China’s Nuclear Weapons – Tempering Fears with a Dose of Reality

Several reports about China’s nuclear weapons program have come out in the past few weeks, and they are causing imaginations to run wild and some fears to grow beyond the realm of reality. The fact is that China has indeed been modernizing its arsenal, but it is important to put this modernization in perspective and to not overstate the Chinese nuclear threat. The primary source of the panic is a map supposedly detailing Chinese nuclear attack plans in the event of conflict that would leave 5 to 12 million Americans dead. This “plan” and the map have made their rounds on many major news sites. Fortunately, a little detective work by the Federation of American Scientist’s Hans Kristensen has revealed that the map wasn’t even produced by the Chinese government. Instead, it seems to have been part of a slideshow posted on a military technology website unaffiliated with the Chinese government. The map was released around the same time that the Chinese government unveiled details about their development of a small fleet of ballistic missile submarines. These details caused even more dramatic stories about how these submarines could attack U.S. cities with JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles. Aside from the fact that no Jin-class submarines have ever sailed on deterrent patrols, there are several major technical problems that prevent this from being reality. First, according to Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, the current fleet of three Jin-class subs is not currently armed with nuclear weapons because China’s Central Military Commission forbids the mounting of warheads on missiles unless they are about to be used (this doctrine has, so far, extended to submarine launched ballistic missiles as well). This means the submarines leave port with no ability to fulfill their purpose as a deterrent. Second, China’s submarine fleet is incredibly loud and easy to track. The Jin-class is reported to be louder than Soviet submarines that were built 30 years ago. Third, the JL-2 missile only has a range of about 7,200 km. If the missiles were actually armed with warheads; they would be able to threaten U.S. bases in the region but would be unable to reach any major U.S. cities. To even target Washington, D.C., the submarine would have to sail almost to Hawaii without detection. Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, has summed up these shortcomings quite effectively: “For a submarine-launched ballistic missile to be effective it has to be accurate, and you have to be stealthy and survivable and I’ll leave it at that.” China is also expanding its arsenal of land based ballistic missiles; however, some of this expansion is temporary as certain systems are being developed to replace older missiles like the DF-3A and DF-4 which were deployed in the 1970s and 80s, respectively. Even with the 2007 unveiling of the DF-31A, which has a range of 11,000 km and the under-development DF-41, which has a range of 13,000 km, China will only have around 50 (out of about 240-300 total) land based missiles capable of reaching the continental United States. The usefulness of these missiles, however, is limited because firing them at the U.S. would mean firing the missile over Russian territory, which could provoke a nuclear response from Russia. The modernization of nuclear weapons by a foreign power is rightfully bound to cause some concern; however, much of the media reporting has painted the picture of a possible doomsday scenario that could happen today or tomorrow, and this is simply not the case. As Gregory Kulacki has noted, “under the counting rules of the New Start agreement between the United States and Russia, the size of China’s nuclear arsenal would officially be counted as zero. This is because the several hundred warheads China is believed to possess are not mated to the missiles that can deliver them, but are kept in storage, like the several thousand warheads the United States and Russia each hold in reserve in addition to the 1,550 each of the two nuclear superpowers are allowed to deploy under the treaty.” It is also important to remember that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is more than enough to deter any actual attacks from China against the U.S. homeland, forward deployed U.S. troops, and U.S. allies. The United States has almost 2,000 warheads mounted on missiles that can reach China compared to the 45-50 warheads that can reach the United States, and this fact is well known by the Chinese government. In other words, it is by no means time to bring back the nuclear attack drills taught in American schools during the Cold War, nor is it necessary to consider expanding our own nuclear program because of China.