Wednesday, 29 October, 2008

China's Nuclear Stockpile and Deployments

According to a study of China's nuclear forces conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC),

"Our best estimate is that China maintains an arsenal of about 400 warheads of two basic categories, some 250 "strategic" weapons structured in a "triad" of land-based missiles, bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The emphasis of China's arsenal is primarily on the land-based missile leg of the triad. Additionally, China is thought to possess about 150 "tactical" weapons, made up of some or all of the following: low yield bombs for tactical bombardment, artillery shells, atomic demolition munitions, and possibly short range missiles."

Chinese nuclear forces are estimated to be deployed at about 20 locations and are under the control of the Central Military Commission (CMC). While China is believed to have 250 strategic nuclear weapons, only about 20 of these are deployed on missiles capable of traveling intercontinental distances; 100 are thought to be deployed on missiles and bombers with ranges from 1,800 to 4,750 kilometers. To date, China has not officially acknowledged its possession of tactical nuclear weapons and China has not discussed the qualitative or quantitative state of its nuclear arsenal. [Robert S. Norris, "Nuclear Arsenals of the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China: A Status Report," presented at the 5th ISODARCO Beijing Seminar on Arms Control, Chengdu, China, November 1996, p. 5. and Norris, Robert S. and William M. Arkin. "Chinese Nuclear Forces, 1999." The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. May/June 1999. p. 79.]

China has six types of operational land based nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, the DF-5/5A, DF-4, DF-3A, DF-21/21X, the DF-15, and the DF-11. China has 40 DF-3 missile launchers deployed at Jianshui, Kunming, Yidu, Tonghua, Dengshahe and Lianxiwang. However, these are being replaced by the DF-21 at the Tonghua, Jianshui and Lianxiwang sites. The DF-4 is a longer range missile deployed at Da Qaidam, Delingha, Sundian, Tongdao, and Xiao Qaidam. The DF-5A, China's longest range missile, is capable of striking targets throughout the continental United States. 18-26 of these DF-5A missiles are deployed in silos and caves at Luoning and Xuanhua. It is not currently known exactly where the DF-15 and DF-11 missiles are deployed. The new DF-31 has reportedly been deployed in southern China; there is no confirmation of this report. It is generally assumed that large numbers of ballistic missiles are deployed along the coastline in Fujian province in an effort to intimidate Taiwan.

China has only one type of operational submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Julang-1 (JL-1). Twelve Julang-1 are deployed on China's single Xia-class ballistic missile nuclear submarine (SSBN). The warheads for the Julang-1 are believed to be stored at the Jianggezhuang Submarine Base. China is developing a longer range SLBM known as the JL-2 which is the sea-based version of the DF-31. The JL-2 has not yet been tested from any submarines.

Warhead Designs

China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, tested its first hydrogen weapon in 1967, began series production of nuclear weapons in 1968 and initiated production of thermonuclear weapons in 1974. Robert Norris of the NRDC estimates that China has tested and deployed six nuclear warhead designs:

  • a 20-40 kiloton (kT) fission gravity bomb
  • a 20 kT missile warhead
  • a 3+ megaton (MT) thermonuclear missile warhead
  • a 4-5 MT warhead for the DF-5 ICBM
  • a 3+ MT thermonuclear gravity bomb;
  • a 200-300 kT warhead possibly for the for the DF-31 and DF-41 and JL-2 SLBM.

China may also possess low-yield fission warheads for tactical nuclear weapons. In addition, in July 1999, the Chinese government announced that in the early 1980s it had "mastered neutron bomb design technology," but Beijing did not indicate whether it had actually produced or deployed any neutron bombs. This statement about the neutron bomb was the first time that China had publicly discussed any of its military nuclear programs. China reportedly tested an experimental 1-5 kT enhanced radiation (neutron) warhead in September 1988; this step would seem to validate the recent Chinese statement about having developed a neutron bomb. China likely developed the neutron bomb to protect against the possibility of a large Soviet invasion of the mainland during the height of the Cold War.

