Dissecting Kristensen’s and Norris’s China nuke report, one lie at a time


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With funding from the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund and the New Land Foundation – whose goal is to disarm the US unilaterally – Hans M. Kristensen and Robert Norris of the FAS periodically publish a report claiming that China has only a few hundred nuclear warheads. In fact, even though they are rank amateurs who know absolutely nothing about nuclear weapons and have no access to any classified information, they claim to know almost exactly how many nuclear warheads China has: “approximately 250.”

Such a claim – without basis on any reliable source, including any reliable intelligence data – is downright laughable, of course. It is ridiculous to claim to know China’s nuclear arsenal with such precision when a) China hasn’t released any information on that, and b) one does not have access to any classified intelligence data.

That alone should completely disqualify Kristensen’s and Norris’s “report.” But I’ll nonetheless dissect and debunk it, one lie at a time, to prove that it’s complete garbage – not just because of the brazenness of the author’s claims and their lack of access to any classified data, but also because of the falsiness of the specific claims they make in their report.

Specifically, Kristensen and Norris, who claim China has only 250 nuclear warheads, break it down as follows:

  • 8 DF-3 MRBMs deployed in 1971 and nearing retirement and replacement by DF-21s. This is true – there are very few such missiles left in service, and they’re about to be phased out.
  • 12 DF-4 IRBMs with single warheads. This is incorrect; there are actually 20 DF-4s in service, and they can carry up to 3 warheads each – and most likely do, given that China acquired multiple-warhead-vehicle technology for its missiles in 1996 under the guise of “multiple satellite carrying technology.” Be that as it may, the DF-4 is also nearing retirement, and is poised to be replaced by the DF-31 ICBM… which can also carry 3 warheads.
  • Around 28 DF-31/31A ICBMs, which Kristensen and Norris also claim have only one warhead each. Again, this is dead wrong; the DF-31 can carry 3 warheads, and China has almost certainly deployed multiple warheads on its missiles, given that it acquired the technology to do so 18 years ago. (UPDATE: The WFB confirms that China HAS MIRVed its missiles.) Moreover, while the Kristensen-Norris report was last published in 2013, China already has 40 DF-31/31A/31B missiles as of 2014.
  • Only around 20 DF-5/5A heavy ICBMs, which Kristensen and Norris also claim have only one warhead each. Again, this is completely false; the DF-5 heavy can carry at least 6 warheads, and and China has almost certainly deployed multiple warheads on its missiles, given that it acquired the technology to do so 18 years ago.
  • Only 80 DF-21 MRBMs, a woefully obsolete estimate that dates back to 2009. Already as of 2010, China had 90 such missiles, and since then has certainly increased its DF-21 inventory even further (as well as deploying the DF-26C IRBM this year). The idea that China’s DF-21 MRBM inventory has remained static since 2009 is laughable on its face.
  • Only 100 DF-15 SRBMs, which they don’t count as nuclear-armed (in fact, China has over 1,200 DF-15, DF-11, and DF-16 SRBMs, and some of them may very well be armed with nuclear warheads). Yet, Kristensen and Norris do not count a single one of these missiles as nuclear-armed.
  • Ground-launched cruise missiles: Kristensen and Norris estimate there are only 250 DH-10 GLCMs and an unknown number of DH-20s. They give no estimates for these missiles’ stockpile or the number of nuclear warheads attributed to them (no one outside China’s top leadership can)… and therefore don’t count a single one of these missiles as nuclear-armed. They discount them completely. In addition, they confuse them with the CJ-10 and CJ-20 cruise missile, which is a different thing (the DH-10 and DH-20 were developed from this missile; the DH-10 has twice the CJ-10’s 2,000 km range).
  • Aircraft: Kristensen and Norris attribute only 20 nuclear warheads to China’s 120 H-6 bombers and only another 20 to China’s 300 tactical strike aircraft (Q-5 and JH-7), with absolutely no sources to base this claim on. Kristensen and Norris falsely assert that “Given its history of nuclear tests using weapons dropped by short- and medium-range aircraft, China is likely to have a small quantity of nuclear bombs that would be delivered by H-6 bombers. China’s nuclear bomber capability is minor and involves secondary missions for only a small number of aircraft.” This is again completely false, as revealed in General Yesin’s report on China’s nuclear arsenal as well as in other sources. China has 120 H-6 bombers and 300 tactical strike aircraft (Q-5 and JH-7); that is no “minor” nuclear bomber capability. Especially considering that China has modernized its H-6 bombers to be able to carry nuclear- and conventionally-armed CJ-10 and CJ-20 missiles, and considering that these can reach as far as Guam and well beyond, as seen in this RAND Corporation map:

h6k-zhan-shen-cruise-missle-bomber-range

The CSBA confirms that the CJ-10 can reach well beyond Guam, as displayed in a graph in CSBA’s AirSea Battle study, wherein CSBA states the CJ-10 has a 2,000 nm range.[1]

