The Nuclear Documentation Project:Nuclear Vault
Washington, D.C., March 31, 2000 – During late 1998 and 1999, the Wen Ho Lee espionage controversy and debate over U.S. corporate technology transfers to China made the Chinese nuclear weapons program the subject of heated debate in the U.S. media and in American politics. Besides creating irresponsible attacks on White House declassification policy, the debate generated panicky analysis of Chinese nuclear policy, with some analysts arguing that "China might pose a more dangerous threat to the United States" than did the Cold War Soviet Union, not least because Beijing "is bent on acquiring the strategic nuclear capability to hold American cities at risk."1 Yet, publicly available information suggests the risk of making categorical statements about China's nuclear posture. For example, there are tremendous disparities, not only between Chinese and U.S. strategic forces, but also between the forces mobilized by the Soviet Union at the Cold War's height and the strategic forces currently under Chinese control. Thus, while Beijing now has some 20 ICBMs, the United States has nearly 600 (and the Soviet Union in 1976 had over 1400). If Beijing is "bent" on acquiring nuclear forces that will bring it to parity with Washington or with Soviet Cold War force, it has a tremendous distance to go.2
While Beijing's policymaking process is truly opaque, the amount of publicly available information on Chinese nuclear forces is significant. For example, Robert S. Norris and a team of researchers at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Ming Zhang with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and John L. Lewis and Hua Di (now tragically imprisoned in China) of Stanford University have produced important studies on the Chinese nuclear program, with detailed information on nuclear weapons developments, deployments, and nuclear policy nuclear tests from the 1960s to the 1990s.3
Release of U.S. intelligence reporting and analysis, however, has lagged behind the open source material; the U.S. intelligence establishment has released comparatively little material on its substantial collection effort aimed at China's nuclear weapons effort. The no doubt large stack of reports and analyses generated over the years by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Security Agency, Air Force intelligence, and the National Reconnaissance Office, among others, remains largely classified.4 So far, CIA intransigently refuses to declassify National Intelligence Estimates on Chinese nuclear forces (as well as nuclear nonproliferation issues) from as far back as the mid-1960s.5
Fortunately, before Congress checked White House declassification programs some intelligence reporting and analysis on the earlier phases of the Chinese nuclear program became available through FOIA and at the National Archives. Reproduced below is a selection of Air Force, State Department, DIA, and CIA documentation that, in the aggregate, provides some evidence on the means that the intelligence establishment used to track the Chinese nuclear program, how intelligence analysts assessed the progress of Beijing's nuclear weapons and missile program, as well as how they interpreted Chinese nuclear strategy.
The documents suggest considerable competence in tracking Chinese nuclear and missile tests, as well as missile training activities, but what also comes across is a very limited, as well as rather inaccurate, knowledge of Chinese missile deployments during the late 1960s. For example, even though Beijing had begun to deploy the Dong Feng-2 medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) in the fall of 1966, U.S. intelligence failed to detect the deployment although it would discover related activities, e.g., troop training, later in the decade. Further, initial estimates of Chinese progress in deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were erroneous; an operational capability by 1971 was predicted, although actual progress was far slower.6
Most of the discussion in these documents is limited to nuclear tests and missile deployments, although a CIA report (document 9) speculated at some length about the conceptual basis of Chinese nuclear strategy. In interesting contrast to the images of an aggressive nuclear China propounded by some analysts today, in the early 1970s CIA experts saw political and defensive goals as more important; citing China's embrace of a no-first-use nuclear use policy, they argued that Beijing's nuclear weapons program "had two functions: prestige and deterrence."7 They believed that China was unlikely to use its weapons for first-strike, offensive purposes: "Initiating a nuclear attack on the US or the USSR would invite the elimination of China as an industrial or military power, while an attack elsewhere still runs the risk of superpower response."
