Chinese nuclear forces, 2006

Newly available information on the Chinese nuclear arsenal requires us to reassess our previous estimate of Beijing’s stockpile (see “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2003,” November/December 2003 Bulletin). In 2005, the Defense Department published a detailed breakdown of the Chinese missile force, as part of its 2005 Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China (otherwise known as Chinese Military Power 2005). Taken together with a vague 2004 Chinese Foreign Ministry declaration about the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal and other information, we estimate that China deploys approximately 130 nuclear warheads for delivery by land-based missiles, sea-based missiles, and bombers. Additional warheads are thought to be in storage for a total stockpile of approximately 200 warheads.

China continues to modernize its nuclear forces, though its recent developments are less dramatic than many analyses have suggested. There continues to be a number of substantial unknowns about the composition of China’s future forces, including if and how it will respond to the U.S. deployment of a ballistic missile defense system.

Land-based missiles. China deploys approximately 80 land-based, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles of four types: the Dong Feng (DF)-3, DF-4, DF-5, and DF-21, according to Chinese Military Power 2005. [1] Despite frequent claims to the contrary, none of the missiles carries multiple warheads.

China is gradually retiring the liquid-fueled DF-3 medium-range ballistic missile after more than 35 years in service; some 16 missiles remain operational for half as many launchers. The retirement of the missiles, some of which are probably targeted at Russia, India, and U.S. military bases in Japan, has been slowed presumably due to delays in deployment of a modified DF-21, the DF-21A.

China deploys about 22 two-stage, liquid-fueled DF-4 long-range missiles and a dozen launchers. The missiles are hidden in caves and are rolled out in preparation for launch. The targets for the DF-4 are likely to be in Russia, India, and Guam, where there are U.S. military installations. The Pentagon expects the missile to eventually be replaced by the new DF-31, but it may remain in service until the end of the decade.

The only true intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in China’s arsenal is the liquid-fueled DF-5, which is capable of targeting the entire continental United States. The exact number of DF-5s is unclear, but Chinese Military Power 2005 states that 20 missiles are deployed in 20 launchers, a number that has remained steady over the past six years or so. The missiles are deployed in silos at two locations, and their nuclear warheads are stored separately nearby.

A program to upgrade the DF-5 to the DF-5A and increase its range and payload has been ongoing since the 1980s. The Pentagon has long predicted that the program would be completed by now, but it grinds on at a snail’s pace. If China decides to deploy multiple warheads on a portion of its ICBM force as a countermeasure to U.S. ballistic missile defenses, then the DF-5A may remain in operation for some time, using up to three of the lighter-weight warheads designed for the DF-31.

Some of the road-mobile DF-21s and DF-21As are conventionally armed, and the Pentagon says that only about 21 total missiles are deployed with approximately 36 launchers.

For about 15 years, the intelligence community and Pentagon have consistently reported that China is “modernizing” its missile force. While this is true, the process has been very slow–a point rarely emphasized. Also overlooked is how future Chinese forces might compare with U.S. forces, what that means, and why it matters.

The “modernization” talk began two decades ago with reports of a new three-stage, solid-fueled, mobile ICBM, the DF-31. The missile was said to have a range of 7,200-8,000 kilometers (4,500-5,000 miles) and a circular error probable (how close a weapon comes to its target) of 300-600 meters. Its range suggests that once it is deployed its likely targets will be Russia, India, and U.S. bases and facilities in the Pacific Ocean, essentially replacing the coverage of the DF-4. Analysts and media reports have suggested that the DF-31 will carry multiple warheads, but official U.S. estimates have consistently credited it with only one. The Pentagon’s estimate of when the DF-31 will be operational has repeatedly slipped, and the missile is still not fielded.

China is also developing a longer-range version of the DF-31 known as the DF-31A. The road-mobile DF-31A is expected to have a slightly shorter range, 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles), and a smaller payload than the silo-based DF-5A. The Pentagon predicts the missile will be deployed by the end of the decade, but it has yet to undergo a full-scale flight-test, so this projection seems overly optimistic. When it is deployed, it will most likely be with a single warhead, decoys, and penetration aids aimed at confusing defensive systems.

For 20 years China has had the technical capability to develop multiple reentry vehicles (MRVs) or multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) but has chosen not to do so. The CIA estimated in 2001 that it would take only a few years for China to deploy a simple MRV or MIRV on silo-based DF-5s, using a DF-31-type reentry vehicle, though it cautioned, “Chinese pursuit of a multiple [reentry vehicle] capability for its mobile ICBMs and [submarine-launched ballistic missiles] would encounter significant technical hurdles and would be costly.” [2]

Sea-based missiles. China has encountered enormous difficulties with its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program. China’s “fleet” consists of a single Xia-class sub built at Huldao (or Huludao) Naval Base and Shipyard and launched in April 1981. That there is only one submarine strongly suggests that the program was a colossal failure; no country would decide to build just one ballistic missile sub, considering the amount of resources necessary to accomplish this task. There was another Xia-class sub, but its fate is unknown–it may have been canceled or lost in a 1985 accident.

