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Pentagon: Air-Launched Ballistic Missile Will Realize China’s Nuclear Triad

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Asia Defense

Pentagon: Air-Launched Ballistic Missile Will Realize China’s Nuclear Triad

China’s new nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile will complete its triad.

Pentagon: Air-Launched Ballistic Missile Will Realize China’s Nuclear Triad
Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released its annual public assessment of China’s military capabilities. You can read the full report here (PDF).

There’s a lot of meat to the report, which is a useful source of information on developments in China’s military capabilities and strategy, but I wanted to focus on one particularly interesting revelation.

Last year, as I noted, DoD released the U.S. government’s assessment that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force had once again been assigned a nuclear mission. China’s Air Force was taken off the nuclear mission sometime in the late-1970s or early-1980s, when Beijing’s nuclear gravity bombs were phased out in favor of the erstwhile Second Artillery Corps (now People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force) and its stable of long-range missiles.

The reassignment spurred some speculation among analysts last year about what system the PLAAF could possibly possess that was nuclear capable. It turns out: nothing. While the nuclear mission has been organizationally reassigned to the Chinese air force, nuclear capabilities have not yet been fielded or deployed. Last year, I speculated that China’s CJ-20 air-launched cruise missile was a good candidate for a nuclear-capable system, but this year’s report suggests that isn’t the case.

The language that stood out in this year’s report is the following observation on the air-leg of China’s triad and, specifically, on a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile that is under development: “Its (the air-launched ballistic missile’s) deployment and integration would, for the first time, provide China with a viable nuclear ‘triad’ of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air forces.”

This would be the same air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) that The Diplomat exclusively reported on last year. The U.S. intelligence community calls this system the CH-AS-X-13 internally; its Chinese name is not known. The system was “was first tested in December 2016 and was most recently tested in the last week of January 2018.” China continues to make progress with this system.

Public references to this system from U.S. government sources emerged in 2017. Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had referenced “two, new air-launched ballistic missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload” that year.

It would appear that the PLAAF is on the nuclear mission specifically to prepare to field this new system in the coming years. When China’s triad will be complete, it will be entirely because of this new air-launched ballistic missile.

That’s quite something.