China Defense White Paper Describes Nuclear Escalation

By Hans M. Kristensen

A Chinese government defense white paper for the first time describes how China’s nuclear forces would gradually be brought to increased levels of alert during a crisis to deter an adversary and retaliate to nuclear attack.

The paper describes a growing portfolio of deterrence and counterattack capabilities with an ambitious agenda to control war situations with a more flexible deterrent and strategy.

Despite shortcomings, the paper provides a new level of Chinese transparency about its forces and planning.

Nuclear Escalation Phases

The white paper describes how the Second Artillery Corps (or Force, the term used by the paper) would change the operational status of the nuclear forces at different levels of crisis and conflict. Three levels of escalation are described:

Peacetime: Under normal circumstances – “in peacetime” – China’s nuclear missiles are “not aimed at any country.” The term “not aimed at any country” seems borrowed from U.S. terminology where it refers to the absence of targeting data in a missile’s guidance system rather than the alert level of the weapon. It has been assumed for many years that Chinese warheads were not mated with liquid-fuel missiles under normal circumstances (The situation with solid-fuel missiles has been less clear but might be similar).

Figure 1:
DF-3 Warhead Mating

A warhead section is mated with a DF-3 liquid-fuel ballistic missile. Chinese nuclear warheads are thought to be stored separate from the missiles in peacetime.     Image: web

Nuclear crisis: If China comes under a nuclear threat, the nuclear missile force of the Second Artillery Corps “will go into a state of alert, and get ready for a nuclear counterattack to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons against China.” In this phase, depending on the situation, mobile missiles would probably be dispersed to their deployments areas and presumably be aimed at the particular threat. If nuclear warheads were not already mated, they would be so too.

Nuclear attack: If China is attacked with nuclear weapons, the nuclear missile force of the Second Artillery Corps “will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack against the enemy either independently or together with the nuclear forces of other services.” The “nuclear forces of other services” probably refers to the navy’s SSBNs and the Air Force’s bombers (see below).

Nuclear Missile Submarines

The submarine force is said to be equipped with “nuclear-powered strategic missile submarines,” a vague reference to the small fleet of perhaps 3-4 Jin-class SSBNs under construction.

The first was spotted at Xiaopingdao Submarine Base in 2007 and Hainan Island in 2008, the old Xia ended a multi-year overhaul at Jianggezhuang Submarine Base in 2008, although its operational condition is unknown.

The mission of the SSBNs is said to be “strategic deterrence and strategic counterattack,” which probably means non-alert operations in peacetime, increased readiness in a crisis, and the ability to counterattack in wartime. The paper states that the ability to counterattack is being improved, probably a reference to the new JL-2 SLBM on the Jin-class.

The mission description is vague and inconsistent. Whereas the section describing the navy’s development history uses the term “strategic deterrence and strategic counterattack,” the general force building section states that, “the submarine force possesses underwater anti-ship, anti-submarine and mine-laying capabilities, as well as some nuclear counterattack capabilities.”

Why the authors have used “strategic deterrence” in one part but only “nuclear counterattack capabilities” in the second part is unclear. Whether it is a vague reference to a nuclear cruise missile capability being added to some attack submarines is unknown, but absent any additional information might just be a matter of language.

A New Air Force Capability?

The Air Force section is interesting because it describes a “transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations.” While much of this has to do with the introduction of new and more capable fighter and bomber aircraft and new concepts of operations, the white paper also describes “certain capabilities to execute long-range precision strikes and strategic projection operations.”

The force building section adds that in addition to traditional air force missions such as strikes and air defense, the transition involves increasing the capabilities for “strategic projection, in an effort to build itself into a modernized strategic air force.”

A small portion of China’s H-6 bombers have for decades been thought to have a secondary nuclear mission with gravity bombs, but the language in the white paper appears to go beyond that and might refer to some of the H-6 bombers being upgraded to carry a new long-range cruise missile intended for land-attack missions.

