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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Chinese Tactical Nuclear Weapons?

China is thought by some to possess a total of some 150 tactical nuclear warheads on its short-range ballistic, and possibly cruise missiles. Others have concluded that China does not deploy tactical nuclear weapons. In 2006 the Kristensen et al FAS/NRDC team reported "As a measure of how effectively the Chinese keep even the most basic facts about their nuclear stockpile secret, we have been unable to determine from Chinese and U.S. statements or unclassified sources whether China has tactical nuclear weapons or not."

This may reflect a "sources and methods" problem. Imagery intelligence relies on "interpretation keys" which provide a structured approach to the identification of objects or activities. The problem is that the rigor interpretation keys run the risk of being precisely wrong rather than approximately right.

One famous example of this problems arose with respect to suspected Iraqi chemical weapons programs during the 1990s. American imagery exploitationt teams relied on interpretation keys to assess the presence of chemical weapons support equipment. If a vehicle seen in imagery had the requisite number of physical features, it was assessed as a chemical weapons hazardous materials treatment vehicle. Inspectors on the ground, looking at the same vehicle, saw a fire truck.

More recently, a disgreement arose between imagery exploitation teams in the United States and the United Kingdom with respect to the operaitonal status of China's DF-31 ICBM. By around 2005, the UK team assessed that it was operational, but some years elapsed before the American team came to share this view. The problem was that, of course, neither team had ever seen an operaitonal DF-31 ICBM battery, and so they differed as to the inventory of interpretation keys that would demonstrate operational status.

American imagery exploitation specialists would approach Chinese tactical nuclear weapons using interpretation key templates derived from American and Soviet tactical nuclear weapon deployment patterns. These practices would include a fairly elaborate custodial security presence, separate storage facilities, and so forth. But tactical nuclear weapons "with Cinese characterisitcs" might lack some or all of these features. Indeed, given the relatively small number of tactical nuclear weapons that China might deploy, they might well go to some considerable length to avoid drawing bulls-eyes around their tactical nukes. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The "PRC Defense Policy and Armed Forces, National Intelligence Estimate 13-76, November 11, 1976" concluded that "there was “circumstantial evidence that China seeks to develop a tactical nuclear force .... .” Based on analysis of Chinese nuclear capabilities, the CIA said it “would not be surprised” if several tactical weapons, including small tactical bombs and warheads; a nuclear-armed cruise missile; a nuclear depth charge; and atomic demolition munitions, weapons were begun or were deployed by the early 1980s. But the community judged that China would probably not develop other tactical weapons, “such as a nuclear artillery round, nuclear-armed [anti-air missiles] for fighters, and possibly nuclear torpedoes for submarines.”

The US Defense Intelligence Agency stated that Atomic Demolition Munitions [ADMs] "may be used" by China [Handbook on the Chinese Armed Forces, DDI-2682-32-76, July 1976, pg 3-15]. However, DIA stated "There is no evidence that China possesses a tactical nuclear weapons stockpile, or that the CPLA has developed any coherent doctrine for tactical nuclear fire support of ground forces..... Although China is assesse as having the capability to produce tactical nuclear weapons ... there is no evidence taht it has yet produce or deployed such weapons.... China is not now assessed as having any stockpile of tactical nuclear rockets, guided missiles, or atomic munitions."

From 1977 to 1988, China developed a neutron bomb, a more formal name for such a weapon being an enhanced radiation weapon. The neutron bomb is a special type of tactical nuclear weapon, the blast effects of which are weakened and the radiation is enhanced. In the 1970s, China faced very economically difficult times, but it still decided to develop such a high-cost weapon as the neutron bomb. China did not test the final design until the relationship with the Soviet Union improved in 1988 (the Soviet Union was a hypothetical enemy during the development of the project).

