China Modernizing its Nuclear Force
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 5)

Ever since China became a nuclear power in 1964, they have maintained a small and relatively unsophisticated nuclear force, especially compared to the U.S. and Russia. Over the past two decades, however, it has embarked on a modernization project to strengthen its deterrent credibility by increasing the survivability against a potential first strike from any would be aggressor. These efforts also include progressing technologies such as command control and early warning systems to augment the ability to detect an incoming attack and coordinate a response amongst a growing and more dispersed force.

Chinese ballistic missile submarines have been seen spotted near the waters off China’s southern island province of Hainan. China has been able to add these nuclear warheads since the 1990s. The fact that it is doing so now, raises concern.

Nuclear forces are the warheads and delivery platforms that comprise a state’s nuclear arsenal. China is not just modernizing its existing nuclear force structure but expanding it in both size and diversity, most visibly through the pursuit of building a sea-based component comprised of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). All established nuclear powers are modernizing their nuclear forces, however, of the five recognized Nuclear Weapons States (China, France, Russia, the UK and the U.S.) China is the only one under the Non-Proliferation Treaty that is quantitatively augmenting its nuclear force.

What are the motivations driving Beijing towards this comprehensive revitalization of its nuclear force structure? Some observers argue these are signs of a distinct shift in their nuclear strategy, specifically movement away from their long-held policies of No-First Use (NFU) and minimum deterrence. Alternatively, could this simply be an adjustment to new military technologies, specifically conventional weapons by other states, in order to maintain forces that are capable of fulfilling China’s overarching nuclear policy? With the dearth of official information regarding China’s nuclear arsenal, many foreign analysts focus on intelligence information regarding force structure to ascertain its intentions, priorities and strategies in the nuclear realm.  

Force Structure Revamp
The People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) is the organization responsible for maintaining and operating China’s nuclear arsenal, reporting directly to the Central Military Commission which is the highest military body in China with President Xi Jinping as its chairman.

For decades, China has maintained what they term a ‘minimum deterrence’ posture: the lowest number of nuclear weapons deemed necessary to carry out a second strike after a nuclear power has attacked them, in accordance with their NFU policy. This is intended to deter any possible first strike.

Currently estimates suggest China has approximately 240-250 nuclear warheads with approximately 180 delivery platforms, a mixture of largely ballistic missiles (including submarine-launched) of varying ranges and approximately 20 aircraft (mostly the H-6 bomber).  

The bulk of their delivery platforms are land-based ballistic missiles designed to deter both regional (Russia and India) and international (U.S.) potential aggressors.

In general, the PLASAF is transforming a greater portion of their land-based missiles to be solid-fueled, road-mobile and longer range. Its existing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are also being modernized and their silos strengthened and hardened. At present, China has approximately 40 ICBMs (all of the DF 5 missile type), capable of reaching targets anywhere in the United States. These will be phased out over the next two decades, and replaced by the DF-31A missile which, while having a more limited range, is easier to deploy and hide as it is road-mobile and solid-fueled.

Some U.S. Department of Defense reports indicate that China is developing another ICBM: the DF-41, a road-mobile missile capable of carrying multiple-warheads (termed Multiple-Independent Re-entry Vehicles or MIRV). It remains uncertain, however, whether multiple warheads can be placed on a missile due to their relatively large size. China is assigning a greater portion of its warheads to long-range missiles, and U.S. reports predict China will have over 100 ICBMs by 2025, largely designed to target the United States.

The most significant advancement in China’s nuclear force structure is the ongoing development of a robust sea-based nuclear capability via the construction of a fleet of Jin Class SSBNs. China currently has built four (of a total expected fleet of five or six) with the goal of sustaining continuous SSBN patrols. The Jin Class is capable of carrying 12 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM), named the JL-2, with a range of 7,400 km. While this is not China’s first SSBN or SLBM, their predecessors: the Xia Class SSBN and JL-1 SLBM were never operationally capable, and suffered from numerous funding and technological shortcomings. However, China now appears committed to building, maintaining and advancing its SSBN program, with evidence suggesting the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) is already in the planning stages of building their next generation of SSBN after the Jin Class.

