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.
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:
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
[Updated Jan 31, 2019] Earlier this month, the Chinese government outlet Global Timespublished a report that a People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) unit with the new DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile had carried out an exercise in the “Northwest China’s plateau and desert areas.” The article made vague references to a program previously aired on China’s CCTV-7 that showed a column of DF-26 launchers and support vehicles driving on highways, desert roads, and through mountain streams.
As it turns out, the exercise may have been west of Beijing, but the actual location is in upper Central China. Several researchers (for example Sean O’Connor) have been attempting to learn more about the unit. By combining scenes from the CCTV-7 program with various satellite imagery sources, I was able to geolocate the DF-26s to the S218 highway (39.702137º, 105.731469º) outside the city of Jilantai (Jilantaizhen) roughly 100 km north of Alxa in the Inner Mogolia province in the northern part of central China (see image below).
The DF-26s appear to have been visiting a new missile training area established by PLARF since 2015. By combining use of Google Earth, Planet, and Terra Server, each of which has unique capabilities needed to scan vast areas and identifying individual facilities, as well as analyzing images purchased from Digital Globe, I have so far been able to identify more than 100 launch pads used by launchers and support vehicles during exercises, a support base, a landing strip, and at least eight launch unit camp sites covering an area of more than 1,000 square kilometers (400 square miles) along a 90-kilometer (55-mile) corridor (see image below). A Google Earth placemark file (kml) with all these locations is available for download here.
The Chinese military has for decades been operating a vast missile training area further west in the Qinghai province, which I profiled in an article a decade ago. They also appear to operate a training area further west near Korla (Beyingol). The best unclassified guide for following Chinese missile units is, of course, the indispensable PLA Rocket Force Leadership and Unit Reference produced by Mark Stokes at the Project 2049 Institute.
It is not clear if the DF-26 unit that exercised in the Jilantai training area is or will be permanently based in the region. It is normal for Chinese missile units to deploy long distances from their home base for training. The first brigade (666 Brigade) is thought to be based some 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) to the southeast near Xinyang in southern Henan province. This was not the first training deployment of the brigade. The NASIC reported in 2017 that China had 16+ DF-26 launchers and it is building more. The CCTV-7 video shows an aerial view of a launch unit camp with TEL tents, support vehicles, and personnel tents. A DF-26 is shown pulling out from under a camouflage tent and setting up on a T-shaped concrete launch pad (see image below). More than 100 of those pads have been identified in the area.
The support base at the training area does not have the outline of a permanent missile brigade base. But several satellite images appear to show the presence of DF-16, DF-21, and DF-26 launchers at this facility. One image purchased from Digital Globe and taken by one of their satellites on October 24, 2018, shows the base under construction with what appears to be two DF-16 launchers (h/t @reutersanders) parked between two garages. Another photo taken on August 16, 2017, shows what appears to be 22 DF-21C launchers with a couple of possible DF-26 launchers as well (see below).
The DF-26, which was first officially displayed in 2015, fielded in 2016, and declared in service by April 2018, is an intermediate-range ballistic missile launched from a six-axle road-mobile launchers that can deliver either a conventional or nuclear warhead to a maximum distance of 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles). From the 666 Brigade area near Xinyang, a DF-26 IRBM could reach Guam and New Delhi (see map below). China has had the capability to strike Guam with the nuclear DF-4 ICBM since 1980, but the DF-4 is a moveable, liquid-fuel missiles that takes a long time to set up, while the DF-26 is a road-mobile, solid-fuel, dual-capable missile that can launch quicker and with greater accuracy. Moreover, DF-26 adds conventional strike to the IRBM range for the first time.
The 666 Brigade is in range of U.S. sea- and air-launched cruise missiles as well as ballistic missiles. But the DF-26 is part of China’s growing inventory of INF-range missiles (most of which, by far, are non-nuclear), a development that is causing some in the U.S. defense community to recommend the United States should withdraw from the INF treaty and deploy quick-launch intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the Western Pacific. Others (including this author) disagree, saying current and planned U.S. capabilities are sufficient to meet national security objectives and that engaging China in an INF-race would make things worse.
This publication was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
The report covers many aspects of Chinese military developments. In this article I’ll briefly review the nuclear weapons related aspects of the report.
Overall, nuclear developments are not what stand out in this report. Although there are important nuclear developments, the Pentagon’s primary concern is clearly about China’s conventional forces.
Nuclear Policy and Strategy
The DOD report repeats the conclusion from previous reports that China has not, despite writings by some PLA officers (and occasional speculations by outside analysts), changed its nuclear policy but retains a no-first-use (NFU) policy and a pledge not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state or in nuclear-weapon-free zones. That would, strictly speaking, include Japan, even though it hosts large numbers of U.S. forces.
The NFU policy, DOD says, has “contributed to the construction of [underground facilities] for the country’s nuclear forces, which plan to survive an initial nuclear strike.” Stimulants for the tunneling efforts were the 1991 Gulf War and 1999 Kosovo war, which made the Chinese realize how vulnerable their forces would be in a war with the United States.
Nor does the report indicate China has yet mated nuclear warheads to its missiles or placed nuclear forces on alert under normal circumstances. The report repeats the assessment from last that “China is enhancing peacetime readiness levels for these nuclear forces to ensure responsiveness.” That responsiveness is thought to ensure the force can disperse and go on alert if necessary.
