Beyond a lack of transparency, which has haunted China’s relations with other countries on every aspect of its military, another problem with bean counting China’s nuclear arsenal derives from the metrics used for that assessment. As another specialist on the Chinese military told the Taipei Times, counting delivery vehicles alone is a limited basis for assessing the actual number of warheads.
The Second Artillery, which is responsible for China’s nuclear forces and also holds a large conventional missile arsenal, reportedly does not keep warheads mated with delivery vehicles in peacetime, and missile components are also believed to be stored separately.
China stores most warheads and/or warhead components at a central depot in the Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi Province. Each of the six missile bases has a warhead storage and handling facility, but there does not seem to be a permanent allocation of stored warheads, the analyst said. All of this makes it nearly impossible to assess the total number of warheads with certainty.
Furthermore, there reportedly has been substantial tunneling work at Qinling in the past decade and throughout the Second Artillery as a whole. It remains unclear, however, whether warhead depot-related tunneling work is for expansion purposes — in other words, to store more warheads — or just refurbishment.
Also not mentioned in the report is Chinese potential for nuclear capable land attack cruise missiles.
Another point of disagreement lies in the report’s contention that the DF-31 and DF-31A solid-fuel, long-range missiles China has -begun deploying in recent years to complement liquid-fuel missiles designed in the 1970s “cannot carry more than one of China’s smallest warheads.”
Asian sources maintain that the DF-31A and JL-2 missiles are expected to eventually have multiple warheads, and there are indicators that a variant of the DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which is believed to have been introduced in recent years, could come with multiple warheads. In Fisher’s view, Kulacki is downplaying Chinese interest in, and its ability to develop, multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities, which could result in a grossly underestimated total nuclear arsenal.
“The report also gives short treatment to the yet unnamed new large mobile ICBM we have been seeing in Internet source images since 2007,” Fisher said, adding that some of his sources had informed him this missile could carry as many as 10 warheads.
“With these two high potential MIRV missiles alone, the PLA has the potential to field hundreds of new warheads rather quickly if it so desires,” he said.
There has also been chatter on Chinese defense sites of advanced longer-range versions of the JL-2, as well as a possible JL-3 -submarine-launched ballistic missile for the anticipated Type 096 submarine, a potential addition to the Type 094 currently being built.
Another aspect of China’s military that is not fully taken into consideration in the report is the development of missile defense capabilities, a factor that could substantially increase Beijing’s ability to use nuclear blackmail over -Taiwan and in other contingencies.