Pentagon Report And Chinese Nuclear Forces


By Hans M. Kristensen

The Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military developments mainly deals with non-nuclear issues, but it also contains important new information about developments in China’s nuclear forces. This includes:

  • The size of China’s ICBM force has been relatively stable over the past five years
  • China has deployed a new version of a medium-range ballistic missile
  • A new intermediate-range ballistic missile is not yet deployed
  • China’s SSBN fleet has yet to conduct its first deterrent patrol
  • The possibility of nuclear capability for Chinese bombers
  • Changes (or not) to Chinese nuclear policy

ICBM Developments

The future development of China’s ICBM force has been the subject of much speculation and projections over the years. Despite important new developments, this year’s report describes the size of the ICBM force as consistent with the force level reported over the past five years: around 60 launchers. Fielding of the DF-31 appears to have stalled and the data suggests that fielding of the DF-31A has been modest: so far about 20-30 launchers, enough for perhaps 4-5 brigades (see graph).

Click graph to view full size

In 2012, the DOD report predicted that by 2015, “China will also field additional road-mobile DF-31A” launchers. But that doesn’t seem to have happened. Instead, the ICBM launcher force has remained relatively stable since 2011.

The number of Ichina-icbm-nosCBM launchers reported by the annual DOD reports over the past 13 years has fluctuated considerably, from around 30 in 2003 to 50 to 60-plus launchers in 2008 and later years. The uncertainty has been greatest in 2011-2013 and 2016 with a plus/minus of 25 launchers. That’s a significant uncertainty of approximately 40 percent in recent years versus around 10 percent in earlier years. But it seems clear that the Chinese ICBM forces is so far not continuing to grow.

While the number of launchers has been relatively stable, the DOD report shows a mysterious increase of missiles for those launchers: 75-100 missiles for 50-75 launchers. This is inconsistent with previous DOD reports, which have either listed the same number of launchers and missiles, or a slightly higher number of missiles because of a reload capability of the old DF-4 (see table).

It is unclear why the 2016 report suddenly increases the number of missiles to 25 more than the number of launchers. Neither the DF-5 nor the DF-31/31A ICBMs are thought to have reloads. Past DOD reports that included missile estimates always listed one reload for the DF-4, not any other system. With only about 10 DF-4 launchers left in the arsenal, the number of extra missiles in 2016 should probably be 10, not 25 (the 25 would fit better if there were two reloads for the DF-4). As far as I can tell, here is what the Chinese ICBM force looks like:

Click table to view full size

Despite many rumors in the public debate that China has developed or is developing rail-based versions of its ICBMs, there is no mentioning in the DOD report of any rail-based system. Here is out latest overview of Chinese nuclear forces. An update will be published in July.

DF-26 Nuclear Precision Strike?

China’s newest nuclear-capable missile, the DF-26 (DOD provides no CSS designation for the new missile) that was unveiled during the September 2015 parade in Beijing, appears not to have been deployed with missile units yet.

Sixteen six-axel launchers were displayed during the parade and described as the official commentator as nuclear-capable. The missile is not yet deployed. Image: PLA.

The DOD report states that the DF-26, if it uses the same guidance for the nuclear and the conventional payloads, “would give China its first nuclear precision strike capability against theater targets.”

This statement indicates that DOD does not believe that any of China’s other nuclear-capable missiles have precision strike capability.

A New DF-21 Version?

The DOD report also lists a new version of the nuclear medium-range DF-21 missile but provides no details. The new version is called DF-21 Mod 6, or CSS-5 Mod 6 as it is listed in the report.

The DOD report says China has deployed a new version of the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile. Here a DF-21 takes part in a nuclear strike exercise in 2015. Image: PLA via CCTV-13.

The previous report from 2015 stated that the ICBM force was complemented by the “road-mobile, solid-fueled CSS-5 (DF-21) MRBM for regional deterrence missions.” The 2016 report, however, states that the ICBM force “is complemented by road-mobile, solid-fueled CSS-5 Mod 6 (DF-21) MRBM for regional deterrence missions,” the first time the Mod 6 designation has been used.

DOD does not provide any details about what the Mod 6 version is and to what extent it affects the status of the two original nuclear versions (Mod 1 and Mod 2). The original versions are getting old, so one possibility might be that the Mod 6 version is intended to replace them. But it is unclear what the status is.