The Xia operates with the North Sea Fleet at Qingdao and is based at Jianggezhuang, approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the northeast. A satellite image published in February 2005 reveals the Xia and two Han-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (one in dry dock) at the base. Also visible is the entrance to a large underground submarine cave, which was rumored to exist for many years but was never before seen in photographs. The cave is probably used to store missiles and warheads for the submarine. [3]

The Xia is configured to carry 12 single-warhead Julang (JL)-1 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which have an estimated range of approximately 1,700 kilometers (1,060 miles). After a four-year overhaul between 1995 and 1998, the Xia has been slow to resume operations. [4] In 2003, the Pentagon predicted that China would deploy the JL-1 that year and that the sub’s service life would be extended past 2010. [5] But according to more recent data obtained from U.S. Naval Intelligence, the Xia never conducted a single deterrent patrol before its overhaul, nor has it conducted any since.

Determined to build a sea-based leg to its nuclear arsenal, China is working on a new SSBN program called Project 094. The new sub class is expected to carry 16 three-stage JL-2 SLBMs, a variant of the DF-31 missile, with a range of 7,200-8,000 kilometers. The navy test-launched the JL-2 in 2004 from a converted Golf-class sub. As with the other two versions of the DF-31, there is speculation that the JL-2 may be equipped with multiple warheads, but U.S. intelligence credits the missile with only a single warhead. The Pentagon optimistically predicts the deployment of the JL-2 in 2008-2010, but a later date is more realistic.

Aircraft. China has a small stockpile of nuclear bombs for delivery by aircraft. Between 1965 and 1976, Chinese Hong (H)-5, H-6, and Qian (Q)-5 aircraft dropped 11 nuclear test bombs at the Lop Nur test site. The bombs detonated with yields between 8 and 4,000 kilotons in four distinct ranges: 8 kilotons, 15-35 kilotons, 250 kilotons, and 3,000-4,000 kilotons. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated in April 1984 that “a small number of the nuclear-capable aircraft probably have nuclear bombs, even though we are unable to identify airfield storage sites.” [6] Nine years later, the National Security Council (NSC) reaffirmed that China has a “small stockpile of nuclear bombs.” Although the Chinese Air Force “has no units whose primary purpose it is to deliver” the weapons, “some units may be tasked for nuclear delivery as a contingency mission,” the NSC concluded. [7]

Given its history as the primary nuclear delivery platform during China’s period of atmospheric testing, the H-6 is a strong candidate for having a nuclear mission. Approximately 100-120 H-6s remain in operation, and a small number of them may have nuclear missions. Although increasingly obsolete as a modern strike-bomber, the H-6 is younger than the U.S. B-52 bomber and may gain new life as a delivery platform for China’s emerging cruise missile capability. The naval air force has operated the H-6 as a platform for the C-601/Kraken anti-ship cruise missile for more than 10 years, and many H-6s may be modified to carry the new Ying Ji-63 land-attack cruise missiles. [8] Chinese Military Power 2005 confirms the development of first-and second-generation land-attack cruise missiles and adds that, once developed, there “are no technological bars to placing on these systems a nuclear payload.”

It is not known if the Q-5 attack aircraft continues to have a nuclear capability more than 30 years after it dropped nuclear test bombs. China has more modern attack aircraft, such as the Russian-designed Su-30, with greater range and payload that would make better nuclear candidates, although there is no publicly available evidence that identifies a nuclear role for Chinese fighter-bombers.

Short-range nuclear weapons. Based on previous U.S. intelligence reports, we formerly counted about 100 nonstrategic warheads in our estimates of Chinese nuclear forces, but no recent credible evidence suggests that they are presently part of Chinese operational forces. In November 1984, the DIA concluded that although there “is no evidence that it has yet produced or deployed such weapons . . . there are indications that China may develop tactical nuclear delivery systems.” [9] In 1987, the DIA included the DF-15 in an overview of foreign tactical nuclear weapons systems. [10] Six years later, the NSC reported that China was working on “warheads for . . . tactical missiles.” [11]

Deployments of DF-11 and DF-15 missiles form the core of China’s short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) buildup opposite Taiwan; as many as 650-730 missiles are currently deployed. These SRBMs, which China is deploying at a rate of about 100 per year, are thought to be conventionally armed. The Pentagon sees China’s growing conventional missile force as an effort to achieve “a strategic capability without the political and practical constraints associated with nuclear-armed missiles.” [12]

China has traditionally claimed a “no first-use” policy regarding its nuclear weapons, though the Pentagon suggested in 2003 that this may be about to change. “Some strategists are considering the conditions under which Beijing would employ theater nuclear weapons against U.S. forces in the region,” according to Chinese Military Power 2003. The 2005 report did not include this analysis but rather highlighted China’s increased interest in non-nuclear short-range systems.

