How big is China’s nuclear arsenal?

How big is China’s nuclear arsenal?

Arms control advocates such as Jeffrey Lewis of the “Center for Nonproliferation Studies” (he was previously with the Soros-funded New America Foundation) believe that it consists of only a few hundred (240-400) warheads. In fact, this has become an article of religious faith for arms control advocates.

US intelligence agencies (which have, for decades, vastly underestimated, and continue to underestimate, the capabilities of America’s potential adversaries, including China) still hold on to their 1980s’ estimate that China has only a few hundred warheads.

But others have done studies which indicate a much different result.

Georgetown University professor (and former nuclear weapon strategist) Dr Philip A. Karber and his students have done a holistic, unbiased study which concluded that based on China’s 3,000 mile long network of military tunnels and bunkers for its missiles and warheads, China has up to 3,000 nuclear warheads.

Former Russian Strategic Rocket Forces chief of staff Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin (who has close ties to the Kremlin and is privy to classified information) has done his own study in which  he concludes that China has 1,600-1,800 nuclear warheads, if not more. He based this conclusion on current Russian estimates of China’s stockpile of fissile material (weapons-grade uranium and plutonium), which he estimates to be sufficient for 3,600 nuclear warheads (but says not all of it has been used so far to build actual warheads, only half of it).

So who’s right and who’s wrong?

We’ll look at four clues or indications of what China’s actual nuclear arsenal size may be, and then we’ll also see if anyone on the size of this debate may have an agenda to lie, or at least to mislead.

First, the tunnels. Their length alone should tell us that China has far more than 300-400 nuclear warheads. You don’t build such a vast network of tunnels to hide only 300 warheads; such a huge construction project for such small purposes would’ve been financially unfeasible (in other words, a huge waste of money). The Chinese wouldn’t have built it for just 300 warheads (and the fact that they did is documented and has been publicly admitted by the DOD). You don’t build 10 miles of tunnels for one warhead. Common sense alone should tell you that such a network has been built for a far larger arsenal of warheads and missiles.

Since the Chinese have built it, it can only serve one purpose: to conceal a large arsenal. China has at least 30 DF-31 ICBMs, some DF-41 ICBMs, at least 80 DF-21 MRBMs, and over a thousand SRBMs – all of which are on mobile launchers – to hide in such tunnels. Hiding them there, and driving them on their TELs out of their tunnels only in a crisis, greatly increases their survivability.

AirPowerAustralia experts have discovered that China has also built a similar network of bunkers and tunnels for its combat aircraft, nearby their bases, to increase their survivability. These aircraft are normally kept in such bunker-hangars and hauled out of them only when needed for a mission. Such bunkers and tunnels – both those for aircraft and those for ICBMs – cannot be destroyed except with very powerful earth-penetrating weapons. This, along with concealment, is what makes assets hidden in them so survivable. As the House Armed Services Committee has rightly noted, this greatly diminishes America’s ability to hold these Chinese assets at risk.

Second, Col. Gen. Yesin’s estimates of China’s fissile material stockpiles. China has an indigenous weapons-grade uranium and plutonium production capability, thanks to the reactors, machinery, know-how, and scientists supplied by Russia; Moscow reportedly also continues to deliver Russian-produced fissile materials to the Middle Kingdom.

China has been producing fissile material for decades, and the general estimates, based on Chinese production rates (and perhaps Russian intelligence data that he’s privy to but we’re not) that by 2011, China accumulated 40 tons of weapons-grade uranium and 10 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. This is enough for 3,600 warheads, but the general conservatively estimates that, like other nuclear powers, China has not used all of this material for weapon production yet – “only” half or more. Based on that, the general conservatively estimates China’s nuclear arsenal to consist of 1,600-1,800 warheads.

Yesin also lists the designations of Chinese warheads, their yield, and what carriers they’re designed for (p. 3). This includes the Q-5 theater bomber, the H-6 bomber, the JL-1 and JL-2 SLBMs, the DF-11 and DF-15 SRBMs, the DF-21 MRBM, the DF-4 IRBM, and the DF-5A and DF-31/31A ICBMs. Yesin says China was, as of 2011, developing MIRV buses and a MIRVable ICBM. This was confirmed by US intel this year, and China tested such buses (and the MIRVable DF-41 ICBM) this year.

Each H-6, JH-7, and Q-5 aircraft carries only one nuclear bomb, and China has 440 such warheads, with one bomb assigned to each aircraft (although in peacetime the aircraft are not armed, even though the bombs are located on-base). Thus, the number of China’s nuclear bombs alone is higher than the total inventory which Western arms control advocates claim for China.

Yesin estimates that the land-based leg has at least 360 deployed warheads: 48 deployed on ICBMs, 99 on DF-3, DF-4, and DF-21 M/IRBMs, and the rest on SRBMs and ground-launched Donghai-10 cruise missiles. These inventories are underestimated, however (see below).

Yesin understates China’s naval component, though: he says it consists of only 2 Jin class SSBNs besides the 1 Xia class boat, with only 45 warheads in total. This is clearly incorrect: 5 Jin class boats have been commissioned, and another one is under construction. Furthermore, one Jin can carry up to 24 SLBMs, so even if MIRVs haven’t been installed on them yet, that makes the 5 Jins capable of delivering 5*24=120 warheads. The Xia class boat adds another 12.

