(The Other) Red Storm Rising: INDO-PACOM China Military Projection

Click on image to download PDF-version of full briefing

Some Missile Numbers Do Not Match Recent DOD China Report

By Hans M. Kristensen

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command recently gave a briefing about the challenges the command sees in the region. The briefing says China is the “Greatest Threat to Global Order and Stability” and presents a set of maps that portray a massive Chinese military buildup and very little U.S. capability (and no Allied capability at all) to counter it. With its weapons icons and a red haze spreading across much of the Pacific, the maps resemble a new version of the Cold War classic Red Storm Rising.

Unfortunately, the maps are highly misleading. They show all of China’s forces but only a fraction of U.S. forces operating or assigned missions in the Pacific.

There is no denying China is in the middle of a very significant military modernization that is increasing its forces and their capabilities. This is and will continue to challenge the military and political climate in the region. For decades, the United States enjoyed an almost unopposed – certainly unmatched – military superiority in the region and was able to project that capability against China as it saw fit. The Chinese leadership appears to have concluded that that is no longer acceptable and that the country needs to be able to defend itself.

In describing this development, however, the INDO-PACOM briefing slides make the usual mistake of overselling the threat and under-characterizing the defenses. Moreover, some of the Chinese missile forces listed in the briefing differ significantly from those listed in the recent DOD report on Chinese military developments. As military competition and defense posturing intensify, expect to see more of these maps in the future.

Apples, Oranges, and Cherry-Picking

The INDO-PACOM maps suffer from the same lopsided comparison and cherry-picking that handicapped the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: it overplays the Chinese capabilities and downplays the U.S. capabilities (see image below). While he briefing maps includes all of China’s military forces, whether they are postured toward India or Russia, it only shows a small portion of U.S. forces. INDO-PACOM mapmakers may argue that it’s only intended to show the force level in the Western Pacific theater, but INDO-PACOM spans all of the Pacific and the maps ignore other significant U.S. forces that are operating in the region to oppose China.

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The INDO-PACOM map gives the impression that the United States only has 175 fighter-jets, 12 bombers, 50 maritime patrol aircraft, 1 aircraft carrier, four amphibious assault ships, 12 modern multi-warfare warships, 10 submarines, and 2 THAAD missile defense batteries in the region to deter China. In reality, the U.S. military forces based or assigned missions in the INDO-PACOM area of responsibility are significantly greater. The map excludes everything based in Hawaii, in Alaska, on the U.S. west coast, and elsewhere in the continental United States with missions in the Pacific or forces rotating through bases in the Indo-Pacific region. Examples of mischaracterizations of U.S. forces include:

Fighter aircraft: The map lists only lists 175 fighter-jets, but Pacific Air Forces says it has “Approximately 320 fighter and attack aircraft are assigned to the command with approximately 100 additional deployed aircraft rotating on Guam.”

Bombers: The map lists only 12 bombers, but the United States has more than 150 bombers, many of which would be used to counter Chinese forces in a war. Moreover, those bombers are considerably more capable than Chinese bombers and are supported by tankers to provide unconstrained range in the Pacific, something Chinese bombers cannot do.

Submarines: The map lists only 10 U.S. submarines, but according to the U.S. Naval Vessel Register the U.S. Navy has more than three times that many (35) in the Pacific, including 25 attack submarines, 2 guide missile submarines, and 8 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) homeported in Pacific ports. The omission of the 8 Pacific-based SSBNs is particularly problematic given their important role of targeting China – and that they are assigned up to eight times more nuclear warheads than China has in its entire nuclear weapons stockpile.

The INDO-PACOM briefing does not show that the United States has any ballistic missile submarines in the Pacific, even though eight U.S. Pacific-based SSBNs play a central role in targeting China. Just two of these Ohio-class SSBNs can carry more warheads than China has in its entire nuclear stockpile. This image shows the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN-735) during a port visit to Guam in 2016.

Aircraft carriers: The map lists only one U.S. aircraft carrier, but according to the U.S. Naval Vessel Register the U.S. Navy has six aircraft carriers based in the Pacific (two of them in shipyard). Moreover, unlike China’s single aircraft carrier (a second is fitting out), U.S. carriers are large flat-tops with more aircraft.

Amphibious assault ships: The map shows four U.S. amphibious assault ships, but the U.S. Pacific Fleet says it operates six (although one was recently damaged by fire). Moreover, the amphibious assault ships are being upgraded to carry the F-35B VSTOL aircraft, significantly improving their strike capability.

Missile defense: The map shows only two THAAD batteries but does not mention the Ground Based Midcourse missile defense system in Alaska. Nor are missile defense interceptors deployed on cruisers and destroyers listed.

ICBMs: One of the most glaring omissions is that the maps do not show the United States has any ICBMs (the map also does not list U.S. SLBMs but nor does it list Chinese SLBMs). Although U.S. ICBMs are thought to be mainly assigned to targeting Russia and would have to overfly Russia to reach targets in China, that does not rule out they could be used to target China (Chinese ICBMs would also have to overfly Russia to target the continental United States). U.S. ICBMs carry more nuclear warheads than China has in its entire nuclear stockpile.

The INDO-PACOM briefing shows China with 100 ICBMs and the United States with none. This infrared image shows a U.S. Minuteman III ICBM test-launched from Vandenberg AFB into the Pacific on September 2, 2020.

A modified map, apparently made available by U.S. Pacific Air Forces, is a little better because it includes Australian, Japanese, and South Korean forces. But it still significantly mischaracterizes the forces the United States has in the Pacific or are assigned missions in the region. Moreover, the new map does not include the yellow highlights showing “hypersonics” missiles and portion of aircraft, ships, and submarines that are modern (see modified map below).

A modified map released after the INDO-PACOM briefing also shows Australian, Japanese, and South Korean forces – but still mischaracterizes U.S. military forces in the Pacific.

Inconsistent Missile Numbers

The INDO-PACOM maps are also interesting because the numbers for Chinese IRBMs and MRBMs are different than those presented in the 2020 DOD report on Chinese military developments. INDO-PACOM lists 250 IRBMs/MRBMs, more than 100 missiles fewer than the DOD estimate. China has fielded one IRBM (DF-26), a dual-capable missile that exists in two versions: one for land-attack (most DF-26s are of this version) and one for anti-ship attack. China operates four versions of the DF-21 MRBM: the nuclear DF-21A and DF-21E, the conventional land-attack DF-21C, and the conventional anti-ship DF-21D.

There is also a difference in the number of SRBMs, which INDO-PACOM sets at 1,000, while the DOD report lists 600+. The 600+ could hypothetically be 1,000, but the INDO-PACOM number shows that the high-end of the 750-1,500 range reported by the 2019 DOD China report probably was too high.

A comparison (see table below) is complicated by the fact that the two reports appear to use slightly different terminology, some of which seems inconsistent. For example, INDO-PACOM lists “missiles” but the low IRBM/MRBM estimate suggests it refers to launchers. However, the high number of SRBMs listed suggest it refers to missiles.

Several of the Chinese missile estimates provided by INDO-PACOM and DOD are inconsistent.

2025 Projection

The projection made by INDO-PACOM for 2025 shows significant additional increases of Chinese forces, except in the number of SRBMs.

The ICBM force is expected to increase to 150 missiles from 100 today. That projection implies China will field an average of 10 new ICBMs each year for the next five years, or about twice the rate China has been fielding new ICBMs over the past two decades. Fifty ICBMs corresponds to about four new brigades. About 20 of the 50 new ICBMs are probably the DF-41s that have already been displayed in PLARF training areas, military parades, and factories. The remaining 30 ICBMs would have to include more DF-41s, DF-31AGs, and/or the rumored DF-5C, but it seems unlikely that China can add enough new ICBM brigade bases and silos in just five years to meet that projection.

The briefing also projects that 50 of the 150 ICBMs by 2025 will be equipped with “hypersonics.” The reference to “hypersonics” as something new is misleading because existing ICBMs already carry warheads that achieve hypersonic speed during reentry. Instead, the term “hypersonics” probably refers to a new hypersonic glide vehicle. It is unclear from the briefing if INDO-PACOM anticipates the new payload will be nuclear or conventional, but a conventional ICBM payload obviously would be a significant development with serious implications for crisis stability. Even if this expansion comes true, the entire Chinese ICBM force would only be one-third of the size of the U.S. ICBM force. Nonetheless, a Chinese ICBM force of 100-150 is still a considerable increase compared with the 40 or so ICBMs it operated two decades ago (see graph below).

The INDO-PACOM briefing appears to show a greater increase in ICBMs projected for the next five years than DOD reported in the past decade.

