Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

China's Nuclear Stockpile

There is increasing uncertainly in published estimates of the size of the Chinese nuclear weapons stockpile. It is generally believed that China is not developing new nuclear warheads for new ballistic missiles. It is believed that The warheads for the new nuclear delivery systems — including the DF-31, DF-41 and JL-2 — were tested during the 1990s, before China signed the CTBT in August 1996.

Between January 1971 and late 1972 a second set of new nuclear facilities was identified in the West. This included a gaseous diffusion plant at Chinkouho which was estimated to be able to produce more U-235 then the original plant at Lanchou. This new facility was predicted to begin partial production in late 1972 with full operation in late 1974. There was an additional reactor for production of plutonium at Kuangyuan and additional weapons grade material could enter the stockpile by 1974-75. Also, there was a possible new weapons fabrication facility located at Tzutung. All of these new facilities would give the PRC the capability of becoming the third largest nuclear power in the world. Based on their production capability, DIA assessed in 1972 that the Chinese could have as many as 120 thermonuclear warheads and 260 fission nuclear weapons in their stockpile.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency stated in 1984 that "Between 150 and 160 warheads are estimated to be in the PRC nuclear stockpile. The limit of the number of warheads is not restricted by nuclear materials production, but on what the Chinese perceive their needs to be. The estimate of the number of warheads in the Chinese nuclear inventory is based on the delivery systems projections. No direct evidence exists on the actual size of China's present nuclear stockpile; however, indirect evidence derived from Chinese nuclear tests and estimates of the characteristics of deployed delivery systems give some basis for estimating types, yields, and approximate numbers.

"The Chinese might find Enhanced Radiation (ER) weapons particularly appropriate for use in defense of their border areas, especially in the Sino-Soviet border area in Northeast China. We know very little, however, about the extent of tactical or theater nuclear weapons for use by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (CPLA). A lack of a basic doctrine or training may indicate that the Chinese have only recently considered integrating nuclear weapons into ground force operations. The Chinese nuclear weapons technological capability would limit the current ground force nuclear support to atomic demolition munitions (ADMs), bombs, and missiles such as the CSS-1; it would not include artillery-fired nuclear projectiles."

Declassified US documents from the 1990s placed classified estimates of the total stockpile, including a small stockpile of aircraft-delivered gravity bombs, between 200 and 250 warheads. In July 1999, DIA estimated the size of the Chinese nuclear weapons inventory to be roughly 155 warheads.

In the late 1980s it was generally held that China was the world's third-largest nuclear power, possessing a small but credible nuclear deterrent force of 225 to 300 nuclear weapons. In 1994 the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that China had about 450 nuclear weapons. But in 2006, By Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen reported "Newly available information on the Chinese nuclear arsenal requires us to reassess our previous estimate of Beijing's stockpile (see "Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2003," November/December 2003 Bulletin). In 2005, the Defense Department published a detailed breakdown of the Chinese missile force, as part of its 2005 Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China (otherwise known as Chinese Military Power 2005). Taken together with a vague 2004 Chinese Foreign Ministry declaration about the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal and other information, we estimate that China deploys approximately 130 nuclear warheads for delivery by land-based missiles, sea-based missiles, and bombers. Additional warheads are thought to be in storage for a total stockpile of approximately 200 warheads."

Other estimates of the country's production capacities suggested that by the end of 1970 China had fabricated around 200 nuclear weapons, a number which could have increased to 875 by 1980. With an average annual production of 75 nuclear weapons during the 1980s, some estimates suggest that by the mid-1990s the Chinese nuclear industry had produced around 2,000 nuclear weapons for ballistic missiles, bombers, artillery projectiles and landmines.

The retired Russian General Viktor Yesin, former chief of staff of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, claimed that China’s HEU stockpile was actually 40 tons, and a plutonium inventory of up to 10 tons. He says that these are the best estimates of Russian experts. Based on these estimates of nuclear weapon material production, Yesin estimated that China could have 1,600 to 1,800 warheads.

In 2011, a group of students at the Georgetown University, working under Phillip Karber, a former Pentagon official, concluded China has a stockpile of nuclear weapons far larger than anybody ever suspected. According to Karber, judging from the scale of China's underground network of tunnels, China's nuclear warheads could be as many as 3,000.

In a July 2012 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists report, however, Hui Zhang puts the total number of Chinese warheads at 170 - with 110 operationally deployed. Jeffrey Lewis writes that "China operated exactly two nuclear reactors for the production of military plutonium through 1991. Open-source estimates reliably band China’s production of plutonium at 2-5 metric tons. Classified Department of Energy estimates, leaked to the press, provide a narrower band of 1.7-2.8 metric tons. (Hui Zhang, a former colleague of mine at Harvard who previously worked in the Chinese nuclear weapons establishment, calculates Chinese production as being on the low end of that estimate in the most recent International Panel on Fissile Materials report.) Using a conservative estimate of 4-8 kilograms of plutonium per warhead, that yields a total force of probably no more than 375 warheads, with an extreme upper bound of no more than 700 warheads."

Henry Sokolski wrote "China has ambitious plans. It is negotiating with France for AREVA to build by 2025 a copy of Japan’s Rokkasho plant. China plans to operate this plant for at least 15 years. It will be designed to produce 8 metric tons of nuclear-weapons-usable plutonium a year — again, enough to make roughly 2,000 nuclear warheads each year. By 2040, when China hopes to load some of this plutonium into its first commercial fast reactor, it will have amassed roughly 30,000 weapons’ worth of plutonium (compare this with the 200 to 400 warheads most experts believe China now has..."

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