China’s nuclear forces built in part with U.S. technology

Beijing’s rapid buildup of nuclear forces has been assisted by American nuclear and missile technology obtained by Chinese spies and through U.S. space and nuclear cooperation in the 1990s, according to a review of Chinese technology records and internal U.S. government documents.

The Pentagon disclosed last month that China’s warhead stockpile will reach at least 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads by 2035, up from 200 just a few years ago and 400 warheads today.

Adm. Charles Richard, until Dec. 9 the commander of the U.S. nuclear forces, further sounded the alarm on the Chinese nuclear expansion last month when he formally notified Congress that the size of Chinese nuclear forces for the first time exceed those of the United States in one of three unspecified areas — warheads, long-range missiles or launchers.

A year earlier Adm. Richard notified Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that China had formally reached “strategic breakout.”

“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 April 5.

Peter Huessy, president of Geostrategic Analysis who has studied China’s nuclear buildup, said the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal is both alarming and based substantially on American know-how legally and illegally obtained by Beijing over the decades.

“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.

Under the Biden administration, no major shift in nuclear modernization plans has been made beyond a multibillion-dollar effort to field new missiles, bombers and submarines.

Adm. Richard and other military and defense officials point with alarm to the recent construction of three large bases in western China where up to 360 multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are being deployed.

“The new silos can be equipped with the solid-fueled, road-mobile CSS-10 Mod 2 capable of reaching the continental United States,” Adm. Richard said, 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.

The Pentagon’s annual report also said that in addition to the DF-31AG, China is expected to deploy a newer, longer-range ICBMs in the silos of western China called the DF-41, that will carry up to three warheads.

Modest beginnings

By contrast, China’s long-range missile force just three decades ago included seven relatively inaccurate single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to an internal 1993 White House document. The document, known as Presidential Review 31, said that by 2000 China would have 24 to 28 ICBMs capable of reaching the United States “some of which may be MIRVed” — the term for multiple, independently-targetable reentry vehicles.

But two key Chinese technology coups targeting advanced American technology greatly accelerated the pace of the buildup of nuclear forces during the 1990s.

The first was a large-scale espionage program to steal nuclear warhead secrets. The CIA concluded in a public assessment that China through espionage obtained information on every deployed U.S. warhead, in particular the compact W-88 warhead that can be used on multiple-warhead missiles.

The second coup involved knowledge gleaned from U.S.-China space cooperation during the Clinton administration, the result of a new policy that loosened national security export controls to permit greater joint efforts with Beijing in space. Under the new policy, U.S.-based Motorola and China’s Great Wall Industry agreed in 1993 to launch Iridium satellites on Chinese rockets.

Under the deal, China built a “smart dispenser” to Motorola’s specifications that allowed launching two satellites on a single rocket. Motorola denied it had acted improperly in helping the Chinese build the dispenser.

But a 1996 report by the National Air Intelligence Center found that the smart dispenser could be used as a post-boost vehicle China’s DF-5 ICBM.

The report concluded that with minimal modifications the smart dispenser “could be used to deploy multiple reentry vehicles” for ICBMs. By 2015, the Pentagon’s annual report revealed that the once single-warhead DF-5 now included a modified version with multiple warheads.

Chinese nuclear expert Li Bin expressed Beijing’s reasoning on multiple warheads in a report published by the Carnegie Endowment in 2019.

“If we increase the number of warheads per missile, then this would clearly increase our nuclear strike capability,” he stated. “However, it would also increase the value of striking each MIRVed missile for China’s opponents.”

Mr. Li said China in the past avoided multiple-warhead missiles to reduce the threat of preemptive attacks.

“Deploying several warheads on a single delivery system is like putting many of your eggs in one basket,” he stated. “Thus, when the risk of an incoming attack increases, decision-makers will be under pressure to use their MIRVed missiles as early as possible to prevent their baskets, and their eggs, from being destroyed.”

China’s official military newspaper, People’s Liberation Daily, has dismissed the Pentagon’s recent assertions about the challenges posed by China’s steady nuclear buildup, accusing U.S. military officials under both President Trump and President Biden of fabricating a “China threat” to get more funding 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 Dec. 12.

But Adm. Richard said he believes the strategic breakout by China is for use in a “coercive nuclear strategy.” Such a strategy could allow Beijing to intimidate the U.S. and its regional allies in standoffs over such issues as the future of Taiwan and control of the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Shift to multi-warhead missiles

As it accumulates wealth and technological expertise, China is moving away from single-warhead missiles, according to the Pentagon. The latest annual report says the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will place multiple warheads on its 20 DF-5s and will add at least three warheads to the DF-31AG and DF-41 land-based missiles and the new JL-3 submarine-launched missile.

Critics say the progress is especially galling because Chinese nuclear warhead technology was greatly assisted by espionage that targeted U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories and through another Clinton administration program that promoted exchanges between U.S. nuclear scientists and their Chinese counterparts.

