HONG KONG, April 4 (UPI) -- China's stockpile of nuclear warheads has increased sharply, with more DF-31A and JL-2 long-range strategic ballistic missiles entering service, giving it preliminary capability to engage in three-dimensional nuclear strikes upon opponent targets.
The changes in the Chinese nuclear capability started in 1995, before which the People's Liberation Army Second Artillery Force was often teased as "a military service that needed an exit strategy." At that time, most of the soldiers serving in the PLASAF were doing little more than growing vegetables and raising pigs.
This miserable situation was the result of the aftershock of the large-scale nuclear disarmament by the United States and the Soviet Union. After 1995, however, with the increase in tensions across the Taiwan Strait, China began to refocus its attention on the development of nuclear capability so as to possess effective deterrence against possible U.S. military interference in the Taiwan Strait.
This marked the beginning of the transformation of the PLASAF from a force with balanced nuclear and conventional capability to one more focused on nuclear capability. In terms of technology, the PLASAF sped up the development of carrier vehicles for long-range strategic missiles, mainly the DF-31 and JL-2.
In addition, in order to make up the shortfall in its nuclear arsenal within a short period of time, China produced additional DF-5A intercontinental ballistic missiles and undertook to prolong the service life of its existing DF-3 intermediate-range ballistic missiles and DF-4 long-range strategic missiles.
With the deployment of more ICBMs, the number of Chinese long-range strategic missile brigades has also increased. Meanwhile, at least two 094 ballistic missile submarines and one 092-M SSBN have entered service.
There are signs that the DF-4 long-range ballistic missile positions at Delinghayuan in the western province of Qinghai have been expanded. Straight highway lanes stretch for several hundred kilometers in the region, and some highway sections have been revamped and new preliminary missile positions have been constructed. This indicates that China will very likely start deploying more DF-31A highway-mobile ICBMs to replace the DF-4s.
The strategic missile brigades most likely to receive the DF-5 and DF-5A ICBMs include the No. 801 and No. 804 brigades. The No. 813 brigade is stationed at Nanyang in Henan province, a unit generally believed to be armed with DF-31 ICBMs. In addition, the No. 809 and No. 812 brigades stationed in Qinghai are also armed with DF-4s, as well as the No. 803 and No. 805 brigades, stationed in Hunan.
Some of these DF-4 brigades may have started to receive DF-31A ICBMs. The positioning of DF-4s and DF-31As seem to be very close within the PLA Second Artillery Force, and both are called long-range strategic missiles, while the D-5 is called an ICBM. There is speculation that there is a No. 818 missile brigade armed with the DF-31, but this has not been confirmed by official sources. Because China currently does not have a sufficient quantity of ICBMs with a range above 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles), efforts to upgrade and prolong the service life of its DF-5s are very likely to continue.
The increase of nuclear warheads within the PLA Second Artillery Force focuses on the strategic objective of deterring other major nuclear powers from attempting "nuclear blackmail" toward China. China has sufficient supplies of material for the production of nuclear warheads. It has very rich uranium resources, and its production of plutonium reserves has continued for a number of years. Western military observers generally believe China has enough nuclear material to produce 1,000 nuclear warheads.
Because the DF-31 ICBM and JL-2 SLBM use new types of carrier vehicles, China in recent years has been putting a lot of effort into the research and development of MIRVs -- multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles. As a result, the DF-31 and JL-2 will be armed with new warheads, and some DF-5As and DF-5s may also become the platforms for these newly developed warheads. Western intelligence analysts generally believe that China now commands the technology to separate three warheads.
As for the number of ICBMs under each missile brigade, it is reasonable to assume that the Chinese and Russian ICBM brigades may both be armed with nine missile units. If that is the case, calculating on the basis of three DF-5/DF-5A brigades and four to five DF-4 brigades or DF-31A brigades, China would have approximately 63 to 72 ICBMs and long-range strategic missiles.
Among these missile brigades, if each of the missiles deployed at the three DF-5/5A missile brigades and at least two DF-31A brigades are armed with three warheads, there are in total 135 nuclear warheads. If the two to three DF-4 long-range strategic missile brigades are included, and each missile is armed with a single warhead, there are a total of 18-27 DF-4 warheads. So far, the DF-5 has always been armed with one warhead.
This means the total number of China's long-range nuclear warheads would be between 153 and 162. This is taking into consideration the fact that China has been steadily upgrading its long-range strategic missiles.
China's development of sea-based strategic nuclear capability is obviously aimed at acquiring strengths equivalent to that of the Second Artillery Force, giving China two-dimensional and effective strategic nuclear strike competence. As a result, the buildup of sea-based nuclear weapons has been quite fast-paced.
At present, two Type 094 SSBNs are fitted with 24 JL-2 long-range strategic missiles, totaling more than 72 nuclear warheads. Adding the warheads fitted on the 12 JL-1A IRBMs on Type 092M SSBNs, China is now supposed to have a total of 84 sea-based nuclear warheads. Thus, at the current stage, the overall number of China's sea-based and land-based nuclear warheads should be between 237 and 246.
The PLA navy's Type 094 SSBN fleet is going to continue expanding in the next five years, and the number of SLBMs will increase dramatically as a result. Even with only five Type 094 SSBNs, the total number of warheads will very likely reach 180. Including the warheads of the 12 JL-1A IRBMs, China should have 192 sea-based nuclear warheads within the next five years.
Furthermore, the pace of expansion of the DF-31A is going to speed up. Some Western media have claimed that China will deploy at least 50 DF-31As, bringing the number of China's new nuclear warheads to 150. And the design of a new-generation Type 096 SSBN has already begun. China Central Television earlier revealed images of an SSBN carrying 24 SLBMs, indicating the navy's newer-generation SSBN will be fitted with more nuclear warheads.
As to the explosive yield of these nuclear warheads, the earlier variants of DF-5 ICBM warheads may include 1 million-ton class nuclear bombs and hydrogen bombs. Judging from China's series of nuclear tests in the past, the maximum explosive yield of a PLASAF nuclear warhead could reach 1 million to 3 million tons. The new-generation DF-31A missiles are armed with MIRVs, and each warhead has an explosive yield of approximately 100,000 tons. China has so far developed a whole series of nuclear warheads with an explosive yield of 100,000 to 500,000 tons.
(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto.)