The IRBM/MRBM force is projected to increase to 375, from 250 today. That projection assumes China will field 125 additional missiles over five years, or 25 missiles each year. That corresponds to a couple of new brigades per year, which seems high. Yet production is significant and IRBM launchers have been seen in several regions in recent years. The IRBM/MRBM force presumably would include the DF-17, DF-21, and the DF-26.

About 75-87 of the IRBM/MRBM force will be equipped with “hypersonics” by 2025, according to INDO-PACOM. That projection probably refers to the expected fielding of the DF-17 with a new glide-vehicle payload, although that would imply a lot of the new launcher (enough for 4-6 brigades). Another possibly is that a portion of other IRBMs/MRBMs (perhaps the DF-26) might also be equipped with the new payload or have their own version. China has presented the DF-17 as conventional but STRATCOM has characterized it as a “new strategic nuclear system.” Adding new hypersonics to IRBMs/MRBMs that are already mixing nuclear and conventional seems extraordinarily risky and likely to further exacerbate the danger of misunderstandings.

The INDO-PACOM does not list any DF-17s but projects that 75-87 of China’s IRBMs/MRBMs by 2025 will carry some form of hypersonic payload that is different from what they carry today.

The status and projection for the surface fleet are also interesting. The INDO-PACOM briefing lists the total number of aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and modern multi-warfare combatant vessels at 54, of which 46 are modern multi-warfare combatant vessels. The briefing doesn’t specify what is excluded from this count, but it differs significantly from the count in the DOD China report.

One of the puzzling parts of the INDO-PACOM briefing is the projection that China by 2025 will be operating four aircraft carriers for fixed-wing jets. China is currently operating one carrier with a second undergoing sea-trials. How China would be able to add another three carriers in five years is a mystery, not least because the third and fourth hulls are of a new and more complex design. The projection also doesn’t fit with the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, which predicts the third carrier won’t be commissioned until 2024.

The INDO-PACOM briefing says China will operate four aircraft carriers by 2025 but ONI estimates the third won’t be commissioned until 2024.

Bombers are projected to increase from 175 today to 225 in 2025, an increase of nearly 30 percent. Since 2025 is probably too early for the new H-20 to become operational, the increase appears to only involve modern version of the H-6 bomber. Although the bomber force has recently been reassigned a nuclear mission, the majority of the Chinese bomber force will likely continue to be earmarked for conventional missions.

Submarines and surface vessels will also increase and some of them are being equipped with long-range missiles. Combined with the growing reach of ground-based ballistic missiles and air-delivered cruise missiles, this results in the INDO-PACOM maps showing a Chinese “anti-access area denial” (A2AD) capability bleeding across half of the Pacific well beyond Guam toward Hawaii. But A2AD is not a bubble and weakens significantly in areas further from Chinese shores.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The INDO-PACOM maps project China’s military modernization will continue at a significant pace over the next five years with increases in delivery platforms and capabilities. This will reduce the military advantage the United States has enjoyed over China for decades and further stimulate modernization of U.S. and allied military forces in the region. As forces grow, operations increase, and rhetoric sharpens, insecurity and potential incidents will increase as well and demand new ways of reducing tension and risks.

The Trump administration is correct that China should be included in talks about limiting forces and reducing tension. So far, however, the administration has not presented concrete ideas for what that could look like. Like the United States, China will not accept limits on its forces and operations without something in return that Beijing sees as being in its national interest. Although China is modernizing its nuclear forces and appears intent on increasing it further over the next decade, the force will remain well below the level of the United States and Russia for the foreseeable future. Insisting that China should join U.S.-Russian nuclear talks seems premature and it is still unclear what the United States would trade in return for what. In the near-term, it seems more important to try to reach agreements on limiting the increase of conventional forces and operations.

Unfortunately, the INDO-PACOM briefing does a poor job in comparing Chinese and U.S. forces and suffers from the same flaw as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review by cherry-picking and mischaracterizing force levels. It is tempting to think that this was done with the intent to play up the Chinese threat while downplaying U.S. capabilities to assist public messaging and defense funding. But the Chinese military modernization is important – as is finding the right response. Neither the public nor the Congress are served by twisted comparisons.

It would also help if the Pentagon and regional commands would coordinate and streamline their public projections for Chinese modernizations. Doing so would help prevent misunderstandings and confusion and increase the credibility of these projections.

Finally, these kinds of projections raise a fundamental question: why does the Pentagon and regional military commands issue public threat projections at all? That should really be the role of the Director of National Intelligence, not least to avoid that U.S. public intelligence assessments suffer from inconsistencies, cherry-picking, and short-term institutional interests.

 

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Over the Line: The Implications of China’s ADIZ Intrusions in Northeast Asia

When China established its first ADIZ in the East China Sea on November 23, 2013, the move was widely seen as a practice run before establishing one in the South China Sea to strengthen its controversial territorial claims. However, examining China’s use of its ADIZ the way its treatment of those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan has evolved over the past seven years reveals that China’s East China Sea ADIZ has effectively given China new latitude to extend its influence in Northeast Asia.

Since 2013, China has committed more than 4,400 intrusions into the ADIZs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Often, Chinese forces violate multiple countries’ ADIZs on their flights, flying routes that consecutively transgress South Korea’s and Japan’s ADIZs or Taiwan’s and Japan’s. While each country has so far managed the issue in its own way by scrambling jets, discussing the issue with China in bilateral meetings, and publicizing some information about the intrusions, the issue has become a regional one impacting all three countries.

This report uses data gathered from multilingual sources to explore China’s motivations behind these intrusions as well as the implications for Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, and U.S. forces operating in Northeast Asia.

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The State Department’s Compliance Report Plays the Blame Game, Despite Offering Little Evidence

By Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen

The State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance yesterday released its annual “Compliance Report,” which provides a detailed overview of US (and other countries’) adherence to various treaty and agreement commitments.

The report’s publication comes at a critical time, as the Trump administration has spent the past few years––and the past three months in particular––dismantling the last vestiges of US commitments to the international arms control regime. The administration has recently declared that it is unlikely to extend New START, has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty, has alluded to an intent to resume nuclear testing, and has announced that it will “reinterpret” the Missile Technology Control Regime in order to allow the United States to sell armed drones to previously-forbidden countries.

In addition to its intended purpose––providing the official public US assessment of how other countries adhere to arms control treaties and agreements––the administration clearly sees the Compliance Report as a tool to provide justification for shedding treaties. As such, other countries might question the report’s conclusion that the United States is in full compliance with all of its international obligations, but that other treaty parties are not.

Several sections of the Compliance Report are missing both critical context about how and why certain treaties met their eventual ends, as well as actual evidence for some of its claims about the actions of its arms control partners. To that end, we have tried to fill in some of the blanks below.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

The report assesses that throughout 2019, the United States was in full compliance with the INF Treaty––the landmark Cold War-era treaty that eliminated and banned all US and Russian ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Although this assertion appears to be technically correct and provides an extensive overview of Russian activities, it is missing some critical context. Both the United States and Russia suspended their respective obligations under the treaty in February 2019, and the treaty officially died in August 2019. Although it appeared that Russia had been violating the treaty for many years, we have argued that the Trump administration’s decision to finally kill the treaty was the wrong move, for several reasons.

Firstly, withdrawal established a false moral equivalency between the United States, who probably was not violating the treaty, and Russia, who probably was. It also put the United States in conflict with its own key policy documents like the Nuclear Posture Review and public statements made last year, which emphasized staying in the treaty while trying to bring Russia back into compliance through diplomatic, economic, and military measures. NATO preferred this approach until the Trump administration changed its mind and decided to withdraw, at which point NATO followed suit to avoid being seen to be in conflict with Washington.

The 2020 Compliance Report states that withdrawal from the INF Treaty was intended as a “remedy” for Russia’s material breach. But if the ultimate goal was to coax or coerce Russia back into compliance, then killing the treaty did the opposite. Instead, it legally freed Russia to deploy even more INF missiles on land, something the report explicitly warns that Russia might do by converting the SS-N-30a/Sagaris (Kalibr) sea-launched cruise missile into a land-based system. It also allowed the United States to explore developing INF-range missiles of its own. Only 16 days after the treaty’s collapse, the United States test launched a crudely-fashioned missile that would have certainly violated the INF treaty––if it had still existed.

New START

The 2020 Compliance Report notes that both Russia and the United States are in full compliance with the New START treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles that each country is allowed to deploy. This is not newsworthy in itself; mutual compliance was confirmed by State and Defense Department officials during Senate testimony in 2018, after the February treaty deadline had passed.

It is bizarre that the Trump administration is using alleged Russian non-compliance with other treaties in order to undermine the one treaty with which Russia is actually complying. Moreover, unlike any other treaty mentioned in the Compliance Report, the strategic forces limited by the New START treaty are the only weapons of mass destruction that can threaten the very existence of the United States.