The report mentions unidentified PLA writings expressing the value of a “launch on warning” nuclear posture, but it does not say China has adopted such a posture. A launch on warning posture would require high readiness of nuclear forces to be able to launch as soon as a warning of an incoming nuclear attack was received. China already has a “ready the forces on warning” posture that involves gradually raising the readiness level in response to growing tension in a crisis.
In U.S. military terminology, “launch on warning” is a higher readiness level than “launch under attack” because it would involve being able to launch upon detection that an attack was imminent but before incoming missiles had been detected. “Launch under attack,” in contrast, would require the force to be able to launch before incoming warheads hit U.S. launchers. The DOD report says the PLA writings highlight the “launch on warning” posture would be consistent with China’s no-first-use policy, which would imply it is more compatible with a “launch under attack” posture.
The DOD report also continues to describe China’s work on MIRV, the capability to equip missile with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. Rather than a sign of an emerging counterforce strategy, however, DOD states that the purpose of the Chinese MIRV program is to “ensure the viability of its strategic deterrent in the face of continued advances in U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Russian strategic ISR, precision strike, and missile defense capabilities.”
Indeed, the counterproductive effects of U.S. ballistic missile defenses on Chinese offensive force developments is clearly spelled out in the report: “The PLA is developing a range of technologies China perceives are necessary to counter U.S. and other countries’ ballistic missile defense systems, including MaRV, MIRVs, decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding, and hypersonic glide vehicles.”
The growing inventory of ICBMs and SSBNs means that China has to improve nuclear command and control of these systems for them to be effective. It is unknown if Chinese SSBNs have yet sailed on a deterrent patrol (we assume not), much less with nuclear warheads onboard (we also assume not). But the growing and increasingly mobile ICBM force is carrying out extensive combat patrol exercises that place new demands on the nuclear command and control system.
A unique feature of the Chinese missile force is the mixing of nuclear and conventional versions of the same missiles (DF-21 and DF-26 have both nuclear and conventional roles). For China, this is a means to provide the leadership with non-nuclear strike options without having to resort to nuclear use. For China’s potential adversaries, it is a dangerous and destabilizing practice that risks causing confusion about the character of missile attacks and potentially trigger mistaken nuclear escalation in a conflict.
China has, like other nuclear-armed states, lowered the yield of its nuclear warheads as ballistic missiles became more accurate. The current warhead used on the DF-31/A ICBMs is thought to be ten times less powerful than the multi-megaton warhead developed for the DF-5. Moreover, as China seeks to ensure the survivability of its warheads against missile defense systems, it is likely to continue to try to reduce the weight and size of its warheads to maximize penetration aids on the missiles.
The DOD report mentions a “defense industry publication has also discussed the development of a new low-yield nuclear weapon,” but does not provide any details about the publication or what it said. The classified version apparently has more details.
The Land-Based Missile Force
The overall number of Chinese ICBM launchers reported by DOD has remained stable since 2011: 50-75. One type (DF-4) has reload capability, so the number of available missiles is a little higher: 75-100 missiles. That number has also remained stable for the past three years. Indeed, other than the arrival of the DF-26 IRBM force, the total Chinese rocket forces estimate is identical to that of presented in the 2017 report.
This indicates that the DF-31A force is not continuing to increase, that the DF-31AG has not yet been operationally deployed (or is replacing older DF-31s on a one-for-one basis), and that the DF-41 is still in development more than 20 years after it was first listed in the annual DOD report.
DOD’s reporting shows that the number of Chinese ICBM launchers has roughly doubled since 2003, while the number of missile available for those launchers has more than doubled. The numbers of missiles show a mysterious increase in 2016 from just over 40 to more than 80 (see table below). The increase is curious because it does not follow the number of launchers but suddenly jumps even though there was no corresponding increase in launchers that year.
The DF-4 is thought to have reloads but that system has been deployed since the 1980s. There is considerable uncertainty in the number of launchers (some years 25). The increase coincides with the deployment of the MIRVed DF-5Bs, so a potential explanation might be that there are two full sets of DF-5 versions. But it should be underscored that it is unknown if this is the reason.
The old liquid-fuel DF-4 (CSS-3) ICBM is still listed as operational, even though the relocatable missile will probably be replaced by more survivable road-mobile missiles in the near future. The DF-4 appears to be retained in a roll-out-to-launch posture.
The old, but updated, liquid-fuel, silo-based DF-5 ICBM is still listed in two version: the single-warhead DF-5A and the MIRVed DF-5B. This missile was first deployed in the early-1980s and is based in 20 silos in the eastern part of central China. There is no mentioning of a rumored C version.
The DF-31 and DF-31A are the most modern operational ICBMs in the Chinese inventory. First fielded in 2006 and 2007, respectively, deployment of the DF-31 appears to have stalled and DF-31A is operational in perhaps three brigades. Each missile can carry a single warhead. The DF-31AG is mentioned for the first time as an enhanced DF-31 with improved launcher maneuverability and survivability but may not yet be fully operational.
The long-awaited DF-41 ICBM remains in development and is listed by DOD as MIRV-capable. The report states that China is “considering additional launch options” for the DF-41, including rail-mobile and silo-basing. In silo-based version it would likely replace the DF-5.