Yesin adds that

“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.”

Yesin’s data is from 2011, not from decades ago, so it’s credible, and he’s privy to intelligence that Western arms control advocates are not. So his study has to be considered credible.

Missile carriage capacity

As of 2012, China has more delivery systems than Yesin says it had last year. In addition to the 440 Q-5 and H-6 aircraft he mentioned, with 1 warhead each, China has 36 DF-5 and at least 30 DF-31/31A ICBMs, as well as an unknown (but small) quantity of DF-41 ICBMs; 80 DF-21 and 30 DF-3 MRBMs; 20 DF-4 IRBMs; and an unknown but huge quantity of DF-11, B-611, and DF-15 SRBMs and DH-10 land-attack ground-launched cruise missiles (most Chinese SRBMs and GLCMs are likely conventionally-armed, however).

In 2009 alone, China paraded 20 DF-31A ICBMs (in five groups of four) in Tiananmen Square during its National Day Parade. If China could use 20 DF-31A ICBMs just for parade, that should by itself be a big clue that China has many more of them just 20-30.

In addition, the Navy has 1 Xia class boat with 12 JL-1 SLBMs, and 5 Jin boats with up to 24 SLBMs each.

Even so, they can carry a lot of warheads – far more than arms control advocates claim. The math works as follows:

36*2 DF-5 warheads + 30 DF-31s +30 DF-3s + 20*3 DF-4 warheads + 12 JL-1s + 5*24*4 JL-2 warheads + 1*10 DF-41 warheads = 72 + 30 + 20 + 60 + 12 +480 +10 =734 warheads carried on those missiles. And that’s a conservative estimate, with an assumption that only one DF-41 ICBM has entered service yet.

And that’s before adding China’s 440 aircraft-carried nuclear bombs. Adding them increases the stockpile to 1174 warheads.

And all of that is without adding any China’s SRBMs and GLCMs. If any of them have nuclear warheads, that increases the stockpile (and the delivery system fleet) still further while not substracting warheads from the forementioned delivery systems (which, according to Yesin, do have warheads attributed to them).

Moreover, China has already tested MIRV buses, and if its DF-5 and DF-31 ICBMs are armed with just 2 warheads each, that would dramatically increase their warhead carriage capacity. Recall that America’s sole ICBM, the Minuteman III, can carry only 3 warheads. The DF-31 can carry at least three, and the DF-41 ten. If DF-5, DF-31, and DF-4 missiles are MIRVed, as they will likely be if not MIRVed already, China’s warhead delivery capability, even without SRBMs and LACMs counted in, will be as follows:

Warhead delivery system Inventory Maximum warheads deliverable per system Maximum warhead delivery capacity
DF-5 ICBM 36 At least 2 72
H-6, Q-5, and JH-7 aircraft 440 1 440
DF-31 30 3-4 90
DF-41 1? 10 10?
DF-3 30 1 30
DF-4 20 3 60
DF-21 80 1 80
JL-1 12 1 12
JL-2 120 4 480
DH-10 nuclear armed LACM ? ? ?
DF-11/15 nuclear armed SRBM 1,600 ? ?
Total 1,129 Various 1,274

As you can see, China has at least 1,129 intercontinental and medium range nuclear delivery systems capable of delivering, collectively, 1,274 warheads. And that’s without counting any of its SRBMs or GLCMs, and optimistically assuming that DF-5 ICBMs can carry only two warheads.

Last but not least, China has many potential targets for such warheads, and thus, a large need for them. Potential targets include Japan (whom China might attack over the Senkaku dispute), Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Russia, and the US. Russia and the US are China’s biggest rivals and have the largest nuclear arsenals on Earth, hence, China needs to match them. India is China’s biggest regional rival and its nuclear arsenal is growing, hence China’s need to counter it.

Western disarmament advocates reject Professor Karber’s and General Yesin’s studies as “alarmist” and “based on outdated information”. They still claim that China has only a few hundred warheads. So which side is telling the truth?

Based on the available evidence, Karber and Yesin are far more likely to be right. Does either side have any incentive to lie, or at least mislead?

Arms control advocates do. They openly state that they wish to see the US disarm itself (most of them even support unilateral disarmament), regardless of what China does. Thus, they have every incentive to mislead people into thinking that it can be done safely and to reject anything that doesn’t jibe with their beliefs.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that they’ve attacked Karber and Yesin ferociously, as they realize that these two experts and their studies  constitute a huge threat to their agenda of unilaterally disarming the US. Lifelong unilateral disarmament advocate Hans Kristensen has already accused Professor Karber and those who use his report of being opponents of arms reduction.

US intelligence agencies, which have repeatedly been proven wrong on many issues, including China’s military prowess, and where many executives and worked for many years to distort the truth, have an incentive to hide the truth to avoid public embarassment.

Karber and Yesin have no such incentive and no agenda I know of. They don’t even oppose arms control per se; Yesin only wants China to be included in the next rounds of arms reduction agreements. They have no reason to lie.

Thus, based on the lack of such incentive and on the abundance of evidence and clues that China’s arsenal is far larger than frequently claimed, it’s more likely that Karber and Yesin are right. In any case, it’s certain that China’s arsenal is far larger than a mere 400 warheads.

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