Pentagon’s 2011 China Report: Reducing Nuclear Transparency

The Pentagon’s new report on China’s military forces significantly reduces transparency of China’s missile force by eliminating specific missile numbers previously included in the annual overview.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Pentagon has published its annual assessment of China’s military power (the official title is Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China). I will leave it to others to review the conclusions on China’s general military forces and focus here on the nuclear aspects.

Land-Based Nuclear Missiles

The most noticeable new development compared with last year’s report is that the Pentagon this year has decided to significantly reduce the transparency of China’s land-based nuclear missile force. For the past decade, the Pentagon reports have contained a breakdown of Chinese missiles showing approximately how many they have of each type. Not anymore. This year the details are gone and all we get to see are the overall numbers within each missile range category: ICBMs, IRBM, MRBM, SRBM, and GLCMs.

This is something one would expect the Chinese government to do and not the Pentagon, which has spent the last decade criticizing China for not being transparent enough about its military posture.

What the numbers we’re allowed to see indicate is that China’s missile force has been largely stagnant over the past year. The changes have been in minor adjustments, probably involving:

  • Phasing out a few older DF-4s and introducing a few more DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs.
  • Reducing the DF-3A force and replacing it with the DF-21 MRBMs (which appears largely unchanged but with greater uncertainty).
  • Essentially no increase in number of SRBMs off Taiwan.
  • The same number of DH-10 GLCMs.
Addition: Some news media reports unfortunately misrepresent what the Pentagon report says about Chinese nuclear developments:Washington Times (8/25/11)

Claim: “China expanding its nuclear stockpile” (headline)

Fact: The Pentagon report says nothing about China expanding its nuclear stockpile (the word “stockpile” does appear in the report at all) but that it is “qualitatively and quantitatively improving its strategic missile forces.” But it is a “limited nuclear force.”

Claim: “Richard Fisher, a China military-affairs analyst, said the report is significant for listing strategic nuclear forces that show an estimated increase of up to 25 new ICBMs, some with multiple warheads, in a year….”

Fact: The Pentagon report lists 50-75 and 55-63 ICBMs (both ranges are listed). The medium values are 59-62 ICBMs. The 2010 report listed 53-63 (58) ICBMs. That is an increase of 1-4 ICBMs, not 25, which is the highest end of the estimate.

The Pentagon report does not say that China has deployed ICBMs with MIRV, but that it “may be” developing a new mobile ICBM, “possible capable of carrying” MIRV. China has been researching MIRV since the 1980s but so far not chosen to deploy any. The one thing that could drive China to a decision to potentially deploy MIRV in the future would be a U.S. ballistic missile defense system that diminished the effectiveness of China’s nuclear deterrent.

Claim: (Fisher) “China will not reveal its missile-buildup plans…so this simply is not the time to be considering further cuts in the U.S. nuclear force, as is the Obama administration’s intention.”

Fact: The United States has 5,000 warheads, China 240. Only about 60 of the Chinese warheads can reach the United States, and only half of those can reach all of the United States.

Indian Express (8/26/11)

Claim: “Advanced China n-missiles on India border, says Pentagon” (headline)

Fact: The Pentagon report does not state that China has deployed nuclear missiles on the Indian border. Instead, the report states in general terms that “To strengthen deterrence posture relative to India, the PLA has replaced” DF-3As “with more advanced and survivable” DF-21s. This is a reference to the DF-21 replacing outdated DF-3A brigades at Chuxiong, Jianshui and Kunming in the Yunnan province and near Delingha and Da Qaidam in the Qinghai province.

Trying to reconstruct the table the way it should have been comes with considerable uncertainty, but here is my best estimate (for corrections I will have to rely on individuals in the Pentagon who think that buying into Chinese government secrecy does not advance U.S. or Northeast Asian interests):

Click on table to download larger version.

Ballistic Missile Submarines

The new Jin-class (Type 094) SSBN appears ready but the Pentagon report states that its JL-2 SLBM “has faced a number of problems and will likely continue flight tests.” The Pentagon previously estimated that the Jin/JL-2 system would become operational in 2010 but the new report now states that it is “uncertain” when the new system will become fully operational.

The range of the JL-2 SLBM is extended, somewhat, from 7,200+ km in the 2010 report to 7,400 km in the 2011 report. This does not change the fact that a Jin-class SLBM would have to deploy deep into the Sea of Japan for its JL-2 to be able to strike the Continental United States. Alaska is within range from Chinese waters, but not Hawaii.

The operational status of the old Xia-class (Type 092) SSBN and its JL-1 SLBM “remain questionable.” Neither class has conducted any deterrent patrols yet.

As a result, China does not appear to have any operational sea-launched ballistic missiles at this point.

The report lists only five nuclear attack submarines with the three fleets, down from six last year, suggesting that retirement of the Han-class (Type 091) continues. The Shang-class (Type 093) is operational, and the Pentagon report states that “as many as five third-generation Type 095 SSNs will be added in the coming years.” The U.S. Navy’s intelligence branch estimated in 2009 that the Type 095 will be noisier than the Russian Akula I but quieter than the Victor III.

