According to Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis, Chinese spies stole bomb secrets from every US warhead to build the current nuclear forces.
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According to an analysis of Chinese technological records and internal U.S. government documents, Beijing’s rapid development of nuclear capabilities has been aided by American nuclear and missile technology acquired by Chinese spies and by U.S. space and nuclear collaboration in the 1990s.
China’s stockpile will contain at least 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons by 2035, up from 400 warheads at present and 200 just a few years ago, according to information released by the Pentagon last month.
Adm. Charles Richard, who oversaw the nation’s nuclear arsenal until December 9, raised the alarm about China’s nuclear development further last month when he formally informed Congress that China’s nuclear arsenal had grown larger than that of the United States for the first time in one of three unspecified areas: warheads, long-range missiles, or nuclear weapons.
Adm. Richard had previously informed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin of China’s official “strategic breakout” a year earlier.
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“A strategic breakout denotes the rapid qualitative and quantitative expansion of military capabilities that enables a shift in strategy and requires the DoD to make immediate and significant planning and/or capability shifts,” he said in congressional testimony on April 5.
The increase of China’s nuclear arsenal is concerning, according to Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis, who has examined China’s nuclear buildup, and is mostly based on American know-how that Beijing has amassed over the years through legal and illicit means.
“The spectacular growth in Chinese nuclear forces as described recently by Adm. Richard highlights two things: First, the Chinese ambition to become a world military hegemon, and two, the unfortunate role of the often reckless transfer of nuclear applicable technology from the United States to China that facilitated this extraordinary growth,” Mr. Huessy said.
Beyond a multibillion-dollar attempt to develop new missiles, bombers, and submarines, the U.S. has made no significant changes to its nuclear modernization plans under the Biden administration.
The recent building of three sizable facilities in western China, where up to 360 multiwarhead intercontinental ballistic missiles are being stationed, alarmed Adm. Richard and other military and defence authorities.
“The new silos can be equipped with the solid-fueled, road-mobile CSS-10 Mod 2 capable of reaching the continental United States,” said Adm. Richard, using the NATO terms for what the Pentagon also calls the DF-31AG ICBM. “With this discovery, it is clear the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) will soon achieve a robust ICBM capability,” he said.
China is anticipated to station longer-range ICBMs known as DF-41s in the silos in western China, according to the Pentagon’s annual report. Up to three warheads may be carried by the ICBMs.
A 1993 internal White House memo said that China’s long-range missile force had seven relatively unreliable single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles. By 2000, China will have 24 to 28 ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, “some of which may be MIRVed,” according to the document known as Presidential Review 31. MIRV stands for multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles.
The development of nuclear forces during the 1990s was considerably accelerated by two Chinese coups that targeted American advanced technologies.
The first was a massive spy operation to obtain information on nuclear warheads. In a report made public, the CIA came to the conclusion that China has information on every American warhead in use, particularly the small W-88, which may be used on missiles with multiple warheads.
Knowledge gained from American-Chinese space collaboration during the Clinton administration was used in the second coup. It came about as a result of a policy that relaxed export restrictions for national security in order to allow collaboration with Beijing in space. As part of the agreement, Iridium satellites would be launched on Chinese rockets in 1993 by Motorola, a U.S. company, and Great Wall Industry Corp., a Chinese company.
People’s Liberation Daily, China’s official military publication, has refuted the Pentagon’s claims regarding the difficulties China’s steady nuclear buildup poses. The newspaper charged that U.S. military leaders under Presidents Trump and Biden made up a “China threat” to extort more money from Congress.
“The Biden administration has further detailed the nuclear deterrence strategy customized by the Trump administration to target China and Russia,” the outlet reported on Dec. 12.
Adm. Richard asserted that he thinks China is pursuing a “coercive nuclear strategy” with its strategic breakout. With such a tactic, Beijing might be able to threaten the United States and its allies in the region in disputes over matters like Taiwan’s future and dominance of the South and East China Seas.
Shift to multiwarhead missiles
According to the Pentagon, China is phasing out single-warhead missiles as it gains cash and technological know-how. According to the most recent annual report, the People’s Liberation Army will add multiple warheads to its 20 DF-5 missiles and at least three more warheads to the DF-31AG, DF-41, and new JL-3 submarine-launched missiles.
