Chinese Nuclear Modernization: Smaller and Later

DIA threat assessment shows slower Chinese nuclear modernization.

By Hans M. Kristensen

At about the same time nuclear arms reduction opponents last week incorrectly accused the Obama administration of considering “reckless” cuts in nuclear forces that would leave the United States “with fewer warheads than China,” Congress received its annual threat assessment from the U.S. intelligence community.

China’s nuclear arsenal is at a size that makes comparison with U.S. nuclear force level meaningless – even at the lowest level feared by the critics – but the threat assessment showed that China’s nuclear force modernization has been slower than predicted during the Bush administration.

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

Back in December 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency predicted that China’s ICBM force “deployed primarily against the United States” would increase to “75 to 100 warheads” by 2015. At the time, China had 20 single-warhead DF-5A ICBMs with a range to strike the continental United States.

Last week’s threat assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) repeats the assessment from last year that China currently has “fewer than 50 ICBMs that can strike the United States, but that it probably will more than double that number by 2025.” The expected increase refers to the addition of the DF-31A, a single-warhead mobile ICBM that was first deployed in 2007 after more than two decades of development.

But while the 2001 prediction implied deployment of 55-80 DF-31As by 2015, the number by now is less than 30 (tracking the precise number has become a little harder after the United States last year started to assist Chinese secrecy by no longer providing a breakdown of the missile force in the Pentagon’s annual Chinese military power report).

Moreover, the projection for when the portion of the ICBM force that can strike the continental United States will reach close to 100 has slipped by a decade, from 2015 to 2025.

US Projections For Chinese Long-Range ICBMs
US projections for Chiese ICBMs that can strike the continental United States have slipped by a decade between 2001 and 2012.                                  Click graph for larger version.

Sea-Launched Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs)

Last week’s threat assessment also showed that China’s modernization of its sea-launched ballistic missile force has been slower than projected a few years ago. China is developing the Julang-2 (JL-2) sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) for deployment on its new Jin-class SSBNs. Two submarines have been delivered and a couple more may be under construction.

Development of the JL-2, a sea-based version of the land-based DF-31, has been troubled by setbacks. After projecting in 2006 that the JL-2 would reach initial operational capability in 2007-2010, the Pentagon last year said it was uncertain when the missile would become fully operational on the Jin SSBN. And despite unconfirmed Internet-rumors last year about a JL-2 test launch, the DIA told Congress last week that the JL-2 “may reach initial operational capability by 2014.”

So three decades after China launched its first SSBN – the Xia (Type 092), and nearly a decade after launching the first Jin-class (Type 094) SSBN, it still doesn’t have an operational sea-based nuclear force.

Chinese Jin-Class SSBNs
After more than two decades in development, China’s new Jin-class SSBNs – see here Xiaopingdao in March 2011 – are still awaiting their loadout of JL-2 missiles.  Image: Google

That’s not to say they’re not trying but development of advanced weapons like the JL-2 is difficult (just look a Russia’s problems with its Bulava SLBM), and predictions have been too optimistic.

Once the Jin/JL-2 weapon system becomes operational, the Chinese military will have to figure out how to operate the force; Chinese SSBNs have never conducted a deterrent patrol, they’re noisy, and would need to hide to provide a real secure second-strike capability.


The point is not that China is not modernizing its nuclear forces (like the other nuclear weapon states, it unfortunately is) or that the intelligence community makes mistakes. The point is to remind that projections like these always tend to promise too much too soon.

Last week’s threat assessment is probably no different but it is interesting because it shows, when compared with previous assessments, that China’s nuclear modernization has been slower than anticipated a decade ago. And there is no indication that China has embarked upon a nuclear build-up intended to “sprint to parity” with the United States or Russia.

That at least ought to be taken into account by those who use China’s nuclear modernization to argue against deeper U.S. (and, by implication, Russian) nuclear reductions.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

15 thoughts on “Chinese Nuclear Modernization: Smaller and Later

  1. Those who say that China can “sprint to parity” know that it is not true. The only thing meaningful about the glacial speed of China’s nuclear weapons modernization program is that Chinese leaders feel quite comfortable about their current deterrent capabilities. It should be doable for the experts to assess what makes China’s progress so slow, given the fairly open information on China’s science, technology and industrial capabilities. If it is not like when the French tried hard to develop the hydrogen bomb, then the slow pace is perhaps due to lack of priority. I am not sure how well the political system in China can handle nukes mated to ICBMs, let alone those on SSBNs in deep oceans. The Party behaves rather like the Vatican, whose top-down political structure cannot distribute power in an effective and reliable way to allow the development of a capacity to fire 1000 nukes in 20 minutes. You need a lot of trust and loyalty to the country, not any boss, to do that. China’s political system is too far from being able to produce that. It is sprinting to parity on the production of scientific papers, patents, etc. However, China has a congenital political deficiency to become a superpower, despite the rapid improvements in technical capabilities. All humans operate under the biological constraint set by ultimatum game, which is reinforced by altruistic punishment. A fundamentally unfair political system maintained by coercion is a developmental anomaly that cannot withstand the gravity of humanity. China can only sprint to parity on nukes when it becomes a democracy that may have strategic interests different from those of the United States. The Party right now has no strategic interests other than keeping its job forever, like the First Emperor used to hope.

