There is considerable uncertainty attached to the size of China’s inventory of nuclear weapons. According to Federation of American Scientists, FAS, China is estimated to maintain an inventory of about 260 nuclear warheads.
Nevertheless there is an uncertainty as to how these warheads are distributed. It is however clear that China has deployed a majority of these on its land-based ballistic missile forces, and it is estimated that China currently fields ~144 strategic ballistic missiles (assumed to carry one nuclear warhead each), with the remainder divided on an aging Soviet-era bomber fleet, its ballistic missile submarines (the extent of this is uncertain) and stored reserve warheads. The extent to which China possesses tactical nuclear warheads remains unclear however.
China’s nuclear arsenal consists according to the SIPRI Yearbook (2014 ed.) of about 144 land-based ballistic missiles with different ranges, assumed to carry one nuclear warhead each. China also maintains an aging ballistic missile submarine assumed to carry 12 ballistic missiles, also assumed to carry a single warhead per missile. This number might however increase sharply in the coming years as China is currently producing and deploying a small fleet of more modern ballistic missile submarines. A small number of warheads – assumed to be about 20 – are divided on China’s aging Soviet-era bomber fleet.
While earlier SIPRI Yearbook entries have listed that China might maintain about 120 non-strategic (tactical) nuclear warheads in its arsenal, there has been a consistent lack of evidence of China maintaining operational non-strategic (short-range) ballistic missiles, cruise missiles or artillery with nuclear warheads, or even warheads stored separately for such use. The US Department of Defense does however assess that the rising number of conventionally armed ballistic forces could be an attempt at reaching a strategic capacity without the political and practical problems associated with arming the missiles with nuclear warheads.
Modes of delivery
China is currently developing its capability to field a full “nuclear triad”, enabling it to deliver nuclear weapons through aircraft, land-based ballistic missiles and submarines. The status of China’s air- and sea-based nuclear forces is however less clear than what is known about the country’s ballistic missile arsenal. There is a general difficulty with assessing the distribution of China’s nuclear forces, as China does not officially disclose this information.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) currently fields what is believed to be China’s small number (~40) of nuclear gravity bombs, with 20 assigned for the Xian H-6 bomber and the rest being deployed on newer, albeit shorter-range, aircraft.
- H-6: Believed to be China’s main aircraft for longer-range nuclear missions, the Xian H-6 was first deployed in 1959, based on Soviet designs of the Tupolov-16. The bomber is believed to have a 3100 km range, and has since its initial deployment undergone numerous upgrades as both a nuclear and conventional bomber.
- Shorter-range aircraft: China is believed to possess a small number of nuclear-capable shorter-range aircraft, although it is according to the SIPRI World Yearbook 2014 unclear which aircraft currently possess this capability. Earlier Yearbook entries nevertheless listed China’s Nanchang Q-5 ground attack aircraft as having such a role. The Q-5 is based on the earlier Soviet MiG-19, and was developed into a nuclear role during the 1970’s.
China’s main leg of its nuclear triad, land-based ballistic missiles, is maintained by The People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force (PLASAF). China currently maintains a number of older (although declining) ballistic missiles from the 70’s and 80’s, and is currently developing newer, more modern ballistic missiles that will likely replace the older missile types in the future. Nevertheless, China has not yet fully replaced its older missile forces, thereby giving China a large number of different missile types of different ranges and capabilities.
- DF-3A: While some uncertainties remain on the status of China’s oldest missile, the liquid-fuelled single-stage DF-3A, this intermediate-range (>3000 km) missile currently seems to entirely be replaced with China’s newer DF-21 medium-range missile.
- DF-4: Similar to the DF-3A, the liquid-fuelled two-stage intermediate-range (>5500 km) DF-4 currently seems to be replaced with China’s new DF-31 intercontinental-range missile after years of declining launcher numbers.
- DF-5A: Having been China’s only true intercontinental-range (>13000 km) missile for several decades, the DF-5A two-stage liquid-fuelled missile has long been expected to be replaced with China’s new DF-31/31A missiles. Despite its vulnerabilities stemming from being launched at stationary sites, as well as needing several hours for fuelling before launch, the DF-5A has not yet been retired despite the recent introduction of the DF-31/31A missiles.
- DF-21: Believed to have taken over as China’s regional deterrent missile, the medium-range (>2100 km) DF-21 has increasingly replaced the DF-3A and DF-4 missiles. First deployed in 1991, it has since undergone several modifications, including modifications intended for a conventional role (DF-21C and the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile). The dual role of this missile has raised worries over crisis stability, as it could become difficult to assess whether a DF-21 missile would be armed with a nuclear or conventional warhead.
- DF-31: Introduced around 2005-2007, the DF-31 is a road-mobile, solid-fuelled three-stage missile with a limited intercontinental range (>7)00 km), enabling it to hit Alaska, Russia and Europe.
- DF-31A: Being a modification to the DF-31, the DF-31A was introduced simultaneously with the DF-31. Despite its similarities, the missile has a significantly increased range (>11200 km), making it a true intercontinental-range ballistic missile able to strike the continental United States. Together with the DF-31 and DF-21 missiles, this missile has shown China’s shift towards mobile- and solid-fuelled missiles.
