A development that deserves serious attention of all but particularly of India is the growing Chinese nuclear weapons and missiles coupled with deterring deployment pattern and indications of changes in the Chinese Nuclear Doctrine of “No First Use”. The qualitative and structural changes in the nuclear forces and possibility of lowering of threshold for use of nuclear weapons have been more significant than the increase in number of nuclear warheads. The modernisation programme has raised concerns over the past several years that China is trying to achieve supremacy in nuclear field. The Global Times, the official Chinese newspaper in its editorial several times has indicated the urgency for upgrading of nuclear war fighting capabilities. Analysing Trumps desire to improve relations with Russia, the editorial pointed out that Trump values strength and attaches importance to military strength especially nuclear strength. Hence, the editorial suggested the urgency to further strengthen Chinese nuclear prowess.
Creation of Rocket Force
During the last few years China has focused on development of its nuclear capabilities. It may be recalled that China had re-organised its armed forces on the 31st December 2015 and a separate Rocket Force was formed. The PLA Rocket Force has taken over the responsibilities of the Second Artillery of PLA to ‘strengthen the trustworthy and reliable nuclear deterrence and nuclear counter-attack capabilities, intensify the construction of medium and long range precision strike power.’ At the inauguration President Xi of China had pointed out that this Force would be the “core force of strategic deterrence, a strategic buttress to the country’s position as a major power, and an important building block in upholding national security.” In essence, the Rocket Force was formed to enhance nuclear deterrence.
Hans M. Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, and Robert S. Norris, a senior fellow with the FAS, who continuously assess the nuclear weapons of various states, have published their research work in June 2018 that contains important information on the developments pertaining to the Chinese nuclear warheads and delivery systems. These are given in the succeeding paragraphs.
Number of nuclear weapons
The study of Kristensen concludes that China’s current nuclear warheads are about 280 increased from 240 in 2012. Thus the annual rate of production is 6-7 warheads per year.
On land based missiles
• A new modification of the existing DF-21 (CSS-5) medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), designated the CSS-5 Mod 6 by the US military. This is the primary regional two stage, solid fuel, road mobile missile with a range of 2100 kms. [According to Indian and US experts, this missile has been deployed at Delingha to target Indian population centres. That is why it is called India specific deployment. In addition, the Indian experts estimate that China has about 25 nuclear-tipped medium-range ballistic missiles based in Tibet, along with an undisclosed number of nuclear-configured short-range tactical missiles.]
• A new IRBM known as the DF-26. [Range about 4,000 kms]
• A new ICBM launcher, the DF-31AG. [Range about 7,000 kms]
On sea based missiles
China currently operates a fleet of four Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). All are based at the Longposan naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island.
• Each Jin SSBN is designed to carry up to 12 JL-2s (CSS-N-14), a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) that is a modified version of the DF-31. The range is 7200-7400 kms.
• The next SSBN is expected to carry a new missile, the JL-3 –an improved version of JL-2. [The 2017 Annual Report to the US Congress on China’s military power by the US Defense Department claims that China’s next-generation nuclear submarine, Type 096, will likely begin construction in the early 2020s, and will reportedly be armed with the JL-3, a submarine-based ballistic missile. This submarine would be equipped with high performance silencer tiles to address the problem of noise.]
• While noting that currently H 6 Bombers do not have any nuclear mission now, in the past they were used during the nuclear tests.
• Quoting Defence Intelligence Agency, it mentions H-6 (Tu-16) and H-5 (Tu- 28) medium-range bombers and A-5 fighter-bombers are “all capable of delivering nuclear weapons”.
• The strategic role of the bomber force appears to be increasing. The PLA Air Force was assigned a “strategic deterrence” mission in 2012, which includes long-range strikes with conventional cruise missiles.
For the Chinese neighbours, the deployment pattern of regional nuclear missiles becomes very significant. The information is available on this aspect in the open sources. For India, the Chinese ability to deploy sea based missiles in the Indian Ocean and land based missiles in the border in Tibet is worrisome. The sea based missiles are now given importance as China realises that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to pre-emptive attack than those based under the sea. China has a naval base that runs along the Yalong Bay in the South China Sea which has tunnels for submarines. In Chinese perception the bases in the South China Sea can help in managing its interests in the Indian Ocean. China has established bases in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Djibouti and Maldives. The Chinese submarines in the past had been noticed in the Indian Ocean. This ability assumes a serious proportion when seen in the backdrop of the Chinese plan to have three life-lines in the Indian Ocean. [One is the North Indian Ocean supply line which includes bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar; the second is the Western Indian Ocean supply line which includes bases in Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique; the last one is the Central-South Indian Ocean supply line which includes bases in Seychelles and Madagascar.] The usual tactics of China is to identify areas that are useful for strategic and economic purposes and then deploy its assets to establish its dominance.
