China’s Nuclear Warhead Miniaturization and its impact on its ballistic missiles

| by Debalina Chatterjee

( March 22, 2013, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Over the years, Beijing concentrated both on its strategic and conventional missile forces. China’s major threats are independent Taiwan, the United States, Japan and Russia to an extent. China has been heavily investing on modernization of its strategic forces and for this the Second Artillery Corps plays an important role. Beijing’s perceptions of ballistic missile defence of the United States as a system which would negate its nuclear deterrent credibility has led the Dragons to develop counter measures to nullify United States’ ballistic missile defence, which include both the Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence and the National Missile Defence.

The Chinese are developing Multiple-Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles and also working on nuclear warhead miniaturization for the same. Till 1970s, Beijing possessed large warheads weighing almost multi megaton which required larger ballistic missiles. In 1980s, there were reports that China had the capability to deliver miniature and super miniature nuclear warheads. According to Japanese sources, in 1996 China tested “simultaneous detonations of multiple warheads” which was step towards developing smaller warheads for submarine launched and also multiple warhead missiles. Beijing had been accused of stealing confidential reports on United States’ most advanced thermonuclear warheads which include W-88, W-56, W-78, W-87 to name a few and also on their re-entry vehicles. The W-88 warhead was one of the most sophisticated thermonuclear warheads.

According to Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems, Chinese Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles are reported to be MIRV-ed. China’s DF-25 has a range of 3000-4000kms and is reported to have up to 3 MIRVs. The DF-31 category missile has 3-4 warheads. The DF-41 can carry up to 10 warheads while the submarine launched ballistic missile JL-2 will have 3-4 Re-entry Vehicles. China’s attempt to develop mobile missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles also required Beijing to develop sophisticated miniaturized thermonuclear warheads. However, there have been reports that China has been facing serious problems with its warhead miniaturization process which has been a hindrance to its MIRV development process. Nuclear weapon miniaturization would require nuclear weapons design knowledge.

If one studies the ballistic missiles of China carefully one can opine that range of the ballistic missile, for instance, DF-25 is 4000kms if single warhead and 3200kms if it has multiple warheads. This is because miniaturized warheads reduce the range of the ballistic missile. Similarly China’s DF-31A has a range of 14000kms if it is single warhead and 10000kms if it has multiple warheads.

China’s declaration of miniaturization of nuclear warheads means that it would be able to develop “lower yields of nuclear material can be used without necessarily affecting the amount of energy released” through implosion technique. Warhead miniaturization would also mean that it would be able to attack a target without collateral damage due to its reduced yields. According to Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems, while the single warhead of Julang II is believed to have yield of 1 to 3MT, MIRVs would result in warheads having yields of 20KT, 90KT or 150KT.

One of the major causes of concern is that China had not deployed MIRVs on any of its ballistic missiles and there have been concerns that China probably has not been able to possess sophisticated miniaturized warheads to fit into its ballistic missiles in order to make them multiple warhead. This could adversely affect China’s nuclear deterrent against the United States since MIRVs would enable China to reduce the missile gap with the United States to a considerable extent. Moreover, miniaturized warheads would be used for China’s Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles which if not credible will jeopardize China’s ability to be able to launch a counter strike given its no first use policy. Moreover, if China has to keep US counter value targets at threat, then they would need to develop credible MIRV capability in order to strike at different U.S. targets at a given time with lesser number of ballistic missiles.

The writer is a Research Scholar at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

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