China maintains a small fleet of aircraft, largely the H-6 bomber, capable of being used as a nuclear delivery platform. These numbers remain modest and it is unlikely China will invest resources to augment this branch of their nuclear triad.

China is also making advancements in MIRVs, decoys, chaff, jamming and thermal shielding to overcome Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) technologies being pursued by the U.S. and others.

While information remains scarce, ­Beijing is pursuing early warning systems to better detect and react to indications of a nuclear first strike, and mobilize retaliatory forces before missiles begin landing on Chinese soil. Alongside capability advances, the PLASAF is augmenting its training regimes to focus on abilities to manœuvre, camouflage and launch under simulated combat scenarios.

Despite these developments, China’s nuclear forces appear to remain on warning status, with warheads not mated on delivery mechanisms and with only one warhead dedicated for each delivery platform; and though their arsenal is expected to grow, this is happening slowly and will remain only a fraction of that possessed by Russia and the United States.

The overreliance on capability analyses – to the exclusion of investigating and researching authoritative Chinese publications and writings – is detrimental to a comprehensive understanding of their views on nuclear policy and strategy.  Though vague and periodic, such documentation sheds light on Chinese perceptions of nuclear weapons, including their purpose, utility and influence on determining force requirements.

Chinese ballistics on display during a 2014 military parade.

Nuclear Policy
Since 1964, China has maintained a No-First Use policy with respect to nuclear weapons (most recently reiterated in their May 2015 Defence White Paper). It is the only Nuclear Weapon State to do so.

For China, NFU is explained as never using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states or nuclear weapons free zones, and only using them for retaliation after China has been attacked with nuclear weapons. NFU, it should be noted is not an operationalized concept but rather an ideological statement which has been at the cornerstone of China’s nuclear policy since its inception.  

China commits, furthermore, to not entering a nuclear arms race, and supports efforts of global arms control aimed at complete denuclearization. To achieve this effect, Chinese publications note that China maintains a minimum deterrence force posture, sometimes referred to as ‘lean and effective’, in order to maintain a second strike capability.

Despite these repeated policy positions, there are real concerns (specifically from Western policy communities) regarding the lack of transparency and information pertaining to the size, disposition and capabilities of China’s nuclear forces. Indeed, of the five Nuclear Weapon States, China releases the least information regarding its nuclear force structure and governing operational doctrine, which leads some to question the genuineness and credibility of Beijing’s declaratory policies.  

This stems, in part, from a lack of appreciation of the very distinct Chinese perceptions and philosophy on the purpose of nuclear weapons compared to Western thinking. Without detailed documentation or access to Chinese writings, western policy communities all too often incorporate their own philosophies into the study of Chinese strategy without appreciating the forces and factors which have influenced and informed Chinese nuclear policy over the past half-century.

In late 2013, the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences published an updated edition of The Science of Military Strategy, a publication for Chinese military professionals, as the most comprehensive account of the PLA’s views across a number of strategic issues. These included the political philosophy underpinning and operational principles forming China’s nuclear weapons force structure and strategy.

Within this document, it is clear that China views nuclear weapons as designed to deter nuclear aggression and counter coercion, not as weapons to accomplish discrete military objectives. The nature of nuclear weapons, furthermore, is viewed as a real and daunting deterrent on any potential aggressor from crossing the nuclear threshold, rendering such a possibility very unlikely. However, in the highly unlikely event of a nuclear exchange, nuclear weapons are not considered a war-winning mechanism, but employed to inflict unacceptable damage on an aggressor to stop them attacking China – such weapons are not for winning a nuclear war but ceasing it.

To this end, China’s strategy is to target an opponent’s cities instead of its military forces in order to inflict greatest damage with fewer resources and without the burden of locating dispersed (and most likely well protected and strengthened) military facilities. It may be more accurate, therefore, to term China’s nuclear force strategy as one of assured retaliation vice minimum deterrence. The ability to conduct a secured second strike is important, but more so is the capability to unleash unacceptable damage to cease conflicts.