In Tibet, China had been since long creating launch pads. In 2006, it was learnt that 58 launch pads had been established for nuclear ballistic missiles scattered across a 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) area of central China. The satellite imageries reflected the deployment area, covering the northern parts of Qinghai Province around Delingha and Da Qaidam. At Delingha it was learnt as that DF-21 was deployed. In addition China has built road-rail network which allows missiles to be brought closer to the Indian border on TEL. China has 14 major air bases in the Tibet plateau and 13 air strips. These bases and air strips give China control over the air space.
China is also reported to have deployed HQ-9 air defence missiles to Hetian airfield in the south of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region in the country’s northwest. Hetian is only 260 kilometres from J&K. The HQ-9 system is designed to track and destroy aircraft, cruise missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and tactical ballistic missiles. The HQ-9 is a medium-to-long range air defence missile is armed with a 180 kg warhead, has a maximum speed of Mach 4.2 and has a maximum range of 200 km up to an altitude of 30 kms.
Indications of changes in the Chinese Nuclear Doctrine
Notwithstanding the Chinese official projections to abide by the policy of “No First Use”, there are indications that the Chinese security analysts are pressing for a change in the nuclear doctrine by lowering the threshold for use of nuclear weapons. They are of the view that ‘under certain circumstances – such as an all-out attack against the country by conventional forces – China should use nuclear weapons’. The Chinese strategists have been viewing “No First Use” (NFU) as an unnecessary self-imposed strategic constraint. Such views are expressed in media and academic seminars. Earliest indication of this pressure from the Chinese experts was noticed at the time of India’s nuclear tests.
The Chinese experts suggest that the “NFU” is not applicable in the areas belonging to China as it could use nuclear weapons to re-capture its own areas. China has territorial disputes with multiple neighbours and claims those areas. In a hypothetical scenario, China can use tactical nuclear weapons in Arunachal Pradesh or in the South China Sea in war with India or other disputants in the South China Sea. The Chinese experts also recommend that in case of attack on the Chinese nuclear assets by conventional means, China should use nuclear weapons. The Pentagon’s 2010 annual report on the Chinese military noted ambiguity on the conditions in which the Chinese ‘No First Use’ Doctrine would apply. Significantly, the NFU was not mentioned in the White Paper released in 2013. China is creating new options to deal with attacks in future.
In view of Chinese efforts to strengthen the nuclear deterrence, nuclear strike capabilities and the indications of changing Chinese Nuclear Doctrine, the Indian nuclear experts are pushing for suitable amendments in the Indian Nuclear Doctrine. They point out that India now faces a collaborative threat from Pakistan and China and both of them have lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and have acquired tactical nuclear weapons. Under these circumstances the Indian experts including former Commander-in-Chiefs of Strategic Forces Command suggest that India should make changes in the NFU to sharpen its deterrence. They consider that NFU dilutes the deterrence by removing the advantages of ambiguity or the threat of first use.
While India assesses the developments in its nuclear environment on continuing basis and takes necessary steps to meet the emerging challenges, the need to modify the NFU is pressed by experts to ensure that it does not prove to be a liability. The arguments for change cannot be easily discarded. Deterrence depends on the credibility of nuclear strike capabilities and intent to use the nuclear weapons. The latter is reflected in the publicised doctrine. The need for well-informed debates on this issue can hardly be under-estimated for addressing the issue of sharpening the deterrence. An effective deterrence is essential for securing our national interests.
Ensuring national security transcends strategic, military, diplomatic, economic, social and technological factors. The internal security situation remains grim with insurgencies, terrorism and Maoists acquiring dangerous proportions. The external security environment too reflects growing threats. Chanakya was a great security thinker of ancient India, who provided pragmatic solutions to protect the State. These concepts are extremely relevant in today’s security environment. Like Chanakya’s thinking, this blog covers all the national security aspects – not only politico-military but also non-military dimensions that contribute to the strengthening of national power.