In September, a study produced by the private intelligence firm Strider revealed that China’s targeting of nuclear laboratories for secrets began in the 1980s and was later modified to more efficiently recruit nuclear scientists. Between 1987 and 2021, at least 162 scientists who had worked at Los Alamos traveled to China for work on sensitive projects, including 15 who were formerly on the staff at the lab.

“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.

The loss of W-88 warhead design information first came to the attention of U.S. counterintelligence officials at the Energy Department in 1992 when they learned that China had tested a nuclear warhead that appeared similar in design to the W-88. Three years later, a nuclear defector provided the CIA with an official classified Chinese document that revealed specific design information on the W-88 and other warheads.

The officials learned from the Chinese defector that the test involved a 150-kiloton explosion that used a special oval-shaped core, leading analysts to conclude China had copied the warhead design from the American design.

Missile secrets compromised

The revelations led to an uproar on Capitol Hill. A special congressional investigative committee led by Rep. Chris Cox, California Republican, concluded in its 1999 final report that China intelligence agents had obtained secrets on seven U.S. thermonuclear nuclear bombs, 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.

A 2001 Congressional Research Service report said two U.S.-based companies, Space Systems Loral and Hughes Electronics Corp., had helped develop Chinese missiles.

The report cited a 1997 classified analysis by the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration that Loral and Hughes had transferred expertise to China that “significantly enhanced the guidance and control systems of its nuclear ballistic missiles” and that “United States national security has been harmed.”

The list of classified U.S. material obtained by China included information on the W-56 Minuteman II ICBM; the W-62 Minuteman III ICBM; the W-70 Lance short-range ballistic missile (SRBM); the W-76 Trident C-4 SLBM; the W-78 Minuteman III Mark 12A ICBM; the W-87 Peacekeeper ICBM; and the W-88 Trident D-5 SLBM.

The W-88 is the most sophisticated strategic nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal and is deployed on the Trident D-5 submarine-launched missiles

An intelligence report on Chinese intelligence targeting of U.S. nuclear weapons stated that from 1984 to 1988 Chinese spies were able to steal the design information for the W-88. “To obtain this information the United States conducted tens of nuclear tests,” the report said. “Once obtained, the Chinese were able to accelerate their research and advance their nuclear weapons program well beyond indigenous capabilities.”

The report stated that Peter Lee, a contract employee at the Los Alamos National Laboratory traveled to China in 1985. During a meeting in his Beijing hotel room, Lee was approached by two Chinese officials who convinced him to provide China with classified information on nuclear weaponry.

Lee pleaded guilty to passing defense secrets to China in 1998 and was sentenced to one year in prison.

The secrets provided to the Chinese by Lee included information on an advanced radar technology being developed to track submarines.

Lee was part of a U.S.-China nuclear exchange program that began in the 1980s that ended in 1983 and resumed in 1993.

Another Los Alamos nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was investigated by the FBI in 1999 on suspicion he was a suspect in the loss of warhead secrets.

Lee was charged with removing magnetic computer tapes from Los Alamos’s X Division, where nuclear weapons are designed. According to court papers in the case, the missing tapes, which were never recovered from Lee, contained blueprints of the entire U.S. nuclear warhead arsenal, including the exact shapes and dimensions and the materials used in design and construction.

Lee would allege that he was improperly targeted by FBI counterspies because he was Chinese-American. He sued the Justice Department claiming his privacy rights were violated by disclosures to the press. The civil case was settled in 2006 within an award of $1.6 million.

He pleaded guilty in 2000 to lesser charges of mishandling classified information, specifically unauthorized possession and control of national defense documents and restricted data on a tape.

CIA damage assessment

In 1999, U.S. intelligence agencies conducted a damage assessment of China’s theft of nuclear weapons data and the impact on the future development of Chinese weapons, concluding that the stolen information “allowed China to focus successfully down critical paths and avoid less promising approaches to nuclear weapon designs.”

Beijing’s quest for critical nuclear technology was broad-based and tapped multiple sources, U.S. agencies said.

“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 weapons information “made an important contribution to the Chinese objective to maintain a second-strike capability and provided useful information for future designs,” the assessment said.

China’s ICBM force today is backed by over 900 theater-range intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles that, outfitted with nuclear warheads, “are capable of doing catastrophic damage to United States, allied and partner forces in the region,” Adm. Richard said. “Combined, this formidable arsenal is cause for concern.”

To provide missile warning, China in the last year deployed large phased-array radars, the admiral added — yet another key technological advance where sensitive U.S. technology played a role.

Technology for phased-array radars was obtained by China in 2005 from a defense contractor, Power Paragon, a unit of L-3 Communications, in the spy case involving Chinese-American electrical engineer Chi Mak. Mak was convicted of conspiring to send defense technology to China in 2007 and sentenced to 24 years in prison. He died in prison in October.

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