Does China have an atomic bomb?

Glossary Terms

China has only been a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1992. 45 nuclear tests were carried out at the Chinese nuclear test site in Lop Nor between 1964 and 1996, 23 of them above ground. The country is full of contradictions: although it always demands a treaty to abolish all nuclear weapons and only maintains a relatively small nuclear arsenal compared to the USA and Russia, it is the only nation among the permanent members of the UN Security Council that does not provide any information on the number of their nuclear weapons makes. China is also the only nuclear weapon state with a declared no-first-use policy. At the same time, China is the only official nuclear weapon state that is currently expanding its arsenal in numbers. In 1996, China signed, but not ratified, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). China has currently not signed the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (TPNW).

According to SIPRI, there are around 320 nuclear weapons in the current arsenal, for which, according to Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda, 48 sea-based and 180-190 land-based ballistic missiles and bombers were available in 2019 (see table below). The exact total number of nuclear warheads in the Chinese arsenal is kept secret.

Usually all Chinese nuclear warheads are in reserve, i.e. H. not mounted on the missiles, and therefore not ready for immediate use. However, there is an internal debate about readiness and whether it should be increased.

China has long been modernizing its nuclear forces, ostensibly in response to US missile defense plans, but also because the systems are becoming obsolete. It developed new ICBMs to replace its long-range missiles. The missiles and submarines for the Chinese sea-based armed forces are also gradually being replaced by better ones. It is estimated that the arsenal will continue to expand over the next decade once the nuclear weapons that are now being developed are operational. In addition, in response to the US missile defense system in the Pacific, China has equipped its land-based ICBMs with multiple warheads. These are also MIRV-capable and could penetrate the US missile defense system.

China has nearly 190 land-based ballistic "Dong Feng" (DF) missiles capable of carrying around 218 nuclear warheads. The warheads are not mounted on the missiles and are stored separately. The following missile systems are currently in service:

  • The DF-4 missile is a two-stage, liquid-propelled long-range missile. There is also a brigade with about 5 missiles that can carry a 3.3 MT warhead. It was originally intended to be replaced with the new DF-31, but both missile types are now in service.

  • The DF-5 ICBMs with a range of approximately 13,000 km also use liquid fuel. The number of operational DF-5 rockets is estimated at up to 20 pieces: 10 each in versions A and B. The "B" version is MIRV-capable. A third version (C) is under development and could be completed in 2020.

  • The two-stage DF-21 medium-range missile has a solid fuel propulsion system. There are two nuclear weapons capable versions: DF-21 and 21A. The DF-21 has a range of more than 1,750 km and the DF-21A approx. 2,150 km. Today about 40 are stationed, which can carry up to 80 warheads.

  • The land-based mobile DF-26 medium-range missiles were deployed in 2017 and can reach targets in Guam due to their range of 4,000 km.

  • The DF-31 is a solid-propelled three-stage long-range missile with a range of over 7,000 km, which is mounted on a mobile launch pad. So far six have been stationed. It is intended for regional missions (e.g. Russia, India and Guam) and cannot reach the heartland of the United States.

  • There are currently around 24 of the DF-31A version stationed. They have an intercontinental range of over 11,000 km, otherwise their properties are similar to those of the DF-31. In addition, a new missile was shown at the 2017 military parade: the DF-31AG. Of these, 24 missiles are also stationed, they have the same range as the Model A.

  • The DF-41 ICBM, which is MIRV-capable and could carry 3-12 warheads, is in the final development phase. However, it is believed that some deflection and penetration devices will be used to penetrate US missile defense, so the number of actual nuclear devices may only be three. It could reach a range of 12,000-15,000 km.

It is particularly problematic that when the arsenal of DF-21 missiles was expanded, both nuclear (DF-21 and DF-21A) and conventionally armed units (DF-21C) were stationed. The same goes for the DF-26. In the event of a conflict, this can lead to dangerous misunderstandings.

China has decommissioned one of its sea-based ballistic "Ju Lang" (giant wave) missile types: the JL-1. The JL-2 missiles will remain in service and will be stationed on four ˗ perhaps five Jin submarines (type 094) in the future. It is not known whether these submarines have ever been at sea with nuclear weapons or whether they may not be capable of such an operation. In addition, their range is limited to 7,400 km. So in order to reach the USA, they would have to travel very far across the Pacific, which would be very risky.

China has more than 250 cruise missiles, some of which may be capable of nuclear weapons. It is uncertain whether the DH-10 can carry a nuclear warhead.

The Chinese Air Force has about 20 strategic medium-range bombers of the type H-6 for the use of atomic bombs. The H-6 has been used repeatedly to drop test bombs. In November 1976, a bomb with an explosive force of 4 megatons (MT) was dropped from an H-6 machine. How many atom bombs are available for this is uncertain.

Many are concerned that China is making huge efforts to modernize its missile forces. However, this “modernization” is progressing relatively slowly. Lately, the priority has been to increase the range in order to penetrate the US missile defense system. Since 2006, China has been able to threaten not only Russia, but also the areas around Hawaii and Alaska for the first time with an enhanced DF-31 missile with an estimated range of approx. 7,000 km. The nuclear warhead achieves an accuracy (CEP) of 300-600 meters. The improved DF-31A missile can reach targets up to 11,000 km. Now the DF-41 should penetrate the US missile defense system and target targets on the US mainland.

Status: April 2020 | xh

Sources: Nuclear Notebook, CSIS