On 17th October 2021, the world media reported that China had carried out flight test of a “nuclear capable hypersonic missile”. The missile is supposed to have crossed South Pole before speeding towards its target. The flight test caught the intelligence agencies around the world, unaware, ringing alarm bells in White House.
In another development, on 02 September 2021, the world media reported analysis of satellite pictures which revealed construction of three new missile silo fields by China.
These two developments, both denied by the Chinese government,makes it necessary for us in India to have a relook at the China’s Nuclear Strategy, its risks and realities, given our long-standing acrimonious relation with our Nuclear armed northern neighbour. In our context,authorities need to understand how damage by conventional weapons, namely ballistic missiles, can impact the nuclear calculus between the two nations.
Known estimates of China’s deployed nuclear forces are lower than 200. Even if we consider it to be double, they are still way below the numbers of USA and Russia which are approximately 1500.However, a quantitative comparison of nuclear arsenal is a rather crude manner of understanding nuclear risks and in case of India and China, it is wholly insufficient.
Chinese Nuclear Strategy
In sharp contrast to Russia and USA, nuclear weapons have been found of rather limited usefulness by China. Consequently, its Nuclear Forces are “lean and effective”, primarily to acts as a nuclear deterrent and to prevent “nuclear coercion”.China feels that the destructive power of the nuclear weapons restricts their utility, whereas the conventional arms are more effective and flexible in usage, to affect a decision.
It considers its nuclear arsenal more as a deterrent from nuclear coercion in a war, to enable it to script a victory in the war in the realms of conventional warfare. It thinks that conventional forces win or loses wars.
To achieve this, China is building a nuclear force that will be capable of surviving a “first strike” and then be capable of retaliating. To describe China’s nuclear policy as one of “assured retaliation” will not be off the mark.
Since going nuclear in 1964, China’s policy for “no first use” has been often stated. It describes its policy as “self-defensive nuclear strategy” that envisages use of nuclear weapons only to “counterattack in self-defence”.
Warfare, since 1964 has much revolutionised and adoption of cutting-edge technologies driven by Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Precision guided conventional munitions targeting nuclear arsenal has all but obliterated the time frame of the nuclear escalation ladder and therefore the credibility of the “no first use” is now debatable.However the clear cut “no first use” remains the official nuclear policy of China.Its nuclear strategy revolves around this concept.
In Chinese military rationale, there are three missions for their nuclear force. In peace, they act as a deterrent and prevent its enemies from misadventures. In a war, they limit the scope of the war to remain at conventional levels and prevents escalation to nuclear realms. If the war does escalate into a nuclear war, the nuclear forces then deliver the nuclear counter punch.
In line with this policy, China maintains a centralised nuclear war head storage, with warheads unmated from their means of delivery. Further, the training of its nuclear brigade’s reflects their preparation for surviving the first attack and to then counterattack.
To augment its survivability from the first attack and to deliver a credible counter punch, China has developed a Space based Early Warning system. It has also developed Anti-Satellite Missile system (ASAT) to target enemy satellites, to deny them the ability to either launch an effective first strike or to monitor its preparation for second strike and to track it, when launched and thereby making the enemy’s Missile Defence system ineffective.
Keeping in view the nuclear threat it faces; China is having a substantial relook into its nuclear force structure.The changes are more qualitative in nature but quantitative changes too are taking place. Compared to USA and Russia, its nuclear forces are much smaller but its on-going expansion in an era of nuclear arms control, stockpile reduction and inspections by IAEA, is a matter of growing concern for not only India but the rest of the world too.
The Chinese expansion too is not in consonance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) it is signatory to. UK has followed its suit and announced that it will increase its numbers from 180 to 260, a jump of 40%. USA and Russian too may be tempted to have a re think.
In trying to understand China’s ongoing expansion, one has to take into consideration the qualitative superiority of its main adversary, the US. The US and Russian technological superiority in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), their cyber warfare capabilities, precision guided missiles and anti-missile defence has long rendered Chinese nuclear forces and their “counterattack” value, exposed.
In its expansion, China is trying to achieve qualitative parity to retain the power to launch effective retaliatory strike. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is creating a more mobile and robust nuclear force that can survive first strike from both conventional and nuclear strike and remain capable to launch the counter punch, evading enemy’s missile defence systems.
Quantitative increase too seems to be ongoing given the increase in numbers of its delivery systems. Notable amongst these are independently targetable re-entry vehicles DF- 5B deployed in 2015, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles DF-5C and DF-41 deployed recently. DF-41, capable of delivering multiple warheads is now being inducted and this points to quantitative increase.
Ongoing induction of new delivery means has necessitated considerable increase in the People Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) too. It has increased from 29 in 2017 to 40 in 2020.
Equipping China’s “nuclear triad” further necessitates increase in the number of nuclear warheads.
By expanding the number of its Type 094 ballistic missile submarines and by developing a quieter Type 096 submarine, China is increasing the survivability of the third arm of its nuclear triad.