Most new cruise missiles will carry conventional explosives, but at least one – possibly the DH-10 – might also have a nuclear capability. The operational status of a nuclear cruise missile is highly uncertain and may initially be ground-launched, yet the U.S. Defense Department’s 2008 projection for Chinese nuclear forces vaguely referred to “new air- and ground-launched cruise missiles that could perform nuclear missions” and therefore “improve the survivability, flexibility, and effectiveness of China’s nuclear forces.”

Whether that means China is deploying nuclear cruise missiles remains to be seen.

Nuclear Weapons Capabilities

The paper describes that China over the past decades has built a weaponry and equipment system with both nuclear and conventional missiles, both solid-fueled and liquid-fueled missiles, with different ranges and “different types of warheads.”

The safety and surety features of those warheads and the personnel that handle them have been changed, the white paper states. For example, safety measures have been established to “avoid unauthorized and accidental launches,” measures that are needed for enhancing security but probably also for enhancing command and control of the weapons in the increasingly flexible scenarios the paper describes.

Figure 2:
DF-31 Missile Unit Exercise

Do Chinese solid-fuel DF-31 and DF-31A long-range ballistic missiles carry nuclear warheads in peacetime? In a crisis they most likely would under the escalation procedures described in the 2008 Defense White Paper.                                                      Image: CCTV7

Nuclear Weapons Policy

The white paper states that new military strategic guidelines have been issued that are aimed at “winning local wars in conditions of informationization.” The new guidelines stress “deterring crises and wars,” and “effectively control war situations,” and calls for “the building of a lean and effective deterrent force and the flexible use of different means of deterrence.”

Hovering above that evolution is a long-held policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, a self-defensive nuclear strategy, and a pledge never to enter into a nuclear arms race with any other country.

The good news about the no-first-use policy is that it is explicitly nuclear focused, and that China does not yet appear to have made it conditional on specific situations such as conventional attacks against China’s nuclear forces. This is important because some Chinese officials privately insist that a conventional attack against China’s nuclear forces would be considered a nuclear attack and the no-first-use policy therefore not a limiting factor in China’s response.

The not so good news is that the no-first-use policy in certain situations doesn’t seem credible. The pledge to “not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time and in any circumstances” means that if an adversary invaded China and threatened the survival of the state, China’s nuclear forces would not be used as long as the invader did not use nuclear weapons. Hardly a credible policy.

Likewise, the pledge to “unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or in nuclear-weapon-free zones,” means that if the United States staged strikes against China from Japan or South Korea, Chinese nuclear weapons would not be used against U.S. bases in those countries. In that credible?

Despite these “credibility issues” in Chinese nuclear policy, the white paper is noteworthy because it indicates that China – unlike the other nuclear weapon states – has not yet fallen for the temptation to broaden its nuclear policy to deter all forms of weapons of mass destruction. The policy seems entirely focused on deterring and responding to nuclear attacks.

The white paper also states that China would like the nuclear weapon states to stop research into and development of new types of nuclear weapons, reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their national security policy, and reduce their nuclear arsenals. Those are good policy goals but they ring hollow given that China is busy deploying new nuclear weapons with new nuclear warheads and is the only of the five original nuclear weapon states that is thought to be increasing its nuclear arsenal.

As China increases its capabilities and pursues a more flexible deterrent posture, there is a risk that its policies will be modified too. With increased flexibility in capability tends to come increased flexibility in mission.

Oh, and in case you wondered: while the U.S. military plans against “red forces,” the Chinese plan against “blue forces.” Some things never change.


10 Responses to “China Defense White Paper Describes Nuclear Escalation”

  1. mack_sim January 26, 2009 at 11:54 am #

    “The pledge to “not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time and in any circumstances” means that if an adversary invaded China and threatened the survival of the state, China’s nuclear forces would not be used as long as the invader did not use nuclear weapons. Hardly a credible policy.

    Likewise, the pledge to “unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or in nuclear-weapon-free zones,” means that if the United States staged strikes against China from Japan or South Korea, Chinese nuclear weapons would not be used against U.S. bases in those countries. In that credible?”

    Why, yes, it is credible.

