The Annual Report to U.S. Congress on the “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” [Report] for the year 2020, has extensively covered the status and trajectory of People’s Republic of China (PRC) nuclear posture.
The Report seems to indicate that China is undertaking a review of the nuclear status and posture tweaking the No First Use doctrine, adding to warheads and delivery capability.
This stance could gradually replicate that of the United States and Russia and also has implications for India the regional adversarial power.
In general, China proposes to modernise and expand nuclear forces along with diversification. Towards this end the overall trajectory is to expand the land, sea and air based nuclear delivery platforms, supporting infrastructure as well as capacity to produce plutonium through fast breeder reactors and reprocessing.
China is also set to field a nuclear triad with capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improvement of its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities.
A detailed consideration of doctrine, strategy, force levels and employment pattern is summarised as per succeeding paragraphs based on the Report with additional sources.
Doctrine – NFU with LOW
While pursuing the No First Use (NFU) doctrine China is expected to move to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force as per the Report.
The higher level of readiness and modernisation of nuclear forces which are expected to field larger and more capable forces also tends to denote an attempt to go beyond the NFU
The Pentagon Report indicates that, “Some PLA officers have discussed the PRC using nuclear weapons first in cases like when a conventional attack threatens the survival of the PLA’s nuclear force or the CCP itself”.
The development of lower yield weapons however indicates that there may be a degree of flexibility that would be provided to the national leadership and in the future possibly military leaders at the Theatre Command to use these in the case of a crisis.
The development of low yield nuclear weapons by the United States against a Taiwan invasion force could lead to China also creating such an arsenal for proportionate response and conflict control as per the Pentagon Report.
For this purpose, the DF-26 is being developed for precision strike and could be used as a tactical or battlefield nuclear strike option.
The PLA’s Launch On Warning [LOW} or “early warning counterstrike” (预警反击), posture is being supported by credible, “space and ground based sensors, and that this posture is broadly similar to the U.S. and Russian LOW posture”.
A LOW posture will require very reliable early warning. For this purpose China is developing ground-based large phase array radars and geostationary satellites capable of detecting ballistic missile launches. These are being deployed with a goal to “improve strategic early warning” specified in the 2015 White Paper as well as specific nuclear force modernization goals with the PRC’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020)
The overall nuclear posture is however said to that of holding a “minimum deterrent”.
China’s nuclear strategy envisages survivability and ability to carry out multiple counter strikes to deter an adversary with unacceptable damage through massive retaliation. Strikes could be counter force or counter value that is against the military, population or economy respectively.
The present nuclear strike targets are anticipated to aim at conflict de-escalation and return to a conventional war with a sufficient force to deter an adversary.
Control of escalation and avoiding protracted exchanges appears to be the nuclear strategy as per the Pentagon Report.
Within this there is a move to ensure that a high level of readiness of the forces is maintained by ensuring that a portion of the forces are in a state of alert.
However the Report has indicated that “the PRC almost certainly keeps the majority of its nuclear force on a peacetime status—with separated launchers, missiles, and warheads…”
Land sea and air based platforms support the PRC’s nuclear strategy.
PRC’s land-based nuclear forces primarily consists of ICBMs with different basing modes complimented by several theater-range road-mobile MRBMs and IRBMs. These missile systems are likely to have multiple basing options including silos and rail mobile versions. capabilities. China has commenced building three solid-fueled ICBM silo fields, which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos.
PRC’s six operational JIN SSBNs, which are equipped to carry up to 12 CSS-N-14 (JL-2) SLBMs, are the country’s first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent. Modernisation of the fleet is being carried out with introduction of next-generation Type 096 SSBN.
The PLAAF has operationally fielded the H-6N bomber, providing a platform for the air component of the PRC’s nascent nuclear triad. In 2021, the H-6N-equipped unit very likely will be developing tactics and procedures to conduct the PLAAF nuclear mission.
The H-6N, compared to other H-6 bombers, adds an air-to-air refueling probe, as well as its recessed fuselage modifications that would allow for external carriage of an ALBM believed to be nuclear capable.
Number of Warheads
The Pentagon Report estimates that China will have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 warheads by 2030 an increase from the low 200 plus at present. This would imply an annual increase of at least 100 warheads for which it is supposed that capability exists.
Over the next decade, the PRC will expand and diversify its nuclear forces with a view to achieve what is being stated as, “mutually assured destruction,” capability thus replicating the United States and Russian matrix. This projection is based on an increase in the number of warheads and delivery capability.
The PRC probably intends to develop new nuclear warheads and delivery platforms that at least equal the, reliability, and/or survivability of some of the warheads and delivery platforms currently under development by the United States and/or Russia.
Introduction of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) is anticipated in the near future.
The PLA Rocket Force will also field “operational hypersonic weapons system, the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) capable medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM)”.
Thus an overall review of the nuclear posture is in the offing.
Implications for India
China has refused to consider India as a nuclear weapons capable state and as of now there are no confidence building measures that have been put in place. Beijing is mainly focusing on parity with Moscow and Washington. The attendant consideration is that capability development to face the premier nuclear powers would provide a deterrent vis a vis India.
China’s progressive assistance to Pakistan in developing a nuclear arsenal to pose a challenge to India needs consideration.
The possibility of the PRC Rocket Force fielding low yield nuclear weapons to be employed on the battlefield also needs consideration by Indian military and nuclear force planners in the days ahead.