China's Nuclear Forces

site created in 2001 / 2002
update in 2007 included Chinese language site

One of the daemons guarding the four directions,
just trying a new thunderbolt (from Tibetan lore).

From the revolutionary musical and dance epic
"East Is Red": Battling the enemy in their back !


Historical Background

China began developing nuclear weapons in the late 1950s with substantial Soviet assistance. Before 1960 direct Soviet military assistance had included the provision of advisors and a vast variety of equipment. Of the assistance provided, most significant to China's future strategic nuclear capability were an experimental nuclear reactor, facilities for processing uranium, a cyclotron, and some equipment for a gaseous diffusions plant. When Sino-Soviet relations cooled down in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet Union withheld plans and data for an atomic bomb, abrogated the agreement on transferring defense technology, and began the withdrawal of Soviet advisers in 1960. Despite the termination of Soviet assistance, China committed itself to continue nuclear weapons development in order to break the "superpowers' monopoly on nuclear weapons," to ensure Chinese security against the Soviet and United States threats, and to increase Chinese prestige and power internationally.

State of the Art

According to official western sources, the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal is about 400 warheads. It is estimated that 20 nuclear-armed missiles are deployed in the intercontinental role, and another 230 nuclear weapons are deployed (or can be deployed) on aircraft, missiles, and submarines with regional capabilities. The 150 remaining nuclear warheads are believed to be reserved for "tactical" uses (short-range missiles, low yield aircraft-dropped bombs, and possibly artillery shells or demolition munitions). In the 1990's a confusing document appeared, launched by some anonym. It could be identified as an internal document of the Chinese Defense Ministry by the Hong Kong magazine "The Trend" (Dong Xiang) that received it. This paper reveals that China at present has a total of 2,350 nuclear warheads, a number much larger than the 300-400 generally cited in the Western media. Among the 2,350 warheads are about 550 tactical nukes and 1,800 strategic nukes. The document also reveals that the annual production of warheads should have been 110-120 in the 1980's and about 140-150 at present. Nuclear weapons in China are under the control of the Central Military Commission, which is headed by the President. Other members of the commission are generals from the People's Liberation Army (PLA), who may also serve on the Politburo of the Communist Party.


Intercontinental Nuclear Forces

China currently maintains a minimal intercontinental nuclear deterrent using land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles(ICBMs), all belonging to the Dong Feng (East Wind) series. The Dong Feng-5 (DF-5) liquid-fueled missile, first deployed in 1981, has a range of 13,000 km and carries a single multi- megaton warhead. Twenty are believed to be deployed in central China. Unlike China's earlier ballistic missiles, which were stored in caves and moved out for launch, the DF-5 can be launched directly from vertical silos -- but only after a two-hour fueling process. In order to increase the survivability of the DF-5s, dummy silos are placed near the real silos. The DF-5's range gives it coverage of all of Asia and Europe, and most of the USA. The south-eastern US states are at the edge of the missile's range. Two additional long-range ballistic missiles are in the development stage, the 8,000 km DF-31 and the 12,000 km DF-41. Both missiles are expected to be solid-fueled and based on mobile launchers. It is not known how many missiles China plans to deploy nor how many warheads the missiles may carry, but it is believed that China is hoping to deploy multiple nuclear warheads and penetration aids. These may be either multiple re-entry vehicles (MRVs) or the more capable, but technically difficult multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). First deployment for the DF-31 could occur before 2005; the DF-41 is likely to follow, possibly around 2010. GOLDEN EYE exists ! An evaluation of China`s strategic capabilities, published in 1999 from inside the U.S. Department of Defense, hints at another project: "Another option Chinese designers have recently discussed is a fractional orbiting missile in which a warhead is placed into a low earth orbit. When the time comes to attack a target, an engine can be fired to bring the warhead to bear against a target, creating great difficulties for an adversary’s missile defense. China con- ducted a feasibility study on a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) in 1966. This system launches a missile into very low orbit, approximately 95 miles above earth. Before completion of first orbit, a retro-rocket retards the speed of the warhead, which hits the target with only a few minutes warning......" China's nuclear-armed naval forces are currently limited to one Xia Type 092 nuclear-powered and nuclear ballistic missile-equipped submarine (SSBN), which has a history of reactor and acoustic problems. The only existing Xia 092, serial number 406, has a mass of 6,500 T dived. It can carry 12 guided missiles of the Ju Lang-1 (Huge Wave, JL-1) type (SLBM code: CSS-N-3) with a single 200-300 kT warhead and a range of 1,700 km. [Another source reports a 1.25 MT warhead equipment but this might be a simple misprint (0,25 MT).] Although it was rumored that a second boat was built, this has never been confirmed. Due to its technical limits, the Type 092 is never deployed outside regional waters. Nevertheless, the Xia 092 has become a valuable testbed for PLAN (PLA navy) to shape its tactics and strategies for modern SSBN warfare since the first successful test fire of a JL-1 missile in 1988. China is reported to be planning to build 4-6 submarines of the new Type 094. [Other sources mention but 3-4 Type 094 SSBNs being projected.] The Type 094 will introduce a safer, quieter reactor and better overall performance. It is expected to have 16 JL-2 missiles (SLBM code: CSS-NX-4), capable of carrying up to six warheads per missile, probably MRVs that are not independently target- able. [Other sources mention 3-4 of the more sophisticated MIRV warheads with a capacity of 90 kT each, or a single 250 kT warhead at a range of 8,000 km.] With the project starting in 1999, the initial launch date for the 094 submarine is supposed to be scheduled for 2002. Development of its JL-2 missile weapon, however, may take considerably longer because the land-based missile on which it based, the DF-31, has been test launched only once. [As a consequence, any refitting of the first Type 092 submarin with 12 new JL-2 missiles in the late 90s, as reported by other sources, seems to be unlikely and has never been confirmed.] If China were to employ a deployment rotation similar to that for US Navy SSBNs (three submarines for each one in target range, with one on station, one in transit, and one in refit), then six SSBNs would give China the ability to keep two submarines on station in the Pacific at all times, able to strike all of Asia, Europe, and North America.3 If the planned 6 submarines are built with the maximum number of warheads per missile, the number of total deployable submarine-based nuclear warheads will rise to 576. Even if the warheads were not independently targetable, the minimum number likely to be on station and capable of striking the United States would be 192. That seems to be enough to saturate the originally proposed light version of an US national missile defense (NMD), which is now driving the Chinese strategic nuclear modernization and expansion programs. Yet, the experimental Xia 092 submarine is still reported to suffer from "noise problems". A fuel cell driven engine could then provide a possible solution. Such sophisticated technology could be delivered by the German HDW (Howaldtswerke - Deutsche Werft AG Kiel) who seems to be leading in that field. Unfortunately, HDW Kiel will be sold out to a U.S. company in June 2002. It is expected that after the deal has been accomplished, some brandnew submarines of the latest standard will be manufactured for Taiwan, a project originally rejected by German authorities. Looking back from 2007: Such were the plannings in 2002, and it was at the very last moment that the German Federal Government intervened and kept finest submarine tech- nology in the country. Now, one of the most sophisticated submarines on earth is tried out by the German Navy, as has been shown in a TV report.

Regional Nuclear Forces

China also deploys three weapons in the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) categories. These missiles are capable of posing strategic threats to countries in Asia, such as India or Japan, but represent a lesser threat to Russia, and are only a threat to the U.S. through the vulnerability of U.S. military bases in Japan and South Korea. The oldest nuclear missile deployed by China is the semi-mobile 2,800 km- range DF-3A. The estimated 40 liquid-fueled DF-3s still in service today are being phased out in favor of the DF-15 (see below) and DF-21. They were followed by the liquid-fueled DF-4, which has a maximum range of 4,750 km. About 20 DF-4s remain in service in fixed launch sights. Chinese regional ballistic missile capabilities advanced greatly with the introduction of the DF- 21, the first solid-fueled medium-range missile. The solid-fuel design provides China with a faster launch time, because the lengthy and potentially dangerous fueling procedure of the earlier Dong Feng models has been eliminated. First deployed in 1986, the 48 operational DF-21s have a range of 1,800 km and are carried on mobile launchers. The DF-21 is the basis for the JL-1 submarine- launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The older liquid-fuel missiles carry single warheads with yields estimated at 3.3 MT. The newer solid-fuel missiles have single warheads with maximum yields of a few hundred kilotons each. The Chinese bomber force is based on locally produced versions of Soviet air- raft first deployed in the 1950s. With the retirement of the H-5/Il-28 from the nuclear role, the H-6/Tu-16 remains the only nuclear-capable bomber in the Chinese inventory. First entering service with the Soviet Air Force in 1955, the Tu-16 was produced in China in the 1960s. The H-6/Tu-16 is capable of carrying one-to-three nuclear bombs over a combat radius of 1,800 km to 3,100 km. About 120 People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6/Tu-16s are believed to be capable of nuclear missions. Another 20 H-6/Tu-16s are under the control of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and do not perform nuclear missions. There is no indication of a replacement for the H-6/Tu-16 in the near future. The J-7/ MiG-21 and the newer Chinese-designed JH-7s and Russian-exported Su-27s are capable of performing nuclear missions, but they are not believed to be deployed in that role.

Short-Range, Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

The PLAAF has 20-40 Q-5 Fantan attack aircraft that it uses in the nuclear role. Initially deployed in China in 1970, the Q-5 is a substantially upgraded version of the MiG-19, which was initially deployed in the Soviet Union in 1954 and later produced by China under the designation J-6. The Q-5 can carry a single free-fall nuclear bomb over a combat radius of 400 km. The very short range of the Q-5 limits its battlefield effectiveness, even with conventional armament. Two types of short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) entered service with China's Second Artillery forces around 1995: the DF-11/M-11, with a range of 300 km, and the DF-15/M-9, with a range of 600 km. (The 'DF' designation is used by missiles in service with China, while the 'M' designation is used for export versions.). In theory both missiles could be fitted with small nuclear devices. As of 2000, a few hundred DF-15s and DF-11s may be deployed; but most if not all are believed to be equipped with conventional warheads. Many facts concerning the Chinese nuclear forces have been taken from a recently published study and enriched with further information from other public sources. Detailed information on all sources exploited, and links to relevant Chinese and US websites are available from the Chinese language part of this site. Compilation and webdesign of the English / Chinese version have been accomplished by Wolfgang Wiesner, editor of BLUEPRINT magazine. The content of this website is intended to serve as a reliable basis for any discussion dealing with the questions of arms race and political stability in the Far East.

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