Chinese attack submarines conducted 12 patrols during all of 2010, the same level as the previous two years.

Underground Facilities

While there has recently been some sensational reporting (see also here) that China since 1995 has built a 5,000-km “great wall” of tunnels under Hebei mountain in the western parts of the Shaanxi province to hide “all of their missiles hundreds of meters underground,” including the DF-5 (CSS-4) ICBM, the reality is probably a little different.

First, as anyone who has spent just a few hours studying satellite images of Chinese military facilities and monitoring the Chinese internet will know, the Chinese military widely uses underground facilities to hide and protect military forces and munitions. Some of these facilities are also used to hide nuclear weapons. The old DF-4, for example, reportedly has existed in a cave-based rollout posture since the 1970s.

The Pentagon report states that China has “developed and utilized UGFs [underground facilities] since deploying its oldest liquid-fueled missile systems and continue today to utilize them to protect and conceal their newest and most modern solid-fueled mobile missiles.” So it is not new but it is also being used for modern missiles.

 Chinese Underground Missile Launcher Facility
A Chinese mobile missile launcher, possibly for the DF-11 or DF-15 SRBM, emerges from an underground facility at an unknown location.                                      Image: Chinese TV

Second, the particular facility under Hebei mountain appears to be China’s central nuclear weapons storage facility, as recently described by Mark Stokes. The missiles themselves are at the regional bases, although it cannot be ruled out that some may be near Hebei as well. But Stokes estimates that the warheads are concentrated in the central facility with only a small handful of warheads maintained at the six missile bases’ storage regiments for any extended period of time. The missile regiments themselves could also have nearby underground facilities for storing launchers and missiles, although specifics are not known.

One of the Chinese bases with plenty of underground facilities is the large naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island, which I described in 2006 and 2008. The Pentagon report concludes that this base has now been completed and asserts that it is large enough to accommodate a mix of attack and ballistic missile submarines and advanced surface combatants, including aircraft carriers. The report adds that, “submarine tunnel facilities at the base could also enable deployments from this facility with reduced risk of detection.” That would seem to require the submarine exiting from the tunnel submerged; a capability I haven’t seen referenced anywhere yet.


The 2011 Pentagon report shows that China’s nuclear missile force changed little during the past year but appears to continue the slow replacement of old liquid-fueled missiles with new solid-fueled missiles. China’s efforts to develop a sea-launched ballistic missile capability have been delayed.

In an unfortunate change from previous versions of the Pentagon report, the 2011 version significantly reduces the transparency of China’s nuclear missile forces by removing numbers for individual missile types. This change is particularly surprising given the Pentagon’s repeated insistence that China must increase transparency of its military posture. In this case, military secrecy appears to contradict U.S. foreign policy objectives.

The decision to reduce the transparency of China’s missile force is even more troubling because it follows the recent U.S.-Russian decision to significantly curtail the information released to the public under the New START treaty.

The combined effect of these two decisions is that within the past 12 months it has become a great deal harder for the international community to monitor the development of the offensive nuclear missile forces of the United States, Russia and China.

Tell me again whose interest that serves?

See also: 2010 Pentagon Report on China

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.


7 Responses to “Pentagon’s 2011 China Report: Reducing Nuclear Transparency”

  1. Shawn August 27, 2011 at 8:03 pm #

    [Edited] It’s good to know that China hasn’t really improved their Ballistic Missile capability in the past year, we all can breathe a sigh of relief. Anyway the submarine launched ballistic missile program that China has is delayed and I am wondering why this is? What are the Chinese having problems with, with there submarine launched ballistic missile program?
    I’m glad that it is delayed and there haven’t been any improvements in the past year. The submarine launched ballistic missile program is probably one of there priorities I would believe. If they could have success in this program it would greatly affect there posture when it comes to dealing with us, the United States. They are probably in no rush to complete there submarine launched ballistic missile program, because we the United States has tested and succeded in some of the tests of it’s anti-ballistic missile defence capability.
    I was just wondering what is the delay in the Chinese submarine launched ballistic missile program? A reply would be great?

    Reply: Note that my blog is not stating that “China hasn’t really improved their Ballistic Missile capability in the past year” but that the overall force has been largely stagnant but involving replacing older missile versions with newer ones. That is an improvement because the new ones are more capable than the ones they replace. My point is that it appears to be less than what Mr. Fisher concludes in the Washington Times.

    As for the reasons for why the JL-2 is delayed, there are no details available other than there apparently have been several test launch failures. Concerning whether China is in a “rush” to complete its SLBM program, they seem to be investing a lot of resources with perhaps three – perhaps more – boats under construction. I don’t see indications that the pace is related to the U.S. ballistic missile capability. HK

  2. Distiller August 29, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Ground launched systems scale quite well – just build more. (And China has a lot of real estate where to hide things.) Not so much sea/sub-launched systems.

