The Pentagon’s latest annual report to Congress on the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China describes continued broad modernization and growing reach of Chinese military forces and strategy.
There is little new on the nuclear weapons front in the 2014 update, however, which describes slow development of previously reported weapons programs. This includes construction of a handful of ballistic missile submarines; the first of which the DOD predicts will begin to sail on deterrent patrols later this year.
It also includes the gradual phase-out of the old DF-3A liquid-fuel ballistic missile and the apparent – and surprising – stalling of the new DF-31 ICBM program.
Like all the other nuclear-armed states, China is modernizing its nuclear forces. China earns the dubious medal (although not in the DOD report) of being the only nuclear weapons state party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that is increasing it nuclear arsenal. Far from a build-up, however, the modernization is a modest increase focused on ensuring the survivability of a secure retaliatory strike capability (see here for China’s nuclear arsenal compared with other nuclear powers).
The report continues the Obama administration’s don’t-show-missile-numbers policy. Up until 2010, the annual DOD reports included a table overview of the composition of the Chinese missile force. But the overview gradually became less specific in until it was completed removed from the reports in 2013.
The policy undercuts the administration’s position that China should be more transparent about its military modernization by indirectly assisting Chinese government secrecy.
The main nuclear issues follow below.
Land-Based Nuclear Missile Developments
The DOD report formally identifies the new road-mobile ICBM under development as the DF-41, rumored at least since 1997 to be in development. The missile might “possibly [be] capable of carrying multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV),” according to DOD. That obviously doesn’t mean that the DF-41 will carry them; the DF-5A has also been assessed for years to be capable of carrying MIRV without ever doing so.
The report lends some support to the assessment – although not explicitly – that deployment of the DF-31 ICBM has ceased after only 5-10 launchers deployed in a single brigade.
Instead, the focus of the road-mobile ICBM modernization appears to have shifted to the DF-31A ICBM, of which the DOD report predicts that more will be deployed by 2015.
The liquid-fuel DF-3A (CSS-2) IRBM is not mentioned in the 2014 report, an indication that the 3.3-megaton weapon system has finally been retired after 42 years in service. The last DF-3A-equipped Second Artillery brigade – the 810 Brigade north of Dalian in the Liaoning province – was seen in May 2014 to have been converted to the solid-fuel medium-range DF-21 MRBM.
The only other transportable liquid-fuel ballistic missile, the DF-4 (CSS-3) ICBM, is still operational with 10-15 launchers deployed in one or two brigades. But the missile is expected to be retired soon. When that happens, the only liquid-fuel ballistic missile left in the Chinese arsenals will be the 20 silo-based DF-5As (CSS-4 Mod 1) ICBM, which are still being ungraded.
The report also mentions conventional ballistic missiles under development, including several medium-range versions. That includes that anti-ship version of the DF-21 (CSS-5) – the DF-21D, which the report designates as the CSS-5 Mod 5. That suggests that other conventional MRBMs may also be under development.
Sea-Based Nuclear Missile Developments
The DOD report states that three Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs have been delivered and that two more are in various stages of construction. One of these was seen at the Bohai shipyard in October 2013. After the Jin-program is completed, DOD expects that China will proceed to its next-generation SSBN (Type 096) over the next decade.
The report makes the prediction that “China is likely to conduct its first nuclear deterrence patrols with the JIN-class SSBN in 2014,” assuming that the JL-2 SLBM will finally become operational.
The prediction of the upcoming nuclear deterrent patrols is controversial given that the Chinese leadership so far has been very reluctant to hand over nuclear weapons to the military under normal circumstances. China has never conducted a SSBN deterrent patrol before and a Jin SSBN deploying with nuclear warheads loaded on its SLBMs would constitute a significant change in Chinese nuclear operational policy. It would also constitute the first-ever deployment of Chinese nuclear weapons outside the land-territory of China.
Nuclear-Capable Cruise Missile Developments
The DOD report does not explicitly attribute nuclear capability to China’s growing inventory of land-attack cruise missiles. Yet the 2013 NASIC report designates the DH-10 ground-launched cruise missile as “conventional or nuclear,” the same designation given to the Russian AS-4 and the Pakistani Ra’ad and Babur cruise missiles, weapons widely assumed to be nuclear-capable.
There are widespread rumors on Chinese Internet sites that the DH-10 has been modified for delivery by the H-6K intermediate-range bomber. It is unknown if that includes the apparently nuclear-capable version.
In addition, US Air Force Global Strike Command last year attributed the CJ-20 air-launched cruise missile with nuclear capability, but neither NASIC nor the DOD does so.
Additional background: FAS Nuclear Notebook: Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2013
This publication was made possible by a grant from the Ploughshares Fund and New Land Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.