  2. Very poor science. DIA director spoke only of missiles, not warheads. The reason? The number of Chinese strategic (and tactical) nuclear warheads is not known by U.S. intelligence. To assume the old single-missile-equals-one-warhead is way old and self-deception of the highest order designed to ideologicially argue for cuts in U.S. nuclear forces.

    Reply: Ideology? How about facts? I’m not aware of any U.S. estimates or overviews that currently attribute multiple warheads to Chinese ICBMs. Suggesting that the missiles nonetheless do without offering any evidence to back it up seems like poor science to me. In any case, even if China deployed a MIRVed missile before 2025, it would have to carry a lot of warheads to constitute a barrier for the next round of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reductions. HK

  3. [Edited] You want some facts?

    1. The Long March 5 (Chinese equivalent of the Boeing Delta IV) will conduct its maiden flight within the next 5 years.
    2. According, to the World Nuclear Association, China currently has 26 nuclear reactors under construction, 51 planned, and 120 proposed.
    3. China has built a 3,000 mile Underground Great Wall.
    4. China is currently the world’s second largest economy with foreign exchange reserves of over $3 trillion.
    5. China matched the US in space launches with 15 successful launches in 2010.

    Reply: I’m sure there is a point to this relating to how many nuclear warheads China may have on ICBMs in 2025. HK

  4. J20: “China has built a 3,000 mile Underground Great Wall”

    It does raise a point in the 3,000 Chinese nuclear warhead arsenal synapses that begs an answer. If this exist, does it have something to do with nuclear weapons? Does it exist? If so, and it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, what does it have “to do with”? And why?

    Do we “really know” how much processed plutonium or weapon’s grade uranium the Chinese have produced? Do we “really know” how much processed plutonium or weapon’s grade uranium the US has produced?

    Just because vault doors doesn’t match some pre-existing criteria for Chinese mobile launch vehicles somehow doesn’t reassure me. I just need more information…

    Frank Shuler

  5. [Edited] I would like to know HK’s opinion about this new TEL spotted few days ago. Is that missile big enough to be the DF-31A?

    Reply: It’s obviously hard to say. It appears to be a mobile launcher similar to the DF-21C launcher, except with six axels instead of five. The image doesn’t show the full vehicle and it’s seen at an angle so it’s difficult to estimate the length of the canister. The wheels appear very similar to Russian off-road mobile launchers and “rougher” than what we’ve seen on Chinese road-mobile launchers so far. Perhaps it’s an attempt to improve DF-21 off-road capability. HK

  6. Could it be something like Midgetman SICBM? Since it’s always said that Chinese choose not to MIRV their missiles, and perhaps SICBM would fit their strategy better than rumoured DF-41 with many warheads.

  7. [Edited] Do the chinese conduct test launches of their missile. I mean how reliable are their delivery vehicles?

    Reply: Yes they do, but not very often. The public record is not good enough to conclude much about reliability. Occasionally we see statements from the US intelligence community about problems with missiles in development (such as the recent JL-2 testing series), but we almost never hear anything about reliability of deployed missiles. HK

  8. Let’s be honest. The US is more likely to use nm to attack China than viceversa.The US conventional forces can easily destroy the PLA’s nm capability but not 100% of it.This is what is bothering the US pentagon.
    This is China 2012 which can give a stinging rebuff to US attacks.The US has to realise the PLA is not the ragtag outfit of the Korea war or 199 6 China when tow US carriers could intimidate the Chinese.
    I dont envisage the PLA moving towards mad with US forces but it will have confidence its ability to deter US attacks and make sure US attacks will be met with a prohibitive price tag.
    As time goes on,the PLA could retaliate with more devastating force causing more unacceptable if not intolerable destruction on US forces and territory.Yeah I know the US will prevail but the PLA aint itching for afight.

