China’s True Nuclear Power

I always thought it weird China had the smallest arsenal of the world’s five NPT nuclear-weapons states. In broad strategic terms, this would make it very vulnerable to the US, especially given the latter’s development of ABM technologies, which would potentially give it the choice of an annihilating first strike.

In late 2009, China went public with the news that it has a 5,000km system of tunnels, known as the Underground Great Wall (地下长城). This did not get much attention in the West apart from a small article at Jamestown, until a student group at Georgetown University compiled a long report on the 2nd Artillery Division’s tunnels which got wide coverage in the MSM. One of the most critical implications is that the PLA’s nuclear arsenal may well be underestimated by an order of magnitude, numbering about 3,500, with profound consequences for US – Russia disarmament talks. You can read about it, look at photos, or you can watch the video below which has the added bonus of featuring inspiring Chinese patriotic music.

The skeptics such as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and FAS* argue that such estimates are alarmist, hurt the case of disarmament, and implausible. China doesn’t have enough highly enriched uranium, and indeed, China’s tunnel system reflects its strategic weakness i.e. the lack of a proper nuclear triad and vulnerability of its land-based forces to an American first strike, hence the need to dig in deep. Project head Karber addresses most of these criticisms, noting that plutonium from civilian reactors hasn’t been converted and remains unaccounted for, and that in any case the Chinese constructed an underground reactor during the Third Front period. As for delivery, missile production isn’t all that technically complex and it is certainly feasible to build them underground far away from prying satellite cameras.

To me the idea that China would have 3,000 as opposed to 300 nuclear weapons sounds far more intuitive. I mean why else would you build so, so many tunnels? Besides, there’s the elementary issue of guaranteeing strategic security, and truly establishing itself as a superpower in nuclear terms, in addition to its already existing prominence in economics and international politics.

Even if one were to disregard this Sino Triumphalist perspective however the photos below will surely be of interest to many China watchers and military buffs.

Digging tunnels.

Beginning to look well-formed.

The workers look very disciplined.

Imagine having a civilization like this at your disposal!

Oh snap what have we here?

The Underground Great Wall, shining bright like a subterranean milky way!

The rail junctures will come in handy if hostile action severs one of the tunnels, in which case the rail car carrying the missile will take another route.

The heroes of the 2nd Artillery division, admiring their work… or more likely wargaming thermonuclear war?

Missile truck emerging from a tunnel portal onto an outdoors launch pad.

* It should also be noted that FAS / The Bulletin have a vested interest in opposing the idea that China has many more nuclear weapons than it admits to, as (1) it would mean they were very wrong for a long time; and (2) it would torpedo disarmament talks with Russia, as doing so would just mean ceding nuclear primacy to China. That said, also note that on its own website, FAS writes: “due to the emphasis that China has placed on concealment of its special weapons capabilities, it is doubtful whether any other country, perhaps even including the United States, has identified all of China’s special weapons related facilities.”

Comments

  1. Fascinating! On the subject of the number of nuclear weapons I would not be at all surprised if you are right. Bear in mind that Chinese exploded its first nuclear device in the mid 1960s so it has had plenty of time to build up its arsenal and develop the technology.

    Incidentally a little known fact about the Cold War is that the USSR in the 1950s made a public promise to provide China with nuclear weapons and technology at a time when China still did not have them. It withdrew its promise following a visit to China by Gromyko during which Mao chatted freely about which side, the capitalist or the socialist, would win a nuclear war. This was one of the events that eventually led to the Sino Soviet dispute.

    By the way there is a very weird Hollywood movie from the 1950s or 1960s (the peak years of Cold War Sinophobia) in which the Chinese build gigantic tunnels across the Pacific Ocean and right beneath the US as part of a fiendish plot of world conquest. It really is an extraordinary film bringing together all the racist anti Chinese tropes in one place. Interesting to see that the Chinese really are the tunnelling experts the film said they were.

    Post #2: Here we are though it turns out the film was British rather than American.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_Beneath_the_Earth

  2. Very interesting subject.
    I noticed also some time ago the ridiculous small numbers for China’s strategic forces.
    For the time being we can only speculate, but I personally strongly believe the real numbers are much higher, maybe in the 3000 range you mentioned.

