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China’s moves to strengthen its atomic arsenal
Silo-based missile capabilities increase the odds of survivability for China’s small arsenal and are integral to Beijing’s nuclear modernisation effort.
The Chinese recently moved to build a new set of missile silos. Speculation is rife about what this new development brings. Is it to bolster the survivability of the Chinese arsenal or respond promptly to a nuclear first strike? This is a hard question to answer. It is entirely possible that it is a combination of both. Silo-based missile capabilities increase the odds of survivability for China’s small arsenal and are integral to Beijing’s nuclear modernisation effort. Indeed, Washington has used it as a justification for the pursuit of its own nuclear build-up. Beijing has other motives as well — a No First Use (NFU) policy that mandates the development of highly survivable forces, in that the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) must first absorb a nuclear first strike before it can retaliate. There is a high inverse relationship between the size of the arsenal and its survivability, in that the smaller the size of the arsenal, the greater the premium on survivability. The PRC is believed to have roughly over 200 nuclear-tipped missiles, which are expected to double in the next decade.
"There is a high inverse relationship between the size of the arsenal and its survivability, in that the smaller the size of the arsenal, the greater the premium on survivability."
Further, the improvements in Chinese nuclear forces are geared to thwarting and blunting American intervention over Taiwan and the South China Sea (SCS). Consequently, a silo-based missile capability helps augment Beijing’s alert posture against its principal foe — the United States. However, there are indications that the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is also moving towards a Launch Under Attack (LUA) posture that will seek to deter an American attack. This further complicates any nuclear first strike against Chinese nuclear forces.
Where are these new missile silos located? They are believed to be located in Jilantai in north-central China, which falls directly under the control operation of the People Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF). It is also a major missile training site of the PLARF.
"There are indications that the Peoples Republic of China is also moving towards a Launch Under Attack (LUA) posture that will seek to deter an American attack."
Despite the PRC moving towards the development of missile silos for the launch of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBMs) by replicating the nuclear missile basing strategies of the US and the Russian Federation, Beijing’s efforts constitute a very small fraction of the silo-based missiles that the US and Russia deploy. The United States Air Force (USAF) that oversees the operation of all silo-based missile forces manages 450 silos, of which 400 are packed with ICBMs. The Russians, for their part, operate only 130 silos. The PRC in comparison has 16 silos as part of its latest construction loaded with the newly developed solid fueled silo-based variant of the DF-41 ICBMs, which is in addition to the roughly 18 silos of its older liquid fueled DF-5 ICBMs. The latter are more cumbersome to launch in a crisis where time is at a premium, explaining the DF-41s deployment that can LUA more rapidly and strike targets across most of the continental US and Alaska.
China’s extant nuclear modernisation presents considerable and growing challenges for its adversaries in the form of the DF-41s which performs a key deterrent role. Although these are geared to ensure the survivability of the Chinese nuclear forces, Chinese Short-Range Ballistic Missile Forces (SRBMs) and Inter-Mediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) are likely to be the mainstay of China’s strategic capabilities. However, a higher number of Chinese SRBMs and IRBMs are likely to be conventionally armed. The PRC’s conventional ballistic missile forces also play a very key role in ensuring the defence of China’s relatively small arsenal compared to their US and Russian adversaries. Supplementing this effort, the Chinese are increasingly commingling conventional ballistic missiles with nuclear-armed capabilities. There is no evidence yet of China doing the same with its latest silo-based variants of its DF-41 ICBMs. A mixture of nuclear and conventional forces presents targeting challenges for any potential nuclear adversary of the PRC. From China’s perspective, it creates uncertainty in the adversary by sowing doubt and caution, thereby, deterring nuclear first use. Further, it neutralises or limits the precise identification by the enemy of Chinese conventional and nuclear armed missiles. The PRC has pursued a fairly consistent approach in maintaining a limited nuclear arsenal through the course of its nuclear history. It is relying equally on non-nuclear capabilities such as cyber, electronic, and space warfare capabilities to offset the strengths of its adversaries which are endowed with numerically larger nuclear forces. Cyber, space, and electronic enable the PRC to dominate the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) on which American, Russian, and even Indian nuclear forces are dependent for Command, Control, Communication and Computers Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR).
"The PRC’s conventional ballistic missile forces also play a very key role in ensuring the defence of China’s relatively small arsenal compared to their US and Russian adversaries."
For a nuclear-armed India, which has a smaller number of nuclear capabilities than its northern eastern rival— the PRC, there are a few potential challenges and opportunities. Firstly, the Indian nuclear arsenal is not only smaller than the PRC’s; it is not growing at the rate of the Chinese arsenal. In the short-term, this might not represent a challenge, but over the next few years India will need to consider accelerating the production of more fissile material to build a larger arsenal, which may still be in the low hundreds, but one that does not precisely match the numerical strength of the PRC’s over the next decade. New Delhi can live with some nuclear asymmetry vis-à-vis the PRC, but if it is to ensure the survivability of its arsenal and create a margin of insurance, it also has to contend with a Pakistani arsenal that is growing. The latter complicates the present numerical strength of New Delhi’s strategic capabilities and creates a two-front nuclear challenge. Secondly, India’s delivery capabilities will need to improve, particularly in the range of its missiles and platforms from which they are deployed and launched. This is especially indispensable for the sea leg of the Indian nuclear deterrent. Finally, there are opportunities for New Delhi. India could replicate China’s approach by investing less in the numerical strength of its nuclear weapons, pursue commingling of its nuclear and conventional forces that are mobile and invest significantly more in non-nuclear strategic capabilities as the PRC has done in the form of cyber, electronic warfare, and space capabilities.
Harsh V Pant (Director ORF)
12 March 2021