New START expires in less than a year, and while Russia has agreed to extend it unconditionally, the Trump administration has been dragging its feet. This should be a no-brainer: the treaty is a good deal for both parties, it offers a critical source of predictability and transparency into Russia’s nuclear forces, and extension is widely supported across the country, even among Trump voters; in fact, it’s one of the very few bipartisan issues still remaining in Congress. Senior military leaders, such as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, have declared their full support for the treaty, largely because it offers a critical source of transparency and stability in the US-Russia nuclear relationship.

Specifically, during the 2018 Senate hearing, then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs noted “The United States benefits from the Treaty’s 18 annual on-site inspections, notifications, and biannual data exchanges, which give us insight into the number of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty and where they are at any given time.” She further noted, “Should the Treaty expire, U.S. inspectors would lose their current access to Russian strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems, bases, and infrastructure, as well as the Treaty’s biannual exchange of data and associated updates on the location and status of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty.” However, this fact hasn’t stopped Trump’s new arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea––an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed US ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and supported US withdrawal in 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty––from inexplicably arguing the opposite point. In an interview with The Washington Times last month, he claimed that “The Obama administration negotiated a very weak verification regime […] which the Russians have been exploiting.” The basis for this claim has not been substantiated by other senior administration or military officials, and is not presented in the Compliance Report itself.

Marshall Billingslea
Marshall Billingslea, the Trump administration’s Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control.

In his recent interview, Billingslea noted that a new or extended New START-style deal would necessarily have to include China. This makes no sense. The entire Chinese arsenal is thought to include about 320 warheads––a fraction of the 4,000-4,500 in the US and Russian arsenals––which is why China’s position has consistently been the same: it will not take part in trilateral arms control negotiations while this strategic imbalance remains.

Therefore, as we have previously argued in Forbes, killing New START because it doesn’t include China would do nothing to address the United States’ security concerns about Chinese nuclear forces. Instead, if limits on US and Russian strategic nuclear forces fell away and caused both countries to increase their nuclear forces, China might decide that it would need to increase its stockpile even further in order to adjust to the greater nuclear threat. This would further exacerbate a post-New START nuclear crisis.

Extension does not require Congressional approval; it simply requires a presidential stroke of a pen. Given that both countries benefit from the treaty, that both countries are in compliance, and that the United States’ NATO allies strongly favor an extension, this is a ripe piece of low-hanging fruit.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The JCPOA (commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal), is not mentioned at all in the Compliance Report. This is not necessarily surprising, as the Trump administration officially withdrew from––and then violated––the deal in 2018. However, in recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued that the United States remains a party to the deal, and therefore could demand a reimposition of sanctions on Iran if an arms embargo is not extended past October. As Senator Elizabeth Warren correctly tweeted in response, “This makes no sense.” “To extend this arms embargo,” she noted, “the Trump admin is suddenly arguing that the US is a party to the same Iran Deal it abandoned.”

Pompeo’s unconvincing argument is undermined by his own former State Department top arms control official, who noted in her 2018 Senate testimony that the United States completed its “withdrawal from the arrangement on May 8.” Additionally, if the Secretary of State truly believed that the United States was still party to the treaty, why would it be excluded from his own department’s comprehensive annual assessment of US treaty obligations?

The absence of JCPOA is even more curious because Iran’s nuclear activities are covered extensively over seven full pages in the Compliance Report.

Nuclear Testing

The Compliance Report does not assess any country’s compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) because the United States has not ratified it. The report repeats the Trump administration’s statement that it has no intentions to ratify the treaty, but nonetheless assesses that Russia and China may have conducted nuclear weapons tests that fail to meet the United States’ “zero-yield” standard. This assertion echoes the claims initially made by DIA Director Ashley during his remarks at the Hudson Institute in May 2019.

On Russia, the report states that the “United States assesses that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield.” But it adds in the next sentence that the “United States does not know how many, if any [emphasis added], supercritical or self-sustaining nuclear experiments Russia conducted in 2019.” A test that released nuclear energy from a canister would require Russian notification under the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTPT), which Russia has not provided. But the Compliance Report does not present any evidence but says additional information is included in a classified annex.

On China, the report is even more vague and circumstantial. It doesn’t explicitly accuse China of having conducted low-yield nuclear tests nor present evidence to that effect. Instead, the Compliance Report says a number of other activities “raise concern” about China’s adherence to the zero-yield standard of the United States and that “the United States cannot rule out the possibility that China could have conducted activities at its test site that are inconsistent with its moratorium commitment…” Details are hidden in a classified annex.

Open source analysists have not detected “any alarming activity” in this regard. Absent public evidence, both China and Russia have rejected the claims, with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister “[urging] the United States to abandon the growing practice of misinforming the global community about what is happening,” and the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson “[refusing] to dignify the groundless US allegation with a refutation.”

Claims about Chinese and Russian low-yield testing are not new, but are occasionally used by anti-arms control hawks working to hype the Russian or Chinese threat, in addition to pushing for the United States to resume nuclear weapons testing. It is unfortunate that this year’s Compliance Report echoed these claims without offering any public proof to back them up, and that would-be arms control killers are subsequently using them as “evidence” of cheating.

Presidential Nuclear Initiatives

A new addition to this year’s Compliance Report is a large section (three and a half pages) on the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs). This is an oddball because the PNIs were unilateral declaration, not treaties, without any verification. Apparently, including the PNIs is part of the administration effort to make the case that Russia is cheating and therefore can’t be trusted with other treaties such as the New START treaty.

Russia is cheating on one part of the PNIs, the report says, because Russia hasn’t eliminated all nuclear warheads for Ground Forces as it promised in 1991. The report explicitly identifies the SS-21 and SS-26 short-range ballistic missiles (the SS-26 is replacing the SS-21) as dual-capable. The report does not explicitly say Russian ground-forces have retained nuclear artillery, a frequent rumor on the Internet. Curiously, the SSC-8 GLCM is not mentioned in the PNI section, even though it is a ground-launched dual-capable weapon (it is addressed in the INF section of the report).

The big picture, of course, is that Russia has fulfilled most of the PNI promises and significantly reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons since the 1990s. The Compliance Report only mentions in passing that “Russia continues to abide by some PNI pledges, such as warhead consolidation and likely the declared reduction in stockpiles…” Although Russia retains more non-strategic nuclear weapons than the United States (up to 2,000 according to the Nuclear Posture Review), that has been the case for the past three decades. Statements by US government officials indicate that Russia reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons between 2009 and 2019 by more than one-third.

One thing completely missing from the Compliance Report’s assessment of the PNI issue is that US planned production of a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile––as recommended by the Nuclear Posture Review––would be in violation of the United States’ own PNI pledge.

The Role of the Compliance Report

Violations of treaties and agreements must be addressed and resolved, which requires a persistent and professional level of engagement with other countries. Because the Trump administration is focused on abandoning treaties and reinvigorating “Great Power Competition” with Russia and China, however, the Compliance Report may increasingly be seen as a means to provide a justification for that agenda.

Even if Russia is cheating on some agreements, that doesn’t mean they will cheat on all of them, or that it is no longer worth it to retain the ones that are working. Russia has a clear interest in limiting US nuclear forces just as the United States and its allies have an interest in limiting Russian forces.

And even though China is slowly increasing its nuclear arsenal, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily sprinting to parity. Even if the DIA’s projection that China will “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” over the next decade were to happen, that would still not bring the inventory anywhere near the size of the US or Russian stockpiles, which are currently estimated at 4,310 and 3,800 warheads, respectively.

Warhead Inventories 2020

There is also an expectation that if China increases its arsenal it will inevitably result in the abandonment of its no-first-use policy. In February, the head of US STRATCOM offered Senate testimony that he “could drive a truck through that no-first-use policy.” But others, such as Gregory Kulacki, have noted that China’s nuclear strategy is more restrained than what the public debate often assumes.

In sum, the annual Compliance Report should function as a way for the United States and its arms control partners to get on the same page about the status of their respective obligations and anticipate where future compliance issues might arise––not as a way to offer justifications for its own misdeeds. Otherwise, its publication may soon contribute to a breakdown in arms control altogether, rather than function as a mechanism to save it. 

China’s New DF-26 Missile Shows Up At Base In Eastern China

By Hans M. Kristensen

Pictures taken recently by Maxar Technologies’ satellites show a large number of launchers for the DF-26 intermediate-range missile operating at a training site approximately 9 kilometers (5.7 miles) south of Qingzhou City in China’s Shandong Province.