  3. Nice piece — you might find the article below of interest.

    Colonel General (ret.) Viktor Yesin, “Third after the United States & Russia: On China’s Nuclear Potential without Underestimation or Exaggeration,” published in Voenno-promyshlenyi Kur’er (or VPK) [Military-Industrial Courier], issue # 17, (2 May 2012) in Russian at .

    At present, the People’s Republic of China is the only one of the five nuclear weapons states officially recognized under the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, that provides no official information about themselves. With the goal of political propaganda, Beijing argues that the PRC’s nuclear weapons are insignificant in number and are not comparable with the analogous potential of such members of the “nuclear five” as the United States and the Russian Federation. But apparently, the Chinese nuclear arsenal may consist of up to 1800 warheads.

    Quantitative evaluations of this arsenal given by the expert community fluctuate within a very wide range: from 240-300 to 10,000 nuclear weapons. In this article, I’ll try to formulate my conclusion on the nuclear capacity of our neighbor.

    Figures Close to Reality

    China has a developed military nuclear industry, entirely self-sufficient for serial production of the entire spectrum of nuclear munitions from aviation bombs to missile warheads for various intended purposes. In China there are two virtually independent groups of companies – both North and South, each of which includes factories for production of special fissile materials, nuclear weapons components, and the assembly of nuclear weapons. The Northern Group consists of four production centers. They are located in Baotou (in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia); Kurunor (Qinghai Province); Lanzhou and Ûjmyn (both of which are in Gansu Province). In the Southern Group there are three such centers: in Guangyuan, Èbyân, and Jitong (all of them are in Sichuan Province).

    Assessment of the capacity of the Chinese factories that supply special fissionable materials (based on real timelines for their operation), indicates that as of 2011 these enterprises could have produced up to 40 tons of weapons-grade uranium and about 10 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. This is enough material for the production of about 3,600 nuclear warheads (1,600 using uranium and 2,000 using plutonium).

    Based on the practice of other States within the “nuclear five”, it is likely that the entire accumulated weapon-usable nuclear material in China is not used for the production of warheads. Stockpiles of such material may comprise half or more of the total produced quantity of weapons-grade material. Based on this assumption, there are probably 1600-1800 warheads in the Chinese nuclear arsenal. According to assessments, 800-900 warheads from this number may be operationally deployed, with the rest in long-term storage for utilization after the fixed exploitation deadlines of operationally deployed warheads.

    Undoubtedly, these calculations are approximate and are not claimed to be 100% accurate; nevertheless, it seems that they are much closer to reality than those maximum figures cited at the beginning of this article.

    Different Power and Different Destination

    With regard to the nomenclature of nuclear munitions produced by the military nuclear industry of China, it includes:
    Aircraft bomb B-4 (several modifications ranging in capacity from 5 to 20 kilotons each) for the fighter-bomber “Ziang-5″ and other tactical strike aircraft;
    Aircraft bomb B-5 (capacity up to two megatons) for the long-range bomber “Hong-6” (license variant of the Soviet long-range bomber Tu-16);
    Single-warhead (two modifications up to two megatons each) for the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) “Dongfeng-4” (DF-4) and the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) “Dongfeng-5A;”
    Single-warhead (capacity up to 500 kilotons) for the ICBM “Dongfeng-31;”
    Single-warhead (capacity up to 300 kilotons) for the “Dongfeng-31A” ICBM;
    Single-warhead (two modifications with the capacity up to 350 kilotons each) to the “Dongfeng-21, -21A” IRBM, and the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) “Tszûjlan-1″;
    Single-warhead (with several modifications ranging from five to 20 kilotons each) for operational-tactical missiles “Dongfeng-15, -15A, 15B” and “Dongfeng-11, 11A,” as well as the cruise missile “Donghai-10 (DH-10);”
    Single-warhead (capacity up to 500 kilotons) for the SLBM “Tsûjlan-2.”