In 1977, the Chinese media tracked down the controversy triggered by the United States' decision to develop and deploy a medium-sized ERW "bullet" in Europe. The Soviet media condemned the U.S. as a "perfect capitalist weapon" for its neutron bomb. At this point, Chinese leaders have ordered a preliminary study of the middle-bullet. As for the motives of China, one scientist recalls the remark made by the Chinese leaders in 1966: "When others did it, we must do it. Others have not done, we must also have to do". The meaning is clear - if other countries already have a neutron bomb, then China should also develop such a bullet. The first ERW test was conducted on 14 December 1978.

After Deng Jiaxian, Yu Min efforts, only 5 successful trials were conducted prior to 1984. The overall theoretical design of the neutron bomb was not announced at that time. Yang Shangkun and Xue Bencheng were technical directors. Yu Min developed the theory of the design, solving the design structure and material difficulties, opening up a new way of neutron bomb technology.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency stated in 1984 that "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."

The Cox Report accused China of "stealing" secret information on the most advanced thermonuclear warheads possessed by the United States, including the seven types of W-88, W-87, W-78, W-76, W-70, W-62 and W-56. It claims, "In the late 1970s, the PRC stole design information on the US W-70 warhead (enhanced radiation nuclear warhead, also known as the neutron bomb) from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The PRC subsequently tested a neutron bomb in 1988."

The rebuttal from the Information Office of China’s State Council stated that China mastered “in succession the neutron bomb design technology and the nuclear weapon miniaturization technology.” This statement confirms the ERW’s development but gives no indication of deployment. Harold M. Agnew, American nuclear weapons expert and former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory of the United States, and Johnny S. Foster, former head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said, "Even data on the size, weight, shape and yield, although highly classified, do not represent a warhead's design in any real sense." Foster also said, "We showed them what's possible, and they probably learned that some time ago when the size and shape of the re-entry vehicle and its explosive yield were first made public." Since these data do not belong to nuclear weapon design secrets, the Cox Report's accusation of China using "stolen" information to develop its own nuclear weapons is a vast overstatement.

Declassified U.S. intelligence and Chinese press reports indicate the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was interested in an enhanced radiation weapon (ERW) as early as 1977. On June 6, 1977, the Carter administration faced an international uproar when the Washington Post revealed US plans to develop the W79 warhead, an ERW. On September 21, 1977, General Zhang Aiping, who ran strategic weapons programs as head of the Science and Technology Commission for National Defense (NDSTC), broke Beijing’s “silence” over the neutron bomb with a poem in the People’s Daily.

In 1980, General Zhang Aiping [later Minister of Defense from 1982] told a member of a visiting U.S. delegation that China needed the ERW as a hedge against the Soviets. The weapon fit into China’s military strategic guideline of “active defense” to defend against a Soviet armored thrust and invasion. In 1980, George A. “Jay” Keyworth, head of the Physics Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, traveled to China, where General Zhang was his host. “For you,” Zhang said, “the neutron bomb has no use. But for us, well . . . you have this game in the United States—bowling? You bowl. We need to bowl neutron bombs over the Soviet border.” The weapon fit into China’s military strategic guideline of “active defense” to defend against a Soviet armored thrust and invasion. By then, the weaponeers were dividing the ERW problem into constituent parts, or “principles,” and solving them individually.

Tom Reed relates that after four failed experiments, Chinese researchers fired a successful “principles breakthrough” test of an enhanced radiation weapon on 19 December 1984. Chinese media paid special attention to the December 1984 test (CHIC-32), described as a “principles breakthrough” for the ERW and miniaturization. Other sources report that China successfully tested a device on 29 September 1988. China successfully tested an ERW design and added it to what one weaponeer called the “technology reserve.”

In 1982, a Chinese defense official reportedly told a French delegation that China had no tactical nuclear weapons deployed at “ground division or below". This statement could indicate either nondeployment or storage of TNWs at higher command levels.

In 1996, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stated China’s ERW “probably is intended for a short-range missile,” but other public assessments indicated this deployment probably did not occur. The reports Proliferation: Threat and Response and Chinese Military Power do not mention tactical nuclear weapons (such as an ERW); the latter specifically indicates that China’s SRBMs are conventionally armed.

