “Committees of jurisdiction seek input from relevant U.S. government agencies and international organizations to access disparities in estimates of the size and disposition of China’s nuclear forces” and “Congress require the U.S. Department of State to detail current and planned efforts to integrate China into existing and future nuclear arms reduction, limitation, and control discussions and agreements. Committees of jurisdiction within Congress should request periodic updates on these efforts.”

Meanwhile, the report notes that China’s conventional military buildup and modernization is proceeding well. 

In 2012, the PLA continued to develop more advanced weapons, improve its naval and air capabilities, practice joint-force training, and expand its international activities. China increased its official defense budget by 11.2%, to $106 billion, though the publically disclosed budget excludes critical elements of China’s defense spending such as foreign procurement and DOD estimates Chinese military spending to be between $120-180 billion.

In September 2012, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, The Liaoning, which is a converted Soviet KUZNETSOV-class carrier purchased from Ukraine in 1998. It has been refurbished and was tested several times over the last few years.

It is now used as a training platform for the development of an air regiment, which is expected to be operational no earlier than 2017. China’s carrier is expected to carry J-15 airplanes (based off the Russian Sukhoi-33), but the ski-jump configuration, instead of the catapult style used on U.S. carriers, will limit the weight of the aircraft. The weight limit would in turn also limit the fuel, weapon, range, and mission capabilities, and particularly constrain the type of early warning aircraft that could operate on the carrier. Most likely, China will need to rely on a converted helicopter as an early warning aviation platform rather than a plane like those in the NATO and Russian air fleets.

China also continued testing the J-20 fighter aircraft, which has stealth characteristics. It is expected to be operational by 2018.

Recent information suggests Beijing has another stealth program, the J-31 prototype, which, as a lighter craft than the J-20, apparently aims to become a premier air superiority fighter. China’s space program also continues to progress, with the Shenzhou-8’s successful dock with the Tiangong-1, an orbital space lab.

In June, the PRC successfully docked the manned Shenzhou-9 with the same unit, demonstrating progress towards China’s goal of creating a permanent space station. This progress will also aid the PRC’s space-related military programs and its conventional capabilities through increased satellite capabilities.

The DF-41 photo is taken from the following article by Bill Gertz, which discusses reported the missile’s existence and tests.

Editor’s Note: The nuclear modernization effort based in part on deployment in vast underground tunnels provides a territorial sanctuary for China which allows its conventional modernization effort to focus on power projection. 

Paul Bracken in his important assessment of the growing role of nuclear weapons in the period ahead pays special attention to the Chinese and North Korean nuclear forces. 

Paul Bracken: The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger and New Power Politics (New York: Times Books, 2012).

Some excerpts from his section on Chinese military modernization follow:

China’s ongoing military modernization is altering the balance of power in East Asia.

This modernization uses advanced technologies, has a long geographic reach, and aligns with the strategic and economic conditions in China. Among the most important developments are China’s missiles. There are thousands of these, of many different ranges, and new deployments are under way. China’s ballistic missiles, most of which are on mobile launchers, can reach all U.S. bases in the Pacific, from Kadena in Okinawa to Guam. An unusual feature of China’s missiles is the use of horizontal tunnels to conceal their location and to move them around.

The United States and the Soviet Union, in contrast, relied on vertical tunnels, called silos, for launching missiles. These vertical silos were holes in the ground reinforced with lots of concrete and were not connected one to the other. China has an interconnected horizontal tunnel system in which trucks carry the missiles, driving them to ports, vertical openings, for firing. Estimates are that China has over three thousand miles of tunnels for this purpose, and there may be a lot more than this. A horizontal tunnel system is considerably more expensive to build. But it allows greater concealment of a missile’s movements.

It also makes the counting rules for arms control limits on missiles nearly impossible because satellites can’t see underground. In the Soviet-American case this was solved with a simple counting rule: each silo counted as a missile launcher, even if it didn’t actually contain a missile. More important, the Chinese tunnel system shows a deep commitment to concealing information about deployments— both the number and location. It allows for rapid “pop-ups” timed to appear on an opponent’s surveillance system, and it may have other features we do not know about.

The Chinese military and the Chinese security establishment more broadly are getting more responsive, dexterous, and reflexive. The buzzing of U.S. ships and aircraft in the western Pacific, submarines trailing aircraft carriers and tracking them with radars and satellites, and moving missiles around underground tunnels all show it. Agility can be measured at the platform level: targeting cycle times shrink; the frequency of cyberattacks grows; the amount of information between a missile and a radar increases to provide fine structure features of the target. Faster cruise missiles, submarines, and “invisible” stealth fighters reduce a defender’s reaction time. These are the things that a U.S. ship commander worries about.

Agility also appears at a higher organizational level.

Departments that were once largely independent of one another or coordinated through slow-moving bureaucratic channels now act in unison. Horizontal coordination is replacing the old vertical silos of China’s military. The buzzing of U.S. ships and airplanes involves a horizontal coordination of China’s radars, satellites, and drones with its air and naval forces, all working together. China isn’t building a big navy to counter the U.S. Navy. Rather, China is building a very different kind of “anti-navy” navy, designed to keep U.S. air and naval forces out of the western Pacific.

This anti-access system has several important consequences. It changes the conventions of strategic power in East Asia. For decades the U.S. Navy and Air Force could go anywhere in the Pacific they wanted to go. But getting near China now can lead to a counterresponse by Beijing that has to be taken into consideration. If the United States disregards increased Chinese agility, it may quickly find a swarm of intelligence and military forces on its fleet. The political consequences of this have to be taken into account by Washington. China can raise the risk of an “incident,” and of an unwanted escalation.

China is important to the United States in so many areas, from handling North Korea to isolating Iran, that worsening relations because of a military incident could have a high cost.

Another way to think about China’s enhanced agility is that it provides more rungs, more options, on China’s escalation ladder.