DF-21 holds a special status in the history of Chinese forces because it was the first real mobile solid-fuel missile that replaced the old and more cumbersome liquid-fuel missiles. The Mod 1 was first fielded in the late-1980s although deployment didn’t really get underway until 1992. The Mod 2 was “not yet deployed” in 1998, according to NASIC, but both versions were listed as deployed by 2000. That was also the case in 2013, which suggest that the two versions might not be that different (perhaps range is the only difference), or that they are different but both retained for specific missions.

There is a lot of confusion about the different versions of the DF-21 in the public debate where many authors re-use secondary sources instead of relying on the original reference material. The most common mistake is to refer to the DF-21C conventional land-attack version as the CSS-5 Mod 3 and the DF-21D anti-ship version as the CSS-5 Mod 4. Over the years, DOD and the U.S. Intelligence Community have reported the following versions of the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile:

DF-21 (CSS-5 Mod 1): nuclear
DF-21A (CSS-5 Mod 2): nuclear
DF-21C (CSS-5 Mod 4): conventional land-attack
DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod 5): conventional anti-ship
DF-21 (CSS-5 Mod 6): nuclear (new)

It is not clear what happened to DF-21B and/or CSS-5 Mod 3. In any case, the DF-21 has now completely replaced the old liquid-fuel DF-3As that dominated the Chinese regional nuclear deterrence posture since the early-1970s. The last brigade to convert to DF-21 possibly was the 810 Brigade at Dengshahe in Liaoning province.

About That Credible Sea-Based Deterrent

It seems that various news media reports and official statement continue to exaggerate or preempt the operational capability of the Chinese submarine force. Many have said the new Jin-class SSBNs had begun conducting deterrent patrols, but the DOE report seems to indicate that the subs (or rather, their missiles) are not yet fully operational.

In February 2015, for example, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy, reportedly told Congress that one SSBN had gone on a 95-day patrol. Later, STRATCOM Commander Admiral Cecil Haney said SSBNs had been at sea but that he didn’t know if they had nukes on board but had to assume they did.

In contrary to these statements, the DOD report states the Jin-class SSBN “will eventually carry” the JL-2 SLBM (apparently it doesn’t yet do so) and that “China will probably conduct its first SSBN nuclear deterrence patrol sometime in 2016.” So apparently not yet.

This “not quite yet” assessment was supported by the Defense Intelligence Agency saying “the PLA Navy deployed the JIN-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in 2015, which, when armed with the JL-2 SLBM, provides Beijing its first sea-based nuclear deterrent.” (Emphasis added.)

So one or more SSBNs might have sailed on some kind of deployment, but not necessarily with nuclear weapons onboard. All four operational Jin SSBNs are based at Longpo (Yulin) Submarine Base on Hainan Island, along with two Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. A fifth Jin SSBN is under construction.

3 Jin SSBNs and 2 Shang SSNs at Longpo Submarine Base. Click to view full size.

The DOD report also seems to debunk a rumor that China is building up to five additional Jin-class SSBNs. The head of US Pacific Command in 2015 told Congress that in addition to the submarines already launched, “up to five more may enter service by the end of the decade.” That seems to have been a fluke. The DOD report says a fifth Jin is under construction after which China will probably move on to a next-generation SSBN (Type 096) armed with a new missile (JL-3).

Nuclear Bombers?

The DOD report for the first time raises the issue of a potential nuclear role for the bombers. It does so by referencing various Chinese writings but without presenting a clear U.S. Intelligence Community conclusion about such a capability:

A thermonuclear bomb is dropped from an H-6 bomber in June 1967.

“In 2015, China also continued to develop long-range bombers, including some Chinese military analysts have described as “capable of performing strategic deterrence”—a mission reportedly assigned to the PLA Air Force in 2012. There have also been Chinese publications indicating China intends to build a long-range “strategic” stealth bomber. These media reports and Chinese writings suggest China might eventually develop a nuclear bomber capability. If it does, China would develop a “triad” of nuclear delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air—a posture considered since the Cold War to improve survivability and strategic deterrence.”

Chinese bombers are normally not considered to have an active nuclear role and the “strategic deterrence” mission assigned to PLAA in 2012 could potentially also reflect the introduction of conventional land-attack cruise missiles on the modified H-6K bomber. Yet a US Air Force Global Strike command briefing in 2013 listed the new CJ-20 air-launched land-attack cruise missile carried by the H-6K as nuclear-capable.

