For decades the People’s Republic of China has accepted the inferiority of it’s strategic forces when compared to those of the United States and Russia. The relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, coupled with the limited amount of damage it could inflict upon an enemy led many experts over the years to question China’s beliefs about nuclear warfare as well as its strategy for fighting one. The overall consensus is that since China exploded its first atomic bomb, the nation’s nuclear posture has been one of minimal deterrence. In recent years the questions have become louder as China’s nuclear forces undergo modernization and expansion. As a consequence of this, China’s nuclear posture will inevitably shift away from minimal deterrence to one which offers more flexibility and options.
Minimal deterrence is a Western term not frequently used in Chinese military and political circles. In application, minimal deterrence is a doctrine in which a state possesses only enough nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear adversary from undertaking a first strike. It revolves around a no first use policy and the principle that the primary role of nuclear weapons is deterrence. The small size of a state’s nuclear arsenal severely limits the second strike options available to its leadership in the event of an attack. A counterforce second strike is not feasible under minimal deterrence. The only viable option then, is a countervalue second strike aimed at an enemy’s population centers. Realistically, minimal deterrence can only be achieved if the survivability of a state’s nuclear force can be guaranteed.
China’s strategic modernization appears to be the result of a political decision to make China’s nuclear force more survivable in the face of US strategic upgrades. For years the primary component of Chinese nuclear forces was the liquid fueled, silo based DF-5A ICBM. This changed as the more survivable DF-31A entered into service. The DF-31A is a solid-fuel missile based on a mobile launch system. Hence, it is not restricted to a stationary launch site and can be readied in minimal time, unlike its liquid fueled counterparts.
The newest ICBM to enter Chinese service is the DF-41. This missile can be delivered by mobile launcher or silo and has significantly updated capabilities compared to its predecessors. In August, 2021 it was also reported that China is building new missile fields, with each expected to house over 100 DF-41s in Inner Mongolia. Three fields are expected to be operational at some point in the near future with a total of 350 to 400 new long-range nuclear missiles. If 10 warheads are deployed on each missile, China‘s warhead level will rise to over 4,000 warheads on the DF-41s alone
China’s strategic modernization is not confined to land. At sea, the single Xia class SSBN which was in service since the mid-80s was withdrawn early in the 2010s. The PLAN has replaced it with the Type 094 (Jin Class) ballistic missile submarine. Six are presently in service with more under construction. As many as ten boats are planned. The Type 094 is a marked upgrade from the Xia.
Modernization of China’s nuclear forces is pacing upgrades to the conventional forces. US interest and concern is understandably high. The primary question at the moment is: what do the new capabilities in Chinese nuclear forces tell of China’s future intentions?
At the very least, it is becoming apparent that minimal deterrence is fast becoming an obsolete doctrine for the People’s Republic of China.