The medium- and intermediate-range nuclear missile force is made up of three types: the new DF-26 IRBM, which is dual-capable and able to conduct conventional (both land-attack and anti-ship) and nuclear precision attacks; and two versions of the DF-21: DF-21A and DF-21E. The DF-21 A (SSC-5 Mod 2) has been deployed since the late-1990s. The DF-21E (note: the E designation is not official but assumed) is known as the SSC-5 Mod 6 and was first reported in 2016. The DF-21 also exists in two conventional versions: DF-21C and DF-21D (anti-ship).
The dual-capable DF-26, first fielded in 2016, is capable of conducting “nuclear precision strikes against ground targets.” There appears to be one or two DF-26 brigades.
The role of the new Strategic Support Force is listed as intended to “centralize the military’s space, cyber, and EW [Early Warning] missions. These would probably support the rocket force.
The Submarine Force
The DOD report says that China still operates four Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs (all based at Hainan), each of which can carry up to 12 JL-2 SLBMs. At least one more Jin-SSBN is said to be under construction. Construction of a new SSBN (Type 096) may begin in the mid-2020s with a new SLBM (JL-3). DOD speculates that Type 094 and Type 096 SSBNs might end up operating concurrently, which, if accurate, could increase the size of the total SSBN fleet.
China also operates five Shang-class (Type 093/A) nuclear-powered attack submarines, with a sixth under construction. The Shang has now completely replaced the old Han-class (Type 092). DOD anticipates that a modified Shang (Type 093B) equipped with land-attack cruise missiles may begin building in the early-2020s. [Note: while many public sources call the two existing Shang versions Type 093A and Type 093B, the DOD report calls them Type 093 and Type 093A. The Type 093B is listed as a future type that until 2016 was called Type 095.]
Overall, China operates 56 submarines, of which 47 are diesel-electric. The report projects this force may increase to 69-78 submarines by 2020, a significant increase in only two years.
One of the most interesting nuclear developments in the DOD report is the assessment that “the PLAAF has newly been re-assigned a nuclear mission.” This contrasts with last year’s report, which stated the “PLAAF does not currently have a nuclear mission.” The “re-assignment” indicates that the bombers previous had a nuclear mission. We have estimated that a small number of bombers had a dormant nuclear capability for gravity bombs as indicated by their extensive role in the nuclear weapons testing program and China’s display of nuclear bombs in military museums.
The DOD report states that the H-6 and the future stealth bomber could both be nuclear-capable. The future bomber, according to the DOD report, could potentially be operational within the next ten years.
The report repeats the estimate made by the U.S. Intelligence Community from the past two years that China is upgrading its aircraft with two new air-launched ballistic missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload.
At a time when public government intelligence resources are being curtailed, the NASIC report provides a rare and invaluable official resource for monitoring and analyzing the status of ballistic and cruise missiles around the world.
Having said that, the report obviously comes with the caveat that it does not include descriptions of US, British, French, and most Israeli ballistic and cruise missile forces. As such, the report portrays the international “threat” situation as entirely one-sided as if the US and its allies were innocent bystanders, so it will undoubtedly provide welcoming fuel for those who argue for increasing US defense spending and buying new weapons.
Also, the NASIC report is not a top-level intelligence report that has been sanctioned by the Director of National Intelligence. As such, it represents the assessment of NASIC rather than necessarily the coordinated and combined conclusion of the US Intelligence Community.
Nonetheless, it’s a unique and useful report that everyone who follows international security and ballistic and cruise missile developments should consult.
Overall, the NASIC report concludes: “The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in ballistic missile capabilities to include accuracy, post-boost maneuverability, and combat effectiveness.” During the same period, “there has been a significant increase in worldwide ballistic missile testing.” The countries developing ballistic and cruise missile systems view them “as cost-effective weapons and symbols of national power” that “present an asymmetric threat to US forces” and many of the missiles “are armed with weapons of mass destruction.” At the same time, “numerous types of ballistic and cruise missiles have achieved dramatic improvements in accuracy that allow them to be used effectively with conventional warheads.”
Some of the more noteworthy individual findings of the new report include:
Russia’s nuclear modernization is, despite claims by some, not a “buildup” but the size of the Russian ICBM force will continue to decline.
The Russian RS-26 “short” SS-27 ICBM is still categorized as an ICBM (as in the 2013 report) despite claims by some that it’s an INF weapon.
The report is the first US official document to publicly identify the ground-launched cruise missile that Russia has developed and deployed in violation of the INF treaty: 3M-14. The weapon is assessed to “possibly” have a nuclear option. [Note: A corrected version of the NASIC report published in June removed the reference to a “ground” version of the 3M-14.]
The Russian SS-N-26 (Oniks or Onix) anti-ship cruise missile that is currently replacing several Soviet-era cruise missiles “possibly” has a nuclear option.
The range of the dual-capable SS-26 (Islander) SRBM is listed as 350 km (217 miles) rather than the 500-700 km (310-435 miles) often claimed in the public debate.
The number of Chinese warheads capable of reaching the United States could increase to well over 100 in the next five years, six years sooner than predicted in the 2013 report. (The count includes warheads that can only reach Alaska and Hawaii, not necessarily all of continental United States.)
Deployment of the Chinese DF-31/DF-31A ICBMs appears to have stalled.
China’s long-awaited DF-41 ICBM will “possibly” be capable of carrying multiple warheads but is not yet deployed.
Two Chinese medium-range ballistic missile types (DF-3A and DF-21 Mod 1) have been retired.
The Chinese ground-launched DH-10 land-attack cruise missile is no longer listed as “conventional or nuclear” but only as “conventional.”
