Szechuan Surprise

Russian general says Chinese warhead arsenal larger, more lethal than U.S. estimates

June 29, 2012

China’s nuclear warhead stockpile is more than twice as large as U.S. intelligence estimates and could include as many as 3,000 warheads, according to a retired Russian general and former strategic forces commander.

Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, the former head of the Strategic Rocket Forces, revealed in a May 2012 article that based on estimated stocks of up to 70 tons of uranium and plutonium, Beijing has enough material for 3,600 nuclear warheads.

Based on the fissile material, "there are probably 1,600 to 1,800 warheads in the Chinese nuclear arsenal," Yesin stated.

"According to assessments, 800 to 900 warheads from this number may be operationally deployed, with the rest in long-term storage," the general stated.

Yesin concluded the article by stating that his analysis "shows that the nuclear capability of China is clearly underestimated."

"It is substantially greater than assessed by the Western expert community," he said, noting that any future strategic arms talks should include China.

The Russian analysis sharply diverges from U.S. intelligence estimates of China’s nuclear warhead stock. U.S. spy agencies currently estimate that China has between 300 and 400 nuclear warheads for its small-but-growing force of missiles and bombers, U.S. officials have said.

A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment on the Russian analysis.

The Russian article was translated and made public by the Georgetown University Asian Arms Control Project, which earlier this year made public similar estimates of the Chinese nuclear arsenal after disclosing new information on Beijing’s 3,000-mile-long underground nuclear tunnel complex dubbed the Underground Great Wall.

Phillip Karber, a former Reagan administration defense official who now heads the Georgetown arms control project, said the Russians helped China with its first nuclear reactors and targeted Chinese nuclear sites during the Soviet period.

"In the last 20 years [the Russians] have had tens of thousands of Russian scientists working in the Chinese military industrial complex," Karber said during a conference on Capitol Hill Thursday. "So it’s probable that the Russians have a fairly good handle, perhaps a better handle on it than we do."

Karber said that based on Yesin’s view the Chinese warhead stockpile is "substantially larger" than U.S. estimates.

Rep. Michael R. Turner, chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said after a speech to the conference that the actual number of Chinese warheads is unknown.

"We don’t know," he said at the conference sponsored by the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington think tank.

The lack of knowledge about China’s arsenal is the result of "massive investments" by Beijing in keeping secret details of its strategic arsenal.

"That leads us to the concern of not just what their number is, but what are their activities and what is their intent," Turner said.

Turner said arms control critics issued blistering attacks on those who make public information about China’s nuclear forces but demand more information be released on U.S. nuclear systems.

"It was almost as if the arms control groups were concerned that Dr. Karber, by shining light on Chinese nuclear force developments, was somehow challenging their agenda of disarming the United States," Turner said.

Turner said Chinese tunnels challenge U.S. nuclear deterrence, which is needed to make clear to adversaries "you can destroy that which they hold dear."

"The problem with these [Chinese] tunnels is they could create in the minds of China’s leaders that their military assets are secure and off limits to U.S. power," he said.

Turner concluded: "I am deeply concerned that this administration has no real plan to counter the uncertainty of China’s military development."

Additionally, Yesin also revealed that China is developing multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which vastly increase the strategic power of its missiles. The MIRVs are being retrofitted on DF-5A, DF-31A long-range missiles, and JL-2 submarine launched missiles, he stated.

Prototype MIRVs may have been produced in 2011 and are now in the testing and evaluation phase, he stated.

China also is modernizing its bomber fleet of 60 H-6 strategic bombers that can fire nuclear-tipped long-range DH-10 cruise missiles. China also had deployed some 300 Q-5 fighter-bombers that are capable of dropping nuclear bombs, the general said.

Beijing also is building a new intermediate-range ballistic missile called the DF-25, based on the DF-31 ICBM, and is developing a longer-range missile called the DF-41, which experts expect to be deployed on both road- and rail-mobile launchers. The DF-41 is expected to be equipped with six to 10 warheads each.

The Russian estimate bolsters Karber’s earlier estimate, which is based on the size of the nuclear tunnel complex and estimated fissile production, that China has some 3,000 nuclear warheads.

Liberal arms control advocates in and out of government have criticized Karber for the larger estimate and insist China’s warhead stockpile is small and in the 300 to 400 warhead range.

Chinese security officials met at the State Department on Monday with Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller for a U.S.-China security dialogue. The discussion focused on arms control, nonproliferation, disarmament, and other security issues.

A U.S. official said Gottemoeller tried to convince the Chinese to enter strategic nuclear talks. However, the Chinese, as they have in the past, refused to make a commitment to arms talks on their nuclear arsenal, which remains shrouded in secrecy.

A classified State Department cable from 2008 revealed that Chinese official He Yafei rebuffed a U.S. call for greater transparency for the Chinese nuclear arsenal, saying nuclear arms are a "sensitive issue" and that the Chinese officials "do not know the size of China’s nuclear arsenal."

The cable quoted He as saying "now is not the time for China to tell others what we have" in the way of nuclear arms and added that if China were to disclose the size of its nuclear arsenal, it would eliminate its deterrent value.