While both the U.S. and Russia view a nuclear weapons policy as one of developing dominance throughout a ladder of possible escalation, China’s strategy is not designed to destroy another country’s nuclear capability, decapitate its government, or vaporize its entire population, society or economy – but simply to stop a nuclear exchange. In support of maintaining a survivable nuclear force capability of assured retaliation, China employs a strategy of opacity by not releasing details of its force structure or capabilities, to create uncertainty in would-be aggressors over their ability to completely neutralize China’s nuclear forces before they could conduct a counter-attack.

Policy and strategy are hugely important in China’s nuclear force disposition, for it has played a guiding, not subordinate, role in determining their limited capability development over the decades. China possesses the resources and skills to build a far larger arsenal, but has chosen not to do so.

Though changes have occurred within its nuclear force structure, the guiding policy and mandate have not changed dramatically over the years, despite other wholesale reconfigurations of structure and missions throughout the PLA.

Chinese views and behaviour with respect to nuclear weapons, have also remained relatively constant despite fundamental changes in regimes, domestic and foreign policy priorities, and regional and international security situations. In fact, the 1958 Guidelines for Developing Nuclear Weapons issued to the PLA, ordered the construction of high-yield thermonuclear weapons mounted onto long-range delivery platforms meant to arrest any attempt by foreign powers of using their nuclear arsenals to coerce Beijing. This policy and force structure from 1958 remains to this day.

Changes in military technologies globally, however, is a major factor influencing China’s nuclear modernization efforts. The U.S. features prominently in China’s nuclear considerations as Washington develops a wide range of conventional technologies that threaten the ability of building and maintaining a secured second strike/assured retaliation posture, specifically Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) and Prompt Global Strike.

Some Chinese scholars argue the U.S. may be able to conduct a disarming first strike with only conventional weapons, thereby not crossing the nuclear threshold and questioning the validity of China’s NFU policy when faced with such a possibility. These types of conversations continue within Chinese strategic policy communities, with some forcefully advocating amending the NFU policy to include conventional options; but to date, NFU has been reaffirmed as the main declaratory nuclear policy of China.

Adjusting to changing military realities is a major influential factor, but China’s nuclear force modernization efforts point towards other forces playing a role as well, specifically with respect to its SSBN force. Is this a function of a diminished sense of robustness of their land-based missile deterrence and thus the need to construct a sea-based nuclear branch? Or are there other intangibles, including the sense of super power status associated with possessing such military capabilities (which may be similar motivations for their aircraft carrier program as well) and inter-service rivalries over budgets, priorities and resources playing a role, but one largely obscured to foreign observers due to the secrecy of these organizations?

Operational Doctrine
Changes within its force composition, regardless of underlying motivations, pose challenges to China’s operational doctrine.  Perhaps the greatest challenge for the PLA is creating robust command and control systems to ensure orders are clearly and expeditiously delivered to all relevant units, which will be dispersed all over the country. Such a need for clearly transmitting and receiving orders is vital as China moves towards developing a SSBN force that could be dispersed far away from Chinese shores.

The Central Military Commission, also, does not have a precedent for handing over nuclear forces to other services beyond the PLASAF. It remains unclear whether the PLA Navy will be in charge of nuclear weapons assigned to the SSBN force, or remain under the operational control of the PLASAF.

Conducting deterrence patrols with nuclear weapons would establish another precedent in operational doctrine, with the mating of warheads onto missiles (which is in contradiction to China’s current force disposition). There are concerns, as well, regarding the noisiness of the Jin Class submarines, combined with no experience conducting evasive patrols, posing great risk of these assets being detected and possibly attacked by aggressors in East Asia.

Another issue is the fact that the PLASAF possesses not just nuclear-capable missiles but a larger, and growing, inventory of conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, mainly targeting Taiwan. Among these developments is the construction of conventional variants of their nuclear missiles, specifically the DF-21C, a conventional cruise anti-ship missile. The inclusion of the same missile in both their nuclear and conventional forces risks creating confusion about which weapons are assigned to which force structure. Clearly, co-locating conventional and nuclear missiles creates uncertainty over which missile forces are being put on alert status and deployed, especially during a crisis.