None of North Korea’s ICBMs are listed as deployed.
Below I go into more details about the individual nuclear-armed states:
Russia is now more than halfway through its modernization, a generational upgrade that began in the mid/late-1990s and will be completed in the mid-2020s. This includes a complete replacement of the ICBM force (but at lower numbers), transition to a new class of strategic submarines, upgrades of existing bombers, replacement of all dual-capable SRBM units, and replacement of most Soviet-era naval cruise missiles with fewer types.
The NASIC report states that “Russian in September 2014 surpassed the United States in deployed warheads capable of reaching the United States,” referring to the aggregate number reported under the New START treaty. The report does not mention, however, that Russia since 2016 has begun to reduce its deployed strategic warheads and is expected meet the treaty limit in 2018.
ICBMs: Contrary to many erroneous claims in the public debate (see here and here) about a Russia nuclear “build-up,” the NASIC report concludes that “the number of missiles in the Russian ICBM force will continue to decrease because of arms control agreements, aging missiles, and resource constraints…” This conclusion fits the assessment Norris and I have made for years that Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces but not increasing the size of the arsenal.
The report counts about 330 ICBM launchers (silos and TELs), significantly fewer than the 400 claimed by the Russian military. The actual number of deployed missiles is probably a little lower because several SS-19 and SS-25 units are in the process of being dismantled.
The development continues of the heavy Sarmat (RS-28), which looks very similar to the existing SS-18. The lighter SS-27 known as RS-26 (Rubezh or Yars-M) appears to have been delayed and still in development. Despite claims by some in the public debate that the RS-26 is a violation of the INF treaty, the NASIC report lists the missile with an ICBM range of 5,500+ km (3,417+ miles), the same as listed in the 2013 version. NASIC says the RS-26, which is designated SS-X-28 by the US Intelligence Community, has “at least 2” stages and multiple warheads.
Overall, “Russia retains over 1,000 nuclear warheads on ICBMs,” according to NASIC, another assessment that fits our estimate from the Nuclear Notebook. The NASIC report states that “most” of those missiles “are maintained on alert, capable of being launched within minutes of receiving a launch order.” (In comparison, essentially all US ICBMs are maintained on alert: see here for global alert status.)
SLBMs: The Russian navy is in the early phase of a transition from the Soviet-era Delta-class SSBNs to the new Borei-class SSBN. NASIC lists the Bulava (SS-N-32) SLBM as operational on three Boreis (five more are under construction). The report also lists a Typhoon-class SSBN as “not yet deployed” with the Bulava (the same wording as in the 2013 report), but this is thought to refer to the single Typhoon that has been used for test launches of the Bulava and not imply that the submarine is being readied for operational deployment with the missile.
While the new Borei SSBNs are being built, the six Delta-IVs are being upgrade with modifications to the SS-N-23 SLBM. The report also lists 96 SS-N-18 launchers, corresponding to 6 Delta-III SSBNs. But that appears to include 3-4 SSBNs that have been retired (but not yet dismantled). Only 2 Delta-IIIs appear to be operational, with a third in overhaul, and all are scheduled to be replaced by Borei-class SSBNs in the near future.
Cruise Missiles: The report lists five land-attack cruise missiles with nuclear capability, three of which are Soviet-era weapons. The two new missiles that “possibly” have nuclear capability include the mysterious ground-launched cruise missile that Russia has developed and deployed in violation of the INF treaty. The US first accused Russia of treaty violation in 2014 but has refused to name the missile, yet the NASIC report gives it a name: 3M-14. The weapon exists in both “ground, ship & sub” versions and is credited with “conventional, nuclear possible” warhead capability. [Note: A corrected version of the NASIC report published in June removed the reference to a “ground” version of the 3M-14.]
Ground- and sea-based versions of the 3M-14 have different designations. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) identifies the naval 3M-14 as the SS-N-30 land-attack missile, which is part of the larger Kalibr family of missiles that include:
The 3M-14 (SS-N-30) land-attack cruise missile (the nuclear version might be called SS-N-30A; Pavel Podvig reported back in 2014 that he was told about an 8-meter 3M-14S missile “where ‘S’ apparently stands for ‘strategic’, meaning long-range and possibly nuclear”);
The 3M-54 (SS-N-27, Sizzler) anti-ship cruise missile;
The 91R anti-submarine missile.
The US Intelligence Community uses a different designation for the GLCM version, which different sources say is called the SSC-8, and other officials privately say is a modification of the SSC-7 missile used on the Iskander-K. (For public discussion about the confusing names and designations, see here, here, and here.)
The range has been the subject of much speculation, including some as much as 5,472 km (3,400 miles). But the NASIC report sets the range as 2,500 km (1,553 miles), which is more than was reported by the Russian Ministry of Defense in 2015 but close to the range of the old SS-N-21 SLCM.
The “conventional, nuclear possible” description connotes some uncertainty about whether the 3M-14 has a nuclear warhead option. But President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that it does, and General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of US European Command (EUCOM), told Congress in March that the ground-launched version is “a conventional/nuclear dual-capable system.”
