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Why China’s Hypersonic and Nuclear Weapons Build Up Is Dangerous

Orbital Hypersonic Missile
Image: Creative Commons.

In October 2021, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten stated that the U.S. has conducted nine hypersonic missile tests in the last five years, whereas the Chinese have conducted “hundreds.” This implies a Chinese programmatic level of effort vastly in excess of what is publicly available in open sources, including the Pentagon’s annual China military power report. Indeed, the 2021 version of the Pentagon report only states, “During 2020, the PRC fielded its first missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle [the DF-17] and advanced its scramjet engine development, which has applications in hypersonic cruise missiles.”

In light of General Hyten’s revelation, the annual Pentagon report on Chinese military power is misleading because the scope of the Chinese testing programs suggests that China must be developing many advanced hypersonic systems. If nine U.S. tests support the development of several systems, how many systems are being supported by hundreds of Chinese tests? There is no reference to the Chinese orbital hypersonic missile in the report, but this is understandable in light of the late reported date of the tests (August 2021). Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley has said this system is almost a “Sputnik moment” and that it is nuclear. If a Financial Times report is true, one thing we have not been officially told is that “CHINA’S round-the-world hypersonic nuclear weapon fired a second missile while traveling five times faster than the speed of sound, reports claim.” This suggests a multiple-warhead capability.

The Pentagon report has a very bad track record of accurately warning about nuclear weapons developments in China. Usually, it merely confirms open-source information that has appeared much earlier. For example, the 2021 edition of the Pentagon report states, “In October 2019, the PRC signaled the return of the airborne leg of its nuclear triad after the PLAAF publicly revealed the H-6N as its first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuellable bomber.” Here, the Pentagon report seems to be just echoing what the Chinese admit to. There is a great deal of open-source evidence, including official U.S. government statements, that China has long maintained a nuclear bomber capability. A 2009 report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) credited the Chinese DH-10 (CJ-20) cruise missile (carried by the Chinese H-6K bomber) as being nuclear. The 2012 and the 2013 editions of the Pentagon’s China reports and the Commander of the U.S. Global Strike Command stated that the new Chinese H-6K bomber carries nuclear-capable cruise missiles. In October 2020, Russian state media reported that the Chinese CJ-20 was nuclear-capable. There are other reports that the CJ-20 is nuclear-capable.

If you read the Pentagon reports of 10 to 15 years ago, you will find little indication of what is now being reported concerning Chinese nuclear weapons programs. Indeed, the difference between the 2020 and 2021 reports records an increase of 150% in the number of projected Chinese nuclear warheads in 2030. The Pentagon report’s treatment of Chinese development of a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) for its SLBMs was particularly inadequate. Such programs were discussed in the Asian and American press 10-20 years ago.

The 2020 Pentagon China report said that the number of Chinese nuclear weapons was in the “low 200s” and that it would at least double in the next ten years. China’s English language mouthpiece Global Times responded by noting that China had that many warheads in the 1980s. The 2021 edition of the Pentagon report stated, “The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020.” It gives no current number. There has been a great deal of press commentary concerning the significance of this development. However, this may be one of the most substantial underestimates in the history of the Pentagon report.

According to the 2021 Pentagon report, “The PRC is building hundreds of new ICBM silos, and is on the cusp of a large silo-based ICBM force expansion comparable to those undertaken by other major powers.” This confirms reporting from NGOs (Jeffrey Lewis, Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen) and Bill Gertz. However, the U.S. has not built an ICBM silo since the 1960s and the Russians since the 1970s. Moreover, the number of U.S. and Russian silos has been drastically reduced since the end of the Cold War. The drafters of the Pentagon report seem to have little understanding of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. This contributes to misinterpretation of the reasons the Chinese are expanding their nuclear forces and what they are likely to do in the future. The reality is that the Chinese military and nuclear buildup began after the end of the Cold War when the security threat to China was evaporating.