What role prestige may play in Chinese calculations today is unclear, but thirty years later analysts still hold that deterrence remains basic to Chinese strategy, although others propagate hard-line interpretations of Chinese policy.8 Experts in the intelligence establishment and nonpartisan think-tanks hold that Beijing's nuclear policy is still based on no-first-use and a "limited deterrence" or "second strike capability." Moreover, in contrast to Russian and U.S. practice, the Chinese keep their nuclear forces at "de-alerted" levels, thus avoiding the risks of accidental launch.9 Citing these policies and practices, Federation of American Scientists president Jeremy Stone has strongly argued that "No major nuclear power has been more responsible, in its nuclear doctrine and force posture, than ... China."10
Whether China's leaders will hold to a low alert-minimum deterrence posture remains to be seen. Beijing's militance on Taiwan and strains in Sino-American relations could lead to changes in China's nuclear posture. Moreover, U.S. missile defenses could have a destabilizing impact. Even though U.S. missile defense programs are supposedly aimed at Iraq and North Korea, if the systems are ever deployed, they could encourage major Chinese investments in ICBM and SLBM deployments and a new arms race.11 Informed public debate about U.S.-Chinese relations and Beijing's nuclear posture would be advanced if the intelligence establishment released older studies of China's nuclear policies and posture. Unfortunately, that may not happen soon. Congressional panic over espionage and the Chinese nuclear program has led to a more hostile climate for declassification along with legislation undermining President Clinton's executive order, e.g., forcing executive branch re-review of millions of pages of documents that had been slated for archival release. Besides delaying the release of older documents, the backlash in Congress has undoubtedly bolstered anti-declassification recidivism in the intelligence agencies.12
For many years, the Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) has been one of the most significant U.S. government collectors of nuclear weapons production and testing data.13 With remote sensors deployed around the world, AFTAC is poised to detect signals and traces, such as acoustic, radiochemical, seismic, or electromagnetic, from nuclear weapons tests in a various environments (atmospheric, underground, underwater, and in space). After the 1963 limited test ban treaty, the U.S. government expanded AFTAC's network of sensors under "Project Clear Sky" so that it could better detect treaty violations.
This document shows how AFTAC's sensors detected China's first nuclear test on 16 October 1964 at Lop Nor. The Chinese announced the test the same day, but U.S. government officials wanted to learn all that they could about the physical properties of the device that Beijing tested. While acoustic and seismic/ signals could help measure yield, or explosive force, only radiochemical analysis of windblown fallout could tell U.S. atomic scientists what radioactive elements fueled the device. As it turned out, U.S. intelligence analysts and scientists were startled to learn that the Chinese had not tested a conventional plutonium implosion device as had been predicted for several years. Instead, Chinese atomic scientists showed their great skills by testing a uranium implosion device that Atomic Energy Chairman Glenn Seaborg later described as "more sophisticated in design" than the U-235 weapon exploded over Hiroshima. Perhaps to avoid official confirmation of AFTAC's capabilities, sanitizers have removed references to the time of the detonation and the presence of U-235 particles, among other details, from the document.14
Source: National Archives, Record Group 263, Records of the Central Intelligence Agency, Records Relating to the CIA History Staff History Source Collection, 1946-78, box 11, file "HS/HC Notebook Vol. II Original Version of Revisions of DCIDs."
Issued periodically, the Director of Central Intelligence's (DCI's) "Priority National Intelligence Objectives" identified the "most critical substantive problems" that would guide intelligence production, research, and collection activities during the coming months. It shows the high priority that the DCI gave to tracking the Chinese nuclear weapons program, although it was apparent that the Soviet target had somewhat higher importance.
This is how CIA presented current information on Chinese nuclear developments to policymakers and middle-level officials at the State Department, Pentagon, and elsewhere in the national security establishment. The report suggested that the Chinese were making some progress in weaponizing nuclear devices by testing a nuclear-tipped medium range missile, although it was unclear how far Beijing had to go in producing a "deployable weapons system." In truth, the Chinese had done so. The delivery system tested--the Dong Feng-2--had reached an "Initial Operational Capability" (IOC) and was beginning to be deployed in small numbers in northeast Asia with Japanese cities and U.S. bases in Japan as the targets.15 To make the report relevant both to diplomats and military officials, the report combined technical intelligence--some of which has been excised--and analysis of the test's political implications. It would be interesting to see how CIA presented the same event in the President's Daily Brief or in the daily Central Intelligence Bulletin, but those remain secret even today, 34 years later.
Source: National Archives, Record Group 59 (hereinafter cited as RG 59), Records of the State Department, Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-69 (hereinafter cited as SN 67-69).