    Also under development is an ICBM warhead with multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs). This warhead is designed to retrofit the “Dongfeng-5A” and “Dongfeng-31A” ICBMs, as well as the recent “Tszûjlan-2” SLBM. Presumably prototypes of MIRVs may have been produced in 2011, and now in the testing and evaluation phase.
    The Aviation Component

    The aviation component of Chinese nuclear forces consists of Strategic Aviation (SA), comprised of the long-range “Hong-6” bombers; and Tactical Aviation (TA) provided by the fighter-bombers “Qiang-5″ and other strike aircraft, a prototype of which was the Russian multipurpose fighter Su-30.

    Operational SA numbers about 60 “Hong-6″ bombers with about the same number in a storage mode. The maximum flight range of the bomber “Hong-6″ with one B-5 thermonuclear bomb in the internal bay is approximately 5,800 kilometers. Up to 120 B-5 bombs are allocated for delivery by these planes.

    A total of more than 300 “Qiang-5″ fighter-bombers are in the TA as well as other strike aircraft certified to perform the nuclear mission. Maximum flight range of the tactical aircraft with a single B-4 atomic bomb is 1,400-2,000 kilometers. 320 B-4 bombs are allocated for delivery by TA.
    .
    Thus, the total aircraft available for rapid delivery of B-4 and B-5 bombs total 440. In peacetime the bombs are stored on air force bases, but the aircraft are not armed.

    The Ground Component

    Consists of strategic missile forces and missile complexes of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) land troops.

    Strategic missile forces are comprised of the so-called Second Artillery of the PLA. They have six missile bases.

    The 51st missile base is located in Shenyang Military District, and is comprised of three missile brigades armed with mobile missile complex with the two-stage solid-propellant IRBM “Dongfeng-21″ (with a range of up to 2000 km). There are 28 launchers in total. Munitions total up to 35 missiles and 35 nuclear warheads.

    The 52nd missile base is located in the Nanking Military Region. It includes seven missile brigades, two of them are armed with mobile missiles launchers with the two-stage solid-propellant IRBM “Dongfeng-21A” (with a range of 2800-3000 kilometers), two other brigades with mobile missile launchers armed with the solid-propellant operational-tactical missle “Dongfeng-15, 15A, 15B” (with a range of up to 600 kilometers); and three brigades armed with mobile missile launchers with the solid-propellant operational-tactical missile “Dongfeng-11A” (with a range of up to 300 kilometers). Total 84 launchers (24 with the “Dongfeng-21” IRBM; 24 with operational-tactical missile “Dongfeng-15, 15A, 15B”) 36 with the operational-tactical missile “Dongfeng-11A”). Munitions for the IRBM “Dongfeng-21″ total up to 30 missiles and 30 nuclear warheads. The operational-tactical “Dongfeng-15, 15A, 15B” and “Dongfeng-11A” may be equipped with either high-explosive or nuclear warheads. The stored nuclear warheads for the operational-tactical missiles may total 30.

    The 53rd missile base is located in Chengdu Military District, which consists of two missile brigades armed with mobile missile launchers with the IRBM “Dongfeng-21, 21A. Launchers total 24, with up to 30 missiles and 30 nuclear warheads.

    The 54th missile base is located in Jinan Military District. It includes three missile brigades: the first one is armed with the two-stage liquid rocket “Dongfeng-5A” ICBM (with a range of up to 12,000 kilometers), the second one is armed with the liquid-fueled IRBM “Dongfeng-4″ (with a range of up to 5,200 kilometers), and the third one is equipped with a mobile missile system using the three-stage solid propellant ICBM “Dongfeng-31″ (with a range of up to 8,000 kilometers). Launchers total 24 (6 with ICBM “Dongfeng-5A,” 6 with the IRBM “Dongfeng-4”, and 12 with the ICBM “Dongfeng-31″), with up to 28 missiles and 28 nuclear warheads.

    The 55th missile base is located in Guangzhou Military District, which consists of two missile brigades armed with the ICBM “Dongfeng-5A,” and one missile brigade armed with the IRBM “Dongfeng-4”. Launchers total 17 (12 with the ICBM “Dongfeng-5A” and 5 with the IRBM “Dongfeng-4″), with up to 20 missiles and 20 nuclear warheads.

