Chinese Nuclear Notebook Published

A new Nuclear Notebook on Chinese nuclear forces has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The notebook provides an unofficial overview of China’s nuclear-capable missiles, submarines and aircraft based on analysis done by Robert S. Norris (NRDC) and myself of Chinese and U.S. government documents, media reports, and other publications.

The full article (PDF format) can be downloaded from here.

7 thoughts on “Chinese Nuclear Notebook Published

  1. There are some errors in the notebook. The anti-satellite test was in 2007, not 2006. In the table, the heading of the 5th (yield) and 6th (range) columns should be switched.

    Why is NASIC so shy about the high-resolution photos “leaked” by China? This is as explicit as China will be in telling the US about its new missiles.

    The Congress demands a yearly report from the DOD on China. Why doesn’t the Congress demand some quality control of these reports? Shouldn’t the Congress ask an independent panel of outside experts to peer-review these reports? Assessing China’s nuclear secrets will always remain a guess, until China is strong and confident enough to show and tell. But there are plenty of disinterested experts in the US who can do very good probabilistic analysis, given the classified information that US possesses. Asking the DOD to assess China’s military strength is a bit like asking Exxon Mobile to assess the potential of alternative energy sources. There is a conflict of interest and a demonstrated lack of expertise.

    Reply: I’m aware of the typos and have informed the Bulletin.

    There can be many factors for why NASIC doesn’t want to say anything: Perhaps it doesn’t consider the new launcher a new missile, but a modified version of the existing DF-21; perhaps it is working on figuring out what it is and doesn’t want to say anything until it is certain; perhaps it doesn’t consider the new image authentic (even a fake). It’s hard to know. On the the other hand, if the Chinese authorities wanted to signal something, why not just state unequivocally that it’s a new missile?

    As for the annual DOD report, Don’t forget that the requirement for the report grew out of the Cox report and the Wen Ho Lee affair. There are plenty of people why consider the DOD report too kind and lame and want it to be much more assertive. Your proposal for an “independent panel of outside experts to peer-review these reports” is a good one. HK

  2. “The lack of transparency” on China’s military assets would be easier to understand if one thinks in China’s mindset. It does not want to scare its neighbors and provide fuel to the “China threat” innuendo. However, after the “secrets” were found on Google Earth, policy makers in China were pragmatic enough to leak a clear picture of the SSBNs. Any fake image of Chinese missiles will not survive on Internet servers in China for more than a few minutes. If US really wants to make China’s military more transparent, it just needs to leak some classified information or satellite images. China will be obliged to tell. This was exactly what happened after the anti-satellite test. The unwillingness of US to do so suggests that US does not really want to let its public know how strong China’s military really is. The lack of public knowledge provides the highest flexibility to manipulate opinions of the public and their money bag – the Congress. This is no different from the fact that US is neither a democracy (it is a Republic in every sense of the word) nor runs a capitalist economy (it has gigantic government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie and Freddie, which manage $5 trillion assets – 40% of US GDP.) If we really want to be transparent, $1 trillion of that $5 trillion is owned by foreigners, and China owns at least $0.5 trillion of that. See “Too Chinese (and Russian) to Fail?” on the website at Council on Foreign Relations ( )

  3. As always, an interesting report with plenty of food for thought.

    The report says the Xia “has never conducted a deterrent patrol”, citing a 2003 US assessment. Given that the Xia, loaded with limted-range JL-1s, was intended for use against the former USSR primarily (see Xue Lutai) then might it not, at least theoretically, be possible for it to launch strikes from pier-side? Moreover, would it not have been more accurate to say “according to 2003 information, the Xia had never sailed on a deterrent patrol”.

    Acknowledging the difficulty of making the assessment, why is the number ’20’ selected for H-6-delivered nuclear bombs and 15 for ‘DH-10s”? Why is it thought that DH-10s are also air-launched?

    Why does the report not make any comment about trends (does FAS consider China to still have the smallest nuclear arsenal?), or any comparison with past FAS assessments of ‘Chinese nuclear forces 200X’? For example, the 2006 edition judged China to have 130 deployed warheads (as opposed to 176 only two years later). It also stated that Pentagon claims that DF-31A would be in service ‘by the end of the decade’ were ‘overly optimistic’ (perhaps not?). It stated that any increase in China’s nuclear warhead numbers would only be ‘moderate’, contrasting this assessment with that of the US intelligence community.

    Reply: Many good questions. A deterrent patrol is a deployment, a voyage away from port, so we think we have correctly described the situation. As for pier-side launch capability, I just don’t know. I have never seen anything on it, but the weapon system is not included in the DOD latest assessment.

