The Warhead Gap

China’s tactical and theater nuclear force levels revealed by Russian general

AP Images
November 9, 2012

China has nearly 750 theater and tactical nuclear warheads in addition to more than 200 strategic missile warheads, a stockpile far larger than U.S. estimates, according to a retired Russian general who once led Moscow’s strategic forces.

New details of China’s strategic and tactical nuclear warheads levels were disclosed by retired Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, former commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, during a conference several months ago. A copy of Yesin’s paper was translated last month by the Georgetown University Asian Arms Control Project and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Yesin for the first time disclosed details on China’s theater and tactical nuclear warheads showing a total of 719 to 749 warheads used on bombers, short- and medium-range missiles, and a new land-attack cruise missile, in a recent paper published in the book titled Prospects for China’s Participation in Nuclear Arms Limitation.

Yesin concludes that China’s nuclear arsenal is "appreciably higher than many experts think."

"In all likelihood, the [People’s Republic of China] is already the third nuclear power today, after the U.S. and Russia, and it undoubtedly has technical and economic capabilities that will permit it to rapidly increase its nuclear might if necessary," he said.

Yesin first revealed higher estimates of the Chinese warhead stockpile last spring that he says contain as many as 1,800 warheads, including up to 900 warheads deployed and ready for use. That estimate is based on China’s stockpile of more than 50 tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium and contradicts lower warhead estimates done by U.S. intelligence agencies and private arms control groups.

U.S. intelligence agencies have asserted in classified studies that China’s total nuclear force includes about 300 nuclear warheads. Two liberal arms control groups, the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council several years ago accused the Pentagon of exaggerating China’s nuclear forces. They asserted China’s total nuclear warhead force is about 200 warheads, with no tactical warheads.

A forthcoming annual report by the congressional United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission states that China’s nuclear arsenal includes between 100 and 500 weapons, with a general consensus that Beijing has around 240 nuclear weapons.

The draft annual report also said China is moving ahead with deployment of nuclear missile submarines.

"China has had a symbolic ballistic missile submarine capability for decades but is only now on the cusp of establishing its first credible, ‘near-continuous at-sea strategic deterrent,’" states the report obtained by the Free Beacon.

The report warns Congress to "treat with caution any proposal to unilaterally, or in the context of a bilateral agreement with Russia, reduce the U.S.’s operational nuclear forces absent clearer information being made available to the public about China’s nuclear stockpile and force posture."

According to Yesin, China’s bombs and warheads include B-4 and B-5 aerial bombs, 2-megaton missile warheads, and 500- and 300-kiloton strategic missile warhead. A megaton is the nuclear equivalent to a million tons of TNT; a kiloton equals a thousand tons of TNT.

For its tactical and theater warhead arsenal, the Chinese also have a 350-kiloton warhead for medium range DF-21 missiles and five to 20 kiloton warheads for DF-15 and DF-11 short-range missiles that are mainly targeted on Taiwan. The 350-kiloton warhead can also be deployed on China’s new DH-10 land-attack cruise missiles, Yesin said.

For submarine-launched JL-2 missiles, China has a 500-kiloton warhead.

According to the Russian general, China also is building multiple-warhead missiles that will require large increases in the number of warheads.

"An advanced development is the multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle (MIRV)," he said, for DF-5A and DF-31A ICBMs, and the JL-2.

Experimental MIRV prototypes may have been fabricated and used in flight tests in 2011, he said.

The Free Beacon first disclosed that China conducted the flight test of a new long-range missile called the DF-41 that U.S. intelligence agencies assess will be outfitted with multiple warheads.

China’s aerial bomb arsenal for its Hong-6 bombers includes 440 B-5 and B-4 bombs, Yesin said.

For missiles, the retired general said that "all told, 207 missile launchers are deployed within the Strategic Missile Forces—48 with ICBMs, 99 with [medium-range ballistic missiles] MRBMs, and 60 with [short-range] SRMs."

Total strategic warheads—those capable of reaching the United States—include 208 nuclear warheads, Yesin said.

The figures presented by the former Russian general are renewing debate about the threat posed by Chinese strategic and tactical nuclear forces and whether U.S. intelligence agencies have accurately assessed the threat.

The Yesin report was produced as part of a series of papers that examined the prospect of trilateral strategic arms talks between the United States, Russia, and China. It concludes that China’s communist government see little interest in joining such talks unless it can use them to force concessions from the United States to reduce its nuclear weapons stocks.

Phillip Karber, a Georgetown University professor who sparked the debate through a university project that exposed China’s 3,000-mile long underground nuclear complex, said the Russian debate on China’s nuclear forces shows its strategic analysts are "thinking about the instability and dangers of a potential ‘tripolar’ nuclear balance" that has received scant attention from U.S. military or arms control advocates.

"The Russian report raises important questions about their and our ability to stay in existing arms control treaties and implement deep nuclear cuts when the Chinese are not constrained and have tactical/theater missile dominance as well as an emerging breakout potential over the next decade with unverified numbers of mobile MIRVed ICBMs hidden in a extensive underground infrastructure," Karber said.

Karber said the Russian specialists quoted in the report have credibility because of Moscow’s past and current role in China’s nuclear program. Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces also has good intelligence on China’s nuclear arsenal because it targeted China for three decades.

"This close proximity and long track record means that Russian ‘realism’ about Chinese nuclear force potential cannot be blithely ignored or discounted as ‘paranoia,’" Karber said. "Their warning against American ‘idealism’ [on China’s nuclear arms] needs to be taken seriously."

Richard Fisher, a China military specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, also said the latest Yesin report is a wake-up call for U.S. analysts.

"If Yesin's numbers for Chinese theater nuclear weapons approaches reality, then the Obama administration's 2010 reduction in U.S. theater weapons via the retirement of the Navy's TLAM-N nuclear cruise missiles amounted to an act of unilateral disarmament that may prove destabilizing if it tempts China to consider military action," Fisher said.

Fisher also said the estimates presented by Yesin may differ from western estimates but "we cannot forget that Yesin once was in command of Russia's strategic missile forces, so it would have been his business to know about China's nuclear forces."

Fisher said Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan currently are developing long-range offensive missiles or already have advanced space launchers that could be converted to intermediate-range missiles.

"If Washington does not take steps to strengthen non-nuclear deterrence in Asia, apparently our allies are not going to simply accept China's nuclear missile hegemony," he said.

The Navy is developing a new long-range submarine-launched ballistic missile to bolster aircraft carrier strike groups.

"New long range non-nuclear armed missiles combined with new very long-range radar in Japan and the Philippines could become a new reconnaissance-strike-complex that could balance China's emerging similar missile strike forces," Fisher said.

The new missiles could check China’s missiles for at least the next decade, Fisher said, and "until the U.S. moves in this direction, there is probably no chance that China would consider entering into any formal missile limitation agreements."

The sponsor was the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"There are serious fears concerning the fact that the nuclear potential of the PRC is appreciably higher than had been previously thought," an introduction to the book states. "It is entirely likely that, even as we speak, the PRC is the third nuclear power after the US and Russia, and that it undoubtedly has the technical and economic capabilities needed in order to quickly increase its nuclear firepower if necessary."

"The most important takeaway from this collection, though, is not any particular fact or proposition," said Jonathan Askonas, the Georgetown student director of the Asian Arms Control Project. "It is a new strategic reality. China is modernizing its military in a way that challenges the security interests of other great powers interested in Asian stability."