    The 56th missile base is located in Lanzhou Military District, consisting of two missile brigades: one armed with mobile missile launchers with the IRBM “Dongfeng-21″, the other is armed with the three-stage solid propellant ICBM “Dongfeng-31A” (with a range of up to 12,300 km). Launchers total 30 (12 with the “Dongfeng-21” IRBM, and 18 with the ICBM “Dongfeng-31A), with 35 nuclear missiles and 35 nuclear warheads.

    In total, 207 launchers are deployed in strategic missile troops (48 ICBMs, 99 IRBMs, and 60 with operation-tactical missiles). Ordnance for these launchers consists of 238 missiles and 208 nuclear warheads.

    With regard to the land troops, they have two types of ground mobile missile systems that can launch missiles with either conventional or nuclear warheads: the first is the solid-fueled operational-tactical missile “Dongfeng-11” (range up to 300 miles), the second is the “Donghai-10” ground-launched cruse missile (range is 1500-2000 km).

    The number of deployed launchers with the solid-fueled operational-tactical missile “Dongfeng-11″ is about 100, and between 350-500 of the “Donghai-10” ground-launched cruse missiles of the “Donghai-10″ type have been deployed. It is estimated that as many of 150 warheads for these operational-tactical missiles might be in storage.

    Thus, the land component of nuclear forces of the People’s Republic of China may be assumed to have deployed approximately 360 nuclear warheads. In peacetime, most of them are stored separately from the missiles, but, contrary to claims by some experts, not all, based on leaks in the [PRC] media (apparently sanctioned by the Chinese authorities).

    Proceeding from the fact that some missile brigades are held on constant alert, it can be assumed that some of the “Dongfeng-31, 31A” ICBMs are ready for immediate use with the sanction of the leadership of the country. Given the pragmatic people the Chinese are known to be, it can be assumed that the alert missiles are the rail-based launchers.

    And another fact that should be taken into consideration is the construction in the central provinces of China of a sophisticated system of underground tunnels capable of hosting large military equipment. The existence of such tunnels suggests that the Chinese may have a certain number of reserve mobile launchers with ballistic and cruise missiles as well as the nuclear warheads to arm them. At least this aspect should not be ignored when it comes to assessing the issue of the nuclear power of China.

    Maritime Component

    Includes two types of submarines capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles (SSBNs): one submarine is of “Sya” type of with 12 two-stage solid-propellant SLBM “Tszûjlan-1″ (with a range of up to 2,400 kilometers) and two submarines of the 094 project with 12 three-stage solid-propellant SLBM “Tszûjlan-2″ (with a range of up to 8,000 km).

    Construction of SSBNs type “Sya” and production of the “Tszûjlan-1″ was stopped in the 1990s. Th stockpile of nuclear warheads for the Tszûjlan-1 SLBM is estimated as 15.

    Construction of the 094 SSBN began in 2001. There is a plan to build at least 4 boats of this type and, according to some sources, not less than 5.

    Having been brought into the navy’s order of battle, the two 094 SSBNS involved in the project take part in combat patrols in the areas adjacent to the China seas. Their total operational ordinance is estimated at 30 “Tszûjlan-2″ and 30 nuclear warheads.

    Thus a total of 36 SLBMs of the “Tszûjlan-1, -2,” with an estimated 45 nuclear warheads are currently deployed in the maritime component of China’s nuclear forces.

    Prospects

    It seems that the vector of development of China’s nuclear forces will be largely determined by external factors. In particular, the development of a ballistic missile defense system by the United States, together with its allies, as well as the state of nuclear arsenals and means of their delivery by China’s neighbors, particularly by India. Perspectives for solving the protracted problem with Taiwan will have some impact as well.

    In the meantime, the future of China’s nuclear forces will have to be evaluated without the Chinese providing much in the way of official information to the expert community.

    Continued modernization of existing and serial production of new modifications of the “Hong-6” long-range bomber are planned for SA. They will be equipped with new strike and navigation equipment and will carry improved weapons ordinance, including air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) with nuclear warheads. The current prototype of this ALCM is the existing “Donghai-10 “.

