Google Earth Pictures Open Windows on China's Nuclear Weaponry

Analyst sees adoption of solid-fuel rocketry, deployment of submarine-based missiles

Photo: Google

23 July 2007--Increasingly, tools readily available on the Internet enable independent specialists or even members of the general public to do intelligence work that used to be the monopoly of agencies like the CIA, KGB, or MI6. Playing the role of an armchair James Bond, Hans K. Kristensen, a nuclear weapons specialist at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, D.C., recently drew attention to images on Google Earth of Chinese sites. Kristensen believes that the pictures shed light on China's deployment of its second-generation of nuclear weapons systems: one appears to be a new ballistic missile submarine [see above image]; othersmay capture the replacement of liquid-fueled rockets with solid-fuel rockets at sites in north-central China, within range of ICBM fields in southern Russia.

Kristensen, a native of Denmark, has worked on matters related to nuclear weaponry and arms control for the Nautilus Institute, in Berkeley, Calif., and the Natural Resources Defense Council, in Washington, D.C. He coauthors with NRDC staffers a regular update on global nuclear weapons developments for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The FAS was founded in 1945 by scientists associated with the Manhattan Project who were concerned about the social and political implications of nuclear weapons. It has a staff of a couple of dozen specialists who work primarily on arms control and global security.

IEEE Spectrum: The photos of the missile sites suggest to you that China is replacing liquid-fueled rockets with more advanced solid-fueled ones, while the submarine seems to be one of a new class, the Jin or 094. Are these related developments? Can you describe the larger strategic context?

Hans K. Kristensen: China is in a transition phase from its first generation of nuclear weapons. Back in the 1980s China began a program to develop a more survivable nuclear deterrent. Its concern was that its liquid-fueled mobile missiles, which take a long time to prepare for launch, were becoming very vulnerable to preemptive attack, either from the United States or, at that time, the Soviet Union. We're seeing the products of that program begin to emerge. There are two new land-based, solid-fueled systems: one is the DF-21, which will be able to reach the northwestern parts of the United States, and later, a more advanced system that will be able to reach all of the United States. Concurrently, China developing a sea-based deterrent, using a new missile called the Julang 2.

IEEE Spectrum: What drew your attention to the Google images?

Kristensen: I looked at images of these sites regularly, and when I recently revisited, I saw changes compared with older images taken two years ago.

IEEE Spectrum: What do you see?

Kristensen: In the case of the missiles at the Delingha site, I noticed eight 13-meter trucks lined up on a launchpad that had been empty two years ago. The satellite image is not of high enough resolution to identify the trucks and their features with certainty, but they strongly resemble the six-axle transport erector launchers in use with the 10-meter DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile. The image showed significant changes at several sites in the area, although the jury is still out on exactly what it means.

The submarine image seems to have captured the new class, known as the Jin-class or Type 094, which is expected to replace the unsuccessful Xia-class (Type 092) of which only a single boat was completed in the early 1980s. The new sub is about 35 feet longer than the old boat, mainly due to a larger missile compartment.

IEEE Spectrum: You said earlier that initial Chinese nuclear deployments were made with both the United States and the Soviet Union in mind. Has China's threat perception changed any with the end of the Cold War?

Kristensen: They're still concerned about both, but perhaps somewhat more about the United States now. Russia has pulled back both conventional forces and tactical nuclear weapons from its borders with China, while the United States recently has increased its number of nuclear ballistic missile submarines in the Pacific.

IEEE Spectrum: Many of the Soviet Union's tactical nuclear weapons would have been based in the central Asian states that are now independent, would they not?

Kristensen: Yes, but Russia has also destroyed many of its nonstrategic nuclear weapons and pulled back the remaining to more central storage in depots.

IEEE Spectrum: Are there other reasons that China might be more focused on the United States?

Kristensen: They're very worried about our carrier groups steaming up and down their coasts, and they may also be concerned about our attack submarines. But there are also those who say that what they're doing with their nuclear weapons is simply what any country in their position would want to do to modernize forces. The Chinese nuclear posture has always been rather relaxed, and has never had the tit-for-tat character seen with the superpowers during the Cold War.

For example, their ICBMs in their silos are not thought to be loaded with nuclear warheads, which would first have to be installed to become operational.

On the other hand, replacement of liquid-fuel with solid-fuel rockets on the northern border means that they now can be readied for firing much faster, and Russian planners will take note. So something that the Chinese themselves might consider routine may have larger reverberations. By the same token, those medium-range missiles in north-central China can't reach the United States, but similar ones based further east can reach U.S. bases on Guam or Okinawa.

IEEE Spectrum: Are these developments having reverberations in China itself?

Kristensen: Yes, for example, there's a debate in its universities and military institutes about whether it should continue to adhere to its strict no-first-use-of-nuclear-weapons policy, which goes back to Mao. Should their posture become somewhat more flexible?

IEEE Spectrum: If, to take a very worst-case scenario, a war broke out over Taiwan, in which Korea or Japan got involved, China is on record saying it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons?

Kristensen: Yes. Its firm policy is no first use under any circumstances, but I can't see how China could adhere to that policy if its nuclear forces were under attack, even if only conventional weapons were involved.

IEEE Spectrum: What about China's launching a missile to destroy a commercial satellite in low-earth orbit this past January? Was that highly publicized event of a piece with its more aggressive nuclear stance?

Kristensen: It wasn't the first such demonstration. Both the United States and Russia did similar tests in the 1980s. If a conflict erupted over Taiwan, the Chinese would be worried about the U.S. ability to monitor their activities from space. But remember, their antisatellite capabilities are very far from a true war-fighting capability. They can't reach our GPS guidance satellites in high-earth orbits.

IEEE Spectrum: Even so, could that January test be a step in the direction of developing a missile defense capability, the way our tests in the 1980s were?

Kristensen: I don't see that, but remember that missile defense systems are very wide-ranging technologies that depend on many key elements, including early warning and tracking, where the Chinese are still extremely weak.

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