- DF-41: While the missile has not yet entered China’s strategic forces, the DF-41 is believed to be developed as a intercontinental-range successor to China’s oldest ICBM, the DF-5A. Little is known about the development status of China’s newest intercontinental-range ballistic missile, but a recent accidental information slip indicates that the missile could be armed with multiple independently re-targetable warheads (MIRVs). The missile has frequently been pictured on mobile launchers, and is believed to continue the trend towards more road-mobile and solid-fuelled ballistic missiles.
Being the least developed leg of its nuclear triad, China has made considerable efforts to develop its sea-based nuclear forces. The sea-based triad leg has been focused exclusively on ballistic missile submarines, where China gained a rudimentary capability in 1981 by the launching of its single Xia-class ballistic missile submarine, a submarine which likely never entered service. Since then, China has developed a second class of ballistic missile submarines (the Jin-class). The Jin-class is believed by the US Department of Defence to have begun active deterrent patrols in late 2014.
- JL-1: Being fitted on the Xia-class, the JL-1 is a medium-range (>1700 km) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), based on the DF-21 missile design. The Xia-class carries 12 solid-fuelled, two-stage JL-1 missiles.
- JL-2: The JL-2 missile has given China a sea-based ballistic missile capability with a much longer range (>7000 km), enabling China to strike Alaska off the Chinese mainland coast. Based on the DF-31 design and deployed on the newer Jin-class submarines, the JL-2 is a three-stage solid-fuelled missile. 12 missiles of these missiles are fitted on each Jin-class submarine.
Nuclear weapons modernization
Despite often exaggerated US claims about the size of Chinese nuclear weapons modernization programmes, China nevertheless continues its practice of modernizing its nuclear forces both in size and quality. An uncertainty is especially related to how China might continue to react to US development of ballistic missile defence systems. A master thesis published on the subject in 2014 by the University of Oslo, found that China currently takes a wide range of countermeasures towards US ballistic missile defence systems. One such countermeasure could be evident by the way that China has gradually been increasing the number of intercontinental-range nuclear ballistic missiles (ICBM) able to strike the continental US, which could allow China greater certainty of overwhelming missile defences in the event of a retaliatory strike.
China is currently also undergoing a modernization in terms of the quality of its strategic ballistic missiles. Judging by the introduction of China’s new ballistic missiles over the 15 years, China currently undergoes a shift from liquid-fuelled to solid state-fuelled ballistic missiles, as well as a shift from stationary (silo-based or otherwise) to road-mobile missiles located on mobile vertical erector launchers. The shift seems to be mainly due to a Chinese desire to decrease the vulnerability of its small number of strategic forces.
As China’s older stationary and liquid-fuelled missiles could require up to 24 hours to fuel before a launch at a stationary site, the shift allows China to have launch-ready missiles on active patrols at unknown locations around the country, making targeting of China’s ballistic missile forces vastly more difficult and thereby decreasing their vulnerability.
Last, there is a growing body of evidence that China seeks to counter US ballistic missile defence systems by developing specific missile defence countermeasures, such as electronic jamming and chaff dispersal, decoy warheads, research and tests of new hypersonic and manoeuvrable delivery vehicles, research and tests of anti-satellite weaponry to counter US ability to track missiles from space, as well as what might be a multiple independently re-targetable warhead (MIRV) capability on its newest strategic missile after there was a recent accidental slip of information on a Chinese government website.
Both US intelligence services and the US Department of Defense frequently release reports that have concluded that China is greatly expanding and modernizing its missile forces. While correct, the pace and scope of these modernizations have continuously been proven to be far less ambitious than claimed.
While current Chinese missile modernization programmes were initiated in the 1980’s, these programmes have only recently been finished or are still in development. For instance, China’s new intercontinental-range, solid-fuelled and road-mobile missiles (having ranges between 7200 and 11200 km, allowing China to strike India, Russia and parts of the continental US) were believed to be first deployed in the timespan between 2005-2007.
While the general assumption is that China’s strategic missile forces only carry one nuclear warhead per missile, China retains the option to deploy multiple warheads (MRV/MIRV) per missile, allowing China to strike multiple targets and increase its target coverage. While China is believed to have the technical capacity to introduce multiple warheads for its older missiles, it is believed that China so far has refrained from this measure. Uncertainties do however remain on China’s ability to introduce MRV/MIRV warheads for its newer missile types. While sources in the US Department of Defense believe that such a capability would require more nuclear tests, a recent Chinese government website source (which was quickly censored, which could indicate a slip of unapproved classified information) claimed that China’s newest ICBM will have a MIRV capability.
The state of China’s nuclear arsenal on ballistic missile submarines remains uncertain today. While China has for a long time had a single ballistic missile submarine (the Xia-class) with the capability of carrying 12 ballistic missiles, China is currently developing a far more ambitious ballistic missile submarine programme. 3-4 of these have so far been assumed to exist based on satellite images, with rumours of a total of up to six submarines being planned for the future.