    In perfecting the ground component of nuclear forces, emphasis is laid on equipping existing and perspective ballistic missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) and the means of overcoming a defending anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. Along with this, development of a new solid-propellant IRBM (“Dongfeng-type 25”) and ICBM (“Dongfeng-41″) are ongoing. The IRBM of a “Dongfeng-25” type is being created on the basis of the first and second stages of the “Dongfeng-31” ICBM, with a three MIRV warhead. It is supposed that the range of the new IRBM will be up to 4,000 kilometers, and is intended to replace the outdated “Dongfeng-4 IRBM”. The “Dongfeng-41″ type is designed as a universal rocket to be deployed in a mobile transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) mode as well as part of the existing rail-based system. According to the information available, this new ICBM will be equipped with a 6-10 MIRV warhead.

    The main efforts in the development of the maritime component of the nuclear forces are aimed at speeding up and improving the quality of construction of the SSBN 094 project, and exploiting the experience gained by the boats’ crews, and securing all modes of their sailing in the ocean zone. At the same time the SLBM “Tszûjlan-2″ will be modernized by supplying it with MIRVS. In addition, the establishment of the necessary infrastructure for SSBNS in the Hainan Island (South China Sea) is coming to its final stage.

    It is Inevitable

    This analysis shows that the nuclear capability of China is clearly underestimated. It is substantially greater than assessed by the Western expert community. Now China is the third power after the United States and Russia, and undoubtedly has the technical and economic possibilities, should be become necessary, to quickly ramp up its nuclear power.

    This means that it is necessary to take into account the Chinese factor when considering any of the next Russian-American agreements on the further reduction and limitation of nuclear weapons. It is time to bring China into multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Without accomplishing this, such negotiations will be unlikely to bring results.

  4. You might want to check with the real experts in this, because as far as I’m aware, this has been thoroughly debunked over at Arms Control Wonk – http://armscontrolwonk.com/

    Arms Control Wonk is blog central to many of the leading strategic weapons analysts – sometimes very technical but generally very thorough, with some superb investigatory work:

    See Jeffrey Lewis’s article at:
    http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/5460/yesin-on-chinas-nukes

  5. Yes yes yes; this is why you’re a Russian and not a Chinese; with regards to elegant solutions to military problems you’re not very adept.

    You’re assuming that the Chinese think that if they have enough tunnels to support 3,000 nukes, they’ll actually need to have 3,000 nukes to use all the tunnels; but you’re not thinking about it in terms of threat. Having the tunnel infrastructure to support 3,000 nukes is in itself a potential threat; it means that you’ve set an upper limit to the estimates of enemy analysts regarding how many nukes you have and this means they do have to consider the possibility you have 3,000 nukes. It creates strategic ambiguity, the counterparty assumes China has at least 100 nuclear warheads mated to missiles ready, but that number could also be 500, 1,000, 2,000, or 3,000. The ambiguity in itself is useful; because it means that the opponent is now more likely to select a suboptimal solution towards any estimate; they will always have to hedge against the possibility they got their estimate wrong and there’s more or less nukes than they expected.

    And of course, this doesn’t mean that China’s warhead count IS 100 nuclear warheads; it might be right now, or it could be 500, or it could be 1,000, but with the infrastructure already in place the Chinese can quickly build up 3,000 warheads + ICBMs at any time, so your estimate of their nuke count can be correct at a previous point in time, and then all of a sudden end up being wrong.

    And all of this, for doing something China is good at doing cheaply; building concrete tunnels into mountains, instead of having to spend money, effort, and time at actually filling those tunnels with nukes, which can always go wrong and would end up increasing instability from having a potentially dangerous deterrent.

    See what an elegant solution this is?

    ====

    For national mind-games, the American preference is poker, the Chinese preference is mah-jonng, not weiqi, and the Russian preference is chess. The Russians are admittedly excellent at Chess and chess is a breathtakingly complicated game with great mental demands, but it is a perfect information game; everything you need to know is already on the board.

    Mah-jonng is basically poker with tiles instead of cards, and both Mah-jonng and poker are imperfect information games, where being able to determine the flux of the board situation is less important than being able to read the intent of your opponents and figuring out how to manipulate them. The ability to play the opponent is the big advantage the Chinese and Americans have in geopolitics.