The State Department's and Foreign Service's roles in intelligence collection is evident in these instructions to embassies. The Department's concern about a Chinese ICBM program led it to enlist U.S. embassies in the region and elsewhere in a comprehensive effort to collect intelligence on anticipated Chinese missile testing activities. Because missile tests require instrumentation and tracking facilities, the Department wanted embassy and consular officials to look for any sign that Beijing was negotiating agreements with countries adjoining the Indian ocean that would facilitate a missile testing program. For example, already suspicious of France, not least because of that country's recognition of China in 1964 and its departure from the NATO military structure, the Department alerted the Paris embassy to find out if the Chinese might have spoken with the French about placing missile tracking technology on the Comoro Islands. The greater probability that the Chinese would track their tests from missile range instrumentation ships prompted the Department to task U.S. diplomats in Tanzania and Pakistan with responsibility for detecting possible Chinese efforts to acquire access to port facilities on the Indian Ocean. Whether the Chinese made such arrangements remains to be seen.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, SN 67-69.
No government likes to admit failures and as this document suggests, Beijing was not about to announce that an expensive nuclear test had gone awry.16 The document also shows that AFTAC collected air samples very quickly, but how the detonation was first detected remains to be seen; probably Air Force sensors picked up the detonation's acoustic or seismic signals. What State Department analysts did not yet know --or perhaps did not mention--was that the device was airdropped from a Huang-6 bomber.17
Source: National Archives, RG 59, SN 67-69.
This stimulating document shows State Department intelligence trying to explain why a 1966 estimate that Beijing would deploy a few medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in 1967 may have been proven wrong. As already noted, however, Beijing had deployed the Dong Feng-2 (or, in the parlance of U.S. intelligence, CCS-1) MRBM in 1966. That this was a mobile, although rather clumsy, weapons system undoubtedly interfered with detection by satellite systems. Nevertheless, State Department analysts correctly noted that Beijing's progress in developing and producing advanced delivery systems was slow and that the Cultural Revolution had seriously interfered with scientific R&D work.18
Source: National Archives, RG 59, SN 67-69.
Briefing allies on possible threats was a significant part of intelligence work and this telegram to the U.S. embassy in Seoul shows what State Department officials wanted to tell South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee about China's nuclear weapons program. An important point that analysts wanted to get across was the lack of accurate information about Beijing's progress, much less the impact of political developments on the weapons program. Thus, while the analysts were certain that the Chinese had an MRBM, they simply did not know if it had been deployed. Although the estimators suggested that China would have ICBMs by the early 1970s, this was highly inaccurate because an IOC was not reached until 1981. What the State Department did not want to disclose, however, was the existence of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on such subjects as the Chinese nuclear program. Presumably, no one wanted to provide South Korea's CIA with a target for its intelligence operations in the United States (operations which a decade later scandalized Congressional committees).
Source: National Archives, RG 59, SN 67-69
This intelligence note provides a fuller account of the Chinese nuclear program than that authorized for President Park, although the uncertainty about Beijing's missile progress is evident. In contrast to the information developed a few weeks earlier for Park, this document includes more discussion of the implications of Beijing's tiny nuclear force for its politico-military strategy, e.g., the "possibility," not mentioned to Park, that once the Chinese had a few ICBMs, they could use MRBMs to "threaten Asian nations or US forces in Asia." Analysts also expressed concern that possession of "sophisticated weapons systems" could "embolden" the Chinese to increase their support for "revolutionary groups" in the region. But a picture of Beijing explicitly brandishing nuclear weapons for threat purposes was not the main point that the analysts wanted to make. More significantly, they put across the image of a cautious Beijing, deterred by the U.S.'s massive nuclear forces and committed to a non-nuclear "people's war" strategy, and whose nuclear program was largely motivated by prestige and "deterrence" considerations.
Source: National Archives, Office of International Security Policy and Planning, Subject Files 1968-71, box 2, file Pol 1-4 NSSM 69 Nuclear Policy in Asia, Comments on Knull Draft.
Lacking any particulars directly showing its origins, this document has the format, type-face in particular, typical of CIA products of this period. It is clearly an excerpt from a longer report whose title and date is unknown (but which is the subject of an Archive FOIA request to CIA). Significantly, this report shows how little progress the intelligence agencies had made in their knowledge of the Chinese missile program in the two or three years since 1968. During the late 1960s, satellite photography had helped intelligence analysts identify CCS-1 (Dong Feng-2) training facilities, but they remained unable to identify an "operationally deployed [MRBM] site"; as the text notes, road-transportable MRBMs are "adaptable to concealment."