    They are probably convinced (with good reason, I might add) that they could defeat any conventional attacks against the mainland using nothing but conventional force, or at least (in the unlikely case of an attack by Russia) bleed the invader long enough and hard enough to reach a negotiated peace.

    In other words, they seem to think that the survival of their state cannot be put at risk from the outside unless nuclear weapons are used.

    Therefore, it makes a lot of sense for them to have an assured second-strike capability (which is what the subs and the ICBMs are all about) and a matching strategy. It also stands to reason that a conventional attack directed at these second-strike weapons can only be a prelude to an all-out nuclear attack, so…

    Otoh, it makes much less sense for them to threaten neighbors with medium-range missiles or an in-theater nuclear capability, as long as those same neighbors remain committed to being non-nuclear. The Koreans and Japanese could roll their own in a couple of years (and/or base US weapons on their soil in weeks) and China doesn’t want more nukes on its doorstep, especially not close to the industrialized and highly populated southern seaboard.

    On a side note, your comment about China being the only state to develop and build new weapons is a bit disingenuous – the RRW program (or whatever it’s called these days) is not yet dead.

    Reply: Thanks for the comments. I only have one response regarding your last sentence. Regardless of what one might think about the RRW (and I’m not a supporter), it was not a plan to increase the arsenal although it would have laid the foundation for doing so in the future if decided. The Chinese deployment is different because it is being carried out (versus being a plan) and it will probably lead to a slight increase in their arsenal. They’re also phasing out older weapons, so what the net result will be remains to be seen. HK

  2. 3.1415 January 26, 2009 at 3:45 pm #

    All logical conclusions are derived from certain premises. The two examples that you used to question the seriousness of China’s no-first-use nuclear doctrine actually reveal the premises of China’s NFU policy.

    Your example one interprets China’s unconditional NFU as “if an adversary invaded China and threatened the survival of the state, China’s nuclear forces would not be used as long as the invader did not use nuclear weapons.” By sticking to an unconditional NFU, China basically assumes the possibility of a non-nuclear invasion of China as ZERO. This is not too far fetched when one considers the history of China from 1950s to 1970s, when the US and USSR at one point or another threatened but never actually executed an invasion of China. If China was deemed untouchable then, why should China worry now? The possibility is Zero and thus there is no need to degrade the very solemn vow.

    Your example two “if the United States staged strikes against China from Japan or South Korea, Chinese nuclear weapons would not be used against U.S. bases in those countries.” If a government in any non-nuclear-weapon states or in nuclear-weapon-free zones allows US to initiate nuclear strike of China from their soil, then these countries would cease to be a non-nuclear weapon state or in a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Thus, China will of course retaliate against both the initiator of the nuclear strike and the accomplice. Since China’s nuclear doctrine is countervalue, it is only logical to conclude that China feels that it can very safely deter the Japanese or South Korean government from allowing US to initiate a nuclear strike of China from their soil.

    Although it might be difficult for a non-Chinese to believe the seriousness of China’s NFU, it is, shall we say, a conviction, without any religious meaning, that nuclear weapons are so special to China that they can only be used in a mutual destruction scenario. Any responsible rulers of China who have inherited the ability to impose MAD will not let the ability to degrade, hence China’s effort to modernize its nuclear deterrence. Unless United States is willing to increase its pain threshold (currently guesstimated at the loss of one major city), it is very easy to deter nuclear strike initiated by the US. In contrast, China’s historical pain threshold has been so high that it can tolerate pretty well anything but a nuclear strike before it will use its nukes.

    The right question to ask is why the United States doubts China’s NFU while it refuses to do anything to control its impulse to use nuclear weapons. After all, United States bears the unenviable distinction of being the only country that has used the nuclear weapon, twice. Let’s hope that there is not a third time, because that may well trigger our own collective extinction.

  3. Armando January 27, 2009 at 2:17 am #

    [Edited] All analysis aside..why exactly do the US and Chinese have a problem with each other? Is the Chinese Govt selling more T-shirts in US than the US selling hamburgers in Beijing? Someone analyze that please!

