The ballooning Chinese nuclear arsenal: Daniel 7

Pentagon reports ballooning Chinese nuclear arsenal: Implications for India

Pentagon’s recent report suggests that China is expanding its nuclear weapons at a lightning speed and is likely to have at least 1000 warheads by 2030. This surpasses the earlier estimates of the US Department of Defense. In 2019, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr. Director, Defense Intelligence Agency of US had stated that over the next decade, ‘China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile from the then estimated nuclear arsenal at 290’. Though he noted that China was in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda (Nuclear experts) in their Nuclear Notebook published in July 2019 had given a much lower estimate. They assessed that China was adding 10 nuclear weapons annually and at that rate, it would have about additional 110 nuclear weapons in 2030. The current report suggests that both the earlier estimates were wrong.

The above leads to the question of the availability of weapon-grade Uranium, Helium and Plutonium. China, besides its own Uranium, has been importing from foreign countries for power production mainly from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Australia, Namibia, and Canada. In 2014, Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies re-examined China’s fissile-material production capabilities, drawing attention to ‘a number of still-secret, incomplete nuclear facilities for the first time’. According to this study, China had about 20 Tonnes of HEU and 2 tonnes of plutonium in 2015. This inventory may have increased substantially since then. China has sufficient weapon-grade fissile material for its expansion of nuclear arsenal projected for the coming period. China has also the required industrial capacity to enrich uranium and produce plutonium for military needs by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities.

China has been developing a new generation of missiles, with warheads consisting of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) and penetration aids, intended to ensure the viability of its strategic deterrent against its adversaries. Of late, there has been a significant improvement in its delivery system. These include a new version of nuclear medium-range mobile ballistic missile DF-21 (CSS-5), a dual-capable intermediate-range mobile ballistic missile [the DF-26 with a range of about 4,000 kms], the DF-31AG with a range of about 7,000 km, ICBM DF41 has been made capable of using MIRVs. In August 2021, China had tested a hypersonic missile that circles the globe before descending to hit its target.

The current reports suggest that China has developed new and more effective nuclear weapons. In addition, China has a strong capability for reverse engineering. The Cox’s Report of the US had revealed that China had stolen classified information on all of the United States’ most advanced thermonuclear warheads, and several of the associated re-entry vehicles. This had helped China to fabricate and successfully test modern strategic thermonuclear weapons. These included the W-88 Trident D-5 thermonuclear warhead, and the W-56 Minuteman II, the W-62 Minuteman III, the W-70 Lance, the W-76 Trident C-4, the W-78 Minuteman III Mark 12A, and the W-87 Peacekeeper thermonuclear warheads. The W-88 is a miniaturised tapered thermonuclear weapon. It was considered as the most sophisticated thermonuclear warhead which was mated to the D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile carried aboard the Trident nuclear submarine. Its new version W-88 Alt 370 was produced by the US in July 2021. China may have developed its version.

An indication of this comes from the fact that China has in recent years procured a large number of strategic nuclear submarines of its existing model, the 094 (Jin) class, instead of building a smaller number of them while the more advanced 096 class is still being developed. Each Jin-class 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 km. The 096-class submarine would have JL 3 SLBM with a range of 9000 km. People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has a new air-to-air missile [PL-15} on its fleet of J-11B fighters, which can hit targets in the range of 300-400 km. Most missiles are reported to be based on stolen western models.

China is working assiduously to have a robust nuclear triad for the effective second-strike capability to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’ to adversaries. While earlier China had maintained only about twenty silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), recent evidence from independent U.S. experts shows that the country is constructing about 200 silos. Besides silo-based ICBMs, China also is building more road-mobile ICBMs and strategic nuclear submarines, even as it introduces air-based nuclear capabilities. The US report states: “The PRC is investing in, and expanding, the number of its land, sea and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces.”

While China officially states that it follows the ‘No-First-Use’ policy, its experts over the last two decades have been indicating that under three circumstances China could use nuclear weapons. First, if there is an all-out attack against the country by conventional forces; second, if China’s own territory is to be recaptured from an adversary; and third, in case of an attack on the Chinese nuclear weapons through conventional means. The view that the “NFU” is not applicable in the areas belonging to China is significant. In a hypothetical scenario, China can use tactical nuclear weapons in Arunachal Pradesh.

The dramatic expansion of the nuclear arsenal and ambiguity in the use of nuclear weapons have serious security implications for India. First, the de-escalation and disengagement would now become more difficult with China adopting a more inflexible approach. The negotiations with China would now become more complex with no prospects of China to move away from its stated claims, which are now matters of its ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ Second, China would be more aggressive along the LAC with a stronger nuclear posture for deterrence coupled with the recent land border law. It would try to occupy strategic points. The new border infrastructure including the dual-use villages across Arunachal Pradesh would allow the PLA troops to be in the disputed region. Recent reports suggest that these villages are meant to house PLA troops. Domestic pressure would be an important factor for this approach. Xi has been projecting that the disputed areas in its periphery belong to China and ‘the rejuvenated China’ must include them. The domestic population is kept on a diet of irredentism and ultra-nationalism with high-voltage propaganda to justify its claims. Xi has to show that China is likely to achieve its objective at least before 2027. Third, now China would adopt a stronger posture for nuclear deterrence- ‘launch on warning’ – with expanded nuclear arsenal and delivery systems.

India’s options are now limited. The situation is pushing India to match its deployment to check any further ingress. It has to occupy all the strategic points to have a strengthened bargaining position. Alongside, all leverages have to be used to put pressure on China. The self-rule in Tibet should be supported with the appointment of a Coordinator for Tibet to remain in touch with the situation in Tibet. The minorities in Xinjiang are also in a miserable situation, which also needs higher international support. The actualisation of free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific would put further pressure on China.
And importantly, India’s sharpening of nuclear deterrence is imperative in the changing nuclear environment. The urgent need to deny the perceived advantages under NFU to our adversaries cannot be underrated. India’s defence minister Sri Rajnath Singh had rightly emphasised (Aug 2019) that while we adhere to NFU, circumstances would decide the first use of nuclear weapons in the future. This posture should be maintained, which provides the necessary flexibility in NFU while maintaining the image of a responsible nation.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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