This report also provides an analysis of Chinese strategy that is somewhat more confident and straightforward than INR's from a few years earlier. Discounting the possibility that Beijing would make "crude, direct use of nuclear blackmail," CIA analysts suggested that Beijing's nuclear strategy paralleled its "defensive" conventional forces doctrine. The Chinese wanted nuclear weapons for national prestige but also for deterrence.19 According to CIA analysts, Beijing's avowed commitment to a "no first use" policy and the enormous destructive potential of nuclear weapons made an offensive, first-strike posture unlikely. Thirty years later, some analysts posit a threatening Chinese nuclear posture, while others argue that China's nuclear posture is still based on no-first use and "limited deterrence," although that could change if the United States adopted "a Cold War-style containment policy."20
This excerpt provides a useful overview of what Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts believed they knew about Chinese nuclear weapons deployments as of the early 1970s. The document shows that even with the most sophisticated technology, it was exceedingly difficult for U.S. intelligence to detect MRBM deployments with any assurance. Only days after Richard Nixon's historic trip to China, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts summarized what the intelligence establishment had learned about Chinese MRBMs: that CCS-1 (Dong Feng-2) troop training activities had been detected, that the CCS-2 (Dong Feng-3) was likely to be deployed soon, and that some MRBM sites "may have been detected", with perhaps 15 missiles deployed to "undetected areas." Nevertheless, the analysts inaccurately opined that "it appears that the Chinese had no intentions [in 1966] of deploying the CSS-1, although it was within their capability."
Source: National Archives, RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1970-73 (hereinafter cited as SN 70-73).
Source: National Archives, RG 59, SN 70-73.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, SN 70-73.
These documents convey the alacrity with which U.S. intelligence received the smallest morsels about Chinese nuclear missile deployments during the early 1970s. What the U.S. Embassy learned through a Swiss source was that the Chinese had deployed MRBMs that could strike targets in Eastern or Central Russia (as well as U.S. bases in the Philippines). Those in fact were the capabilities of the Dong Feng-3 mobile missile, which had been deployed in 1971. The Chinese official who had mentioned the deployment was, however, overoptimistic about the rate of progress for an MRBM that could strike Moscow. Beijing would not have a missile that could strike targets in European Russia, including Moscow, until 1981 when the Dong Feng-4 was deployed.21
How U.S. intelligence agencies assessed the scraps of information reported in the 25 March cable remains to be seen. Even though the Moscow Embassy failed to garner more information from its Swiss informant, what it had learned was generally accurate, but there was no way to confirm it. Although the U.S. intelligence establishment was able to detect Chinese missile tests with considerable confidence, when or whether it detected Chinese mobile missile deployments with any exactitude remains obscure at least from the declassified record. Indeed, as shown by a document leaked to the Washington Times, the problem of Chinese mobile missiles continues to baffle U.S. intelligence.22
Table 3, "Chinese Strategic Nuclear Forces, 2005-2010," from Ming Zhang, China's Changing Nuclear Posture: Reactions to the South Asian Nuclear Tests (Washington, D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998), p. 37. The Archive thanks the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for permission to use this table.
Note: Nuclear warhead yields are expressed in kilotons (KT) and megatons (MT), indicating an explosive force equivalent to that amount of TNT.
Sources: Estimates are based on data in Jones and McDonough, Tracking Nuclear Proliferation, 1998, p. 63; William M. Arkin, Robert S. Norris, and Joshua Handler, Taking Stock: Worldwide Nuclear Deployments, 1998 (Washington, D.C.: National Resources Defense Council); Patrick J. Garrity, “Nuclear Weapons and Asia-Pacific Security: Issues, Trends, and Uncertainties,” National Security Studies Quarterly, vol. IV, issue 1, Winter 1998, p. 46; Bill Gertz, “China Adds 6 ICBMs to Arsenal,” Washington Times, July 21, 1998 (Internet edition); “New Declassified 1998 Report on the Ballistic Missile Threat,” Proliferation Brief, (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), vol. 1, no. 13, September 28, 1998.
APPENDIX BTable 7-1, "Chinese Nuclear Forces, 1964-1993, from Robert S. Norris, Andrew S. Burrows, and Richard W. Fieldhouse, Nuclear Weapons Databook: British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1994, p. 359. The Archive thanks Robert S. Norris, Natural Resources Defense Council, for permission to use this table. Note: TU-4, H[ong]-6 and H[ong]-5 are bombers; Q[ian]-5 is a supersonic attack aircraft. The DF [Dong Feng] missiles are described in detail in Norris et al., cited above.
