How Many Chinese Nuclear Warheads Dance on the Head of a Pin?

By Danny Lam

Intelligence assessments have a long history of being wrong.

The CIA estimated that the Soviet Economy was 60% the size of the US economy in 1988, with military expenditures 12% of GDP.

Andrew Marshall, working out of his cave like office in the Pentagon, assessed the Soviet economy as 1/3 to 1/4 the size of the US, and defense expenditures at 30-35%GDP.

Analysts at the CIA and other government agencies, armed with the best classified information, high tech intelligence collection data, somehow, failed to catch their own error until it became obvious.

As a result, a generation of American policy makers towards the Soviets was misled.

Few intelligence estimates are as controversial as estimates of the size and nature of Chinese nuclear forces.  

China is estimated to have about 240-260 nuclear warheads.   This strikingly low number was challenged by Dr Phillip Karber in 2011, who working with students at George Washington University using open sources, showed evidence of a much larger arsenal.

The priesthood of Chinese nuclear experts descended on Dr Karber with ferocity normally associated with critics of Donald J. Trump during this election cycle.

Revisiting the issue in 2016 with the benefit of hindsight, independent western estimates of China’s nuclear arsenal changed very slowly.

Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, the reigning high priests of counting nuclear arsenals at the Federation of American Scientists, presented figures in 2015 that showed China with an arsenal of 240 warheads as of 2010. Their detailed data showed that China had 205 warheads as of 1980, and incredibly, only increased from 240 to 260 between 2009 and July 1, 2016.

Both Kristensen and Norris parrot the People’s Daily line that “there is no sign that the Chinese government has officially diverted from its no-first-use nuclear policy”.

At one time, circa, 2000, China had a very conservative nuclear strategy of minimal deterrent where relatively few silo based, liquid fueled ballistic missiles kept at low levels of readiness, with warheads stored separately from the launchers: posture for a retaliatory force. But the question is what happened since:   particularly post Sichuan earthquake in 2008?

The epicenter of the quake was at the heart of China’s nuclear weapons installations, and there are hints that a significant amount of the silo based nuclear deterrent was at least, temporarily knocked out by the quake, as well as large numbers of hidden underground nuclear facilities sustained serious damage.

What is not in dispute is that many of the “science project” alternatives to the silo based nuclear deterrents like the Jin class submarines, road and rail mobile missiles, MIRVs, hypersonic glide vehicles, nuclear capable bombers and cruise missiles, etc. development and deployment accelerated after Sichuan.

Previously, the Type 092 (Xia class) SSBN that entered active service in 1987 after languishing for nearly a decade in construction and testing hardly ever sailed was very much a science project.

Contrast that with the production ramp of Type 094 (Jin class) submarines.   There were only 2 in 2007, rising to 3 in 2013, and now 4 with additional ones under construction.

It is reasonable to presume that they have improved from the first crude designs and the PLAN is not building a fleet of 8 or more SSBNs as a full employment project. Or that they have no intention of fitting out the subs with live missiles.

Complementing the land based missile deterrent with a sea based deterrent is the rapid pace of growth in mobile missiles, MIRV of existing launcher platforms, and the extensive investment in space capabilities that can readily be turned into a space based nuclear weapons capability.

Despite the substantial increase in the numbers of platforms and launchers, there has been no material increase in the estimate of the size of the Chinese arsenal except in speculative estimates that marginally raise the count to 500 warheads.   A raw estimate based on launcher unit growth, MIRVing, and the need for warheads held in reserve for maintenance, servicing, etc. would suggest a count much higher than 260 and well beyond 500.

The Pentagon, wisely, ceased to issue estimates.

Assessments of the Chinese nuclear deterrent can no longer rely on the silvery tongue of their diplomats speaking of “no first use” policies, or the previous policy of storing warheads separately from launchers which cannot possibly be the case for their sea based SSBNs or mobile ICMBs.

As a nuclear weapons power, China today must be treated as at least as dangerous as the Soviets in the late 1970s, or more so because of the strength of the Chinese economy.

Indeed, given the rapid build up of Chinese nuclear weapons, is it even appropriate to call it a deterrent?

Russian and Chinese calculations of the size of the US nuclear deterrent need to consider the arsenals held by NATO and other allies like Israel.

In terms of understanding the size of the Chinese deterrent, shouldn’t the nuclear arsenals of their buffer states like North Korean and Pakistan, both of whom became nuclear armed with substantial Chinese support, be counted?

Indeed, shouldn’t these Chinese allies explicit first use threats be taken seriously?

With allies making these threats, do China really need a first use or hair trigger policy when they can count on their more belligerent allies to act first?

The Chinese nuclear arsenal was ignored or dismissed since the 1960s as irrelevant except in defense and as a minimal deterrent.   That is no longer the case.

Chinese nuclear and conventional weapons capabilities can no longer remain a mystery without the US and Russia embarking on the preparation for “worst case” scenarios that include highly destabilizing options.

The Priesthood of Arms Control has willfully turned a blind eye to the growing threat from China’s burgeoning arsenal and rapidly ramping capabilities, or to their history of systematic encouragement and aid to belligerent allies acquiring and opening threatening others with nuclear weapons.

Moreover, there is little or no concern or discussion about the lack of interest by China to participate in Arms Control Regimes.

In the process, the Priesthood has made the world a more dangerous place with their underestimates no different from when the CIA overestimated the Soviets.

The Chinese and their allies like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran have grown from being a limited threat to a bona fide major threat that other powers must respond to.

The next Administration needs to consider the consequences of not bringing China and their de facto subsidiaries into Arms Control Regimes that have some credible means of verification.

It may be the last chance before military options are seriously considered.

Nuclear war is too dangerous to risk.

Professor Bracken slyly observed, “We got lucky” last time.  

We may not be so lucky this time around.

Danny Lam is an independent analyst based in Calgary.

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