    Is there any assessment of the Chinese “cultural” willingness to give SSBN/SLBM the same priority as the West? Maybe there are other than only technical reasons for their lack of progress? Guess if I’m Chinese I’d look into long-range sub-launched cruise missiles instead of ballistic missiles anyway. Question of targeting, and counter-value targeting doesn’t require the counter-force speed factor. But maybe I’m wrong here.

    Reply: The Chinese SSBN program appears to be a priority to the Chinese, but not nearly to the extent it is to the other four original nuclear weapon states. More than size the issue appears to be uncertainty about the mission; it is not clear to me what the Chinese SSBN mission actually is. China doesn’t appear to have a capability to deploy a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, nor do I think the SSBNs would be very survivable, and it is not my impression that the Chinese government has any interest in handing nuclear warheads over to the navy under normal circumstances. So the SSBNs might end up serving some form of a crisis surge capability, although that also raises a number of questions. I think we’ll just have to wait and see how the operations evolve. HK

  3. Susan Turner September 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    I apologize for entering the discussion late, but I am curious: Could the quantitative stagnation of China’s ballistic missile force over the past year be a consequence of the U.S.’s decision to stengthen its Ballistic Dissile Defense?

    Reply: I don’t see indications that U.S. anti-ballistic missile plans have any limiting effects on Chinese ballistic missile programs. On the contrary, depending on Chinese perceptions of the effectiveness of the U.S. systems, it could have the opposite effect. I just haven’t seen clear indications one way or the other in terms of what Beijing is actually doing.

    On the “quantitative stagnation” you mention, I’m sorry if my choice of words (“largely stagnant”) was a poor one; there is an addition of some new missiles, but my point was that they’re mainly about replacing older versions with newer ones. While that is the case for DF-21 and DF-31, the DF-31A is different because it so far appears to be deploying in addition to the silo-based DF-5A rather than replacing it.

    But the Pentagon table shows significant uncertainty in the estimates (as estimates often do): For MRBS, the estimate is 75-100 compared with 85-95 in last year’s report. At the high end of the estimate, 100 is obviously greater than 95, but the low end of the estimate is also lower so the medium values of the estimates are 88 and 90, actually a slight reduction; For ICBMs, the estimate is 50-75/55-65 (the report has two different ICBM estimates!) compared with 53-63 last year. The medium values are 63/60 compared with 58 last year, so 2-5 missiles more. For the SRBM force off Taiwan, the estimate suggests that the buildup has stalled: 1,000-1,200 (1,100) versus 1,050-1,150 (1,100) last year.

    All this to say that depending on who’s interpreting the estimates, one will see increases if focusing on the high-end, decreases if focusing on the low-end, and “largely stagnant” if focusing on the medium value as I do. HK

  4. china wong September 23, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    [Edited] US 5000 nuclear weapons vs. China 240 tells the story. The US cannot destroy China without getting retaliation. The anti missile system is designed to perpetute US nuclear primacy and nuclear blackmail. The Chinese, if it ever came down to nuclear showdown with the US, won’t let it escape unscathed. By the way, don’t believe the PLA will become a threat; it will become a threat [only] if the US were to attack China first. The PLA is not aiming for parity with US forces. The ability to respond to US attacks by the PLA is what is unnerving the Pentagon.

  5. Burning Man October 7, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    Sorry to be late in this conversation, but what do you think this is? Do you think it could be new high-mobility TEL for DF-31A. Because many people do claim that it’s a DF-41, but i’m not so sure about that.

    Reply: I don’t know what it is but I’ve seen it rumored to be the DF-41. Whatever it is, the picture does not show a useable launcher; at best it looks like a multi-axle truck with a long tube on top. There is no equipment visible that would be able to erect the canister so a missile could actually launch out of it. In contrast, the launcher that is said to be for the DF-31 and DF-31A, has large hydraulic arms to erect the heavy missile canister. Perhaps it’s some engineering experiment for a future launcher. The U.S. intelligence community has been saying for several years that China may be working on a new ICBM. Perhaps the one on the picture is part of that program, perhaps it’s something else. We just don’t know.

    Speaking about mystery, I think questions also remain about the DF-31 and DF-31A launchers; the 1999 and 2009 parades displayed what was officially identified as DF-31 and DF-31A launchers, respectively, but the two launchers seem almost identical. There were minor differences between the drivers sections, but nothing that would reflect the significant difference between carrying a 7,200-km missile and a 11,200-km missile. Do the two missiles use a common launcher? HK

  6. Burning Man October 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    Thank you for answering my question. I have still few other questions, hopefully you have time to answer them.

    Many sites claim that DF-31′s NATO code name is CSS-9 but Pentagons 2011 report uses code name CSS-10. Which one is correct code name? I assume the CSS-10 is correct since it was used in latest Pentagon report, could you confirm what is correct one.

    What is your opinion on DF-31A’s capability to carry MIRVs? Pentagon reports say that it might be able to carry at least three warheads.

  7. NGAM November 25, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    DF-31A is much less than 7000 miles,and less capable than its true capability. BTW,Pentagon is playing word games for political demand.

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