The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) notoriously opaque nuclear arsenal could be much bigger than the estimates prevalent in the United States—up to 1,800 warheads as opposed to the 300 or 400 currently thought—according to a report authored by a retired Russian colonel general.
In addition, the report says that the PRC has rail-mounted intercontinental ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, and nuclear warheads on a series of ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) and cruise missiles—statements that contradict dominant understandings of China’s nuclear posture.
Viktor Yesin, the former chief of the main staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces and currently professor at the Academy of Military Sciences, published his view in the military publication Military-Industrial Courier in early May.
He writes that Chinese factories that supply fissile material could have as of 2011 produced 40 tons of weapons-grade uranium and about 10 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for a total of 3,600 nuclear warheads.
Yesin reasons that about half of this fissile material would not be used in warheads, but for stockpiles or other uses. Of the 1,600–1,800 warheads that were probably built, in Yesin’s view, perhaps 800–900 would be operationally deployed with the rest in storage, he says.
A translation of Yesin’s journal article, which runs to nine pages in English, was disseminated by Phillip Karber of the Asian Arms Control Project, which focuses on the strategic implications of the PRC’s nuclear weapons buildup.
Karber’s research on the PRC’s network of underground tunnels used for storing nuclear weapons has previously drawn controversy, particularly from the arms control community.
In this case, views of the Russian colonel general’s warhead estimates are no different, where an analysis of the recent report becomes an exercise in examining the wider debate about the PRC’s nuclear posture.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, who also blogs on arms control issues, wrote in an email commenting on Yesin’s journal article that the retired general’s views, which he was already familiar with, are “exaggerated” and “alarmist.” Lewis also questioned the veracity and provenance of the information.
On the other side, Richard Fisher, an analyst of the PRC’s military modernization and senior research fellow with the International Assessments and Strategy Center, says, “Gen. Yesin has dropped a nuclear bomb on the hubris of the American arms control community.”
Yesin is a prominent commentator on strategic issues in Russia, and according to an introduction prepared by the Asian Arms Control Project “is viewed as an authoritative source closely associated with Russian government positions.”
“Over the last 15 years he has been a major adviser to Putin,” Karber says, adding that Yesin would have a close understanding of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal in part due to extensive contacts over several decades between the two powers, and access he may have to classified sources.
Apart from the large estimates of warheads that Yesin gives—which agree with estimates Karber gave in a previous study on the PRC’s underground tunnel network—Yesin’s remarks about rail-mounted ICBMs equipped with nuclear warheads are significant in Karber’s view.
When you have that degree of mobility you can’t track how many there are. They drive into a rail tunnel and you can’t tell if there are 20 in there or only 1.
“When you have that degree of mobility you can’t track how many there are. They drive into a rail tunnel and you can’t tell if there are 20 in there or only 1,” Karber said. Such weapons could be used as a first strike against enemy forces or as a second strike capability against cities.
The idea of rail-mounted nuclear weapons and nuclear warheads on ballistic and cruise missiles—hundreds of them at least, according to Karber—upends the assumption that the PRC has a small nuclear force focused solely on deterrence.
The assumption that the PRC does have such a small force is shared by Jeffrey Lewis and others in the arms control community. They say that only insufficient evidence, or in some cases recycled, discredited claims or other misinformation, has been put forward to disrupt these basic assumptions.
A practical issue raised by Yesin’s report is the possibility of a nuclear arms race as countries in the PRC’s periphery seek to gain a semblance of nuclear parity in the face of the PRC’s enormous arsenal.
Those countries, which currently see themselves under America’s security umbrella, could feel that the United States was unable to protect them.
Fisher said, “By building to a level of superiority in nuclear weapons, China could cause the greatest period of nuclear proliferation in the world, as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Vietnam, and others could all rush to develop their own deterrent nuclear forces.”
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