The 2021 Pentagon report states that “The PRC is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and will require increased nuclear warhead production, partially due to the incorporation of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities. The PRC has commenced building at least three solid-fueled ICBM silo fields, which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos.” All the 2020 Pentagon report said about these silos was that “Commercial imagery from 2019 has revealed that China has constructed an ICBM silo at one of the PLARF’s Western training ranges that is smaller than China’s existing CSS-4 (DF-5) silos. According to state media, the CSS-X-20 (DF-41) ICBM can be launched from silos; this site is probably being used to at least develop a concept of operations for silo basing this system.”

Even if you assume that the only increase in Chinese nuclear weapons will be on the DF-41 (certainly not true), the Pentagon’s 2021 report’s assessment for 2027 and 2030 must assume an average of probably no more than one or at most less than two warheads on each DF-41. In addition to the silo-based DF-41, the Chinese are deploying mobile versions of the DF-41 and the DF-31, which carry nuclear warheads. The Pentagon report itself notes the expansion of the other legs of the Chinese nuclear Triad. In addition, the 2021 Pentagon report says that “The PRC appears to be considering additional DF-41 launch options, including rail-mobile and silo basing …. Additionally, sources indicate a ‘long-range’ DF-27 ballistic missile is in development. Official PRC military writings indicate this range-class spans 5,000-8,000km, which means the DF-27 could be a new IRBM or ICBM.”

As for the Pentagon report’s estimate that China will have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, it is noteworthy that the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in January 2021 reported that a “…military source says the country now has around 1,000 warheads…” Estimates of the current (pre-DF-41 deployment force) Chinese nuclear force range up to three thousand (mainly non-strategic) nuclear weapons. As Dr. Peter Vincent Pry has pointed out, “the new estimate is still way too low, probably by 400%, because China will probably have 4,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.” In light of the DF-41 deployment, the balance between strategic and non-strategic warheads will shift toward the strategic. 

For decades, both active duty and retired Russian military officers have credited the Chinese with far more nuclear weapons than U.S. estimates. In particular, in 2012, Colonel General (ret.) Viktor Yesin, former head of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, stated that China had enough fissile material for 3,600 nuclear warheads and that it had 1,600-1,800 nuclear weapons. In 2012, Major General (ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin stated that China had about 1,600 nuclear weapons.[1] These estimates are based on a much larger variety of nuclear-capable non-strategic missiles than those included in the Pentagon reports.

The 2020 and the 2021 Pentagon’s China reports credited the Chinese with adding two type 096 ballistic missile submarines carrying the new JL-3 SLBM by 2030, although it is silent concerning the number of warheads they will carry. (Noted nuclear analyst James R. Howe estimates that China will build 5-8 type 096 submarines.) The JL-3 is reported to carry MIRV warheads, and Howe estimates 6-10 warheads per missile. Here again, there is potential for a massive threat underestimate. More than a decade ago, there were a number of reports in the Asian press that China was planning to deploy 576 warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Howe also believes that the JL-2 SLBM can be modified to carry two to three warheads. Howe estimates China has enough fissile material for 3,878 nuclear warheads. The 2021 Pentagon report indicates that “The PRC is constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this force expansion, including increasing its capacity to produce and separate plutonium by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities.”

The 2020 Pentagon China report credited China with having over 200 nuclear-capable DF-26 IRBMs. The 2021 report raised that number to 300. It also indicated that China has an air-launched version of the DF-26. It also states that the “…multi-role DF-26 is designed to rapidly swap conventional and nuclear warhead[s]….” Why bother developing such a capability unless you have a relatively sizable nuclear inventory to swap out?

An amazing conclusion of the 2021 Pentagon report is that the DF-26, the “Guam Killer,” does not have the range to reach Guam. The report states, “The DF-26 is capable of conducting precision conventional or nuclear strikes against ground targets, such as U.S. military bases on Guam, as well as against maritime targets.” The problem is that the report also states that the DF-26 range is “approximately 3,000 km.” This is a major downward revision. With a 3,000-km range, to reach Guam, the missile would have to be deployed virtually on the beach at the closest area of China to Guam to attack it. The 3,000-km range can’t be a typo because the same report states that the range of the air-launched DF-26 is approximately 4,000-km. Any air-launched missile has a range considerably greater than the same missile when ground-launched. The 2020 Pentagon report stated that the DF-26 range was “approximately 4,000 km.” China’s English language mouthpiece Global Affairs says the range is 4,500-km.