This is the first time the DF-26 has been seen operating in the area and marks a new phase in the integration of the missile into the Chinese military. The DF-26 is dual-capable, which means it can deliver both nuclear and conventional warheads and is thought to have a range of approximately 4,000 kilometers (2,490 miles). The DF-26 was first fielded in 2016 and the Pentagon’s 2019 report on Chinese military developments estimated China has up to 80 DF-26 launchers with 80-160 missiles (each launcher may have one reload).

The DF-26 is an INF-weapons, which means its range puts it in the category of ground-launched missiles that Russia and the United States banned in their arsenals for 32 years until Russia violated the treaty and the United States withdrew in protest.

China’s first DF-26 brigade stood up in April 2018 approximately 630 kilometers (390 miles) southwest of Qingzhou outside Xinyang in Henan Province. Over the past two years, DF-26s have appeared at several locations across China and significant production is visible at a factory outside Beijing.

DF-26 Sightings At Qingzhou

The Qingzhou site has been active for many decades and appears to be part of a missile support base operated by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF). CIA initially identified the location as I-TU, a misspelling of its former name Yidu County, since changed to Qingzhou. The main base is located in the southwest district of the city [36.6774°, 118.4541°] and includes three large high-bay garages for servicing missile launchers. Over the years, several nuclear missile launchers have been seen operating there: DF-3A IRBM, DF-21 SRBM, DF-31/A ICBM, and now DF-26 IRBM.

The facility where the DF-26s recently appeared is about 9 kilometers (5.7 miles) of Qingzhou to the south near a location identified on Google Earth as Zhuanghanmiaocun. The DF-26 launchers first appeared there on satellite images in November 2019, when a dozen launchers were seen. In early January 2020, Google Earth loaded a Maxar image dated December 11, 2019 (note: image dates displayed on Google Earth are for some reason one day early compared to the actual date the image was taken), which was first described by Twitter user @DexReloaded. During December, several images taken by Maxar satellites show up to 18 DF-26 launchers, approximately the same number that was displayed at Xinyang in 2018 and at Jilantai in 2019.

The most recent image dated January 8, 2020, shows two groups of DF-26 launchers: one to the north (36.6026°, 118.4803°), between garages and on an old DF-3A circular launch pad; and a second group to the south (36.5999°, 118.4835°) on a cleared space where a former DF-31 launch pad is still visible. Also visible on the image are numerous support vehicles needed to support or repair the launchers when deployed. The DF-26 launchers are probably at the site as part of their integration into a new brigade.

DF-26 launchers at Qingzhou training site. Click on image to view full size.

DF-26 Sightings Elsewhere

As mentioned above, China stood up its first DF-26 unit in 2018. An image from the activation ceremony shows 24 trucks parked under a temporary cover: 18 DF-26 TELs and 4 support vehicles. If each brigade has 18 launchers, then the 80 launchers reported by the Pentagon would be sufficient for four brigades. Not all have become operational yet but DF-26s are beginning to appear at various sites across China: Xinyang (Henan), Qingzhou (Shandong), Dengshahe (Liaoning), Korla (Xinjiang), possibly Jinhua (Anhui), and the large training area at Jilantai (Inner Mongolia).

The standing up of the first DF-26 brigade at Xinyang in April 2018 was announced on Chinese news media with pictures and videos from the ceremony. But even before that, in January 2018, DF-26 launchers showed up at the field training site of the 651st Brigade near Dengshahe northeast of Dalian (Liaoning).

Then, in January 2019, Chinese media announced that DF-26s had carried out an exercise in the “Northwest China’s plateau and desert areas.” The operation was later geo-located to the large new training area west of Jilantai (Inner Mongolia), where they continued to train in April-May 2019 together with DF-41s, DF-31AGs, and DF-17s before being shipped to Beijing for the parade in September 2019.

DF-26 training at Jilantai has been a favorite propaganda tool for the Chinese government with several test-launches shown on various news media outlets (here and here). A propaganda documentary jointly produced by the Political Bureau of the Central Military Commission and the PLA News and Communication Center and broadcast by CCTV by the end of 2019 included a brief clip showing a DF-26 launch. The launch site is geolocated in the figure below:

Geolocation of DF-26 test launch at Jilantai training field. Click on image to view full size.

During those months, DF-26 launchers were also seen operating at the 646 Brigade base in Korla (Ku’erle) in the Xinjiang province in western China. The first launcher was seen in April and two more in August 2019 (see image below).

DF-26 launchers at Korla missile base. Click on image to view full size.

DF-26 Production And Numbers

The Pentagon estimated in 2019 that China had fielded up to 80 DF-26 launchers. Not all of those are fully operationally deployed; some brigades are still being equipped. Noted China military expert Mark Stokes estimated maybe two or three DF-26 brigades a year ago, each with 6-12 launchers. So the display of 18 launchers at Xinyang and Qingzhou is obviously interesting: did it include 6-12 launchers from a second brigade or will DF-26 brigades have more launchers?

Eighteen launchers were also the number seen operating at Jilantai.

DF-26 launchers are produced at a factory near Fangshan in the outskirt of Beijing. The factory has been expanded significantly during the past decade with several large vehicle assembly halls added. The factory also appears to be involved in the production of DF-21 MRBM launchers as well as various air-defense systems. The main parking area for DF-26 launchers is in the middle of the southern end of the complex (see image below).

DF-26 production at Fangshan factory. Click on image to view full size.

The first DF-26 launcher at Fangshan appeared on satellite images in March 2009 and four or five launchers were normally visible through 2016 when deployment began. The number of visible launchers increased in late-2017 and early-2018 to 15-25, and increased in late-2018 and early-2019 to 20-38 launcher, until reaching 51 visible launchers in early September 2019. Not all of the launchers seen were fully assembled; of the 51 launchers visible in September 2019, for example, only 38 appeared to be complete. The various stages of assembly are clearly visible on the images (see image below).

Df-26 production stages. Click on image to view full size.

How does the Pentagon’s China report get to 80 DF-26 launchers? The report doesn’t explicitly say the 80 are fielded or deployed and the operational brigades and launchers seen at training areas do not add up to 80 – that number is less than 60. It seems likely the DOD estimate includes at least some of the launchers in production at Fangshan. As illustrated above, those launchers include some that are not finished but at various stages of assembly.

If one adds up all the Fangshan launchers that appear complete (those with missile canister installed), the number was about 40 in mid-2018, when DOD reported 16-30 launchers. By mid-2019, when DOD reported 80 launchers, the total number of completed launchers at Fangshan was about 50. Such a count does not accurately show how many launchers were complete because the available images were not evenly distributed over time; some were taken only a few days or weeks apart and there were month-long gaps between others. Nonetheless, it does indicate that the DOD estimate of 80 launchers likely included complete launchers at the Fangshan factory in addition to those deployed at the brigade bases and training areas.

DF-26 Implications

The “new” about the DF-26 is not that it can target Guam (other missiles have been able to do so for decades); it is that it can do so with an accurate conventional warhead. But there are also other reasons why the deployment of additional new DF-26s at Qingzhou and other locations, as well as the considerable production that is underway, is important.

The first reason is the growing size and diversity of the Chinese nuclear arsenal. China officially maintains what it calls a minimum deterrent focused on ensuring it has a secure retaliatory capability to respond to a nuclear attack. Compared with Russia and the United States, the Chinese nuclear arsenal is small; but compared with France, Britain, and India, the Chinese arsenal is significant. And it is increasing further with China about to overtake France as the world’s third-largest nuclear-weapon state. China’s arsenal has nearly doubled over the past 15 years and is expected to increase further over the next decade, although perhaps not as much as some say. There is no indication China is seeking numerical parity (or near-parity) with Russia and the United States or changing its nuclear strategy. Yet the apparently open-ended growth of the Chinese nuclear arsenal is deepening uncertainty and anxiety in neighboring countries and other nuclear-armed states about China’s long-term intentions.

China’s rejection of such concerns is well-known but counterproductive because it will fuel the development and deployment of military capabilities that China will see as growing threats to its national security. The Chinese government could help alleviate concerns and worst-case response by issuing factual statements about the status and future plans for its nuclear arsenal. This would not require disclosing everything, but as a growing military power, the days are over when China can hide behind the larger nuclear powers.

DF-26 launchers at Beijing parade in September 2019.

A second reason the growing DF-26 deployment is important is that it is a dual-capable weapon that can deliver either a conventional or a nuclear warhead. The inability to clearly distinguish the two creates significant challenges for crisis stability and escalation scenarios. In a tense crisis or a war, Chinese readying of conventionally-armed DF-26 launchers could easily be misinterpreted as preparations to employ nuclear weapons and cause an adversary to ready its nuclear weapons unnecessarily and precipitately. If China launched a conventionally-armed DF-26, the target country might assume the worst and prematurely escalate to nuclear use. This dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that the conventional DF-26 is part of the PLARF’s conventional missile strike force intended to provide pre-nuclear strike options, a force that in a potential war with the United States would likely be subject to focused and intense conventional strikes. If the United States used conventional weapons to target what it perceived was conventional DF-26 launchers, China might conclude that the United States had attacked its nuclear forces and escalate accordingly.

