16 September 2020

The Pentagon warns: China plans to double its nuclear arsenal

Sergiu Medar

On September 1st 2020, the US Department of Defense has sent the US Congress the annual report on “Military and Security developments involving the People's Republic of China”. For Washington, the most important chapter of the report is related to China developing nuclear capabilities, updating the current ones and building guidance systems and early warning space capabilities.

Image source: Profimedia

According to the federal law, the Secretary of Defense has to provide, when the Congress asks for it, a secret report and a public one on topics demanded by the members of Congress. For about 20 years now, this document is annually demanded, as they consider that any development China does in the military and security field is a direct threat against the US national security.

2020 is an important year for the People’s Liberation Army as its development must provide the defence and security of the modernization process of China to reach the country’s transformation objective in a “prosperous-moderated society”, until 2021, when the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party is to be celebrated.

The US National Security Strategy assumes that, currently, the main threat against the American people’s wealth and security is the great powers competition, according to which, out of the competitive states, China and Russia and the foremost important.

The field the US thinks to be under a continuous threat is the nuclear one.

The development of military nuclear weapons and technologies in China

China has and develops a large series of vector carriers, which can reach targets far between 850 km and 4500 km.

Among these, we mention:

- ballistic missiles with short range of action (300-1000km). The Chinese army has 200 launchers and 600 missiles. In the last 4 years, these were updated by increasing their range of action, and the guidance systems were improved, especially in terms of precision;

-ballistic missiles with medium range of action (1000-3000 km). China has 150 land launchers and 150 missiles. These can hit land and naval targets. These are dedicated to providing the South China Sea’s naval operations.  The ballistic missiles with intermediary range of action (3000-5500 km) were updated, especially in terms of the reconnaissance process and satellite guidance towards targets. China has around 300 launchers and more than 200 missiles. The ballistic vector carrier CSS4 can reach targets in: Central and East Europe, Egypt, Somalia etc. in East of Africa, including the Middle East, Russia, the Arctic Area up to the Northern Pole, part of Alaska and all South-East of Asia. The warheads for these are both conventional and nuclear.

-cruise missiles for land targets’ attack. The Chinese army has 100 launchers and more than 300 missiles for that. This type of weapon is defined by a high precision strike. Currently, there is an adaptation program of this type of missile for its launch both from a ship and an aircraft.

- cruise missiles embarked for anti-ship attack. China has also Russian missiles in this field, including those that can be launched from a submersible. The anti-ship missiles, alike other types of missiles, are increasing their speed on the last portion of the trajectory.

-ballistic missiles with high range of action (intercontinental), from 1750 km to 13000, able to cover the US and Europe. The vector carrier, a ballistic CSS4, can reach targets from: Central and East Europe, Egypt, Somalia etc. in East of Africa, including the Middle East, Russia, the Arctic Area up to the Northern Pole, part of Alaska and all South-East of Asia. It has both nuclear and conventional warheads. Currently, China has 200 nuclear warheads, but also fissionable material to double it. This intention is an aggressive sign for the US.

China’s nuclear policy conceptualizes that the modernization and maintenance of nuclear forces is the basic condition to survive ahead of a nuclear attack, for its nuclear counterattack to be immediate and totally destructive. This principle is also present in other states that have nuclear weapons. Besides the fact that it cannot use its nuclear reaction first, China committed to never use its nuclear forces against a state that has no nuclear weapons. As for using nuclear weapons if an enemy uses conventional weapons, the Chinese laws are quite ambiguous. For example, these do not clarify the answer to how they would react if the Chinese nuclear bases would get attacked by conventional weapons.

The only state that mentioned, in the national security strategy, that it will use nuclear weapons to a conventional attack on its national territory is Russia. From the document elaborated by Russia it comes out that it confirms it will use nuclear weapons even on a state that does not poses similar weapons but threatens or attacks its territory conventionally.

China’s nuclear weapons modernization rhythm is the biggest among its possible enemies. Also, the Nuclear Forces military’s training is extremely advanced, focusing on their permanent training. The lack of transparency of the training and modernization programs of the Nuclear Forces are the mere proof that the Chinese Communist Party gave up China’s minimalist position in terms of a future military conflict and it is getting ready to be an active part of it. So far, the nuclear forces were only a deterrence method, as nuclear equipment was present to all the parades. Now, accelerating the nuclear programs goes beyond the deterrence mission, aiming at developing an offensive capacity.

China will develop new nuclear warheads, as well as new missile launchers options, seeking to be equally efficient, safe and precise as US’s and Russia’s. Currently, China is updating its bombers’ fleet for them to be able to carry and launch ballistic missiles.

In order to cope with a possible nuclear attack from these two states, China is developing modern technologies to produce launchers and hypersonic anti-ship missiles, false targets, jamming systems, thermic shields and others. The increase of the launching platforms diversity - land, air, maritime and underwater - is a basic objective for the Chinese army. For the first time, China will have a nuclear triad, with air, land and maritime launching capabilities.

All these attack or defence capabilities against nuclear weapons are supported by modern early warning, command and control systems, specific to nuclear systems. China started to develop a space early warning system in case of a nuclear attack.

In February 2021, the New START Treaty will come to an end, signed by the US and Russia, limiting to 1550 the number of dislocated operational nuclear weapons they have the right to poses. In its deposits, the US has 3800 nuclear warheads and other 2000 that it is no longer using but which can quickly be use again. The US has great quantities of fissionable material, which allow the fabrication of thousands of nuclear warheads.

Washington stated that, within the following negotiations regarding the limitation and monitoring of nuclear weapons, China should also be included. So far, it did not join any negotiation regarding the weapons’ control. The Trump Administration has stated that the New START negotiations will not start but in a format to include China as well. Recently, a Chinese diplomat from Washington has stated that China would be willing to join them, only if the US and Russia would reduce their nuclear weapons to China’s level.

After the presented report, the Pentagon committed to mobilize its capabilities to collect and analyze the information to track the development of nuclear capabilities, vector carriers, Chinese anti-ship capabilities and the early warning or jamming equipment.  

Translated by Andreea Soare