China's real nuclear
capabilities By David Isenberg
WASHINGTON - It is never hard to find
someone worrying about China's nuclear weapons.
For example, the recent annual report of the
US-China Economic and Security Review Commission
says, "Beijing continues to improve its older
intercontinental ballistic missiles and seeks to
field increasingly mobile, accurate and survivable
and therefore more credible ICBMs ... China's
newer longer-range [missile] systems will reach
many areas of the world ... including virtually
the entire continental United
seems that China has more to worry about than the
United States, according to another recent report.
It found, just like classic "missile gap" alarm of
the Cold War, that the US military, intelligence
agencies and conservative think-tanks and news
organizations are exaggerating China's
nuclear-weapons capability to justify developing a
new generation of nuclear and conventional
And in a surrealistic act of
mirror-imaging, the Chinese have been citing US
weapons upgrades as a rationale for modernizing
theirs, locking the two nations in a dangerous
action-and-reaction competition reminiscent of the
Cold War, according to a report issued on November
30 by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS)
and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
In a perverse way it actually makes sense.
Ever since the crackup of the Soviet Union,
various political and military figures have been
desperately searching for rationales to justify
hanging on to and modernizing the US nuclear
Of course, the negligible size of
China's nuclear forces has made that a hard sell.
As the report notes right at the start, "The
Chinese-US nuclear relationship is dramatically
disproportionate in favor of the United States and
will remain so for the foreseeable future."
Even the Pentagon's last annual "Military
Power of the People's Republic of China" report
notes that Beijing has consistently stated its
adherence to a "no first use" nuclear doctrine,
which is that China will never use nuclear weapons
first against a nuclear-weapons state, nor will
China use or threaten to use nuclear weapons
against any non-nuclear-weapons state or
It also noted
that China currently deploys about 20 silo-based,
liquid-fueled ICBMs, which constitute its primary
means of holding continental US targets at risk.
But according to the FAS-NRDC report, the United
States has more than 830 missiles - most with
multiple warheads - that can reach China. By 2015,
when US intelligence projects that China will have
75 missiles primarily targeted against the United
States, the US force will include 780 land- and
The report found that
although the United States has maintained
extensive nuclear-strike plans against Chinese
targets for more than a half-century, China has
never responded by building large nuclear forces
of its own and is unlikely to do so in the future.
As a result, Chinese nuclear weapons are
quantitatively and qualitatively much inferior to
their US counterparts.
stockpile numbers about 200 warheads; the United
States has nearly 10,000. By 2015, after China
deploys a new generation of ballistic missiles and
the US has completed its planned reductions, China
may have some 220 warheads and the US more than
The report's main finding is that
the Pentagon and others routinely highlight
specific incidents out of context that
inaccurately portray a looming Chinese threat.
Specifically, the report demonstrates that they
have been embellishing China's submarine- and
intelligence agencies warn that the Chinese will
be able to target 75-100 nuclear warheads at the
continental United States by 2015. But that
prediction assumes China will be able to deploy
40-55 new DF-31A missiles before 2015, in addition
to two other shorter-range missiles. Given that
the Chinese have yet to conduct test flights of
the DF-31A, the report concluded that that
assumption is highly questionable.
Pentagon also has made much out of the fact that
China's next-generation missiles will be mobile.
But the majority of China's ballistic-missile
force has always been mobile, the report points
out, and the US military has targeted it as a
routine matter since the 1980s. In fact, improved
US targeting of Chinese missiles has played a
significant role in prompting China to develop new
As the report makes
clear, the disparity between US and Chinese
nuclear capabilities is so overwhelming as to make
any talk about the Chinese threat farcical. For
None of China's long-range nuclear forces are
believed to be on alert; most US ballistic
missiles are on high alert, ready to launch within
minutes after receiving a launch order.
China's sole nuclear-ballistic-missile
submarine has never gone on patrol. As a result,
the crews of the new Jin-class subs currently
under construction will need to start almost from
scratch to develop the operational and tactical
skills and procedures that are essential if a
sea-based deterrent is to be militarily effective
and matter strategically.
China may be able to build two or three new
missile subs over the next decade, but they would
be highly vulnerable to anti-submarine forces; the
US Navy has 14 missile-bearing subs and has moved
the majority of them into the Pacific.
China may have a small number of aircraft with
a secondary nuclear capability, but they would be
severely tested by US and allied air-defense
systems or in air-to-air combat. The United States
operates 72 long-range bombers assigned missions
with nuclear gravity bombs and land-attack cruise
China does not have nuclear-armed cruise
missiles, although US intelligence suspects it
might develop such a capability in the future. The
United States has more than 1,000 nuclear cruise
missiles for delivery by aircraft and attack
Another relevant aspect of the
report, especially in light of recent US
experience with Iraq, details how badly US
intelligence has misjudged Chinese nuclear
capabilities. The report found that estimates
about the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal were
grossly overstated, sometimes by several hundred
percent, and timelines for when new systems would
come on line were almost always much too
The reasons for these
misjudgments include China's ability to keep its
capabilities hidden, a tendency among some
intelligence analysts to overstate their
conclusions, and the Pentagon's general
inclination to assume the worst. This
predisposition to exaggerate the Chinese threat
unfortunately remains evident today.
sad irony is that both countries point to what the
other is doing as a justification to modernize.
The report notes that China is about to deploy
three new long-range ballistic missiles that the
US says were developed in response to its own
deployment of more accurate Trident sea-launched
ballistic missiles in the early 1980s.
Meanwhile, the US has increased its
capability to target Chinese mobile missiles, and
the Pentagon is arguing that the long-term outlook
for China's long-range ballistic-missile force
requires increased targeting of Chinese forces.
David Isenberg, a senior analyst
with the Washington-based British American
Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide
background in arms-control and national-security
issues. The views expressed are his own.