Warheads. China has kept the total number of warheads in its stockpile ambiguous. If we are to believe a reference included in a 2004 Chinese Foreign Ministry fact sheet on nuclear weapons, the arsenal is smaller than previously thought. The document’s crucial sentence reads, “Among the nuclear-weapon states, China . . . possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal.” [13]

Since Britain has declared that it has fewer than 200 operationally available warheads (see “British Nuclear Forces, 2005,” November/December 2005 Bulletin), and the United States, Russia, and France have more, the Chinese statement could be interpreted to mean that China’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than Britain’s. Not surprisingly, the devil is in the details. The Chinese statement uses the word “arsenal.” Is this a reference to the entire stockpile or just operationally deployed warheads? To add to the confusion, Britain has not disclosed the precise size of its stockpile either but only declared that “less than 200 warheads” are “operationally available.” This strongly suggests that there may be additional British warheads in storage. [14]

The Pentagon stated in 1996 that China’s “inventory of nuclear weapon systems . . . now includes over a hundred warheads deployed operationally in medium-range ballistic missiles, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.” [15] The next year it added, “China has over 100 nuclear warheads deployed on ballistic missiles” and that “additional warheads are in storage” with “a stockpile of fissile material sufficient to increase or improve its weapon inventory.” [16] In July 1999, the DIA estimated the size of the Chinese nuclear weapons inventory to be roughly 155 warheads. [17] We know that there are roughly 40 fewer warheads today due to the withdrawal of the DF-3s and the conversion of some DF-21s to non-nuclear missions.

The Pentagon and the intelligence community have not commented on this reduction but instead have emphasized that they expect China’s nuclear arsenal to increase significantly over the next decade. The CIA predicted in December 2001 that “the total number of Chinese strategic warheads will rise several-fold” by 2015. [18] In 2002 (and again in 2003 and 2004), the Pentagon predicted that the number of Chinese ICBMs capable of hitting the United States “could increase to about 30 by 2005 and may reach up to 60 by 2010.” [19] The first part of this prediction is already moot, as the number remains at 20 and deployment of the DF-31A is years away.

Past U.S. predictions about China’s nuclear arsenal have repeatedly proven to be highly unreliable. Rather than continue to grow, China’s stockpile appears to have leveled out at approximately 200 warheads in the mid-1980s and remained at about that level ever since.

The CIA’s latest prediction of a “several-fold” increase in warheads deployed “primarily” against the United States is hardly a firm estimate since it depends upon several unanswerable questions: How many DF-31As will China deploy? Will China finally develop and deploy MRVs on its DF-5A missiles? How will it respond to deployment of the U.S. antiballistic missile system? China might not even know the answer to these questions.

Even if an increase occurs, the total Chinese stockpile would rise only moderately because warheads on older liquid-fueled missiles will have to be phased out.


1. Defense Department, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005, July 20, 2005, p. 45.

2. CIA, National Intelligence Council, “Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat Through 2015,” December 2001, p. 8.

3. Thomas B. Cochran et al., “Chinese Nuclear Forces,” Imaging Notes, Winter 2006, p. 25.

4. Defense Department, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, n.d. [2002], p. 22.

5. Defense Department, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2003, July 28, 2003, pp. 27, 31.

6. DIA, “Nuclear Weapons Systems in China,” DEB-49-84, April 24, 1984, pp. 3-4. Partially declassified and released under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

7. NSC, “Report to Congress on Status of China, India, and Pakistan Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs,” n.d. [July 28, 1993], p. 2. Obtained under FOIA by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

8. Defense Department, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2003, July 28, 2003, p. 24; “China’s New Cruise Nears Service,” Flight International, August 22, 2000, p. 26, as cited in Richard D. Fisher Jr., “PLAAF Equipment Trends,” Jamestown Foundation, October 30, 2001.

9. DIA, “Handbook of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” November 1984, pp. 36, 71. Released under FOIA.

10. DIA, “A Guide to Foreign Tactical Nuclear Weapon Systems Under the Control of Ground Force Commanders,” DST-1040A-541-87, September 4, 1987, p. 79, as cited in Robert S. Norris, Nuclear Weapons Databook Volume V: British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), p. 386, footnote 1. Report was partially declassified and released under FOIA.

11. NSC, “Report to Congress on Status of China, India, and Pakistan Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs,” n.d. [July 28, 1993], p. 1.

12. Defense Department, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2004, p. 23.

13. Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, fact sheet, “China: Nuclear Disarmament and Reduction of [sic],” April 27, 2004, p. 1.

14. Some believe the Chinese arsenal may be even smaller. See: Jeffrey Lewis, “The Ambiguous Arsenal,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2005, pp. 52-59.

15. Defense Department, Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Proliferation: Threat and Response,” April 1996, p. 12.

16. Defense Department, Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Proliferation: Threat and Response,” November 1997, p. 16.

17. DIA, “A Primer on the Future Threat: The Decades Ahead: 1999-2020,” July 1999, p. 38. This 1999 DIA report is dubious because it lists ICBMs, SLBMs, and SRBMs but no MRBMs. Nor does it include nuclear bombs. Instead, the SRBM category probably includes everything other than ICBMs and SLBMs.

18. CIA, National Intelligence Council, “Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat Through 2015,” December 2001, p. 3.

19. Defense Department, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2004, p. 37.


Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply