China’s Nuclear Modernization and the End of Nuclear Opacity

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China’s Nuclear Modernization and the End of Nuclear Opacity

Could a more modern arsenal encourage China to allow more nuclear transparency?

China’s Nuclear Modernization and the End of Nuclear Opacity
Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Recent events in late 2013 and early 2014, including China’s demonstration of its nuclear submarine force, have once again brought the issue of the country’s policy of nuclear opacity to the fore. Among the P5 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council), China officially communicates the least about the size, status and capabilities of its nuclear forces. Indeed, although some uncertainty remains, the other members of the P5 all give public approximations of the size and characteristics of their deployed arsenal. Beijing’s policy of nuclear opacity or nuclear secrecy is often noted in official reports and mentioned by specialized NGOs as limiting the possibility for strategic dialogue with other great powers (especially the U.S.) and as arousing suspicions and misperceptions about China’s intentions.

Indeed, an absence of information favors the development of alarmist reports about the modernization of China’s nuclear arsenal, which is depicted by some analysts as dangerous, aggressive and destabilizing. Although some of the concerns of those who increasingly worry about Beijing’s nuclear capabilities are surely legitimate, there is an alternative view: the potential for China’s nuclear modernization to remove some of the incentives driving the opacity policy.

Since the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964, opacity has been a strategic tool for Beijing to compensate for the material shortcomings and limitations of its nuclear forces in terms of survivability and destructive power, and thus to increase their overall deterrent effect on would-be aggressors (mainly the Soviet Union/Russia and the U.S.).

Until 2006, China’s only ballistic missile able to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental U.S. was the liquid-fuelled and silo-based DF-5A, which existed only in very limited numbers (20 or so). These characteristics made the Chinese ICBM force highly vulnerable to a disarming first strike, especially in the absence of an efficient early warning system. Indeed, liquid-fuelled missiles take more time to launch than their solid-fuelled counterparts because the missile must be fueled first. This operation takes at least a few hours, during which the missile remains in the silo and is vulnerable to a direct hit. As such, various actions were required to increase the survivability of the missiles to guarantee they wouldn’t be destroyed before launch. If this aim wasn’t achieved, there could be no credible threat of retaliation against an adversary that could have launched a disarming first strike. Thus, among other possibilities that included for example the building of mock silos, secrecy about the numbers and location of ICBMs helped create uncertainty in enemy planning processes that made a disarming first strike more difficult to plan and execute.

Similarly, the very limited number of missiles capable of reaching the continental U.S. (especially after a potential destruction of some of them through a U.S. preemptive strike) limited the credibility of the threat China could issue against its rivals. The handful of nuclear warheads Beijing could have launched against the U.S. appeared very limited when compared to the total obliteration that the U.S. could have inflicted upon China. Again, secrecy could act as a palliative to the limitations of China’s arsenal, by introducing ambiguity into the mind of enemy decision-makers about actual Chinese strength. This ambiguity would then have a deterrent effect on any cautious decision-maker who would not easily embark on aggression against China without a thorough knowledge of the intensity of the retaliatory strike he might have to face.

Overall, in broad terms, China’s fundamental nuclear inferiority compared to other great powers created structural pressure on Beijing to adopt a policy of opacity during and after the Cold War.

A Modernized Arsenal

Notwithstanding this observation, it appears from all relevant sources that China has been, is, and will modernize its nuclear arsenal in a way that precisely addresses the shortcomings outlined above. The pace of this modernization is slow and China’s nuclear forces are still the least developed of the P5, but their survivability and destructiveness is growing steadily, slowly enabling China to reach a capacity of assured retaliation it has been seeking for so long. In this process, the introduction of the DF-31A and DF-41 ICBMs and the development of a ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) force have been and will be particularly critical.

Several developments protect China’s nuclear forces from a disarming first strike and give them an assured capacity to retaliate. The increasing size of Beijing’s arsenal makes it statistically harder to destroy entirely in a first strike. Indeed, the number of Chinese missiles able to reach the continental U.S. has increased to around 40 today, a number that is expected by the U.S. intelligence community to grow to around 100 in the mid-2020s. Although U.S. intelligence has often exaggerated the Chinese threat, it is clear that the number of threatening missiles will increase in the foreseeable future. Additionally, the replacement of the silo-based and liquid-fueled DF-5A ICBM with the solid-fueled and mobile DF-31A ICBM since 2006 (a process that is still ongoing) critically reduces the preparation time of missiles that could now theoretically be launched immediately if the warheads were already fitted, which means that they are no longer vulnerable during a prolonged preparation process. Moreover, the mobility of the DF-31A makes it much more difficult to attack as its location can be changed quickly. Finally, the DF-31 introduces new countermeasures and capacities that would help it evade a U.S. missile defense shield. This capacity will probably be increased by the hypothetical DF-41, which might include multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRV). Finally, the slow (and difficult) development of China’s SSBN/SLBM force is a process that is progressively giving the country an assured second strike capability because of the relative undetectability of nuclear submarines.

Similarly, the ongoing modernization and evolution of China’s nuclear arsenal also increases its destructive power. As already explained, the number of Chinese missiles able to reach the entirety of the continental U.S. is growing. As such, although China will not catch up with the U.S. or Russia in terms of absolute numbers of warheads (something Beijing is not aiming to do anyway), it would be increasingly capable of inflicting tremendous and unacceptable damage upon the U.S. This in turn would increase the credibility of Chinese nuclear deterrence by establishing what resembles mutual assured vulnerability and destruction.

Overall, China’s ongoing modernization of its nuclear forces is clearly addressing the shortcomings of its deterrent, which provided some of the incentives for the adoption of a policy of nuclear opacity. However, the removal of some of the fundamental drivers behind the adoption of a policy doesn’t necessarily mean this policy will be scrapped anytime soon. The pace of China’s nuclear modernization is slow and so is the removal of the drivers that lie behind the adoption of nuclear opacity. Other reasons for opacity linked to culture or Chinese diplomatic stance might keep in place incentives to retain as much information as possible about the deterrent.

Still, we can hope that China, freed of the fear of a disarming first strike and assured of its capacity to deter other nuclear powers, might feel sufficiently assured about the security of its arsenal to communicate more openly in the medium and long terms about the status, capacities and programmed evolution of its nuclear forces. This would represent a first step towards creating opportunities for clarification and dialogue about China’s capabilities and intentions and thus help reduce misperceptions and maybe suspicion. More openness on China’s side might then open up more space for confidence-building measures and lay the ground for future arms control discussions.

Nicholas Giacometti is a specialist in nuclear issues and missile defense. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institutions he has been affiliated with. The numbers and technical information used in this article are mainly drawn from the publications of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).