The development, according to critics, is especially upsetting because Chinese nuclear warhead technology was significantly aided by espionage that targeted American nuclear weapons laboratories and through a different Clinton administration programme that encouraged interactions between American and Chinese nuclear scientists.
According to a research released in September by the private intelligence company Strider, China started spying on nuclear laboratories in the 1980s and later changed its tactics to more successfully attract nuclear specialists. At least 162 experts from Los Alamos went to China between 1987 and 2021 to help with sensitive programmes. 15 of them had previously worked in the lab as employees.
“The Los Alamos case shows how China’s rapid advances in certain key military technologies are being aided by individuals who participated in sensitive U.S. government-funded research,” the report said.
Analysts came to the conclusion that China had copied the warhead design from the American design after learning from the Chinese defector that the test entailed a 150-kiloton explosion and employed a specific oval-shaped core.
Missile secrets compromised
The revelation caused a commotion on Capitol Hill. In its 1999 final report, a special congressional investigation committee headed by Republican Rep. Christopher Cox of California came to the conclusion that Chinese intelligence officers had acquired information on seven American thermonuclear weapons, including the W-88.
“The PRC stole classified information on every currently deployed U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM),” the congressional committee report said.
According to a Congressional Research Service report from 2001, Space Systems Loral and Hughes Electronics Corp., two American businesses, contributed to the development of Chinese missiles.
The Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration’s classified analysis from 1997 was cited in the report, which claimed that Loral and Hughes had given China knowledge that “significantly enhanced the guidance and control systems of its nuclear ballistic missiles” and that “United States national security has been harmed.”
In 1999, the FBI looked into Wen Ho Lee, another Los Alamos nuclear expert, as a potential suspect in the leak of warhead information.
Lee was tasked with removing magnetic computer tapes from the Los Alamos X Division, which is responsible for the development of nuclear weapons. The missing tapes, which Lee never discovered, allegedly held designs for the entire U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile, including details on their precise sizes, forms, and building materials.
Lee claimed that since he was Chinese American, FBI counterspies illegally singled him out. He filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, claiming that press leaks violated his right to privacy. The civil matter was resolved in 2006 with a $1.6 million settlement.
In 2000, he entered a guilty plea to lesser counts of mishandling classified material, more particularly, to taking papers related to the national defence without authorization and to having restricted data on a tape.
CIA damage assessment
The influence of China’s theft of nuclear weapons data on the future development of Chinese weapons was assessed by U.S. intelligence agencies in 1999. According to the agencies, the information that was obtained “allowed China to focus successfully down critical paths and avoid less promising approaches to nuclear weapon designs.”
According to U.S. agencies, Beijing’s search for essential nuclear technology was broad-based and involved a variety of sources.
“China obtained at least basic design information on several modern U.S. nuclear re-entry vehicles, including the Trident II (W88),” the CIA said. “China’s technical advances have been made on the basis of classified and unclassified information derived from espionage, contact with U.S. and other countries’ scientists, conferences and publications, unauthorized media disclosures, declassified U.S. weapons information, and Chinese indigenous development.”
The assessment stated that the weaponry information “made an important contribution to the Chinese objective to maintain a second-strike capability and provided useful information for future designs.”
According to Rick Fisher, an expert on China’s military affairs, U.S. nuclear warhead design knowledge likely contributed to China’s breakthrough to nuclear superiority over the United States.
Based on the country’s development and use of small MIRVs, the stockpile of warheads in China could surpass 4,000 in the upcoming years, he claimed. The DF-41 ICBM, according to a Chinese source in 2017, could carry up to 10 warheads weighing 165 kg each. The information from the source, he claimed, could not be verified.
“In 1999, the Cox Commission stated that China had obtained critical information on the W-76 warhead of the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile,” said Mr. Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “Though its true weight is classified, some observers note the W-76 weighs less than 165 kilos, which may mean that China was able to help its design of lightweight warheads after gaining access to design information from U.S. warheads like the W-76.”
The DF-41 can accommodate up to 10 warheads, according to a 2019 fact sheet from the Arms Control Association.
According to the Pentagon study, the DF-41 is planned to have three warheads.