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Nuclear Forces

In the late 1980s, China was the world's third-largest nuclear power, possessing a small but credible nuclear deterrent force of 225 to 300 nuclear weapons. Beginning in the late 1970s, China deployed a full range of nuclear forces and acquired an incipient nuclear second-strike capability. The nuclear forces were operated by the 100,000-person Strategic Missile Force, which was controlled directly by the General Staff Department.

China began developing nuclear weapons in the late 1950s with substantial Soviet assistance. When Sino-Soviet relations cooled in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet Union withheld plans and data for an atomic bomb, abrogated the agreement on transferring defense technology, and began the withdrawal of Soviet advisers in 1960. Despite the termination of Soviet assistance, China committed itself to continue nuclear weapons development to break "the superpowers' monopoly on nuclear weapons," to ensure Chinese security against the Soviet and United States threats, and to increase Chinese prestige and power internationally.

China made remarkable progress in the 1960s in developing nuclear weapons. In a thirty-two-month period, China successfully exploded its first atomic bomb (October 16, 1964), launched its first nuclear missile (October 25, 1966), and detonated its first hydrogen bomb (June 14, 1967). Deployment of the Dongfeng-1 conventionally armed short-range ballistic missile and the Dongfeng-2 (CSS-1) medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) occurred in the 1960s. The Dongfeng-3 (CCS-2) intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) was successfully tested in 1969. Although the Cultural Revolution disrupted the strategic weapons program less than other scientific and educational sectors in China, there was a slowdown in succeeding years.

In the 1970s the nuclear weapons program saw the development of MRBM, IRBM, and ICBM capabilities and marked the beginning of a minimum deterrent force. China continued MRBM deployment, began deploying the Dongfeng-3 IRBM, and successfully tested and commenced deployment of the Dongfeng-4 (CSS-4) limited-range ICBM.

By 1980 China had overcome the slowdown in nuclear development caused by the Cultural Revolution and had some spectacular successes in its strategic weapons program. In 1980 China successfully test launched its full-range ICBM, the Dongfeng-5 (CCS-4); the missile flew from central China to the Western Pacific, where it was recovered by a naval task force. The Dongfeng-5 possessed the capability to hit targets in the western Soviet Union and the United States. In 1981 China launched three satellites into space orbit from a single booster, indicating that China might possess the technology to develop multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). China also launched the Xia-class SSBN in 1981, and the next year it conducted its first successful test launch of the CSS-NX-4 submarine-launched ballistic missile. In addition to the development of a sea-based nuclear force, China began considering the development of tactical nuclear weapons. PLA exercises featured the simulated use of tactical nuclear weapons in offensive and defensive situations beginning in 1982. Reports of Chinese possession of tactical nuclear weapons remained unconfirmed in 1987.

In 1986 China possessed a credible minimum deterrent force with land, sea, and air elements. Land-based forces included ICBMs, IRBMs, and MRBMs. The sea-based strategic force consisted of SSBNs. The Air Force's bombers were capable of delivering nuclear bombs but would be unlikely to penetrate the sophisticated air defenses of modern military powers such as the Soviet Union.

China's nuclear forces, in combination with the PLA's conventional forces, served to deter both nuclear and conventional attack. Chinese leaders repeatedly have pledged never to be the first to use nuclear weapons, and they have accompanied the nofirst -use pledge with a promise of certain nuclear counterattack if nuclear weapons are used against China. China envisioned retaliation against strategic and tactical attacks and would probably strike countervalue rather than counterforce targets. The combination of China's few nuclear weapons and technological factors such as range, accuracy, and response time might further limit the effectiveness of nuclear strikes against counterforce targets. China is seeking to increase the credibility of its nuclear retaliatory capability by dispersing and concealing its nuclear forces in difficult terrain, improving their mobility, and hardening its missile silos.

Data as of July 1987

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