1. Kenneth deGraffenreid, ed., The Cox Report (Washington, D.C., Regnery, 1999); quotations from editor's introduction, n.p.
2. For statistics on Chinese strategic forces, see Ming Zhang, China's Changing Nuclear Posture: Reactions to the South Asian Nuclear Tests (Washington, D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999), 37, reproduced in appendix A, and Robert S. Norris, Andrew S. Burrows, and Richard W. Fieldhouse, Nuclear Weapons Databook: British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1994, 359, reproduced in appendix B below. For statistics on U.S. and Soviet strategic forces over the years, see Robert S. Norris and Thomas B. Cochran, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Working Papers, US-USSR Strategic Offensive Nuclear Forces 1945-1996 (Washington, D.C., Natural Resources Defense Council, 1997).
3. See Robert S. Norris et al. French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons; Ming Zhang, China's Changing Nuclear Posture; and John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, "China's Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals," International Security 17 (Fall 1992): 5-40.
4. In recent years, however, well-placed officials in the intelligence bureaucracy and the Pentagon have selectively leaked intelligence reports on Chinese nuclear deployments and weapons policy to Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz. Some of the documents were reprinted in Gertz's book, Betrayal: How the Clinton Administration Undermined American Security (Washington, D.C., Regnery Publishing Co., 1999). Several leaked documents on Chinese missiles are reproduced on pages 245-54. For critical commentary on Gertz's book and his methods, see Federation of American Scientists, Secrecy and Government Bulletin, Issue No. 78, May 1999 <www.fas.org>, and Stephen Schwartz, "Lots of Leaks," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January-February 2000.
5. Some of the National Security Archive's requests, however, are under appeal. Some of the documents at issues were published in excerpted form only in the State Department's Foreign Relations series. See various Central Intelligence Agency estimates in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, volume 22 (Washington, D.C. 1996) and Foreign Relations of the United States 1964-68, volume 30 (Washington, D.C., 1998).
7. Prestige played a role in Chinese decisionmaking at an early date; key officials considered nuclear weapons to be essential to world power, progress, and development. As Foreign Minister Chen Yi put it to Japanese journalists with Kyodo News Service in late October 1963: "A-bombs, missiles, supersonic aircraft--all these are reflective of the technical level of a nation's industry. China will have to resolve this issue within the next several years; otherwise, it will degenerate into a second-class or third-class nation."
9. For analyses stressing a deterrent posture, see "DCI Statement on Damage Assessment", 21 April 2000, <www.fas.org/sgp/news/dci042199.html>; Ming Zhang, "What Threat?", The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September-October 1999, 52-57, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "Proliferation Roundtable: China's Changing Nuclear Posture, April 30, 1999," at <www.ceip.org>. For China's alert procedures, see Harold A. Feivson, ed., The Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting of Nuclear Weapons (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1999), 119. For background on China's deterrence policy over the years, see John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China's Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1994), 231-37.
10. Jeremy Stone, "Missile Encirclement: China's Interest in Missile Controls," FAS Public Interest Report, September-October1998, at <www.fas.org>.
11. For discussion of the possible impact of U.S. missile defense on Chinese policy, see Bates Gill and James Mulvenon, "The China Puzzle; Goal: Build a Missile Defense, Problem: How to Handle Beijing," The Washington Post, 5 March 2000, and John Isaacs, "A Political Decision," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2000, 22-25.
13. For a first rate history of AFTAC's early years, when it was known as AFOAT/One, (Air Force Office of Atomic Energy/One) see Charles A. Ziegler and David Jacobson, Spying Without Spies: Origins of America's Secret Nuclear Surveillance System (Westport, CT, Praeger, 1995).
15. Norris et al., British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 362. For an account of the test from Chinese sources, see John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press), 202-03.
16. It has since become part of the scholarly consensus that the test was a dud. See Norris et al., British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 420. This study suggests that the initial estimate of a yield of 10 kilotons was later revised upwards to 15-25 kilotons. Ibid.
19. For a significant historical study confirming the importance of deterrence in Chinese nuclear policy, see John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China's Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1994), 231-37.