  9. Let’s be frank. The US is more like to initiate a war with China than the latter. Any PLA build up/modernisation is questioned by the US asking why China is investing so much in weaponry.It shd ask itself the same question.
    The days when the US can drop a nm on China and be immune from PLA retaliation are over. It cannot and won’t be able to guarantee 100 % nuclear attack from China if it were to launch a nm attack. The days when Ike threatened to use the atomic bomb as you would use a bullet are over.
    The Chinese aint taking over SEA as the media potrays. The Chinese are perpetually portrayed as the bad guy bullying the likes of Taiwan/Philippines/Vietnam.The Chinese have been bullied by the west especially the US.
    Those days when the Us 7th feet can sail unmolested in the TaiwanStraits are over.Even if the the US were to build amillion anti missiles it can’t stp a pLa retaliation.
    That’s what bothering the Pentagon so used to wars where US prevailed with minimum cost. Get real.

  10. So Chinese modernisation is a threat to US forces when the reality is otherwise.The US can easily destroy China a thousand or million times but the price tag to accomplish this acr will be prohibitive and is like cutting your nose.Since the Korean war,the US has used nuclear coercion to deter the Chinese and give way to US demands.
    The Chinese have pledged not to use nw as the weaker party .They are upgrading their capability to make sure there will no repeat of US nuclear blackmail.The US shd ask why it spends so much on its military when millions of Americans are homeless and without medicare.It is oriented towards offensive action under the slogan of defend the US and all the accompanying bull shit.
    The Roman empire lasted some 500 years. Pax America maybe seeing its demise by the mid century.
    The latest island spat between Japan and China is a golden opportunity
    for the US to get rid of the so called Chinese threat once once and for all. All the US has to do is create an incident involving US forces and the PLA.A US navy ship is attacked in international waters and US forces must be protected ie Chinese military installation in China must be destroyed.
    China is not Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan where US forces and bases are immune. In Vietnam 58000 GIs died. In a war with China get ready for millions of GI casualties. If China were to be destroyed,be prepared for 30% to 50% of the CONUD being destroyed. That is the stark reality facing Pentagon policy makers.

  11. The 3000 mile underground bunker hiding PLA nm is a myth designed to demonize the Chinese.US forces are primed on 15 min alert to attack . The problem is China has changed since the days of Mao when the price for attacking China was acceptable.In 1954 and 58 Ike threatened to destroy
    China’s defence capability.
    Since then the PLA has evolved and is no more the Volunteers the US encountered in Korea.The US can destroy the PLA but as we all know and the pentagon knows it will be an unacceptable victory.
    As time goes on,the US will have to reckon with a stronger China.The US can develop more forces to destroy China times but the Pla has also designed more wepons to cause even more unacepptable destruction to US assets.Then it was 20 to 30 % But since then it has iincreased the damage to 50 to 70 %.
    The PLA need not need the capability to reach 100%.In time to come the US carriers will be rendered obsolete.Btw,dont give the bs china will take over Asia.It’s lie conjured by the Pentagon to justify the enormous amounts of money to hoodwink the US public.

  12. So far the PLA can only hit US targets from California to the mid US.Compare this to the US nuclear arsenal which can strike virtually 100% any in China.So whta is bothering the Pentagon?
    They want to be in a position to destroy China while the US escapes unscathed.The PLA aint itching for a fight with the world’s most destructive and lethal strike force. But if cornered ,they will lash out wreaking unacceptable and inescapable damage on US assets.That unfortuantely is the price the US will have to pay for sending China to the stone age.
    Sooner or later there will be a balance of power. It may come sooner or llater. It’s whether
    the Chinese are willing to spend trillions to build up such a force.It could bankkrupt them. The US is in the initaila stage of becoming a banana republic. Don’t believe it.
    How much has the US dollar lost its value. This is the yardstick. The Chinese aint dumb and are banking on sufficiency to have a deterrent effect.The PLA may have something unexpected were the US to strike China in the midst of the island spat instigated by the naive Japanese.

  13. So China’s missiles are a threat to the international community or Asia.This is indeed a disingenius attempt to demonize China. How can China be a threat to any non Asian country?

    Why doesn’t the media report about the enormous US lead in conventional and nuclear superirioty over China?All they report is China’s 300nm. Have they published reports about the USnm?Don’t give the bull shit the US is a force for the good.The US has threatened nuclear attack on China and I believe they will do so in the future.

    That’s why the PLA is going all out,repeat going all out to make sure a US nuclear attack on China will be met with a Chinese nuclear response.This is what is unnerving the Pentagon.The US wants to be the god of war and dictate the terms of war. This is wishful thinking.

    Regardless of what the US is doing or will do in future,the PLA will continue to upgrade their weapons . The US ,as we all know,has an assured destruction capability over China.China dosen’t have it but,believe me,are not going all out for mad,will devise more destructive weapons.

    As for Obama’s meeting with the new Chinese leader,it will be a re statement of each ‘s other’s position.

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