ONI predicts that Kalibr-type missiles (remember: Kalibr can refer to land-attack, anti-ship, and/or anti-submarine versions) will be deployed on all larger new surface vessels and submarines and backfitted onto upgraded existing major ships and submarines. But when Russian officials say a ship or submarine will be equipped with the Kalibr, that can potentially refer to one or more of the above missile versions. Of those that receive the land-attack version, for example, presumably only some will be assigned the “nuclear possible” version. For a ship to get nuclear capability is not enough to simply load the missile; it has to be equipped with special launch control equipment, have special personnel onboard, and undergo special nuclear training and certification to be assigned nuclear weapons. That is expensive and an extra operational burden that probably means the nuclear version is only assigned to some of the Kalibr-equipped vessels. The previous nuclear land-attack SLCM (SS-N-21) is only assigned to frontline attack submarines, which will most likely also received the nuclear SS-N-30. It remains to be seen if the nuclear version will also go on major surface combatants such as the nuclear-propelled attack submarines.
The NASIC report also identifies the 3M-55 (P-800 Oniks (Onyx), or SS-N-26 Strobile) cruise missile with “nuclear possible” capability. This weapon also exists in “ground, ships & sub” versions, and ONI states that the SS-N-26 is replacing older SS-N-7, -9, -12, and -19 anti-ship cruise missiles in the fleet. All of those were also dual-capable.
It is interesting that the NASIC report describes the SS-N-26 as a land-attack missile given its primary role as an anti-ship missile and coastal defense missile. The ground-launched version might be the SSC-5 Stooge that is used in the new Bastion-P coastal-defense missile system that is replacing the Soviet-era SSC-1B missile in fleet base areas such as Kaliningrad. The ship-based version is replacing the SS-N-19 on the nuclear-propelled Kirov-class cruisers and Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier. Presumably it will also replace the SS-N-12 on the Slava-class cruisers and SS-N-9 on smaller corvettes. The submarine version is replacing the SS-N-19 on the Oscar-class nuclear-propelled attack submarine.
NASIC lists the new conventional Kh-101 ALCM but does not mention the nuclear version known as Kh-102 ALCM that has been under development for some time. The Kh-102 is described in the recent DIA report on Russian Military Power.
Short-range ballistic missiles: Russia is replacing the Soviet-era SS-21 (Tochka) missile with the SS-26 (Iskander-M), a process that is expected to be completed in the early-2020s. The range of the SS-26 is often said in the public debate to be the 500-700 km (310-435 miles), but the NASIC report lists the range as 350 km (217 miles), up from 300 km (186 miles) reported in the 2013 version.
That range change is interesting because 300 km is also the upper range of the new category of close-range ballistic missiles. So as a result of that new range category, the SS-26 is now counted in a different category than the SS-21 it is replacing.
The NASIC report projects the “number of Chinese ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States could expand to well over 100 within the next 5 years.” Four years ago, NASIC projected the “well over 100” warhead number might be reached “within the next 15 years,” so in effect the projection has been shortened by 6 years from 2028 to 2022.
One of the reasons for this shortening is probably the addition of MIRV to the DF-5 ICBM force (the MIRVed version is know as DF-5B). All other Chinese missiles only have one warhead each (although the warheads are widely assumed not to be mated with the missiles under normal circumstances). It is unclear, however, why the timeline has been shortened.
The US military defines the “United States” to include “the land area, internal waters, territorial sea, and airspace of the United States, including a. United States territories; and b. Other areas over which the United States Government has complete jurisdiction and control or has exclusive authority or defense responsibility.”
So for NASIC’s projection for the next five years to come true, China would need to take several drastic steps. First, it would have to MIRV all of its DF-5s (about half are currently MIRVed). That would still not provide enough warheads, so it would also have to deploy significantly more DF-31As and/or new MIRVed DF-41s (see graph below). Deployment of the DF-31A is progressing very slowly, so NASIC’s projection probably relies mainly on the assumption that the DF-41 will be deployed soon in adequate numbers. Whether China will do so remains to be seen.
China currently has about 80 ICBM warheads (for 60 ICBMs) that can hit the United States. Of these, about 60 warheads can hit the continental United States (not including Alaska). That’s a doubling of ICBM warheads that can hit the United States (including Guam) over the past 25 years – and a tripling of the number of warheads that can hit the continental United States. The NASIC report does not define what “well over 100” means, but if it’s in the range of 120, and NASIC’s projection actually came true, then it would mean China by the early-2020s would have increased the number of ICBM warheads that can hit the United States threefold since the early 1990s. That a significant increase but obviously but must be seen the context of the much greater number of US warheads that can hit China.
Land-Based Ballistic Missiles: The report describes the long and gradual upgrade of the Chinese ballistic missile force. The most significant new development is the fielding of the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with 16+ launchers. The missile was first displayed at the 2015 military parade, which showed 16 launchers – potentially the same 16 listed in the report. NASIC sets the DF-26 range at 3,000+ km (1,864 miles), 1,000 km less than the 2017 DOD report.
China does not appear to have converted all of its DF-5 ICBMs to MIRV. The report lists both the single-warhead DF-5A and the multiple-warhead DF-5B (CSS-4 Mod 3) in “about 20” silos. Unlike the A-version, the B-version has a Post-Boost Vehicle, a technical detail not disclosed in the 2013 report. A rumor about a DF-5C version with 10 MIRVs is not confirmed by the report.
Deployment of the new generation of road-mobile ICBMs known as DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs appears to have stalled; the number of launchers listed in the new report is the same as in the 2013 report: 5-10 DF-31s and “more than 15” DF-31As.
Yet the description of the DF-31A program sounds like deployment is still in progress: “The longer range CSS-10 Mod 2 will allow targeting of most of the continental United States” (emphasis added).