A fourth reason the growing DF-26 deployment is important is that the payload section is guided and, according to DOD, is “capable of near-precision strike capability” against land targets. Retaliatory nuclear deterrence does not require near-precision, but warfighting could. As such, Chinese deployment of highly accurate, quick-strike, dual-capable weapons could further deepen uncertainty and speculations about Chinese nuclear strategy. It could potentially also influence Chinese considerations about sub-strategic uses of nuclear weapons in de-escalation scenarios.

Finally, the DF-26 deployment is important because the missile is part of China’s growing inventory of INF-range weapons. Russia’s violation of the INF treaty was probably partially a response to China’s growing inventory of INF-range missiles, and the United States used China as part of its justification for withdrawing from the INF treaty and is developing several INF missiles that it plans to deploy within range of China. Russian and US deployment of INF missiles near China will likely further stimulate China’s production of INF-range weapons and potentially result in a destabilizing INF arms race in the Pacific.

For these reasons, it is important that China provides more information about its future plans for the development of its missile forces and engage in ongoing official discussions about the scope and role of its nuclear deterrent, including INF forces. And although China is unlikely to join US-Russian strategic agreements in the foreseeable future, Beijing should already now begin to develop options for what it could offer and what it would want in return if joining such agreements in the future. This could include articulating which US (and Indian) capabilities China is most concerned about and what Beijing would offer in return for limits on them. As a goodwill gesture, China could also offer unilateral limits on its INF capabilities in return for the US and Russia not deploying new INF systems in the region. Information and limits on the dual-capable DF-26 would be a good start.

 

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Military Might Takes Center Stage at Chinese 70-Year Anniversary Parade

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Chinese leadership used the 70-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China to display a dizzying amount of military hardware during a parade in Beijing (see officially narrated video here; higher-quality video is here. Beijing is rapidly becoming the new Red Square when it comes to military displays. On the nuclear side, the display included three ICBMs, an IRBM, a SLBM, and bombers.

The parade for the first time included the long-awaited DF-41 road-mobile ICBM. A total of 16 TELs were displayed (18 have been seen), launchers that Xinhua said came from two brigades. The display of the DF-41 happens more than two decades after it was first reported in development by the Pentagon in 1997. The DF-41, which is China’s first road-mobile ICBM capable of carrying MIRV, was described by the official parade commentator as to “balancing the power and security victory.”

16 DF-41 launchers from two brigades were displayed

The DF-41 was seen operating at the Jilantai training area in April 2019 and is currently being integrated into the PLARF. With an estimated range similar to the 13,000 kilometers of the silo-based DF-5, the DF-41 will initially complement but eventually probably replace the older liquid-fuel missile. China is currently building what appears to be silos in the Jilantai area that may eventually be intended for the DF-41.

The DF-31AG ICBM also reappeared. Xinhua described it as a “second-generation” nuclear missile with “high mobility and precision.” The 16 TELs displayed were said to be from two brigades. The official parade speaker described it as a “modified DF-31A” rather than a new missile. US intelligence has consistently described the DF-31A as a single-warhead ICBM, which also seems to be the case for the DF-31AG. DF-31AGs were also seen operating in Jilantai in April. The new DF-31AG TEL will likely replace the less maneuverable DF-31A (and DF-31) TELs.

16 DF-31AG launchers from two brigades were displayed

The DF-5B silo-based ICBM was also displayed, a repeat of the 2015 parade. Xinhua said the four-missile formation came from a single missile brigade established in the early 1960s that over the years has launched “dozens” of missiles. The official parade commentator reaffirmed the DF-5B is capable of carrying multiple warheads. The DF-5B was also seen operating in Jilantai in April. There are about 20 DF-5A/B ICBMs deployed. The much-rumored DF-5C did not appear.

Four DF-5A from one brigade were displayed

The DF-26 dual-capable IRBM reappeared with 16 TELs described by Xinhua to come from “two missile troops.” First displayed in 2016, there are already 65-80 DF-26s deployed. The missile was seen operating in Jilantai in April.

16 dual-capable DF-26s were displayed

The biggest surprise at the parade was probably the new DF-17 ballistic missile-launched hypersonic glide-vehicle, which made its first public appearance with 16 launchers. The DF-17 appears to use a modified DF-16 TEL and is possibly boosted by a DF-16 first stage. The US intelligence community has suggested the DF-17 might be dual-capable but the parade speaker described it as “conventional.”

16 DF-27 hypersonic glide vehicles were displayed

The parade also included a unique display of JL-2 SLBMs, the first time the weapon has been publicly displayed. A total of 12 JL-2s were shown, corresponding to a full load of one of China’s six Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs. Each JL-2 can carry one warhead. China is developing a JL-3 for its next-generation Type 096).

A SSBN-load of JL-2 SLBMs were displayed

The parade also saw the overflight of the H-6K and H-6N bombers, although they had to fly through a thick haze of air pollution that has plagued the Beijing area for years. Xinhua called them “long-range strategic bombers” and said they are “under the command of a division of the aviation forces of the People’s Liberation Army’s air force that has carried out many major missions, including air-dropping atomic and hydrogen bombs.” The official mentioning of a nuclear mission is interesting because of reports that Chinese bombers have recently been reassigned a nuclear strike mission. The H-6N is thought to be intended to carry an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM), a modification of the DF-21 MRBM.

The H-6 bombers were credited with nuclear capability

The effect of US missile defenses on Chinese military planning was palpable at this year’s parade. This included the two MIRV-capable DF-5B and DF-41 ICBMs as well as the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle. Although there are many rumors that the DF-41 will carry 10 MIRV, that is probably exaggerated. The objective of Chinese nuclear strategy is to ensure a secure retaliatory deterrent and penetrate US missile defenses, not to maximize the number of warheads, so the number of MIRV will likely be lower, perhaps three per missile.

The challenge of using an overstocked military parade to demonstrate China’s peaceful intensions was evident in several commentators. The official parade commentator reminded that China’s missiles are “deployed in the mountains and the oceans in defense of national security and world peace.” And the Global Times front-page coverage was balanced by a selection of editorials, reviews, and comments that reminded of China’s “peaceful intent,” “world peace” and “stability,” and that there’s “no need to overreact.”

Global Times tried to balance military display with calming assurances

Additional background about Chinese nuclear forces:

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

 

New Missile Silo And DF-41 Launchers Seen In Chinese Nuclear Missile Training Area

By Hans M. Kristensen

Newly acquired satellite photos acquired from Digital Globe (Maxar) show that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is building what appears to be a new type of missile silo in the missile training area near Jilantai, possibly for use by a new ICBM.

The photos also show that 18 road-mobile launchers of the long-awaited DF-41 ICBM were training in the area in April-May 2019 together with launchers for the DF-31AG ICBM, possibly the DF-5B ICBM, the DF-26 IRBM, and the DF-21 MRBM.

Altogether, more than 72 missile launchers can be seen operating together.

China is in the middle of a significant modernization of its nuclear weapons arsenal and the Jilantai training area, which has been constructed since 2014, appears to play an important part in that modernization effort.

A New Type of Missile Silo?

The most surprising new development in the training area is the construction of what may be a new type of missile silo. I want to emphasize that there is no official confirmation the structure is a silo, but it strongly resembles one. If so, it is potentially possible it could be part of a Chinese effort to develop the option to deploy some of its new solid-fuel road-mobile ICBMs – possible the DF-41 – in silos. According to the 2019 Pentagon report on Chinese military developments, “China appears to be considering additional DF-41 launch options, including rail-mobile and silo basing.”

Construction of the silo began in June 2018. Initially, a roof was built over it to conceal details, but in May 2019 the roof was removed exposing the silo to satellite photography (see image below).

PLARF appears to be building a new type of missile silo. Click on image to view full size.

The layout of the Jilantai silo is very different from the silos seen at Wuzhai. Those silos, which are thought to be similar to about 20 operational silos hidden in the mountains of the Henan and Hunan provinces for use by the liquid-fuel DF-5A/B ICBMs, consist of a rectangular retractable lid covering the silo on a concrete pad. And they have large exhaust vents to protect the DF-5’s liquid fuel from the launch heat.

