China's Changing Nuclear Posture

Jon Wolfsthal April 30, 1999
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Proliferation Roundtable
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April 30, 1999

Presentation of Robert S. Norris
Senior Analyst, Nuclear Program, Natural Resources Defense Council


[Dr. Robert Norris is one of the nation's leading authorities on the the history of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons deployments and doctrine.  Among other works, he is the author of British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons, Taking Stock:  Worldwide Nuclear Deployments 1998 and "Nuclear Notebook," a regular feature of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  His research is available on line at the web site of the Natural Resources Defense Council]

 

Joseph asked me to speak for about 15 minutes to introduce the weapons systems themselves. I thought what I would do is offer a few themes about what I see as Chinese trends over the decades, then look at the weapons themselves.

By way of starting to look at the first theme let me read a few sentences from a book I wrote in 1993: "Two mobile missile programs are in development, the DF-31 and DF-41." I describe what we know about them (they actually date back to the '70s), and note that they will be deployed sometime in the future.

One of the handouts was the NRDC Nuclear Notebook that I do in each issue with Bill Arkin. Here we are six years later and we say, "Two future ballistic missiles are often mentioned in newspaper accounts but very little is known about them, the DF-31 and DF-41. More than likely these missiles would have improved accuracy and guidance, mobile launch platforms, solid fuel technology and possibly multiple warheads. Neither the DF-31 nor DF-41 has begun flight-testing. It could take many years before either missile is deployed. If they are fielded it is not known how many missiles might be deployed or how many warheads they might carry."

These statements introduce my first theme: Chinese weapons program take enormous length of time to be researched, developed, tested, produced, deployed and fully fielded. That is the case when we look at the whole range of weapons beginning back in the 50's, and it continues to be the case today. In the booklet that Joseph mentioned there is an excellent paragraph that I borrowed from David Shambaugh: "It is important not to confuse ambition with capability. The PLA's doctrinal desires at present stand in sharp contrast to its severely limited capabilities. The PLA's current weapons inventory remains 10 to 20 years behind the state-of-the-art, in almost all categories, although some gaps are being closed."

Now to introduce my second theme: Chinese weapon development over the decades has been largely derivative. It began in the 50's in close cooperation with the Soviet Union, apparently where everything was shared. In fact, the Soviet Union was going to give China a full bomb. In terms of the blueprints for the uranium enrichment facilities and rocket technolog, the Chinese started off with a head start with the Soviet designs. Although they have moved forward from that, it is still obvious that Shambaugh's assessment is correct: that we are talking about weapons systems that are decades behind the state-of-the-art. It's not surprising at all that if you want to close that gap and gain new knowledge that you're going to try to get it from the world leader. I don't often quote Henry Kissinger, but he did say the other day in response to stories of Chinese espionage -- modern powers spy on one another. So it's hardly surprising that China is going to try to gain through illicit means or legal means every advantage it can. In the end, it will always be behind and will never really be doing it itself, which I think is just a fact of the Chinese systems.

When we look at the legs of their mini-triad in some detail, I think these themes come through. The air leg is not very good. The Hong-6 bomber is a knock off of the Badger. This is something that not many of us would get in, much less to use as a weapon. There were reports that there was a Hong-7 in development, but according to Jonathan Pollack at RAND who talked to Chinese air force generals, the Hong-7 is not apparently going to have a nuclear mission, and it will not be their own airplane for this part of the air leg. They could use what they buy from the Russians, and they are buying planes from the Russians.  And that is my point about being derivative, and having to rely on your security on somebody else. Russian planes are rather good, but again China has not made them.

If we look at the SLBM story it is even a sadder story than the aircraft. There were endless predictions that the Chinese were producing a Xia class SSBN and then finally there was only one. Can you imagine the military deciding to spend billions of dollars for a submarine program that produces one submarine? This is a massive failure. We know that the Chinese have not mastered nuclear reactor technology or ballistic missile technology to be fired underwater. If you would not get in the Hong-6, I would not get near the submarine at all. There are some hair-raising stories about some of the test flights where not everything went well. There are rumors that a new submarine class is in development. When Joseph holds this seminar 3 years from now and invites me back, I will probably repeat the quote that I just stated this morning: that it continues in development.

Lastly we look at the strongest leg, which is the land-based ballistic missiles.   They come in various shapes and sizes and ranges. The top of the line is the DF-5, first introduced in 1981. For many, many years they fielded four. We've had a spurt in recent years and the arsenal appears to be up to 20.

Here again, we have a program that was introduced in 1981. The real derivative technology dates back to the 60's. It is a huge, liquid fueled, single warhead, multi-megaton missile. The DF-31 and -41, I would suspect, are going to be an improvement on these missiles. This is hardly surprising since every military in the world wants better weapons. The natural evolution of the modernizing process is part and parcel of every military in the world.

I think I've just about used up all my time. There are many questions and ambiguities about the Chinese arsenal, and about its future directions. Claims about tactical nuclear weapons have been ambiguous. Even whether or not the M-9 and the M-11 have nuclear capability. This is the deterrence posture that they have adopted: ambiguity. They have been superb at it. Superb at keeping it from me and keeping it from everyone. There are decoy silos and all sorts of funny business here that mask what's real and what's not real. By no means do I claim what is definitive here. This is my best guest. It's to be continued.

Joseph told us this was not about the Chinese espionage issue. But having doing little else in the past week and being worn out about it, it does reconfirm one of my points about being derivative, although the scale of this is potentially quite large. We're not sure if it did go outside of the fence. Of course, it is entirely possible that we may never know what transpired. Espionage, especially atomic espionage, has a long history of remaining inconclusive, incomplete and ambiguous. I only need to draw your attention back to the great atomic spy cases of the Manhattan project, which we are still learning about. Theodore Hall with the Joe Albright book, and probably more. The famous Cambridge 5, which we thought was 3 then was 4 and now it's 5. So here we are 5 decades after these situation have transpired and we still are learning more details about espionage. With this case maybe our grandchildren will be uncovering things about this matter.


 

 

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Source carnegieendowment.org/1999/04/30/china-s-changing-nuclear-posture/2exz
 

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