For the first time, the report includes a graphic illustration of the DF-31 and DF-31A side by side, which shows the longer-range DF-31A to be little shorter but with a less pointy nosecone and a wider third stage (see image).
The long-awaited (and somewhat mysterious) DF-41 ICBM is still not deployed. NASIC says the DF-41 is “possibly capable of carrying MIRV,” a less certain determination than the 2017 DOD report, which called the missile “MIRV capable.” The report lists the DF-41 with three stages and a Post-Boost Vehicle, details not provided in the previous report.
One of the two nuclear versions of the DF-21 MRBM appears to have been retired. NASIC only lists one: CSS-5 Mod 2. In total, the report lists “fewer than 50” launchers for the nuclear version of the DF-21, which is the same number it listed in the 2013 report (see here for description of one of the DF-21 launch units. But that was also the number listed back then for the older nuclear DF-21 (CSS-5 Mod 1). The nuclear MRBM force has probably not been cut in half over the past four years, so perhaps the previous estimate of fewer than 50 launchers was intended to include both versions. The NASIC report does not mention the CSS-5 Mod 6 that was mentioned in the DOD’s annual report from 2016.
Sea-Based Ballistic Missiles: The report lists a total of 48 JL-2 SLBM launchers, corresponding to the number of launch tubes on the four Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs based at the Longpo Naval Base on Hainan Island. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the missiles are therefore fully operational or deployed on the submarines under normal circumstances. They might, but it is yet unclear how China operates its SSBN fleet (for a description of the SSBN fleet, see here).
The 2017 report no longer lists the Xia-class (Type 092) SSBN or the JL-1 SLBM, indicating that China’s first (and not very successful) sea-based nuclear capability has been retired from service.
Cruise Missiles: The new report removes the “conventional or nuclear” designation from the DH-10 (CJ-10) ground-launched land-attack cruise missile. The possible nuclear option for the DH-10 was listed in the previous three NASIC reports (2006, 2009, and 2013). The DH-10 brigades are organized under the PLA Rocket Force that operates both nuclear and conventional missiles.
A US Air Force Global Strike Command document in 2013 listed another cruise missile, the air-launched DH-20 (CJ-20), with a nuclear option. NASIC has never attributed nuclear capability to that weapon and the Office of the Secretary of Defense stated recently that the Chinese Air Force “does not currently have a nuclear mission.”
At the same time, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) recently told Congress that China was upgrading is cruise missiles further, including “with two, new air-launched ballistic [cruise] missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload.”
The NASIC report states that “Pakistan continues to improve the readiness and capabilities of its Army Strategic Force Command and individual strategic missile groups through training exercises that include live missile firings.” While all nuclear-armed states do that, the implication probably is that Pakistan is increasing the reaction time of its nuclear missiles, particularly the short-range weapons.
The report states that the Shaheen-2 MRBM has been test-launched “seven times since 2004.” While that fits the public record, NASIC doesn’t mention that the Shaheen-2 for some reason has not been test launched since 2014, which potentially could indicate technical problems.
The Abdali SRBM now has a range of 200 km (up from 180 km in the 2013 report). It is now designated as close-range ballistic missile instead of a short-range ballistic missile.
NASIC describes the Ababeel MRBM, which was first test-launch in January 2017, as as “MIRVed” missile. Although this echoes the announcement made by the Pakistani military at the time, the designation “the MIRVed Abadeel” sounds very confident given the limited flight history and the technological challenges associated with developing reliable MIRV systems.
Neither the Ra’ad ALCM nor the Babur GLCM is listed as deployed, which is surprising especially for the Babur after 13 flight tests. Babur launchers have been fitting out at the National Development Complex for years and are visible at some army garrisons. Nor does NASIC mention the Babur-2 or Babur-3 (naval version) versions that have been test-flown and announced by the Pakistani military.
It is a surprise that the NASIC report only lists “fewer than 10” Agni-2 MRBM launchers. This is the same number as in 2013, which indicates there is still only one operational missile group equipped with the Agni-2 seven years after the Indian government first declared it deployed. The slow introduction might indicate technical problems, or that India is instead focused on fielding the longer-range Agni-3 IRBM that NASIC says is now deployed with “fewer than 10” launchers.
Neither the Agni-4 nor Agni-5 IRBMs are listed as deployed, even though the Indian government says the Agni-4 has been “inducted” into the armed forces and has reported three army “user trial” test launches. NASIC says India is developing the Agni-6 ICBM with a range of 6,000 km (3,728 miles).
For India’s emerging SSBN fleet, the NASIC report lists the short-range K-15 SLBM as deployed, which is a surprise given that the Arihant SSBN is not yet considered fully operational. The submarine has been undergoing sea-trials for several years and was rumored to have conducted its first submerged K-15 test launch in November 2016. But a few more are probably needed before the missile can be considered operational. The K-4 SLBM is in development and NASIC sets the range at 3,500 km (2,175 miles).
As for cruise missiles, it is helpful that the report continue to list the Bramos as conventional, which might help discredit rumors about nuclear capability.
Finally, of the nuclear-armed states, NASIC provides interesting information about North Korea’s missile programs. None of the North Korean ICBMs are listed as deployed.
The report states there are now “fewer than 50” launchers for the Hwasong-10 (Musudan) IRBM. NASIC sets the range at 3,000+ km (1,864 miles) instead of the 4,000 km (2,485 miles) sometimes seen in the public debate.