Instead, the Jilantai silo looks more like Russian ICBM silos. It is not yet complete but so far consists of what appears to be a 180-meter line-up path and a 30-meter missile loader pad next to the silo. The precise silo diameter is difficult to measure given the image resolution but appears to be 5-6 meters, which is smaller than the 8-9 meter diameter silos at Wuzhai. Moreover, the absence of exhaust vents hints the Jilantai silo might be intended for solid-fuel missiles.

The new silo design would offer a more efficient (and safe) missile loading. At the DF-5 silos, missiles are loaded by a crane, which hoists each stage off its transporter and lowers it into the silo. It is a cumbersome and lengthy procedure. Moreover, the DF-5 is propelled by liquid fuel that is stored separately and must be loaded before the missile can be launched. With the Jilantai silo design, however, the solid-fuel missile presumably would be brought in on a loader that backs up to the edge of the silo, elevates the missile, and lowers it into the silo in one piece (warhead payload is probably added later).

China’s new missile silo resembles Russian ICBM silos (click image to view full size)

If the structure seen at Jilantai indeed is a new silo, it presumably would only be used for training. If the design is successful, it would likely be followed in the future by the construction of similar silos in China’s ICBM basing areas for use by operational missiles.

Extensive Missile Training

The Jilantai missile training area, which has been constructed since 2014 and is located in the south-western part of the Inner Mongolia province approximately 930 kilometers (578 miles) west of Beijing, has undergone significant changes since I described it in January. The central technical facilities continue to expand, TEL drive-through facilities are being added, and road-mobile launchers for China’s newest nuclear-capable ballistic missiles are seen more or less constantly training in the area.

This includes the new DF-41 ICBM that may be in the final phase before starting to deploy to operational PLARF brigades. The new DF-31AG ICBM is also training at Jilantai, as is the new DF-26 IRBM and the DF-21 MRBM (see image below).

Five types of ballistic missile can be seen operating in PLARF’s training area near Jilantai. Click on image to view full size.

All these systems are solid-fuel missiles on road-mobile launchers. But it is also possible – although at this point unconfirmed – that missile systems seen training at Jilantai include transporters for the silo-based DF-5B ICBM. This is a large silo-based missile that would not be able to launch from mobile launchers, but the images show unique two-part, truck-pulled trailers that resemble the DF-5B transports that were displayed at the Beijing parade in 2015 (see image below).

Vehicles operating at PLARF’s training center near Jilantai resemble DF-5B transporters shown in 2015 parade (click on image to view full size)

It must be underscored that there is no confirmation the trailers are for the DF-5B. In one photo some of the trailers are longer and it is unclear why DF-5B transporters would be training at Jilantai given there are no DF-5B silos in the area. If the towed trailers are not DF-5Bs, they could potentially be transporters of reload missile for the road-mobile launchers seen on the satellite photos.

The DF-41 ICBM

The satellite images indicate that the DF-41 TELs started training at Jilantai in April 2019 shortly after a new TEL drive-through highbay facility was completed (a second is under construction further to the north). There appear to be 18 DF-41 launchers. In one photo from April 17, 2019, for example, a column of 15 DF-41s can be seen making its way from the new drive-through facility (two additional DF-41s can still be seen at the facility and the 18th is probably still inside) to a parade strip to join an assembly of 18 DF-31AGs, 18 DF-26s, and 5 (possibly) DF-5B transporters.

Eighteen DF-41 TELs were operating at PLARF’s training site in April this year. Click on image to view full size.

The DF-41 has been in development for a very long time. The Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military developments first mentioned the missile in 1997 and sensational news articles have claimed it has been operational for years. The DF-41 was widely expected to be displayed at the 2015 military parade in Beijing, but that didn’t happen. Nor was it displayed at the PLA’s anniversary parade in 2017.

The DF-41 training at Jilantai with the other launchers is probably part of the formal integration of the new missile into PLAFRF service, more than two decades after development began. It seems likely that the DF-41 will appear at the military parade in Beijing on October 1st. Indeed, two months after the training occurred at Jilantai, 18 DF-41 launchers (potentially the same 18) could be seen on a satellite photo of a military facility in Yangfang about 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of Beijing apparently getting ready for the October parade. The image first made its way onto the Internet on August 9th, when it was posted by the Twitter user @Oedosoldier. The image carried the user’s logo but it was a screenshot from a Digital Globe image on TerraServer dated July 4, 2019.

Chinese Nuclear Missile Outlook

The highly visible display and clustering of more than 72 missile launchers at Jilantai in April and May indicate the PLARF wants them to be seen and is keenly aware that satellites are watching overhead. This is Beijing’s way of telling the world that it has a capable and survivable nuclear deterrent.

Once they become operational, the 18 DF-41s seen on the satellite photos will probably form two or three brigades and join the existing force of 65-90 DF-5A/B, DF-31/A/AG, and DF-4 ICBMs.

Despite the visible display, there is considerable uncertainty about the future development of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, not least how many missiles China plans to deploy. It seems possible the DF-41 over time might replace one or more of the older ICBMs. It is potentially also possible that the DF-31AG will replace the older DF-31/A trailer launchers (the DF-31 is notably absent from the Jilantai images). And the old DF-4 seems likely to be retired in the near future.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) stated in May this year that, “Over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile…” Part of that projection hinges on the DF-41 adding MIRV capability to the solid-fuel road-mobile missiles for the first time (the DF-5B is already equipped with MIRV).

Whether DIA’s projection comes true remains to be seen; the agency has been notoriously bad about Chinese nuclear warhead projections in the past. At this point, the Chinese arsenal is estimated to include roughly 290 warheads, a fraction of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. To put things in perspective, all the launchers seen on the satellite photos make up less than half of the number of launchers in one of the three US ICBM wings.

Nonetheless, China is modernizing and increasing its nuclear arsenal. And the activities captured by commercial satellites at the PLARF’s training area west of Jilantai – operations of new DF-41 and DF-31AG ICBMs, the new dual-capable DF-26 IRBM, and the construction of what might be a new type of missile silo – are visual reminders of the important developments currently underway in China’s nuclear posture.

Additional background:

FAS Nuclear Notebook: Chinese nuclear forces, 2019

 

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

New Chinese White Paper Subtly Criticizes Trump’s Approach to Arms Control

On July 22nd, China published its latest Defense White Paper––an infrequent, but significant, military policy document meant for an international audience.

This year’s paper––entitled “China’s National Defense in the New Era”––offers an assessment of the evolving strategic landscape and highlights China’s responses to these new challenges. While the paper takes a more assertive tone than its predecessor (published in 2015), the content isn’t particularly provocative––especially in the sections about nuclear weapons and deterrence, which largely constitute a repetition of the 2015 language.

The white paper states:

China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon free zones unconditionally. China advocates the ultimate complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. China pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defense, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

It also states:

Nuclear capability is the strategic cornerstone to safeguarding national sovereignty and security. China’s armed forces strengthen the safety management of nuclear weapons and facilities, maintain the appropriate level of readiness and enhance strategic deterrence capability to protect national strategic security and maintain international strategic stability.

This language is pretty standard for official Chinese statements about its nuclear policy. This makes sense; although China’s nuclear weapons arsenal is slowly growing and diversifying, its nuclear doctrine appears to be relatively consistent.

In reality, the main difference between the 2015 and 2019 language on nuclear weapons and arms control is in China’s assessment of the “international strategic landscape.” The paper notes that the United States has “adopted unilateral policies,” “provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability.”

It also specifically calls out NATO enlargement, EU integration and Russian nuclear modernization––criticisms which were all absent in the 2015 white paper.

Interestingly, it notes that “International arms control and disarmament efforts have suffered setbacks, with growing signs of arms races.” The paper additionally subtweets the Trump administration’s role in undermining global arms control, stating that “The Iranian nuclear issue has taken an unexpected turn,” “The international nonproliferation regime is compromised by pragmatism and double standards,” and concludes that “No country can respond alone or stand aloof.”

The white paper doesn’t go into detail about China’s nuclear or missile forces, only noting that the PLA Rocket Force has commissioned the DF-26 “intermediate and long-range ballistic missile.” Despite it being a relatively new missile, we estimate that China has deployed approximately 70 DF-26s––at least two brigades––and it was spotted conducting exercises in Inner Mongolia in January 2019. The 4,000 kilometer range of the DF-26 would allow China to target US bases in Guam, and some Chinese analysts claim that the missile is capable of targeting ships at sea, despite the significant tactical and procedural challenges involved with such an operation.

Read all about China’s nuclear forces in our latest edition of the FAS Nuclear Notebook, freely available at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

DIA Estimates For Chinese Nuclear Warheads

By Hans M. Kristensen

During a Hudson Institute conference on Russian and Chinese nuclear modernizations, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said in prepared remarks: “Over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile…”

This projection is new and significantly above recent public statements by US government agencies. But how reliable is it and how have US agencies performed in the past?

