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Resources on China

Nuclear Delivery System Modernization

In addition to nuclear warhead modernization, China is actively modernizing its nuclear delivery systems. In 1989, China's Deputy Commander of the CPC's Second Artillery, Major General Yang Heng, stated that the development of strategic nuclear weapons should concentrate on several long-term objectives: increasing the missile's survival capacity, offensive capacity, and penetration capacity. And, in August 1993, the PLA General Staff Department (GSD) proposed to the Central Committee, the State Council, and the Central Military Commission (CMC) that China should hasten its military modernization, including the development of new generation tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, SSBNs, and the commissioning of more nuclear-powered submarines. [Ling Yu, Kuang Chiao Ching (Hong Kong), 16 November 1993, pp. 16-19, in JPRS-TND-93-037, 8 December 1993; Roxane D. V. Sismanidis, "China And The Post-Soviet Security Structure," Asian Affairs, Spring 1994, p. 44.]

China is modernizing all three legs of its nuclear triad:


The bulk of China's nuclear missile force is land-based, and much of China's nuclear delivery system modernization has been in this area. China reportedly has two land-based ballistic missiles under development, the DF-31 and the DF-41. Both missiles are land-mobile, solid-fueled missiles and have launch preparation times of under 15 minutes and under 5 minutes, respectively.  Some reports say China may try to make both missiles MRV or MIRV-capable. The DF-31, with a range of 8,000 km, will replace the DF-4, and will reportedly be deployed around 2000. The DF-41 ICBM, with a range of 12,000 km, is intended to replace China's older ICBM, the DF-5, and is scheduled for deployment around 2010. All new missile systems will reportedly use a new 200-300 kT warhead, which awaits certification. Chinese designers have had problems with warhead miniaturization. The new warhead is reportedly almost identical to the one currently deployed on the JL-1 and DF-21 systems. [SIPRI Yearbook 1995 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 378-379; Vipin Gupta, "The Status Of Chinese Nuclear Weapons Testing," Jane's Intelligence Review, January 1994, p. 31; Eric Arnett, ed., Nuclear Weapons After the Comprehensive Test Ban: Implications for Modernization and Proliferation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 5.]

By 2000 China will also reportedly deploy an improved version of the DF-21 called the DF-21X.  The new model will have a greater range (3,000 km)  and improved accuracy through the use of a global positioning system and a "radio-frequency explosive warhead" which is believed to be an electro-magnetic pulse warhead.  [Beaver, Paul, "China prepares to field new missile," Jane's Defense Weekly, 24 February 1999, p. 3.]

In addition to improving the quality of their ballistic missiles, China is also increasing the number of nuclear armed ballistic missiles.  Press reports say that China increased its ICBM force by a third in the first four months of 1998 by building six additional DF-5A.  The reports also say China also plans to build two more missiles before closing its Wanyuan missile production facility, which would bring the total number of DF-5A to 26.  It has also been reported that thirteen of the original 18 DF-5A had been targeted at the United States.  The Wanyuan production facility, also known as the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT),  is located approximately 30 miles south of Beijing and is responsible not only for the development of military missiles but also for the Long March 2 space booster.  The Wanyuan facility will be moved to a site near Chengdu which will be closer to other defense related industries. ["China adds 6 ICBMs to arsenal," The Washington Times, 21 July 1998, pp. A1, A14.; "Wanyuan Production Site Said to be Closing; China Expands ICBM Force," Centre of Defense and International Security Studies website, July 1998.]