Likewise, while many public sources set the range of the mobile ICBMs (KN-08 and KN-14) as 8,000 km (4,970 miles) – some even longer, sufficient to reach parts of the United States, the NASIC report lists a more modest range estimate of 5,500+ km (3,418 miles), the lower end of the ICBM range.
This publication was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
The most sensational nuclear news in the report is the conclusion that China is developing a new strategic nuclear bomber to replace the aging (but upgraded) H-6.
The report also portrays the Chinese ICBM force as a little bigger than it really is because the report lists missiles rather than launchers. But once adjusted for that, the report shows the same overall nuclear missile force as in 2016, with two new land-based missiles under development (DF-26 and DF-41) but not yet operational.
The SSBN force is described as the same four boats but with “others” under construction. The report is a bit hasty to declare China now has a survivable sea-based deterrent, a condition that will require a few more steps.
Finally, the report concludes that Chinese nuclear strategy and doctrine, despite a domestic debate about scope and role, are unchanged from previous years. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
The Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military developments mainly deals with non-nuclear issues, but it also contains important new information about developments in China’s nuclear forces. This includes:
The size of China’s ICBM force has been relatively stable over the past five years
China has deployed a new version of a medium-range ballistic missile
A new intermediate-range ballistic missile is not yet deployed
China’s SSBN fleet has yet to conduct its first deterrent patrol
The possibility of nuclear capability for Chinese bombers
Changes (or not) to Chinese nuclear policy
The future development of China’s ICBM force has been the subject of much speculation and projections over the years. Despite important new developments, this year’s report describes the size of the ICBM force as consistent with the force level reported over the past five years: around 60 launchers. Fielding of the DF-31 appears to have stalled and the data suggests that fielding of the DF-31A has been modest: so far about 20-30 launchers, enough for perhaps 4-5 brigades (see graph).
In 2012, the DOD report predicted that by 2015, “China will also field additional road-mobile DF-31A” launchers. But that doesn’t seem to have happened. Instead, the ICBM launcher force has remained relatively stable since 2011.
The number of ICBM launchers reported by the annual DOD reports over the past 13 years has fluctuated considerably, from around 30 in 2003 to 50 to 60-plus launchers in 2008 and later years. The uncertainty has been greatest in 2011-2013 and 2016 with a plus/minus of 25 launchers. That’s a significant uncertainty of approximately 40 percent in recent years versus around 10 percent in earlier years. But it seems clear that the Chinese ICBM forces is so far not continuing to grow.
While the number of launchers has been relatively stable, the DOD report shows a mysterious increase of missiles for those launchers: 75-100 missiles for 50-75 launchers. This is inconsistent with previous DOD reports, which have either listed the same number of launchers and missiles, or a slightly higher number of missiles because of a reload capability of the old DF-4 (see table).
It is unclear why the 2016 report suddenly increases the number of missiles to 25 more than the number of launchers. Neither the DF-5 nor the DF-31/31A ICBMs are thought to have reloads. Past DOD reports that included missile estimates always listed one reload for the DF-4, not any other system. With only about 10 DF-4 launchers left in the arsenal, the number of extra missiles in 2016 should probably be 10, not 25 (the 25 would fit better if there were two reloads for the DF-4). As far as I can tell, here is what the Chinese ICBM force looks like:
Despite many rumors in the public debate that China has developed or is developing rail-based versions of its ICBMs, there is no mentioning in the DOD report of any rail-based system. Here is out latest overview of Chinese nuclear forces. An update will be published in July.
DF-26 Nuclear Precision Strike?
China’s newest nuclear-capable missile, the DF-26 (DOD provides no CSS designation for the new missile) that was unveiled during the September 2015 parade in Beijing, appears not to have been deployed with missile units yet.
The DOD report states that the DF-26, if it uses the same guidance for the nuclear and the conventional payloads, “would give China its first nuclear precision strike capability against theater targets.”
This statement indicates that DOD does not believe that any of China’s other nuclear-capable missiles have precision strike capability.
A New DF-21 Version?
The DOD report also lists a new version of the nuclear medium-range DF-21 missile but provides no details. The new version is called DF-21 Mod 6, or CSS-5 Mod 6 as it is listed in the report.
The previous report from 2015 stated that the ICBM force was complemented by the “road-mobile, solid-fueled CSS-5 (DF-21) MRBM for regional deterrence missions.” The 2016 report, however, states that the ICBM force “is complemented by road-mobile, solid-fueled CSS-5 Mod 6 (DF-21) MRBM for regional deterrence missions,” the first time the Mod 6 designation has been used.
DOD does not provide any details about what the Mod 6 version is and to what extent it affects the status of the two original nuclear versions (Mod 1 and Mod 2). The original versions are getting old, so one possibility might be that the Mod 6 version is intended to replace them. But it is unclear what the status is.
DF-21 holds a special status in the history of Chinese forces because it was the first real mobile solid-fuel missile that replaced the old and more cumbersome liquid-fuel missiles. The Mod 1 was first fielded in the late-1980s although deployment didn’t really get underway until 1992. The Mod 2 was “not yet deployed” in 1998, according to NASIC, but both versions were listed as deployed by 2000. That was also the case in 2013, which suggest that the two versions might not be that different (perhaps range is the only difference), or that they are different but both retained for specific missions.