The public record is limited because estimates are normally classified and agencies and officials are reluctant to say too much. But a few examples exist from declassified documents and public statements. These estimates vary considerably – some seemed downright crazy.

But before analyzing DIA’s projection for the future, let’s examine what the estimated Chinese nuclear stockpile looks like today.

Current Chinese Stockpile Estimate

While warning the Chinese stockpile will “at least double” over the next decade, Lt. Gen. Ashley’s prepared remarks did not say what it is today. But in the follow-up Q/A session, he added: “We estimate…the number of warheads the Chinese have is in the low couple of hundreds.

That estimate is close to statements made by DOD and STRATCOM nearly a decade ago. In our forthcoming Nuclear Notebook on Chinese nuclear forces (scheduled for publication in July 2019), we estimate the Chinese stockpile now includes approximately 290 warheads and is likely to surpass the size of the French nuclear stockpile (~300 warheads) in the near future.

Earlier Chinese Stockpile Estimates

Earlier projections made by US agencies of China’s nuclear stockpile have varied considerably. DIA’s estimates have consistently been higher – even extraordinarily so – than that of other agencies (see graph below). The wide range reflects an enormous uncertainty and lack of solid intelligence, which makes it even more curious why DIA would make them. This record obviously raises questions about DIA’s latest projection.

Click on graph to view full size

In April 1980s, for example, DIA published a Defense Estimate Brief with the title: Nuclear Weapons Systems in China. The brief, which was prepared by the China/Far East Division of the Directorate for Estimates and approved by DIA’s deputy assistant director for estimates, projected an astounding growth for China’s nuclear arsenal that included everything from ICBMs, MRBMs, SRBMs, bombs, landmines, and air-to-surface missiles. The brief concluded a curious double estimate of 150-160 warheads in the text and 360 warheads in a table and projected an increase from 596 warheads in 1989 to as many as 818 by 1994. The brief was partially redacted for many years but it has since been possible to reconstruct in its entirety because of inconsistencies in the processing of different FOIA requests.

In the 1990s, CIA published three estimates, all significantly lower than the DIA projection from 1984. But DIA apparently was reworking its methodology because in 1999 it published A Primer On The Future Threat that was lower than the CIA estimate but projected an increase of the Chinese stockpile from 140-157 warheads to 358-464 warheads in 2020. The Primer predicted that deployment of US missile defenses would cause China to significantly increase its ICBM force, a prediction that has come through to some extent and is now ironically used by DIA and others to warn of a growing Chinese nuclear threat against the United States.

Following an intense debate in 2010 about Senate approval of the New START treaty, then-principle deputy undersecretary of defense for policy James Miller told Congress in 2011: “China is estimated to have only a few hundred nuclear weapons….”

And when false rumors flared up in 2012 that China had hundreds – even thousands – of warheads more than commonly assumed, STRATCOM commander Gen Kehler rebutted the speculations saying: “I do not believe that China has hundreds or thousands more nuclear weapons than what the intelligence community has been saying,” which is “that the Chinese arsenal is in the range of several hundred” nuclear warheads.

Since then, China has started to deploy the modified silo-based DF-5B ICBM that is equipped with multiple warheads (MIRV) – part of the response to the US missile defenses that DIA predicted in 1999, and deployed a significant number of dual-capable DF-26 IRBMs. Even so, Ashley’s most recent statement roughly matches the estimates made by Miller and Kehler nearly a decade ago, when he says: “We estimate…the number of warheads the Chinese have is in the low couple of hundreds.”

How Could The Chinese Stockpile More Than Double?

Although Ashley predicted a significant expansion of the Chinese stockpile, he did not explain the assumptions that go into that assessment. What would China have to do in order to more than double its stockpile over the next decade?

There are several potential options. China could field a significant number of additional launchers, or deploy significantly more MIRVs on some of its missiles, or – if the MIRV increase is less dramatic – a combination of more launchers and more MIRV. It seems likely to be the latter option.

Additional MIRVing seems to be an important factor. China is developing the road-mobile DF-41 ICBM that is said to be capable of carrying MIRV. It is also developing a third modification of the silo-based DF-5 (DF-5C) that may have additional MIRV capability compared with the current DF-5B. Finally, the next-generational JL-3 SLBM could potentially have MIRV capability, although I have yet to see solid sources saying so. There are many rumors about up to 10 MIRV per DF-41 (even unreliable rumors about MIRV on shorter-range systems), but if China’s decision to MIRV is a response to US missile defenses (which DIA and DOD have stated for years), then it seems more likely that the number of warheads on each missile is low and the extra spaces used for decoys.

China is also expanding its SSBN fleet, which could potentially double in size over the next decade if the production of the next-generation Type-096 gets underway in the early-2020s. And China reportedly has reassigned a nuclear mission to its bombers, is developing a new nuclear-capable bomber, and an air-launched ballistic missile that might have a nuclear option. Assuming a few bomber squadrons would a nuclear capability by the late-2020s, that could help explain DIA’s projection as well. Altogether, that adds up to a hypothetical arsenal that could potentially look like this in order to “at least double” the size of the stockpile:

Click on table to view full size

Conclusions

Whether DIA’s projection comes through of a Chinese stockpile “at least double” the size of the current inventory remains to be seen. Given DIA’s record of worst-case predictions, there are good reasons to be skeptical. It would, at a minimum, be good to hear what the coordinated Intelligence Community assessment is. Does the Director of National Intelligence agree with this projection?

That said, the Chinese leadership has obviously decided that its “minimum deterrent” requires more weapons. To that end, the debate over how much is enough, what the Chinese intentions are, and what the US response should be, are important reminders that the Chinese leadership needs to be more transparent about what its modernization plans are. Lack of basic information from China fuels worst-case assumptions in the United States that can (and will) be used to justify defense programs that increase the threat against China. The recommendation by the Nuclear Posture Review to develop a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile is but one example. Both sides have an interest in limiting this action-reaction cycle.

Even if DIA’s projection of a more than doubling of the Chinse stockpile were to happen, that would still not bring the inventory anywhere near the size of the US or Russian stockpiles. They are currently estimated at 4,330 and 3,800 warheads, respectively – even more, if counting retired, but still largely intact, warheads awaiting dismantlement.

But despite the much smaller Chinese arsenal, a significant expansion of the stockpile would likely make US and Russia even more reluctant to reduce their arsenals – a reduction the Chinese government insists is necessary first before it will join a future nuclear arms limitation agreement. So while China’s motivation for increasing its arsenal may be to reduce the vulnerability of its deterrent, it may in fact also cause the United States and Russian to retain larger arsenals than otherwise and even increase their capabilities to threaten China.

Whether DIA’s projection pans out or not, it is an important reminder of the increasingly dynamic nuclear competition that is in full swing between the large nuclear weapons states. The pace and scope of that competition are intensifying in ways that will diminish security and increase risks for all sides. Strengthening deterrence is not always beneficial and even smaller arsenals can have significant effects.

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

The Pentagon’s 2019 China Report

By Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda

[Updated] The Pentagon has released its 2019 version of its annual report on China’s military developments. The report describes a Chinese military in significant modernization. There is much to digest but this review only examines the nuclear portion.

The DOD report does not indicate how many nuclear warheads China has to arm these forces. Our current estimate for 2019 is approximately 290 warheads.

Although China’s nuclear arsenal is far smaller than that of Russia and the United States, the growing and increasingly capable Chinese nuclear arsenal is pushing the boundaries of China’s “minimum” deterrent and undercutting its promise that it “will never enter into a nuclear arms race with any other country.” And the more the Chinese arsenal grows, the less likely it is that Russia and the United States will significantly reduce theirs.

Land-Based Missiles

The DOD report describes a land-based missile force that is undergoing significant development with increases in almost all categories. China is clearly building up, even though it is still significantly below the nuclear force levels of Russia and the United States.

DOD report shows increases in all categories of Chinese missiles. Click on table to view full size.

The report states that China now has 90 ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) with as many missiles. This is close to the 75-100 missiles reported for the past several years. But the number of launchers for those ICBMs is significantly higher this year: 90 versus the 50-75 listed in last year’s report. For that to be true, China would have fielded 15-40 new launchers, or the equivalent of two to six new brigades (assuming six launchers per ICBM brigade). Two or three new brigades seem more plausible so I suspect the range estimate is at the high end and might be 65-90. This increase is probably caused by the fielding of the improved road-mobile DF-31AG launcher.

The Chinese ICBM increase appears to be caused by the deployment of the improved DF-31AG launcher.