And China in the past certainly developed the capability to deliver nuclear weapons from bombers. Between 1965 and 1979, bombers delivered the nuclear weapon for at least 12 of China’s nuclear test explosions. These tests involved both fission and thermonuclear weapons with yields ranging from 5-10 kilotons, a few hundred kilotons, to 2-4 megatons. The bombs were delivered by H-6 bombers (still in service and being modernized), H-5 bombers (retired), and Q-5 fighter-bombers (nearly all retired).

The Military Museum in Beijing apparently has on display models of at least two nuclear bomb designs: a fission bomb and a hydrogen bomb. This video shows what is said to be China’s first test of a thermonuclear bomb, delivered by an H-6 bomber in June 1967.

Two nuclear bomb models are displayed in Beijing, the first fission bomb (left) and the first thermonuclear bomb (right). The marking on the thermonuclear bomb H639-23 is similar to those on the bomb used in the nuclear test on June 17, 1967: H639-6. Image:

Nuclear Policy and Strategy

Finally, the DOD report also summarizes the US understanding of Chinese nuclear policy and strategy.

The first is that the PLA has deployed new command, control, and communications capabilities to its nuclear forces to improve control of multiple units in the field. “Through the use of improved communications links,” DOD concludes, “ICBM units now have better access to battlefield information and uninterrupted communications connecting all command echelons. Unit commanders are able to issue orders to multiple subordinates at once, instead of serially, via voice commands.”

This is intended to improve control of the units but also to enhance their combat effectiveness in a crisis situation. To that end the DOD report mentions recent press accounts that China “may be enhancing peacetime readiness for nuclear forces to ensure responsiveness.” Part of this debate reflects a report by Gregory Kulacki citing Chinese military documents and statements that the nuclear forces may move towards a “launch-on-warning” posture to be able to launch missiles before they can be destroyed.

Despite these problematic developments, the DOD report concludes that there are no signs that China’s no-first-use policy and negative security assurance have been changed.

In other words, while Chinese nuclear policy itself does not appear to have changed, the way China deploys and operates its nuclear forces appears to be evolving significantly.

Additional resources:

The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

4 thoughts on “Pentagon Report And Chinese Nuclear Forces

  1. Many thanks, Hans. Very helpful.
    The common thread here and in other accounts, including Stimson’s new book, The Lure & Pitfalls of MIRVs, From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, is fluidity. New stuff is happening. Hard to say at present whether this presages important shifts in what has been a remarkably slow-moving program.

  2. China’s leaders have always been concerned about positive control of nuclear weapons in their forces. In the past they did not allow deployment of missiles ready to fire–they all had to be fueled before launching. With solid fuel missiles ready to fire, the problem can be solved by not releasing warheads/reentry vehicles until actual deployment to the field launching site. With an SLBM submarince, positive control must be obtained in some new way besides not allowing the submarine to go on patrol. Hence, the reluctance to put SLBMs fully armed and ready to fire out to sea in peacetime or to send out a train with everything needed to launch . It makes sense for China to send out their missle sub’s and trains only when strategic warning of heightened danger is obtained. We should be pleased their concern for positive control of their nuclear arsenal remains acute.

    1. I agree it is a positive the Chinese leadership has been reluctant to deploy warheads on their missiles under normal circumstances. I wish other nuclear-armed states would do the same.

      There is another option for the SSBNs: to deploy with missiles with no warheads. The benefit for the Chinese would be that they could operate the subs as if they were on real patrol and build up operational and technical experience, but retain central control of the warheads. Their SSBN force is a work in progress and we should not assume they will operate their subs in the same manner as the original four SSBN powers (US, Russia, UK, France) do.

  3. Hello Hans,

    Your estimates on the yields for Chinese weapons based on declassified sources ?

    AEC in 1950-1960-s overstated USSR tests.

    For example up to 1961 USSR not test anything larger than 3 megatons.There were 246R serial bomb based on 1957 design,AEC estimated it at 8 megatons.Warhead 2.9 megatons for R-7 was another design.AEC estimated it at 7 megatons.

    Two Soviet 19.1 and 20 Mt tests (warhead candidates for R-36) AEC estimated at 24 megatons.

    100-megaton device AEC estimated at 25,000 pounds.And another 50 Mt device at around 12000 pounds.So based on these estimates AEC believed that these devices would be weaponized.

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