Command and Control

Very little is known about China's chain of command for authority over nuclear weapons. It is believed that ultimate authority to use nuclear weapons rests with the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (currently Jiang Zemin) after top leaders have reached a consensus. A decision to use nuclear weapons may also require a consensus decision within the Central Military Commission and other senior military leaders.
China is believed to store most of its nuclear warheads and bombs separate from its delivery vehicles and the warheads and bombs are only mated with the missiles or aircraft during launch preparations. In this sense, China's nuclear forces are not on alert. Also, China may have central storage locations for its missile warheads and gravity bombs which are accessible by a number of missile and bomber bases.

Arsenal Size

  • Only a few US government sources has discussed the size of China's nuclear arsenal. In the Pentagon's November 1997 report entitled, the US Defense Department stated: China has over 100 nuclear warheads deployed operationally on ballistic missiles while additional warheads are in storage. In addition, a classified CIA study reportedly stated that 13 of China's 18 DF-5A ICBMs are targeted at the United States while the remaining five are targeted at countries closer to China.


System Name
[US desig-nation in brackets]
Year Range and Payload Nuclear Delivery Capability Number of Systems and Warheads Deployed Comments
1971 2850 km
2150 kg
Single nuclear warhead, 1-5 MT (3.3 MT) 40 missiles (one warhead per missile) 120-150 minute launch prep. time; road-mobile; reportedly
deployed on 40 refire-capable
launchers at six field garrisons and launch
complexes; being phased out and replaced by DF-21/21A
1980 4850-5500 km
2200 kg
Single nuclear warhead, 1-5 MT (3.3 MT) 20 missiles (one warhead per missile) 60-120
minute launch prep.
time; also used as booster for CZ-1 SLV; cave-based and rolled out to launch; will likely be replaced by DF-31 missiles after 2010
1981 13000+ km
3200 kg
Single nuclear warhead, 1-5 MT (4-5 MT) 18-26 single warhead missile
(estimates vary)
30-60 minute launch prep. time; also used as booster for CZ-2, CZ-3, CZ-4 SLVs; deployed in silos at 3 locations; longer range Mod 2 to replace Mod 1 by 2005
1988 1700-1800 km
600 kg
Single nuclear warhead, 200-300 kT 48 missiles
(one warhead per missile)
10-15 minute launch prep. time; same missile as the JL-1 SLBM; deployed in areas close to China's borders; replacing DF-3 in some areas on converted DF-3 launchers; new model has greater range and accuracy through GPS and a "radio-frequency" explosive warhead
DF-15/ M-9
600 km
950 kg (500 kg)
Single nuclear warhead, 50-350 kT 300 missiles (estimate) 30 minute launch prep. time; nuclear role for CSST-600 is as yet unproven;
deployed along China's east coast to target Taiwan; M-9 version designed explicitly for export; enhancing accuracy with GPS technology
280 km
800 kg
Single nuclear warhead,
350 kT
200 missiles (estimate) 30-45 minute launch prep. time; M-11 version designed explicitly for export
1986 2150 km
600 kg
Single nuclear warhead, 250 kT (500 kT) 12 missiles on one Xia-class submarine Same missile as the DF-21/21A
Hong-6 (H-6) bomber [B-6] 1965 3100 km
4500 kg
One to three nuclear bombs, 10 kT-3 MT per bomb 120 aircraft; China is believed to have a stockpile of 150 nuclear gravity bombs for its aircraft Redesign of Soviet Tu-26 Badger
Qian-5A (Q-5A) attack aircraft
1970 400 km
1500 kg
One nuclear bomb, 10 kT-3 MT 30 aircraft; China is believed to have a stockpile of 150 nuclear gravity bombs for its aircraft Redesign of Soviet MiG-19
Tactical warheads [possibly including artillery shells, rockets, atomic demolition
munitions (ADMs)]
Low kT
150 warheads in storage
"DF" stands for "Dong Feng" ("East Wind")
"JL" stands for "Julang" ("Giant Wave")
"CSS" stands for "Chinese Surface-to-Surface"
"CSS-N" stands for "Chinese Surface-to-Surface Naval"
"CSST" stands for "Chinese Surface-to-Surface Tactical"

H stands for "Hong" (bomber)
Q stands for "Qian" (fighter/attack aircraft)
B designates bomber aircraft; A designates attack aircraft

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