nuclear commons
Pic Credit : Representative image | via Commons

A recent interview of a Chinese foreign ministry official by a Russian newspaper on the need to control arms race concealed more than it revealed. The interview of FU Cong, director-general of the department of arms control and disarmament, published in ‘Kommersant’ on October 15, makes one thing clear China will not lift the veil of secrecy surrounding its nuclear programme.

FU Cong has had talks with India and Pakistan earlier this year, but refused to share figures of nuclear warheads it possesses. China, however, refuses to participate in talks with the United States and Russia without achieving parity with them in numbers.

The Chinese MFA had also claimed to be in talks with five nuclear powers, obviously not including India and Pakistan, but later hastily retracted the words from its site. So does China really want a world without nuclear arms? India Today OSINT team tries to get the answer to this pertinent question.

Conventional missile power

The US Department of Defence (DoD) Report on Chinese Military Power 2020 indicates that the People’s Liberation Army has become the largest conventional missile power in the world.

The PLA has more than 1,250 land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. These are ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLCMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with a range between 50 and 5,000 kms.

Such a wide range of conventional missiles may serve dual purposes for Beijing. While the US is considering converting nuclear warheads into conventional ones, PLA, on the other hand, is planning to convert conventional warheads into nuclear ones. And it won’t be very difficult for China to convert its conventional missile force to a large nuclear force within a short timeframe.

Hypersonic power

China, just like Russia, has achieved technological advancements in the hypersonic field. PLA has already deployed DF-17 missiles with hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) mount DF-ZF that was displayed during the National Day Parade in Beijing on October 1 last year.

DF-17 is the first fully operational hypersonic weapons system in the world with a total range of more than 4,000 km possibly even 5,000 km. The speed of Chinese HGV is likely to be between 5 and 10 Mach, making it impossible to intercept by present ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems in the world.

The risks will be multiplied manifold if China plans to put nuclear warheads on these systems. If deployed in South China Sea’s reclaimed islands or on Hainan islands, they could well be used to block sea lines of communications (SLOCs). Deployment of hypersonic weapons will also certainly affect strategic stability.

Submarine construction at Huludao

The new facility at Huludao, as indicated earlier by India Today OSINT team, would be able to construct anything up to 10 or more submarines simultaneously. This facility is supposedly fully operational and ready to begin construction of Type 94 and Type 96 submarines with possibly JL-3 missiles.

JL-3 missiles are intercontinental-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) expected to carry multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The solid-fuelled missile could carry these MIRVs directed at separate targets over a range of more than 12,000 km.

The first Type 96 submarine with new JL-3 missile systems is likely to be launched anytime soon and runs the risk of shattering the fragile strategic balance in the region.

H-6N bombers

Recently, a video shot by a possible aircraft enthusiast went viral on Twitter and other social media, showing the PLAAF new bomber aircraft H-6N carrying a new type of missile under its belly.

The H-6N aircraft was to carry an air-launched derivative of DF-21D anti-ship version named CH-AS-X-13, but it was observed carrying a missile more akin to an air-breathing missile fitted with a possible hypersonic glide vehicle mount at the front.

The video was possibly shot at the northern end of Neixiang airbase, an
active airbase with newly built underground and overground storage systems. The underground facility has at least three 50-metre wide entrances/exits, which will possibly have strong automated entry systems.

The new construction of overground storage and checkout facilities, created along with barracks similar to PLARF architecture, suggests pretty strongly that this base would be a nuclear base for PLAAF. The new H-6N fielding at this base indicates that the new missile observed in the video would most probably be carrying a nuclear warhead.

Risk mitigation

China’s missile force has seen exponential growth in the last five years. The risk of a nuclear conflict is clearly increasing with missiles such as DF-26 carrier-killers with a range of 4,500 km expanding at a phenomenal rate, with at least four units deployed with dual-use thermo-nuclear and conventional warheads.

New weapon systems in PLAAF and expected JL-3 systems on future submarines increase the risks, necessitating their management. FU Cong’s words and PLA’s deeds only indicate that China is buying time to build up enough arsenal to equate itself with the US before coming to the negotiating table.

The international community must pressurise China into joining treaties and agreements that could be bilateral or multilateral to control expansion or proliferation of missiles. China must become more transparent about its nuclear weapons and undertake confidence-building measures (CBMs) with its neighbours.

Until China joins various transparent multilateral arms control agreements or undertakes CBMs, the world will always doubt its intentions and so-called ‘no first use’ policy.