The PLA Air Force is developing new air launched nuclear capable ballistic missile and also making its H 20 strategic bomber,nuclear capable. It also is developing an air launched hypersonic missile like the Russian Kh-47 Kinzhal, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead of 100-500KT to arrange of 2000km, travelling at 10- 12 Mach.
The table given below enumerates the Chinese Nuclear Force.
China’s Nuclear Force Structure
|Type of Ballistic Missile||Nature||No of Launchers||Vintage||Range (km)||Warhead and esy yield (kt)||No of Warheads|
|DF -4||Land based||6||1980||5,500||1X3,300||6|
|DF – 5A||Land based||10||1981||12,000||1X4,000-5,000||10|
|DF 17||Land based||18||2021||1,800 +||1X Hypersonic glide vehicle||?|
|DF-21 A/E||Land based||40||2000,2016||1,750-2,150||1X 200-300||40|
|DF 26||Land based||100||2016||4,000||1X 200-300||20|
|DF 41||Land based||18||2021||12,000||3X200-300||54|
|JL-2||Sea based||4 subs
2 Subs, 24 Launchers
|HF-6 Bomber||Air based||20||1965/2009||3100+||1X Bomb||20|
|Total||312 (372)||272 (350)|
Note: – Missile data shown in italics are under development.
The above data shows a mix of ICBMs with ballistic missiles which are capable of threatening its immediate neighbourhood such as DF 21E and the DF-26.
Though China’s ongoing modernisation and expansion may be oriented towards its policy of assured retaliation but it does not prevent China from attempting to undertake nuclear coercion, to win a conventional battle and its operational doctrine maybe evolving to incorporate the might of its growing nuclear arsenal to strong arm its neighbours namely Taiwan,India and the littoral states of South China Sea.
Evolving Operational Thought
Nuclear force of any nation cannot be thought of in isolation from its other war making machinery. Possession of nuclear weapons influences the conventional operations of a nation, in its vision, scope and extent.
Presently China is focussed on its immediate neighbourhood and its strategy is to “win informalised local wars” in which emerging technologies play a dominant role.
Though PLA’s reach is today global, its orientation today is on creating a defence line in the South China Sea, to safeguard its Eastern seaboard and to prevent a repeat of the humiliation suffered by this erstwhile “middle kingdom” in the Opium Wars and in its war against Japan (1937-1945). Local conflicts, primarily in the maritime domain is the thought in the evolving Chinese operational strategy.
Annexation of Taiwan is its avowed national goal and to achieve it and to gain domination in South China Sea, in 2015, PLA restructured itself into joint war fighting theatre commands.
In its restructured capabilities, PLA seeks to deter international organisations intended to dominate Indo-Pacific region such as QUAD and recently formed AUKUS or to even defeat them in a localised war.
Though understanding its limitations in trying to achieve nuclear coercion or nuclear over match in such wars with international coalitions, its nuclear forces seek to prevent attempts to coerce China by nuclear threat of such coalitions like AUKUS.
PLA appreciates that in local wars, international coalitions under USA are least likely to intervene if there was a risk of the conflict ballooning into a nuclear war, emboldening its scope and extent of i conventional war strategy.
But this also applies cautions in PLA against its nuclear armed neighbours like India.
Reports suggest that PLA is training to accept greater risks in localised conflicts and increasing their scope to achieve the aim in the earliest time frame,mainly to change the status quo in its immediate neighbourhood, including its claim on Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh regions of India. This concept is based on its confidence of retaliating with anassured second strike, should its localised war invite nuclear retaliation.
Nuclear signalling is another operational thought that is present in PLA. In this, in case of a loss or to force a victory in localised wars, China is reportedly having plans to coerce its opponent as pre-emptive or during war, by conducting a nuclear test or by destroying an own unserviceable satellite or by carrying out a brief paralysing cyber-attack on either the opponent or a third nation,rendering its military and civil command and control structure or its financial market crippled .But then such signalling is dual edged weapon.
In modern warfare, the lines between conventional and nuclear war are very blurred, given the growing capabilities of “emerging technologies” to target the Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (C3I) capabilities of the adversary and seriously impeding his war time administration and decision making.
Most nuclear nations have established a satellite system to assist in identification of nuclear targets,guidance of ballistic missiles and in Anti-Missile Defence systems and for its nation’s ISR and C3I. It is this intermingling which makes them an attractive target for early destruction in a war.India, Russia, China and US too have demonstrated ASAT.
The need to control the space domain to get ascendancy in conducting conventional and nuclear wars are very much a part of the operational doctrine of China.China’s proven ASAT systems poses a distinct threat to Indian space assets. China understands too that such destruction may rapidly escalate the nuclear escalation ladder.
Intermingling or colocation of Conventional and Nuclear arsenal bases, mainly due to dual use of same C3I structure and ease of maintenance too poses a risk. If during the war, the conventional elements in that base are targeted and the nuclear assets become collateral damage, then in the fog of the war it may up the ante for the escalation ladder forcing China to launch second strike. PLARF bases are believed to host both conventional and nuclear missile brigades.
In operational deployment however these are not geographically co located and most weapon system are on mobile platforms but are indistinguishable of their conventional or nuclear nature as the delivery systems are identical and the warheads too have similar silhouette.The DF-21 which can be both conventional or nuclear armed, the DF-26, are such cases in point when deployed.
Further, in PLARF brigades training curriculum, it is reported that after launching a conventional warhead, the delivery system is reloaded with a nuclear armed one so that in case the retaliatory strike is nuclear, these brigades are prepared to swiftly execute the assured second strike.
This known intermingling of conventional and nuclear forces by design or as fait accompli due to paucity of resources, though illogical in military sense, may deter an aggressor from neutralising them in a pre-emptive strike or in the initial stages of the conflict and will be a matter of concern for for India, in a war with China.
In interdependency,China’s nuclear submarine force is believed share the same onshore communications with the conventional submarines.In a pre-emptive strike, if the shore-based submarine communication systems are neutralised, then it poses a serious risk to the operational capability of Chinese submarine forces, a weakness India must exploit in the event of a war.
Dual use of C3I resources too carry the same baggage of risk. Even if separately deployed, the PLARF’s C3I for conventional and nuclear forces are indistinguishable.
These coming ling of assets due to indistinguishable silhouette, paucity of resources dictating intermingling and for ease of logistics carry an inherent grave risk of being unintended collateral damage and upping the escalation ladder for China, shortcomings India may not only capitalise upon and but also, learn from.
China is synonymous with the Communist regime since its independence in 1949. In modern history, there have been few success stories as glittering in its achievements as has been China. For the democracy loving 66 percent world, this is a huge aberration and Communism in China is constantly under threat from them,seeking a regime change.This has made China very cagey of attack on its ideology and Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It has taken strong and authoritarian steps to curb the influence of anti-China forces.
In case of defeat in its efforts to annex Taiwan or due to heavy losses in the South China Sea, China may experience “existential threat” for both CCP and China. This is likely to cause rapid escalation of nuclear ladder and CCP may order a big nuclear retaliation, to regain the initiative, a fact member of AUKUS and QUAD may be cautious of, as China’s “tipping point”.
Indian nuclear strategists must desist from the templating the Chinese reactions during a war as Chinese thinking on war fighting and escalation varies significantly from our immediate adversary Pakistan or from NATO, USA and Russia. The knowledge of this is insufficient and is dangerous in its absence.
This necessitates India to seize the initiative at UN and convince China and the other nuclear armed nations who are qualitatively improving their military potential by incorporating emerging technologies, to come to the talks table and discuss Arms Control. This Arms Control talks should include not only nuclear weapons and their delivery means but also make the nuclear armed nations to adhere to NPT. It also should endeavour to limit the role of emerging technologies and to prevent war in space.
Before 2026 when New START expires, China and all other nuclear armed non-signatories to Nuclear arms control treaties including aspiring ones like Iran, must be prevailed upon to discuss and ink an all-encompassing Arms Control Treaty and to commit themselves on a timeline to reduce nuclear arsenal, with a view to achieve complete disarmament, the goal of NPT.
Highly informative and deeply researched read, Sir.
A well researched article giving out the correct perspective of Nuclear China & its implications on India. A must read.
A very well researched paper. An eye opener for many. The author has analyzed the Chinese strategies and compulsions very well. Informative and thought provoking.
Good read.Very well researched & logically analysed. Keep it up.
A well researched article which highlights the pitfalls of combating China without a clear understanding of its policy of deploying a clever mix of its conventional-nuclear resources.
The Indian strategic thought struggles with the dilemma of relevance of conventional wars in the current geopolitical milieu and yet continues, though hesitatingly, to equip itself to fight one. This vacillation results in losing direction and steam in preparations to fight one. The Chinese strategic thought, on the other hand, is premised on engaging and winning conventional wars to achieve their geopolitical aims.
Looked at from a historic perspective, the critical difference between Chinese and Indian strategic thought, deeply influenced by Western military doctrine, lies in the time frame. Indian and Western military thinkers look at engaging in a single decisive war to achieve national objectives. Whereas China looks at achieving desired results through a series of opportune engagements. If we understand the truth of this observation, then it begets the realisation of China employing its battlefield nuclear resources to overawe its opposing leadership, thereby inhibiting them from optimally employing their strategic power.
Here, India’s reliance on a reactive stance vis a vis China, further emboldens the latter to nibble its way forward and keep the Indian leadership and its military unbalanced. The only way to counter China’s ‘nibble forward’ strategy is to unbalance its top hierarchy by a proactive stance at a time and place of its own choosing.
Col RS Sidhu