There is a lot of confusion about the different versions of the DF-21 in the public debate where many authors re-use secondary sources instead of relying on the original reference material. The most common mistake is to refer to the DF-21C conventional land-attack version as the CSS-5 Mod 3 and the DF-21D anti-ship version as the CSS-5 Mod 4. Over the years, DOD and the U.S. Intelligence Community have reported the following versions of the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile:
DF-21 (CSS-5 Mod 1): nuclear
DF-21A (CSS-5 Mod 2): nuclear
DF-21C (CSS-5 Mod 4): conventional land-attack
DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod 5): conventional anti-ship
DF-21 (CSS-5 Mod 6): nuclear (new)
It is not clear what happened to DF-21B and/or CSS-5 Mod 3. In any case, the DF-21 has now completely replaced the old liquid-fuel DF-3As that dominated the Chinese regional nuclear deterrence posture since the early-1970s. The last brigade to convert to DF-21 possibly was the 810 Brigade at Dengshahe in Liaoning province.
About That Credible Sea-Based Deterrent
It seems that various news media reports and official statement continue to exaggerate or preempt the operational capability of the Chinese submarine force. Many have said the new Jin-class SSBNs had begun conducting deterrent patrols, but the DOE report seems to indicate that the subs (or rather, their missiles) are not yet fully operational.
In February 2015, for example, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy, reportedly told Congress that one SSBN had gone on a 95-day patrol. Later, STRATCOM Commander Admiral Cecil Haney said SSBNs had been at sea but that he didn’t know if they had nukes on board but had to assume they did.
In contrary to these statements, the DOD report states the Jin-class SSBN “will eventually carry” the JL-2 SLBM (apparently it doesn’t yet do so) and that “China will probably conduct its first SSBN nuclear deterrence patrol sometime in 2016.” So apparently not yet.
This “not quite yet” assessment was supported by the Defense Intelligence Agency saying “the PLA Navy deployed the JIN-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in 2015, which, when armed with the JL-2 SLBM, provides Beijing its first sea-based nuclear deterrent.” (Emphasis added.)
So one or more SSBNs might have sailed on some kind of deployment, but not necessarily with nuclear weapons onboard. All four operational Jin SSBNs are based at Longpo (Yulin) Submarine Base on Hainan Island, along with two Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. A fifth Jin SSBN is under construction.
The DOD report also seems to debunk a rumor that China is building up to five additional Jin-class SSBNs. The head of US Pacific Command in 2015 told Congress that in addition to the submarines already launched, “up to five more may enter service by the end of the decade.” That seems to have been a fluke. The DOD report says a fifth Jin is under construction after which China will probably move on to a next-generation SSBN (Type 096) armed with a new missile (JL-3).
The DOD report for the first time raises the issue of a potential nuclear role for the bombers. It does so by referencing various Chinese writings but without presenting a clear U.S. Intelligence Community conclusion about such a capability:
“In 2015, China also continued to develop long-range bombers, including some Chinese military analysts have described as “capable of performing strategic deterrence”—a mission reportedly assigned to the PLA Air Force in 2012. There have also been Chinese publications indicating China intends to build a long-range “strategic” stealth bomber. These media reports and Chinese writings suggest China might eventually develop a nuclear bomber capability. If it does, China would develop a “triad” of nuclear delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air—a posture considered since the Cold War to improve survivability and strategic deterrence.”
Chinese bombers are normally not considered to have an active nuclear role and the “strategic deterrence” mission assigned to PLAA in 2012 could potentially also reflect the introduction of conventional land-attack cruise missiles on the modified H-6K bomber. Yet a US Air Force Global Strike command briefing in 2013 listed the new CJ-20 air-launched land-attack cruise missile carried by the H-6K as nuclear-capable.
And China in the past certainly developed the capability to deliver nuclear weapons from bombers. Between 1965 and 1979, bombers delivered the nuclear weapon for at least 12 of China’s nuclear test explosions. These tests involved both fission and thermonuclear weapons with yields ranging from 5-10 kilotons, a few hundred kilotons, to 2-4 megatons. The bombs were delivered by H-6 bombers (still in service and being modernized), H-5 bombers (retired), and Q-5 fighter-bombers (nearly all retired).
The Military Museum in Beijing apparently has on display models of at least two nuclear bomb designs: a fission bomb and a hydrogen bomb. This video shows what is said to be China’s first test of a thermonuclear bomb, delivered by an H-6 bomber in June 1967.
Nuclear Policy and Strategy
Finally, the DOD report also summarizes the US understanding of Chinese nuclear policy and strategy.
The first is that the PLA has deployed new command, control, and communications capabilities to its nuclear forces to improve control of multiple units in the field. “Through the use of improved communications links,” DOD concludes, “ICBM units now have better access to battlefield information and uninterrupted communications connecting all command echelons. Unit commanders are able to issue orders to multiple subordinates at once, instead of serially, via voice commands.”
This is intended to improve control of the units but also to enhance their combat effectiveness in a crisis situation. To that end the DOD report mentions recent press accounts that China “may be enhancing peacetime readiness for nuclear forces to ensure responsiveness.” Part of this debate reflects a report by Gregory Kulacki citing Chinese military documents and statements that the nuclear forces may move towards a “launch-on-warning” posture to be able to launch missiles before they can be destroyed.
Despite these problematic developments, the DOD report concludes that there are no signs that China’s no-first-use policy and negative security assurance have been changed.
In other words, while Chinese nuclear policy itself does not appear to have changed, the way China deploys and operates its nuclear forces appears to be evolving significantly.