    As for the bombers and the DH-10, the 20 gravity bombs is an estimate, based on the assumption that one or two dozen of the 120, or so, remaining H-6s might have a secondary nuclear role. The placement of the DH-10 in the table under the H-6 is, I confess, a little ahead of itself. The weapon is deployed for now in a ground-launched version, but the H-6 is being upgraded to carry a new land-attack cruise missile as well which may be the DF-10 or another weapon. Such new air- and ground-launched cruise missiles that could perform nuclear missions would, the DOD report states, improve the survivability, flexibility, and effectiveness of China’s nuclear forces.

    Concerning China’s inventory of nuclear weapons, the report actually begins with a statement about the trend. No, we do not think that China has the smallest nuclear arsenal; we think it’s a little bigger than that of the United Kingdom. Moreover, China has the dubious honor of being the only of the five original nuclear weapon states that is currently increasing its arsenal.

    Our previous conclusion that DOD’s projection of the DF-31A entering service by the end of the decade was “overly optimistic” was based on our analysis of the available information, which did not indicate that the missile had ever been flight tested. It now seems that its certification might have been part of the flight program of the DF-31. But we still believe that the DF-31A production appears to be well below the rate that would be necessary to reach CIA’s projection of 75-100 warheads primarily directed against the United States by 2015. That is, unless China begins to place multiple warheads on its missiles, something the U.S. intelligence community so far does not believe China has done. HK

  4. It is pretty clear that these systems provide an array of capabilities beyond what is required simply for domestic security. These are the types of forces that can be used to project power regionally and globally. Beijing’s maritime investments are especially concerning; four more SSBNs would really be a force multiplier. It is difficult to understand how any reasonable defense analyst could fail to see China’s defense acquisitions as anything less than provocative and a growing threat to U.S. interests.

    Reply: Short of no nuclear weapon at all, what should, in your assessment, a Chinese nuclear posture look like in order to be non-provocative, not for regional or global power projection, and not a threat to U.S. interests? HK

    Response from Tom (7/20): Increased transparency would be a great start. If China is serious about rising peacefully, it should increase transparency with respect to its defense budget. How should an international observer interpret Beijing’s unexplained but growing investment? Beijing’s declared defense outlays are around $60M. The U.S. government puts the actual figure between $100 – $140M. The onus is on China to increase transparency. Chinese military strategy is rooted in the art of deception, so it would be imprudent to simply assume that these expenditures are for benign purposes.

    Reply: But your initial comment was about the nuclear forces, not the defense budget; that the nuclear forces went beyond what was needed for “domestic security,” that the new SSBNs would be “a real force multiplier,” that it was hard to see this as “anything less than provocative and a growing threat to U.S. interests.” Is your point that China should have fewer nuclear weapons, or that it should not build SSBNs? HK

  5. The two–defense budget and nuclear forces–are inextricably linked as I see it and part of the same conversation. It’s an issue of transparency. China is a sovereign state and will develop its forces as its leadership sees fit. But it is disingenuous for Beijing to talk about a peaceful rise as its defense budget continues to swell and they procure systems like SSBNs. SSBNs are survivable platforms which provide both a regional and global power projection capability. My point is that this trend should be watched closely by Washington and its friends. If this trend continues, it could seriously alter the military balance in the region.

  6. Just re your estimate of H-6 numbers – I think it is out-of-date. PRC continues to produce new-build H-6s (including H-6K strategic cruise missile carrier). A simple count on Google Earth shows at least 150 H-6s.
    Coordinates Airfield Numbers
    30.583027,117.046752 Anqing Nth 20 spotted
    31.997686,118.811603 Nanjing 22 spotted
    30.797184, 111.799192 Dangyang 22 spotted
    26.591125,112.893298 Leiyang 35 spotted
    34.372363,109.119612 Lintong 18 spotted
    34.273221,108.277291 Wugong 34 spotted

    Reply: Yes, production is continuing but older builds are probably also being phased out. Just because they can be seen on Google doesn’t mean they are operational. Moreover, be careful about the Google images, which were not taken on the same day, and could include some aircraft that moved between the bases. “Public intelligence” is just not good enough to make an accurate count. HK

  7. I wrote a long response to this post but I see you don’t respond to every comment. 🙁

    Reply: That is correct. As we state on the front page, “We invite analytical and factual comments that advance the debate, and reserve the right to abbreviate long submissions and reject derogatory or purely opinionated messages.” Your comment may not have met the criteria, but if you wish to shorten and make your comment more factual it might make it through the editorial review. Thanks. HK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *