Mon, Aug 22, 2005 - Page 9 News List

China's nukes grow up

Beijing is upgrading its nuclear arsenal, and although its ability to menace the US with these weapons remains limited, some analysts say there is now a lot more to worry about

By Jonathan Adams

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

When hawkish Chinese general Zhu Chenghu (朱成虎) said last month that Beijing might launch a nuclear attack against the US if the US attacked China, security experts dismissed the remarks as intimidation tactics. They said China wouldn't dare use its meager force of some 20 outdated ICBMs against the continental US, which would strike back with a massive arsenal that would wipe the Middle Kingdom off the map. More likely, China's force would be pulverized in its silos by US precision-guided weapons before it could be used.

True enough -- but such assessments are rapidly becoming obsolete. After some two decades of testing and development, China is on the verge of a major upgrade to its nuclear arsenal, a key part of its overall military modernization.

It's now believed to be deploying its next-generation ICBM, the Dong Feng 31 (DF-31), a mobile, solid-fueled missile with an estimated range of at least 7,250km -- capable of hitting Alaska. Within the next few years, China is expected to deploy the DF-31A, which will be able to strike Washington and New York. Within the next 10 years, it's expected to field new submarine-launched nuclear missiles. And while predictions of the size of China's new arsenal are at this point only wild guesses, experts believe it will boast easily double or triple the warheads of today's known force.

"This particular upgrade from silo-based missiles to mobile ICBMs is the most significant nuclear-force development in more than 20 years," says James Mulvenon of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington.

That doesn't necessarily mean the US needs to go back to the days of "duck and cover" drills. China's new arsenal does not represent an aggressive threat to the US, analysts say. Rather, it reflects China's effort to keep pace with US military advances and protect its small force. But it's a coming of age for Beijing's nuclear program that will give it a far more credible deterrent against the US' advanced weaponry, and against the US intent to raise a missile-defense shield over North America. Where before China had a force of clunky ICBMs stuck in silos that made them sitting ducks for a lightning-quick preemptive strike, now it will have a sleek new arsenal on wheels and rail -- and later, hidden underwater.

DETERRENT

This force, like China's current one, will be targeted primarily at US population centers as a powerful deterrent to any rash US action, or if that fails, as desperate retaliation in a devastating nuclear showdown.

To be sure, based on how little is publicly known about China's nuclear program -- which Beijing shrouds in the utmost secrecy -- a healthy skepticism about its arsenal is in order.

"All of us are guessing, and the people who know aren't talking," says Jeffrey Lewis, a research fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park.

In the past, reports of China's nuclear deployments have been greatly exaggerated. And even when it is fully deployed, the might of China's new arsenal shouldn't be overstated. While a major advance in the context of China's missile program, it still pales next to the arsenals mounted during the Cold War.

Says Evan Medeiros of the RAND Corp, a US think tank: "China finally deploying the DF-31 is kind of like China finally putting a man into space. It's like, `Congratulations, China, welcome to the 1960s.'"

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