In 1999, the Cox Report of the U.S. House of Representatives accused China of stealing various U.S. technologies, including designs for the W-70 Mod 3 warhead, an ERW design. The rebuttal from the Information Office of China’s State Council stated that China mastered “in succession the neutron bomb design technology and the nuclear weapon miniaturization technology.”10 This statement confirms the ERW’s development but gives no indication of deployment.

"The United States, Russia and Great Britain have retired all nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Surprisingly, China has not. China seems to value highly tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs)..... One puzzling feature of this arsenal, when compared to other states, is its diverse composition of weaponry. Like Great Britain and France, China has chosen to incorporate a high percentage of battlefield nuclear weapons into its arsenal of strategic weapons and delivery systems. More than thirty percent of Chinese nuclear weapons are tactical. A second notable feature of this arsenal is the continuity of its tactical component. In September 1991 the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain decided to eliminate TNWs. They removed all non-strategic weapons from ships and submarines. Despite conducting exercises involving the use of TNWs, the Chinese have not officially acknowledged possession of these weapons. Also, they fail to justify maintaining TNWs when their adversaries have eliminated these weapons."

Chinese specialists must be very much alive to the strategic purposes to which "tactical" nuclear weapons may be put. In 1953, armistice negotiations in the Korea War were stalemated, and incoming President Dwight Eisenhower had promised "I will go to Korea". Ike sent the 280mm M65 Atomic Cannon [aka "Atomic Annie"] and the deadlock was broken. At that time, China did not have the bomb, but a decade later it did. The United States saw atomic artillery as a means of countering Soviet tanks in Europe, and during the period of confrontation with the Soviet Union, Chinese specialists must have entertained similar ideas.

In the United States, in the 1960s the development of linear implosion technologies made it possible to create an artillery shell based on implosion. The W48 with a caliber of 155 millimeters had a TNT equivalent yield of no more than 70-100 tons - the main striking factor of this projectile was a powerful neutron flux. More than 1,000 such shells were in service until 1992. The last nuclear projectile of the US Army was the W79 , developed in 1976. Created under the caliber of 203 millimeters, this projectile used a deuterium-tritium mixture to increase the power of the nuclear reaction and was produced in two modifications; Mod 0 had a controlled capacity from 100 tons and up to 1.1 kilotons, and Mod 1 had a fixed capacity of 0.8 kilotons.

Independently, the open literature reports on a number of Chinese underground nuclear tests that are believed to have been associated with a Chinse neutron bomb program. The first came on 14 December 1978, and after four more tests in the early 1980s, the last came on 29 July 1996, the last Chinese nuclear weapons test.

As it so happened, in the late 1970s Canadian/American artillery genius Gerald Bull offered his services to China, and provided the Chinese with sophisticated designs for long range cannons of 155mm and 203mm calibers. While the large gun did not enter production, the 155mm was produced in considerable numbers. First deployed in the early 1980s, several hundred 155mm Type-88 WAC-021 towed guns were in service by the end of the 20th Century, and well over 100 PLZ-05 and PLZ-45 155mm self propelled guns were in service after 2010.

As Carl Sagan noted, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Western open source analysts have complained about the absence of evidence for the deployment of Chinese tactical nuclear weapons. Some of this may just be naive Panda-hugging mirror imaging. Soem peace loving Western have tended to idealize the Chinese nuclear posture as [the analyst's preferred posture] of minimum deterrence, in which artillery fired battlefield nuclear weapons would have no place.

The Chinese would have no incentive to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in formations with stereotyped interpretation keys [eg, multiple layers of fences, etc]. Such tactical nuclear weapons depots would provide attractive targets in a conventional conflict, and it would be silly to paint a bulls eye on such assets. Even if US imagery interpretation specialists have never seen a tactical nuclear weapons depot, this may simply reflect thematic apperception, the absence of a robust set of interpretation keys for a previously "unseen" [ie, unidentified] target.

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Page last modified: 17-03-2019 13:27:22 ZULU