Earlier this month, a minor Chinese environmental office broke some of the biggest news in nuclear missile technology since the end of the Cold War.
The Shaanxi Province Environmental Monitoring Center posted a work summary of its projects, which included site monitoring for research into the Dong Feng-41 missile. The Department of Defense told Congress earlier this year that China was developing the DF-41, a road-mobile, next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile capable of launching multiple nuclear warheads.
The missile had been conceptualized for years, well before China’s military modernization of the past decade began. However, no Chinese governmental agency was willing to confirm its development until the provincial environmental office’s website did so. The post was quickly taken down, but only after it had been reported by the China Communist Party-affiliated Global Times.
The DF-41 news comes amid reports that China also conducted tests this month of its current land-based missile standard, the DF-31A.
U.S. officials also expect China to have operational nuclear missile-equipped submarines this year. The HK-6 bomber, a nuclear-capable aircraft with a range of about 2,000 miles, became part of the Chinese arsenal last year.
Collectively, it represents a nuclear triad, the decades-old standard that the United States still counts on for surviving a global nuclear war.
The Chinese triad remains heavily imbalanced in favor of land-based missiles, since its aircraft can’t fly very far and its submarines may not be all that reliable, according to analysts.
However, the bigger question remains: Why is China, a country with a “no first-use” policy, upgrading its nuclear arsenal at a time when the United States and Russia are reducing their stockpiles?
No one in power in the United States, China or any other nation seen as a rational actor is advocating a nuclear strike in today’s global environment. That said, military planners get paid to consider worst-case scenarios and keep open their options.
Chinese military leaders have contended they are so far behind the United States that their current nuclear posture isn’t an effective deterrent to being attacked. Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, China’s director of the Center of America-China Defense Relations for the Academy of Military Science, explained that position in a letter last year to the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.
“The Ballistic Missile Defense systems that the United States and its allies have deployed, or are planning to deploy, are capable of intercepting residue Chinese nuclear weapons launched for retaliation after it has already been attacked, thus potentially negating the deterrence effect of the Chinese nuclear arsenal,” Yun wrote.
Furthermore, U.S. conventional missile strike systems in development could strike China’s nuclear arsenal, “which, if adopted as an official doctrine, would discredit China’s No First Use policy,” Yun wrote.
China’s nuclear arsenal is thought to total about 250 warheads, compared with 2,104 operational U.S. warheads and thousands in reserve, according to Federation of American Scientists figures.
If Chinese leaders think their stockpile is in danger of being wiped out by U.S. aircraft, missiles and other conventional means during a hypothetical war, it leaves them with two broad options to protect their nuclear capability: strengthen their potential attack, or abandon the no first-use policy in favor of something more threatening.
For now, they appear to have chosen the former option.
China has built three Jin-class nuclear submarines capable of carrying the JL-2 missile, which has an estimated range of 4,600 miles.
“This will give the China its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent, probably before the end of 2014,” Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear said during congressional testimony in March.
Although the deterrent is considered credible, its survivability is debatable.
Jin-class subs are noisy — noisier than the Russian Delta II-class submarines built 30 years ago, according to an Office of Naval Intelligence report published in 2009. Noise is a submarine killer, and the U.S. has several ways of listening for them.
Although China could develop a noise solution, multiple U.S. analysts think that design flaws in the missile compartments and hatches have left the Jin-class fundamentally flawed. China also has no experience with commanding and controlling nuclear-equipped submarines.
However, it does have extensive experience with land-based missiles, which are also the only option capable of striking the continental United States after being launched from somewhere near China.
“So from that perspective, modernizing the land-based missiles makes some sense,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT and author of a recently published book on nuclear strategy.
Besides any conventional strikes, a Chinese nuclear response in a hypothetical war would have to overcome three major U.S. defenses: the Aegis ballistic missile defense, significant parts of which are maintained on ships based in Japan and patrolling the Western Pacific; the ground-based midcourse defense; and a high-altitude area defense.
The U.S. missile defense has destroyed 65 of 81 targets in tests conducted since 2001, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
China’s DF-31A has a range of about 7,000 miles and includes Multiple Independently targeted Re-entry Vehicles, or MIRVs, according to Defense Department reports. Most analysts say it can carry up to three MIRVs, which can scatter like the nuclear equivalent of shotgun pellets.
Reports on the DF-41 are far less reliable, since China’s defense ministry has never acknowledged it. However, Chinese media have reported the missile’s existence in recent years.
A 2012 CCTV report said the missile has a range of 8,700 miles. Some reports say it can travel at Mach 25, which would make it very difficult for a defense system to destroy it during its initial boost phase.
A Jane’s Defense report from 2010 speculated the missile could carry up to 10 MIRVs and could include decoys, chaff and penetration aids.
“In the exoatmosphere, numbers are the way to saturate a working missile defense system,” Narang said. “So from that standpoint, the MIRV’ing of the 31 and whatever the 41 looks like is, I think, the way to do that.”
Both the U.S. and Russia have developed MIRV-capable missiles, but each side considered them dangerous enough that they tried to ban them in the START II arms agreement signed in 1993. However, because of problems in the U.S. Senate and Russian Duma, the treaty was never implemented.
Although China and the U.S. haven’t approached anything like the hostility of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, divisions remain that could lead to armed conflict.
Taiwan-China relations have improved markedly, but the U.S. is still obligated by law to defend Taiwan, and China maintains that it cannot remain separate forever.
The U.S. also has said it would defend the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, claimed as the Diaoyu Islands by China. The islands have been the center of repeated air and sea incidents between Japan and China, though none ever turned into firefights.
Even if an armed conflict did occur, there are positive indications that it wouldn’t escalate to a nuclear scenario.
China hasn’t developed the types of early-warning system and advanced intelligence capability indicative of a nation that wants something more than a retaliatory deterrent, Narang said.
That means unless the U.S. or another country attacked with nuclear weapons first, China wouldn’t be in a favorable position to use its arsenal.
“A shift away from a basic ‘assured retaliation’ posture does not yet seem to be occurring,” Narang said.