    What is your assessment of the India Nuke program..Missiles require a lot of testing and the Agni program is still confusing. In fact only IRBM prowess of the Prithvi can be safely assumed. But the fact remains that India is not seeking rapid development in Nuke technology but is now more possessed of the fact that conventional weapons need to be upgraded.

    Reply: It is my impression that the bulk of the US-Chinese adversarial relationship comes down to the issue of Taiwan. There are of course other factors (history, incidents, proliferation, human rights, trade), but Taiwan seems to capture it. I’ll leave it to others to paint a more comprehensive picture.

    As for India’s missile program, I recently published a study that some people in India didn’t like. You can find it and some of the comments here. HK

  4. mack_sim January 27, 2009 at 4:46 am #

    Thanks for the reply. In response: the RRW program is aimed at developing a new warhead (and this part of the program is almost over) and ultimately build it (and this part of the program is not yet started), so that your claim that China is the only nation to _develop_ new weapons is simply wrong, while the claim that it is the only nation to build new weapons stands, but may be contradicted shortly.

    Interesting that you do not respond to the rest of my statement. It’s also very interesting – in a low-key-paranoid kind of way – that someone else chose to forcefully re-state my argument, from a decidedly Chinese perspective :). I wonder if their choice of nickname was also conscious – 3.1415 is off the mark, but by just a very tiny bit.

    I happen to think that the fly in the ointment is the stability of the Chinese government and society. If mainland China were to be invaded, would the people rise as one against the aggressors, or would they go home after token resistance and let the state crumble so they can fight over the pieces later, as the Iraqis did?

    How aggressively would the Chinese government respond to a massive propaganda campaign of the kind that the US fought against the USSR and its satellites? What if it were supplemented with trade restrictions? Perhaps the aim of this document is to say that the price of peace is that the US should once again turn a blind eye as the Chinese government steps up its program of societal control?

    Reply: That for your comments. Again, I have not stated “that China is the only nation to _develop_ new weapons,” as you claim. To quote myself (?): “China is busy deploying new nuclear weapons with new nuclear warheads and is the only of the five original nuclear weapon states that is thought to be increasing its nuclear arsenal.”

    I’ll leave it to others to analyze the deeper sociological and cultural reasons for why the Chinese government has the nuclear policy it has. There are certainly many theories. HK

  5. JK January 27, 2009 at 11:43 pm #

    It seems that there is nothing about “nuclear” in the Air Force section, as we can not see any related terms like “deterrence, “counterattack” and “strategic” here (the term “strategic air force” is likely to have the same meaning as the “strategic service”). All the missions of the PLA’ Air Force referred in this White Paper are very likely to be conventional only. Moreover, since 2006, internet comments from China had found this absence of “nuclear missions” in the Air Force section (of China’s National Defense White Papers). Compared with those explicit descriptions about nuclear missions in other services’ sections, is it possible that China is going to have a nuclear dyad?

    Reply: It is possible, but not supported by anything I have seen, that China has dismantled its nuclear bomb capability. As you probably know, several of the nuclear tests were bombs delivered by H-6 and probably also an Q-5A drop. The Air Force nuclear mission is not spelled out in the paper, correct, but neither is the construction of new SSBNs. If it still exists, the Air Force nuclear mission might be a secondary or back-up mission and therefore not get the same attention as the missiles. If possible, please direct the readers to the “internet comments from China” you mention. HK

  6. Marc February 3, 2009 at 7:51 am #

    [Edited] “Some things never change.” Indeed, somethings never change. And now all NACS (Nuclear Armed Countries), who continue to harbor their nuclear weapons all use the same mundane verbal pledge “but we won’t use them first,” somehow believe that it is OK at this moment, once the pledge is given, to advance their nuclear policy or upgrade their arsenal.

    [China's no-first-use policy hardly a credible policy]. Oh please, which country would not use that same policy. Does the writer of the article truly think that the other NACS, who offer up the same garbled nonsense of “no first use policy” would not react the same way if it was their own country at odds with existence?

    Don’t blame China for the invention of no first use, they are just following the path of every other NAC who not only have stated the exact same thing but it does give them, much like the others, [an excuse] to continue to hide behind their arsenal until somebody “accidentally” does breech the first use.