  • Kristensen and Norris claim that China is only “developing” CJ-10 and CJ-20 air-launched cruise missiles for delivery by H-6K bombers: “China is also developing an airlaunched land-attack cruise missile known as the CJ-20 for delivery by modified H-6 bombers. An Air Force Global Strike Command briefing in 2013 asserted that the CJ-20 is nuclear capable (Kristensen, 2013). The Air Force “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat” document does not list the CJ-20 at all (US Air Force, 2013: 29), but the annual Pentagon report includes a map showing the combined range of the “B-6 [H-6] and LACM” (Defense Department, 2013: 81).” Actually, according to the Global Strike Command’s 2013 briefing, the CJ-10 is already operational; it’s the CJ-20 that was in development back then and is poised to enter service by 2018. Also, GlobalSecurity.org says that China HAS developed, not is still developing, the CJ-10: “The air-launched CJ-10 variant has been developed for deployment on the H-6M [four missiles] and H-6K [six missiles] bombers, which were entering service in small numbers in the 2010 timeframe.” Of course, Kristensen and Norris do not count a single CJ-10 or Hongniao ALCM as operational – which is another grave factual error.
  • SLBMs: Kristensen and Norris falsely claim that a) China only has three Jin class SSBNs; b) they are very noisy; c) their JL-2 missiles only have a range of 7,000-7,200 kms and cannot reach the CONUS; and d) can only carry a single warhead. All of these are lies.
  • Firstly, according to satellite images available on Google Earth, there are four submarines pierside at the Yulin submarine base (in Sanya, Hainan Island) alone, not counting any submarines the Chinese may have hidden inside the huge bunker they’ve built there (it reportedly has enough space to hide 20 submarines). There may be additional Jins at the Qingdao base in northeastern China, on the Shandong peninsula. Moreover, Kristensen himself has admitted China may have built a fourth Jin class sub.
  • Secondly, the subject of how noisy the Jins are has already been dealt with here. Suffice to say, this myth comes from the ONI, which is not a credible source.
  • Thirdly, regarding the JL-2’s range, this subject has also been dealt with – here and here. I shall repeat nonetheless that according to truly credible sources, such as GlobalSecurity.org, the JL-2 has a range of at least 8,000, and potentially 9,000, kilometers. According to Encyclopaedia Astronautica, it’s 7,900 kms. With a 7,800-8,000 km range, a JL-2-armed Jin class submarine could strike Seattle and the Pacific Northwest (including America’s own Pacific submarine base in Kitsap, WA) from inside the Sea of Japan (west of Japan), from international waters; it could strike San Francisco from a position just east of the main Japanese island of Honshu, just east of the 140E meridian; and strike Los Angeles from a position just east of the 150E meridian.
  • Nor would the Jin class have to sail through tightly-patrolled straits; on the contrary, it could sneak through any of the weakly protected or unprotected straits in the WestPac, such as the several-hundred-kilometer-long Luzon Strait, between Taiwan and the Philippines – two military weaklings who completely lack any meaningful anti-submarine-warfare capability.
  • Kristensen and Norris also falsely claim – contrary to what the DOD says – that the DF-31A cannot strike the Continental US at all. This is completely false. They claim the DF-31A has a range of 11,200 kms. That is sufficient to reach half of the CONUS if the missile were launched from eastern China. This begs the question, “where are the DF-31As deployed?” According to Sean O’Connor of AirPowerAustralia, the DF-31 was, as of 2009, deployed with two operational brigades: the 813th Brigade, near Nanyang (between Zhengzhou and Wuhan, in eastern China), and the 812th Brigade, near Beidao/Tawanli, near Delingha, in northern China. If deployed at those locations, the DF-31A can target at least the western half of the CONUS – and it’s a road-mobile missile, so it could actually be deployed anywhere in China, even in its northeasternmost portions.
  • The DOD estimates the DF-31A’s capability to be even greater. In 2007, it illustrated Chinese ballistic missiles’ range thus[2]:

PLA_ballistic_missiles_range

As this map shows, the DF-31A – the longer-ranged variant of the DF-31 – can reach all of the CONUS as well as almost all of Mexico.

All in all, Kristensen and Norris claim China only has 250 warheads. They arrive at this result by deliberately, falsely, and dramatically understating China’s nuclear warhead and delivery system arsenal, namely:

  • Not counting any of China’s missiles as carrying multiple warheads, even though China acquired that capability 18 years ago and wouldn’t have do so if it didn’t intend to deploy multiple warheads on its missiles.
  • Acknowledging only 12 DF-4s, 20 DF-5s, and 28 DF-31s, instead of the truly correct numbers (20 DF-4s, 24 DF-5s, and 40 DF-31s).
  • Counting only 40 out of China’s bomber/strike aircraft as attributed with nuclear bombs.
  • Not counting any of China’s SRBMs, GLCMs, or ALCMs as nuclear-capable.
  • Acknowledging only 3 of China’s Jin class submarines and wrongly counting their missiles as capable of carrying 1 warhead each.
  • And many other factual errors listed above.

In short, Kristensen’s and Norris’s “report” is a litany of blatant lies designed to downplay the Chinese nuclear threat and thus to lull the public and policymakers into a false sense of security. It never cites any sources other than Kristensen and Norris themselves, except once when discussing DF-21 MRBMs. Not only that, but the authors can’t even get spelling right: for example, they write “missles” instead of “missiles.”

As such, their report completely lacks any academic or analytical rigor or any value whatsoever and does not deserve to be treated seriously.

[1] Jan van Tol et al., AirSea Battle: An Operational Concept Point of Departure, CSBA, Washington, DC, 2010, p. 18.

[2] Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, United States Department of Defense, Arlington, VA, 2007.

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