By Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris
China’s nuclear forces are limited compared with those of Russia and the United States. Nonetheless, its arsenal is slowly increasing both in numbers of warheads and delivery vehicles.
In our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook on Chinese nuclear forces published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we estimate that China has a stockpile of about 260 nuclear warheads for delivery by a growing diversity of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and bombers.
Changes over the past year include fielding of the new dual-capable DF-26 road-mobile intermediate-rage ballistic missile, the reported fielding of a new nuclear version (Mod 6) of the DF-21 road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile, more flight-tests of the long-rumored DF-41 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, and the slow readying of the Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
China is also modernizing its aging fleet of H-6 bombers, some of which may have a secondary nuclear role.
Although China is still thought to be fielding more DF-31A launchers, the overall number of ICBM launchers has not increased since 2011 but remained at 50-75 launchers. The oldest of these, the liquid-fuel DF-4, apparently has an extra load of missiles but is thought to be close to retirement. None of the new ICBMs are thought to have reloads.
ICBM Exercises and Force Level
Chinese television showed PLARF (PLA Rocket Force) videos of several exercises in late-2015 and early-2016 that included DF-4, DF-21 and DF-31 launchers.
One video showed what was said to be a Rocket Force exercise in northeast China in early 2016 that included a DF-31 launcher. The characteristic outline of the launch site made it possible for us (and many others) to identify the location as a launch unit site of the 816 Brigade at Tonghua in the Jilin province (see image below). The 816 Brigade is thought to be equipped with the DF-21 so the DF-31 exercise probably involved a launch unit on an extended deployment from another brigade.
Although the liquid-fuel DF-4 ICBM is old and very slow as a retaliatory weapon, the single remaining brigade near Lingbao continued to conduct launch exercises in late-2015 and early-2016. One of these involved a roll-out-to-launch exercise from a missile garage of the 801 Brigade near Lingbao in Henan province (see image below). The DF-4 will likely be phased out in the near future.
Overall the number of Chinese ICBM launchers has been growing slowly since the mid-2000s. The DF-31 and its longer-range version DF-31A have been slowly fielding since 2006 and 2007, respectively, although the DF-31 seems to have stalled after less than 10 launchers. The DF-31A may still be fielding but not much. Since the mid-2000s, the introduction of these two systems has doubled the size of the Chinese ICBM force from around 30 to around 60. The force has been stable since 2011 (see image below).
There have also been several unconfirmed reports of a new DF-41 ICBM being test-launched, sometimes from rail cars. The Pentagon first predicted fielding of the long-rumored DF-41 in the late-1990s but then dropped references to the weapon system until two years ago when it stated that the missile might be capable of carrying MIRV warheads. Since then several photos of an eight-axel launcher have appeared on the Internet with unconfirmed claims that they showed the DF-41.
Once the DF-41 finally deploys, it will likely result in the retirement of the DF-4 and potentially also the liquid-fuel silo-based DF-5A/B, some of which have recently been equipped to carry MIRV.
DOD projections for the number of Chinese ICBM warheads that could threaten the United States have fluctuated over the years, generally promising too much too soon. Moreover, the projections have been inconsistent about whether they concerned warheads that could reach any part of the United States or just the continental United States. With the addition of MIRV to the DF-5B and potentially also on the future DF-41, the projections could potentially reach approximately 100 warheads in the foreseeable future (see graph below).
China is also boosting its force of medium- and inter-medium-range ballistic missiles for regional deterrence missions. The most important new development is the introduction of the new DF-26, an intermediate-range dual-capable road-mobile ballistic missile. Sixteen launchers were shown during the 2015 military parade but the system is probably still in its early stages of introduction.
The focus on missiles for regional deterrence missions is particularly clear in the fielding of several conventional versions of the solid-fuel DF-21 MRBM (DF-21C or CSS-5 Mod 4, and DF-21D or CSS-5 Mod 5). But the 2016 DOD report on Chinese military development also reports deployment of a new nuclear version of the DF-21, designated CSS-5 Mod 6. China already operates two older nuclear versions of the DF-21 (DF-21 or CSS-5 Mod 1, and DF-21A or CSS-5 Mod 2). It is unclear if the new Mod 6 version will be deployed alongside the two older versions or if it is intended to replace them.
More than 25 years after the DF-21 first began replacing the liquid-fuel DF-3A medium-range ballistic missile, the transition seems to be complete and the DF-3A finally retired. One of the bases where the transition has been visible is the 810 Brigade launch site near Dengshahe in the Liaoning province of northeast China. Commercial satellite images show the transition from DF-3A in 2003 to the DF-21 in 2014. A satellite image from April 2016 shows three DF-21 launchers positioned on the launch pads along with support vehicles (see image below).
The SSBN Fleet
China’s attempt to build an SSBN fleet has so far resulted in four Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs entering service. The US Navy says all four are based at the Longpo naval base on Hainan Island, although commercial satellite images have so far only shown three SSBNs at the base simultaneously.
The big question, which has generated lots of Internet rumors and news media articles, is whether the Jin fleet has yet conducted a deterrence patrol with nuclear-tipped JL-2 missiles onboard. We find that highly unlikely given the Chinese leadership’s reluctance to hand out nuclear weapons to the military services in peacetime. It is possible that one or more of the Jin subs have sailed on long voyages far from Chinese waters, but we haven’t seen credible sources reporting actual nuclear deterrent patrols yet.
Another area of speculation is how China will operate its SSBN fleet once it becomes fully operational. Most reports bluntly state that the Jin fleet will provide China with a secure second-strike capability. But that is an overstatement, given the technological, operational, and geographic challenges the Jin fleet faces. The Jin subs are as noisy [/blogs/security/2009/11/subnoise/] as submarines built by the Soviet Union back in the 1970s, the Chinese navy has almost no experience in operating nuclear-armed submarines, and the limited range of the JL-2 requires the submarine to sail far into dangerous waters to be able to hit targets in the United States.
ONI stated in 2015 [http://www.oni.navy.mil/Portals/12/Intel%20agencies/China_Media/2015_PLA_NAVY_PUB_Print.pdf?ver=2015-12-02-081247-687] that, once deployed, the Jin/JL-2 weapon system “will provide China with a capability to strike targets on the continental United States.” But that’s an overstatement. To reach targets on the continental United States, a Jin SSBN with JL-2 SLBMs would have to sail at least 3,600 kilometers (2,200 miles) from its base on Hainan Island into the Pacific Ocean just to be able to target Seattle (see image). Alaska and Guam could be hit from Chinese waters but Hawaii could not. Moreover, to target Washington, DC, a Jin SSBN would have to sail halfway across the Pacific Ocean.
We have analyzed the Chinese SSBN fleet for the past decade and frequently pointed out the tendency to overstate or exaggerate the capability of the Jin-class SSBNs and their missiles. The Jin-class fleet seems more like a work in progress that is intended to build technology and operational experience for the next generation SSBN: the Type 096.
Background: Chinese nuclear forces, 2016 (FAS Nuclear Notebook)
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.