China is slowly modernizing its strategic nuclear forces. There is no evidence to suggest either an acceleration of the program or any near-term threat to the United States. Chinese doctrine is centered around the maintenance of a "limited nuclear deterrent" capable of launching a retaliatory strike after an adversary's nuclear attack. The design and deployment of China's nuclear forces have been shaped by two key concerns: the survival of a second strike capability and the potential deployment of missile defense systems.

Second Strike

China currently has the capability to strike U.S. cities with its force of approximately 20 long-range Dong Feng-5 missiles, each armed with a 4- to 5-megaton thermonuclear warhead. However, the preparation time for these liquid fueled ICBMs, the lack of hardened missile silos, and a lack of mobility have raised some concern in the Chinese leadership about the ability of these forces to survive a first strike. Additionally, its sea-based force (currently only one Xia submarine armed with 12 medium-range ballistic missiles) does not pose a credible threat to either Moscow or Washington. The Xia has never sailed outside China's territorial waters and is considered vulnerable to modern anti-submarine warfare techniques. By comparison, the United States maintains 5,500 strategic warheads on its land- and sea-based missiles.

The DF-31 missile flight tested last month (and the object of concern in a December 12 Washington Times story) is an intermediate-range (8,000 km), mobile missile that began tests in the 1980s and could enter service in the next few years. It would replace the 20 DF-4s China now fields. China recently cancelled development of the new, mobile ICBM with a 12,000 km-range, the DF-41, to replace the DF-5s. A new program is expected, but has not yet been announced. China had hoped to field a new ICBM by 2010, but that target date will likely slip.

Missile Defense

Chinese concerns over the Strategic Defense Initiative, announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, reportedly spurred plans to develop multiple warhead technology. The first test of a multiple warhead missile took place in September 1984. While similar tests have been conducted on several missile types since then (most recently, the DF-31 was tested 2 August 1999 with a dummy warhead and several decoys), no missile currently deployed is thought to carry multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs. So far, Chinese concerns over possible deployment of missile defenses in Japan or Taiwan or a national defense system for the United States have produced sharp rhetoric, but little change in existing modernization plans.

A few conservative analysts see an anti-US conspiracy in every Chinese action or use China's program to justify a massive new national missile defense system for the US. However, the pace of China's program remains as slow has it has been in the past.

Robert Norris, a recognized authority on China's nuclear force, told experts at a Carnegie roundtable on "China's Changing Nuclear Posture" last year: "Chinese weapons programs take an enormous length of time to be researched, developed, tested, produced, deployed and fully fielded. This is the case when we look at the whole range of weapons beginning back in the 1950's, and it continues to be the case today.

"There is an excellent paragraph that I've 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.'"