According to the CIA and DIA, China is committed to the modernization and expansion of its ballistic missile force. In remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee, DIA director Lieutenant General Patrick M. Hughes stated:

"China's strategic nuclear force is small and dated, and because of this, Beijing's top military priority is to strengthen and modernize its strategic nuclear deterrent.  Numerous new missile systems are under development, along with upgrade programs for existing missiles, and for associated command, control, communications and other related strategic force capabilities.  While the pace and extent of China's strategic modernization clearly indicates deterrent rather than 'first strike' intentions, the number of Chinese strategic missiles capable of hitting the United States will increase significantly during the next two decades." [Statement of the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Patrick M. Hughes before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Current and Projected National Security Threats, 2 February 1999. IN PDF FORMAT]
Speaking to the same committee, CIA director George Tenet, stated:
"China is increasing the size and survivability of its retaliatory nuclear missile force, even though it is unlikely to make the resource commitment needed to approach the force levels of either the United States or Russia."[Statement of the Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Current and Projected National Security Threats, 2 February 1999.]

For more on DF-5A, DF-31 and DF-41, see China's Ballistic Missile Designations and Characteristics

For more on miniaturized warheads and MRV/MIRV capabilities, see China's Nuclear Warhead Modernization


China is reportedly working on developing nuclear-capable cruise missiles. In a US Defense Department report, officials suggested that China is likely to have a nuclear weapon sized for a "relatively small" cruise missile, and Tim McCarthy, senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said that Chinese engineers are close to having a nuclear warhead for the HY-2 cruise missile. More recent reports have indicated that the Chinese Air Force plans to equip its modern aircraft with nuclear-tipped air-to surface cruise missiles, and that China has also imported Russian technicians for the development of a new long-range nuclear-capable cruise missile. ["Cruise Missiles Becoming Top Proliferation Threat," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 1 February 1993, pp. 26-27; UPI (Washington), in Executive News Service, 1 February 1993; Holly Porteous, "China's View Of Strategic Weapons," Jane's Intelligence Review, March 1996, pp. 134-135; Barbara Opall, Defense News, 15 December 1996, pp. 1, 48.]

China is also developing low observable technology for its cruise missiles.  Seek Optics Technical Co. Ltd. has developed materials which can be used to make cruise missiles as well as aircraft, tanks and warships more stealthy.  The material named SF18, which can be used on cruise missiles, reportedly "absorbs radiation in the 2GHz-18GHz band.  The reflex loss of the material reaches -10dB and their relative absorption ration exceeds 60%."[Zhang, Yihong, "Beijing develops new radar-absorbing materials," Janes Defense Weekly, 24 February 1999, p.3]


A new SSBN nuclear submarine, the 09-4, may be under development, with deployment predicted sometime after the year 2000. China intends to outfit the 09-4 submarine with the JL-2 SLBM, also under development. Some reports indicate the JL-2 will be MIRV-capable. China reportedly plans to produce an SSBN fleet of four to six submarines parallel to improvements in submarine and missile technology, but these plans could be delayed due to technical problems with solid missile fuel and the submarines' nuclear reactors.[Robert S. Norris, "Nuclear Arsenals of the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China: A Status Report," presented at the 5th ISODARCO Beijing Seminar on Arms Control, Chengdu, China, November 1996, p. 6; "British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Forces," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November-December 1996, p. 67; Nuclear Weapons Databook, Volume 5, p. 373; Paul Godwin and John J. Schulz, "Arming The Dragon For The 21st Century: China's Defense Modernization Program," Arms Control Today, December 1993, p. 6.]

For more on the JL-2 SLBM, see China's Ballistic Missile Designations and Characteristics


China is in the process of developing its first indigenously produced fighter/bomber, the H-7. The H-7, which was flight tested in 1988, has the capability to deliver a 10 kT-3 MT nuclear bomb, although some sources indicate the H-7 will not have a nuclear role. Until recently, it was believed that the H-7 would be a PLAAF bomber, but according to a 1995 RAND study on the Chinese air force, the H-7 will be a PLAN bomber. No more than 20 will be built and will not be ready to be deployed until the late 1990s. Production problems may delay that date even further.

[Robert S. Norris, "Nuclear Arsenals of the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China: A Status Report," presented at the 5th ISODARCO Beijing Seminar on Arms Control, Chengdu, China, November 1996, p. 5.]

Last Updated March 1999

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Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Monterey Institute of International Studies
Monterey, CA 93940 USA (831) 647-6509

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