The new Jin-class of submarines are assumed to be carrying 12 nuclear-tipped three-stage ballistic missiles each, which means that the number of Chinese nuclear ballistic missiles could rise sharply by another 36-72 in the near future, causing a drastic increase in the rather small Chinese nuclear arsenal.
Uncertainties remain however as to whether the submarines will actually carry launch-ready missiles mated with nuclear warheads, as China has had a long practice of keeping tight political control over its nuclear arsenal by storing warheads separately from the missiles at central depots. As effective nuclear deterrence through submarine patrols would require on-board nuclear-armed missiles ready to be launched from the submarines in the event of an attack, this requirement breaks the ability of China’s political leadership to maintain tight political control over its nuclear warheads through separate storage. While US Pacific Command believes that China will begin active deterrent patrols with the new Jin-class submarines during the year 2014, these rumours have so far been unconfirmed.
Increases in nuclear arsenal
China has only to a limited extent conducted reductions in its nuclear weapons systems. While some uncertainty remains, China’s medium-range DF-3A missile seems to have been sharply reduced in numbers or phased out completely. This also applies to China’s intermediate-range (IRBM) DF-4 missile, which has decreased in numbers over the last 15 years from 20 to about 12.
However, the decrease in these missile types seems to have been slightly offset by the introduction of the DF-21 type medium-range missiles, which has increased from about 40 to about 60. There is also significant uncertainty as to whether these missiles will have a strict nuclear or conventional role as the missiles currently seem to fulfil both roles. This could decrease crisis stability if such missiles are used in conflict, as there would be significant uncertainty as to whether they would carry a nuclear warhead or not.
While earlier reports in the 2000’s suggested that China had slowed, halted or even abandoned development of its next-generation ICBM, the DF-41, there is growing evidence of the existence of this missile and what might be its soon introduction to China’s nuclear forces. Such evidence entails recent tests of a missile that matches the missile’s described characteristics, as well as the recent Chinese government news website acknowledging the DF-41s existence and MIRV capability. The rapid censoring of the article could indicate a strong piece of evidence for the DF-41s existence and MIRV capability.
A recent trend in China’s nuclear ballistic missile forces has been the significant impact carried by the introduction of the DF-31 and DF-31A type missiles, both being ICBMs but with different maximum ranges (7200 and 11200 km respectively). As per 2014, SIPRI estimates suggest that about 20 each of these missiles had been deployed on road-mobile launchers, increasing China’s intercontinental nuclear capability by 40 missiles. While the introduction of these missiles had earlier been believed to be replacement missiles for the older silo-based DF-5A missile, there is currently no evidence of China having dismantled its 20 DF-5A missiles.
This leads to a net increase from 20 to currently 60 intercontinental range nuclear ballistic missiles. With the possible future addition of the DF-41 missile, this might further suggest net increases in Chinese ICBMs unless older missile types are correspondingly phased out as new missiles are introduced.
Up until 2005 it was believed that China had about 400 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. In 2005 however, the US Department of Defense published a detailed analysis of the Chinese nuclear arsenal through its annual report on China’s military capacity. The report, as well as a rare statement by China’s foreign minister on the size of China’s nuclear forces, has caused the estimates to be reduced by about half. This does not mean that China has conducted disarmament measures, but indicates that earlier estimates were simply wrong.
The role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy
China’s continued practice of silence and opacity on matters of national security makes detailed reports difficult. A Chinese white paper issued by China’s government in 2006 states that China is currently focusing its security strategy around three key areas:
- Promote national economic development.
- Promote national unity.
- Maintain state sovereignty and territorial integrity (26).
China views its nuclear arsenal – being the smallest or second-smallest among the five official nuclear weapons states – as key to its defence strategy, despite China maintaining its vocal commitment to global disarmament of nuclear weapons. In a 2006 government white paper, the purpose of China’s nuclear weapons arsenal is described as providing a deterrent to nuclear attack on China or threats of attack against national interests.
According to the white paper, China maintains the principles of counterattack in self-defence and a limited development of nuclear weapons. Chinese authorities have a stated goal of maintaining a small and effective nuclear arsenal, unilaterally declaring that China will not enter a nuclear arms race with another country.
In 1964, immediately following China’s first nuclear test, China’s political leadership stated that China would be committed to a no-first-use-policy – in other words stating that China would never be the first country to use nuclear weapons against an enemy. China’s limited nuclear arsenal was imagined to provide deterrence against attack, as well as being used in a counter-strike against an enemy that had already attacked China with nuclear weapons. The Chinese government has repeatedly confirmed its position in the 50 years following its unilateral commitment.
Fissile material inventory
Similar to other countries that do not declare their fissile material inventories to the IAEA, some difficulties arise in assessing the stock size of Chinese military-grade fissile material. Despite this, China has informally declared that it has ceased highly-enriched Uranium (HEU) production, as well as indicating a halt to Plutonium production. This is however difficult to verify due to a lack of Chinese transparency.
Last update: March 15, 2017