    The real question which should be asked amongst the NAC’S is: “What is our first reaction after being hit with a nuclear strike?”

    It is this answer that deems our fate more than the bogus one that the NACS currently take solice in and one we as a whole, know absolutely nothing about.

    Reply: Actually, most other nuclear weapons states don’t have a no-first-use policy. India has stated one, but also said it reserves the right to use nuclear weapons against chem/bio weapons. Pakistan recent said it would not initiate a nuclear war, which is similar but still not a declared no-first-use policy. Russia adopted a no-first-use policy in 1982, but then abandoned it in 1993. The United States, France and United Kingdom have explicitly rejected a no-first-use policy.

    I’m not blaming China “for the invention of no first use” but think it is fair to ask questions about its scope and limits. It is, of course, a political statement rather than a limit on how military forces would operate in a war. HK

  7. Nik February 4, 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    Small correction. Soviet Union adopted NFU in 1982, but Russia dropped it in 1993 – long before Putin came into power.

    Reply: Good catch! What was I thinking? I’ve made the correction. HK

  8. Armando February 27, 2009 at 1:39 am #

    China seems to attach a lot of pride with developing nuclear India. I think they have tried to strike a balance with this policy paper to placate the US and other forces about their intentions.

    About the NFU, what needs to be asked is that will the Chinese strike first if the US starts winning the conventional war over Taiwan?

  9. han May 12, 2009 at 11:28 pm #

    [Edited] Have you seen white paper from Australia? They are going to buy 12 nuke-subs and 100 F-35..replacing the old ones. It’s gonna be a cold war between China and Australia in near year 2030.

    Reply: Actually, the Australian Defence White Paper explicitly states that the 12 submarines will not be nuclear (p. 70: “The Government has ruled out nuclear propulsion for these submarines.”). As for the announcement to buy 100 F-35s, that will be a reduction of Australia’s current inventory of approximately 110 F-18 and F-111 fighter-bombers.

    Nor does there seem to be any risk of a “cold War between China and Australia.” China is 4,000 km from Australia separated by Indonesia and the Philippines, and unless China begins expanding south or Australia starts operating routinely in the South China Sea I see no risk of a “cold war” between the two. That’s not to say the two countries won’t have issues, that Indian-Chinese issues won’t effect Australia’s policy, or that ANZUS couldn’t potentially be drawn into U.S.-Chinese disputes. The White Paper explicitly points to the “rise of China,” but the outlook is as a challenge not as an enemy. HK

  10. Jonathan June 5, 2010 at 10:30 pm #

    [Edited] The problem with nuclear weapons is that only the US can use them. It has threatened to use it on countless occasions during the cold war and now against against North Korea and Iran. The US is very adapt at using the United Nations to do its bidding. It can of course destroy North Korea and Iran on its own. But it is using the latter since it would lend some legitimacy.

    China is a totally different proposition. For starters, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) won’t start a war with the US except in a Taiwan contingency. The US created the Taiwan problem and it’s up to them to find a face saving way for it to re unite with China. The present status won’t hold indefinitely. Once the PLA has reached a level where it can inflict 70-80 percent damage on the US, the Americans will probably let Taiwan reunite with China, but there will be obstacles.

    Yes I know technology can change the game. If the US can invent some technology to attack without risking their carriers so can the Chinese. With a population of 1.3 billion, surley there are some geniuses who can change the game. The PLA does not need to have parity or sprint to parity with US forces. They have the means to make the US pause before it attacks China. As one PLA general said, the US intoxicated with its power would think no one will dare attack the US if the Americans initiate the attack.

    That, my fellow readers, is a forlorn hope. The PLA is ugrading and modernising. The missile shield may blunt some PLA retaliation but at least ten to twenty US cities will be held hostage or destroyed. I don’t know but any US president must be 100 percent – not even 99.9 percent – sure no missile can reach the US. Maybe the US has the means to obliterate all the Chinese missiles but it is my guess the PLA will have contingency plans to make the US pay for any destruction on China.

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