Each ICBM launcher normally is attributed one missile, except in previous years the DOD reports have presented more missiles than launchers. Part of that can be explained by the old liquid-fuel roll-out-to-launch DF-4, which is thought to have at least one reload. The DOD says the DF-4 is still operational, so it’s a mystery why the table doesn’t reflect that (all other missile categories are listed with a range instead of a single number). Since 2003, DOD’s estimates for Chinese ICBMs have fluctuated considerably:

DOD’s estimates for Chinese missiles have fluctuated considerably over the years. Click on graph to view full size.

The long-awaited road-mobile DF-41 ICBM is still not listed as operational but continues development. DOD has reported this system in development since at least 1997. Once it becomes operational, this solid-fuel missile might also replace the old liquid-fuel DF-5A/B in the silos. The DF-41 is said to be MIRV-capable, as is the DF-5B. The DOD report does not mention a DF-5C version that has been rumored in some outlets.

The most dramatic development is in the IRBM (intermediate-range ballistic missile) force, which has increased significantly since last year from 16-30 launchers to 80. That indicates the dual-capable DF-26 is being fielded more rapidly than anticipated, and might now be deployed at four bases. As with the ICBMs, the IRBM launcher estimate this year is a single number rather than a range used last year, which probably means that 80 is the upper number of a 65-80 range. The Chinese media in January 2019 described a DF-26 deployment that was later geo-located to a new missile training area in the Inner Mongolia province.

The DF-26 IRBM is being deployed in larger numbers, according to the DOD report.

The MRBM (medium-range ballistic missile) force has also increased, mainly because of the fielding of conventional versions. The DOD report lists 150 MRBM launchers with 150-450 missiles available. This includes four versions – DF-21A (CSS-5 Mod 2), DF-21C (CSS-5 Mod 4), DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod 5), and DF-21E (CSS-5 Mod 6) – of which two are nuclear: DF-21A and DF-21E (note: DOD has not yet identified the CSS-5 Mod 6 as DF-21E but it is assumed given naming of other versions). Most of the MRBMs are conventional. The report does not reveal how many of the launchers are nuclear, but it might be no more than 40-50 of the 150 MRBM launchers. There appears to be a problem with the breakdown because the DOD report states elsewhere that “the PLA is fielding approximately 150-450 conventional MRBMs.” That would imply all missiles listed in the table are conventional, which is clearly not the case.

SRBMs (short-range ballistic missiles) constitute the largest group of Chinese missiles. The number of launchers is a little lower than last year, while the uncertainty about the number of missiles available for them has increased to 750-1,500 versus 1,000-1,200 in 2018. There are many rumors on the Internet that some of China’s SRBMs (DF-11, DF-15, and DF-16) have nuclear capability. But neither the DOD report nor NASIC attributes such a capability to this group of missiles. On the contrary, the DOD report explicitly states that these weapons are part of “China’s conventional missile force.”

Finally, DOD says China has increased its ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) force from 40-55 launchers in 2018 to 90 today. The missiles available for those launchers has increased from 200-300 to 270-540, so a significant uncertainty. The GLCM is not nuclear-capable.

The SSBN Fleet

China currently operates four Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs (nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines) with two more fitting out. The four operational SSBNs are all based at the Longpo Naval Base on Hainan Island. The information about the fifth and sixth hulls is new and expands observations of a fifth hull in 2018. Once completed, this force will be capable of carrying up to 72 JL-2 SLBMs with as many warheads, 24 more than the four operational can currently carry.

China is increasing its ballistic missile submarine fleet. Click on image to view full size.

The Pentagon report says the four operational SSBNs “represent China’s first credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent,” although the report doesn’t say if the submarines are armed with missiles under normal circumstances, if the warheads for those missiles are installed, or if the submarines sail on deterrent patrols.

The six Jin-class SSBNs will be followed by a next-generation SSBN known as Type 096, which DOD projects might begin construction in the early-2020s. The new SSBN class will carry the follow-on JL-3 SLBM but China will probably operate the two types concurrently.

The Bomber Force

The annual DOD reports have become more specific about the nuclear role of Chinese bombers in recent years. While the 2017 version said the “PLAAF does not currently have a nuclear mission,” the 2018 report said “the PLAAF has been newly re-assigned a nuclear mission” and that the “H-6 and future stealth bomber could both be nuclear capable.”

We have for years assessed that part of the Chinese H-6 bomber force had a dormant nuclear capability with a small number of bombs in storage. Aircraft, including the H-6, were used to deliver at least 12 of the nuclear weapons that China detonated in its nuclear testing program between 1965 and 1979, and a variety of what’s said to be tactical and strategic bombs can be seen displayed in Chinese museums.

The new report references unidentified “Chinese media” saying since 2016 that the upgraded H-6K is a dual nuclear-conventional bomber. The report says China is fielding the H-6K in greater numbers with land-attack cruise missiles and more efficient engines. Armed with cruise missiles, the H-6K can target Guam, the report says. Some H-6Ks are being equipped with air-refueling capability, and a new refuellable bomber is said to be in development that could reach initial operational capability before the next-generation H-20 bomber.

China appears to be adding an operational nuclear capability to its bomber force.

The DOD report does not identify any of China’s air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) as nuclear-capable. An Air Force Global Strike Command command briefing in 2013 listed the CJ-20 as nuclear-capable and a DOD fact sheet published along with the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review lists both nuclear ALCM and SLCM (sea-launched cruise missile) under China. But neither NASIC nor the public annual threat assessments from the Intelligence Community have attributed nuclear capability to Chinese ALCMs or SLCMs.

US officials have publicly identified two new Air-Launched Ballistic Missiles (ALBMs) in development, “one of which may include a nuclear payload.” The ALBM, designated by the US Intelligence Community as CH-AS-13, would be carried on a modified H-6 known as H-6N, potentially the new refuellable bomber that might become operational before the H-20.

These developments, if and when they become fully operational, would give China a real nuclear Triad for the first time.

The Road Ahead

In 2004, the Chinese government declared: “Among the nuclear-weapon states, China…possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal.” The wording “nuclear-weapon states” probably referred to the five NPT-declared nuclear weapon states.

But the growing and increasingly capable Chinese nuclear arsenal is pushing the boundaries of China’s “minimum” deterrent and undercutting its promise that it “will never enter into a nuclear arms race with any other country.”

China might not consider itself to be in a formal arms race with any particular country, but it is clear that the United States is seen as the primary driver. Since 2004, the size of China’s nuclear arsenal has surpassed that of Britain and we project that China in the near future will surpass France as the world’s third-largest nuclear-armed state – although it will still be far below the levels of the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States.

President Trump recently declared his interest in including China in a future nuclear arms limitation agreement. His instinct is correct but it’s entirely unclear what he would offer China in return for limits on China’s nuclear forces, given how much smaller China’s arsenal is. Moreover, it should not be done at the expense of deciding now to extend the New START treaty with Russia. Indeed, China’s growing arsenal illustrate the importance of Russia and the United States maintaining existing arms control agreements and taking steps to reduce their arsenals further in consultations with China.

The Chinese leadership, however, can no longer hide behind the response: “Come down to our level. Then we’ll talk.” Beijing must be mindful that China’s growing nuclear arsenal – as well as its general military modernization and territorial pursuits – can serve to limit US willingness to reduce its arsenal further and may even lead to decisions to increase the capabilities. The Trump administration’s plan to abandon the INF treaty with Russia and add a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile to the arsenal are just two examples; they have China written all over it.

Additional information:

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Rising China Sells More Weapons

“In 2018, China’s arms sales increased, continuing a trend that enabled China to become the world’s fastest-growing arms supplier during the past 15 years,” according to the 2019 China Military Power report published by the Department of Defense. “From 2013 through 2017, China was the world’s fourth-largest arms supplier, completing more than $25 billion worth of arms sales.”

“Arms transfers also are a component of China’s foreign policy, used in conjunction with other types of military, economic aid, and development assistance to support broader foreign policy goals,” the Pentagon report said. “These include securing access to natural resources and export markets, promoting political influence among host country elites, and building support in international forums.”

Needless to say, the United States and other countries have long done the same thing, using arms exports as an instrument of foreign policy and political influence. Up to a point, however, US arms sales are regulated by laws that include human rights and other considerations. See U.S. Arms Sales and Human Rights: Legislative Basis and Frequently Asked QuestionsCRS In Focus, May 2, 2019.

To assist soldiers in identifying Chinese weapons in the field, the US Army has produced a deck of “playing cards” featuring various weapons systems.

“The Worldwide Equipment Identification Playing Cards enable Soldiers to be able to readily identify enemy equipment and distinguish the equipment from friendly forces. Cards can be used at every level and across all services.” See Worldwide Equipment Identification Cards: China Edition, US Army TRADOC, April 2019.