A number of state run Chinese newspapers ran an article last week boasting of China’s ability to launch nuclear attacks against the United States, according to multiple media outlets in the Western world and Taiwan.
As The Diplomat reported last week, China’s state-run media outlets last week ran a number of articles giving an unprecedented amount of information about the soon-to-be-retired Type 092 Xia-Class ballistic missile nuclear submarine (SSBN).
According to reports in The Washington Times, WantChinaTimes and UK Daily Mail, separate Chinese-language articles in publications like the Global Times described in detail China’s plans to use China’s new Type 094 SSBNs to attack major U.S. cities in the event of a nuclear exchange. According to WantChinaTimes, the article bragged that Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs carrying the new JL-2 ballistic missiles could reach the western United States without leaving the Second Island Chain.
“Because the Midwest states of the U.S. are sparsely populated, in order to increase the lethality, [our] nuclear attacks should mainly target the key cities on the West Coast of the United States, such as Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego,” the Global Times reported, according to the Washington Times and Daily Mail.
“The 12 JL-2 nuclear warheads carried by one single Type 094 SSBN can kill and wound 5 million to 12 million Americans,” the Global Times reportedly added.
The Diplomat could not verify the accuracy of the reports, although the language would be a significant escalation of rhetoric on the part of China’s state media. The WantChinaTimes report suggests some of the language being attributed to the Global Times in the other articles was actually that of Chinese military analysts, rather than the publication itself.
Other parts of some of the reports appeared suspect. For example, the Daily Mail article reports that, “JL-2 missiles have a range of about 8,700 miles and could hit almost the entire continental U.S. with independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads.”
However, in their just updated annual overview of China’s nuclear forces in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris report that the JL-2, which is nearing initial operational capability, is only capable of carrying one nuclear warhead. Kristensen and Norris also put the JL-2’s range at 7,000-plus km, while noting that the missile has never been flight tested at that range. If the range is 7,000-plus km, it is not capable of hitting the continental United States unless it is far from China’s waters, Kristensen and Norris note.
It’s possible the Daily Mail report is referring to China’s DF-31A land-based ballistic missile. Immediately prior to the sentence quoted above, the Daily Mail quoted the Global Times as saying:
“If we launch our DF 31A ICBMs over the North Pole, we can easily destroy a whole list of metropolises on the East Coast and the New England region of the U.S., including Annapolis, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Portland, Baltimore and Norfolk, whose population accounts for about one-eighth of America’s total residents.”
The Washington Times picked up the same quote from the Global Times.
The DF-31A is a solid fueled, three-stage, road-mobile ICBM with a range of about 11,000-plus km (7,000-plus miles). It is an extended version of the DF-31, which the JL-2 is reportedly based off of. It is capable of hitting the entire the United States if launched from the outer bounds of China, which it is currently not, according to Kristensen and Morris. The authors estimate that China has about 20 DF-31As, which is significantly less than the 75-100 missiles the U.S. Department of Defense once estimated China would field by 2015.
Although Kristensen and Morris claim the DF-31A only has a single warhead capability, other reports have said that China has tested MIRVed versions of the DF-31A.
Despite these lingering differences, all sources are in agreement that China’s strategic forces are improving, although how fast and in which ways is a matter of some dispute. Kristensen and Morris note that “China is the only one of the five original nuclear weapon states that is quantitatively increasing its nuclear arsenal,” but caution that the “pace of growth is slow.”
The authors seem more impressed by the qualitative improvements to China’s nuclear forces. “The capability of the arsenal is also increasing, with liquid-fuel and relatively inaccurate maneuverable missiles being replaced by solid-fuel and more accurate road-mobile missiles,” the authors write.
Kristensen and Morris also believe that China’s ability to threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons is rising as long-range ballistic missiles are comprising an ever-larger percentage of China’s nuclear arsenal.
It bears noting that China has a no-first use pledge when it comes to nuclear weapons, and thus its nuclear doctrine pledges to only use nuclear weapons in response to it being first attacked by nuclear weapons.