These operational challenges raise the risk of misunderstanding Chinese intentions and behaviour. While not competing in a quantitative arms race with the U.S. and Russia in terms of nuclear weapons parity, there is an emerging technological race as each side develops capabilities and tactics aimed to neutralize and overcome each other’s advances in the nuclear realm. This has generated a small but growing body of advocacy to include China into global arms control measures to stem the excesses of such a competition in the promotion of global stability.

A Future Role in Nuclear Arms Control?
The 2010 American Nuclear Posture Review promoted developing strategic level dialogues with China that were designed to build a framework for eventual cooperation regarding nuclear arms control. While China possess a fraction of the arsenal the U.S. and Russia does, due to China’s modernizing force, their growing comprehensive and influential presence globally, and complicated relationship with the U.S. as each accommodates the new power relationship between them, they need to become involved. Inviting and including China by the U.S. may also be a calculated move against Russia by denying them the super power status associated by its exclusive membership. Reversely, China may be tempted by such offerings, specifically joining an exclusive club which bestows prestige, great power status, and most important of all, being treated as an equal in strategic negotiations with Washington and Moscow.

Beijing may be reluctant to accept any binding arms control measures as conditions to joining, specifically as the incongruencies between their forces and those of the U.S. and Russia remains large. For their part, it is doubtful that Moscow and Washington will concede to Beijing’s pressure to declare a NFU policy or reduce their nuclear arsenals to be equivalent to China’s.

Beginning a dialogue, however, is an important and worthwhile endeavour for both sides – one that may build a foundation for future formal negotiations and treaties. In moving towards this objective, the U.S. should accept mutual vulnerability with China at the nuclear level by not attempting to frustrate Beijing’s ability to have a secured second strike capability. This will require becoming more transparent about its conventional programs – specifically BMD – clearly articulating they are not targeted against China’s nuclear deterrent. Instead these systems are against rogue states with missile capabilities (specifically North Korea), and will be tailored to changing realities in these states’ coercive capabilities. De-nuclearization efforts on Pyongyang may gain greater Chinese participation if it implies the U.S. would reduce their BMD force in the face of a less abrasive and nuclear weapons-focused North Korea. The use of BMD, however, must be explained as counterbalancing against the conventional missile arsenal of China to maintain stability in the region, specifically the ability to fulfill defence treaty obligations with allies.

China will have to accept U.S. extended deterrence for regional allies as an important stabilizing force in the region – influential in preventing many nuclear-weapons capable states from acquiring their own force – namely Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. China will be pressured to become more transparent about its nuclear weapons force and policy and will most likely use this as a bargaining chip for U.S. concessions/explicit guarantees that their conventional programs will not be amended over changes in China’s nuclear forces. The rapid augmentation of its conventional ballistic and cruise missile arsenals demonstrates also, that these are assessed as far greater in importance to China’s security and strategic posture than nuclear weapons.

The larger foreign policy behaviour changes Beijing may exhibit as a result of any process of formalizing their nuclear relationship with the U.S. remain unclear. Will a secured second strike capability motivate China to greater transparency and the marginalization of its decades-long strategy of nuclear ambiguity? Would a nuclear relationship with Washington, defined by mutual vulnerability, result in what is termed a ‘stability-instability paradox’ whereby a stable strategic deterrent would enable limited conventional aggression on the part of Beijing in achieving its interests, including regional territorial disputes? These remain uncertain, but with respect to their nuclear relationship, both Beijing and Washington must begin to work in the areas of crisis stability and the prevention or a technological arms race.

The relationship between the U.S. and China will be the most important feature in determining international stability and prosperity during this century; one which is increasingly populated by large scale political differences and uncertainties as these two attempt to understand, accommodate and adjust to each other in an altering geopolitical landscape.

Achieving nuclear clarity and understanding will assist in ensuring this area remains largely non-confrontational and non-escalatory and does not influence or become influenced by other more divisive and sensitive factors within their wider relationship.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic whose work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments. He can be reached at
© FrontLine Defence 2015