The 2021 Pentagon report also states that “The DF-26 is the PRC’s first nuclear-capable missile system that can conduct precision strikes, and therefore, is the most likely weapon system to field a lower-yield warhead in the near term.” The DF-26 is not the only nuclear-capable precision-guided missile. According to the Pentagon‘s 2021 report itself, “The DF-21D has a range exceeding 1,500 km, is fitted with a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV).…” It is an anti-carrier missile. The Pentagon’s 2021 report says the, “CSS-5 [DF-21] Mod 2 and Mod 6 (DF-21)” are nuclear-capable. It would be ridiculous for the Chinese to reduce the accuracy of the latest version of the DF-21. Moreover, there are many other Chinese precision or near precision missiles that are reported to be nuclear-capable. This is particularly true in the Russian assessments cited above.

China has long been extremely secretive about its nuclear forces. In 1982, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, said that China should “…hide our capabilities and bide our time.”[2] That has changed somewhat recently. However, China still does not want the U.S. to recognize the scope of its nuclear buildup.

The Chinese propaganda line is that China is increasing its nuclear force because of “increasing U.S. pressure.” This pressure includes a vast reduction in our nuclear capability. According to the Biden Administration, “As of September 2020, the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads consisted of 3,750 warheads. This number represents an approximate 88 percent reduction in the stockpile from its maximum (31,255) at the end of fiscal year 1967 and an approximate 83 percent reduction from its level (22,217) when the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989.” If you ignore this and the vast disparity in post-Cold War nuclear modernization between the U.S. and China, it is easy to buy into the Chinese propaganda. The U.S. 3,750 number includes both the active and inactive stockpile. The China numbers cited above are almost always estimates of their active stockpile.

The Pentagon report acknowledges the existence of Chinese concealment and deception. The collection of sensitive information, such as the number of nuclear warheads, is always difficult in communist states. On the other hand, it is easy for China to feed disinformation to the U.S. through double agents. Chinese disinformation may have played a substantial role in shaping inaccurate beliefs concerning the extent of China’s nuclear force modernization and expansion as well as their nuclear doctrine.

The 2021 Pentagon China report, like almost all of its predecessors, ignores China’s Underground Great Wall, 5,000-km of missile tunnels. In July 2021, then-U.S. Conference on Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wall stated that China was now “…pursuing weapons similar to some of the nuclear-powered delivery systems that the Russians have been pursuing.” There is no mention of this in the 2021 Pentagon report.

The reality of what China is doing is far more threatening than the assessment contained in the Pentagon report. According to Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, “We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China. The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking. And frankly, that word breathtaking may not be enough.” Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten stated that the Chinese orbital hypersonic weapons “look like a first-use weapon.” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has warned that “China is acquiring a first-strike capability.” The Communist Party of China recently threatened Japan: “We will use nuclear bombs first…. We will use nuclear bombs continuously. We will do this until Japan declares unconditional surrender for the second time.”

If the Chinese have several thousand nuclear weapons within the next few years, that threat is quite different from 1000+ by 2030. In the words of Dr. Pry, “Unfortunately, too many in Washington are falling for the Biden intelligence community estimate without thinking.  Why in the world would China build the capability to deliver 4,000 nuclear weapons when it supposedly can manufacture only 1,000 warheads by 2030? From such intelligence miscalculations, Afghanistans, 9/11s, Vietnams, Korean Wars, and Pearl Harbors are made.”

The Chinese nuclear buildup is apparently aimed at deterring U.S. military intervention in support of Taiwan and, subsequently, other states when China attacks. The Pentagon report won’t acknowledge this. This is dangerous, particularly in the context of a nuclear posture review by an administration that has a predisposition toward making cuts to our nuclear deterrent capability.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.

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