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How China pirated U.S. technology to rapidly expand its nuclear weapon arsenal

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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 stockpile will have at least 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads by 2035, up from 200 just a few years ago and 400 warheads today.

Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. nuclear forces until Dec. 9, further sounded the alarm on the Chinese nuclear expansion last month when he formally notified Congress that the size of Chinese nuclear forces exceeded those of the United States for the first time 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 a “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 on April 5.

Peter Huessy, the president of GeoStrategic Analysis who has studied China’s nuclear buildup, said the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal is alarming and based substantially on American know-how that Beijing obtained legally and illegally 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, the U.S. has made no significant shift in nuclear modernization plans beyond a multibillion-dollar effort to field new missiles, bombers and submarines.

Adm. Richard and other military and defense officials expressed alarm at the recent construction of three large bases in western China where up to 360 multiwarhead intercontinental ballistic missiles 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,” 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.

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

Modest beginnings

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

Two Chinese coups targeting advanced American technology significantly accelerated 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 had obtained information on every deployed U.S. warhead, particularly the compact W-88, which can be used on multiple-warhead missiles.

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

Under the deal, China built a “smart dispenser” to Motorola’s specifications that allowed two satellites to be launched on a single rocket. Motorola denied that it improperly helped the Chinese build the dispenser.

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

The report concluded that the smart dispenser, with minimal modifications, “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 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 had avoided multiple-warhead missiles in the past 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 assertions about the challenges posed by China’s steady nuclear buildup. The paper accused U.S. military officials under 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 on Dec. 12.

Adm. Richard said he believes China’s strategic breakout 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 issues such as the future of Taiwan and control of the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Shift to multiwarhead missiles

As it accumulates wealth and technological expertise, China is moving away from single-warhead missiles, the Pentagon says. The latest annual report says the People’s Liberation Army 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 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 recruit nuclear scientists more efficiently. From 1987 to 2021, at least 162 scientists who had worked at Los Alamos traveled to China to assist with sensitive projects. Fifteen of them 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 after China tested a nuclear warhead that appeared similar in design to the W-88. Three years later, a nuclear defector gave the CIA 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 particular oval-shaped core, leading analysts to conclude that 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. Christopher Cox, California Republican, concluded in its 1999 final report that Chinese intelligence agents had obtained secrets on seven U.S. thermonuclear 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 said 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.

A report on Chinese intelligence targeting of U.S. nuclear weapons stated that Chinese spies were able to steal the design information for the W-88 from 1984 to 1988. “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 said Peter Lee, a contract employee at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, traveled to China in 1985. During a meeting in his Beijing hotel room, two Chinese officials persuaded Lee 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 that Lee provided to the Chinese included information on an advanced radar technology that was being developed to track submarines.

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

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

Lee was charged with removing magnetic computer tapes from Los Alamos’ X Division, where nuclear weapons are designed. According to court papers, 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 said FBI counterspies improperly targeted him because he was Chinese American. He sued the Justice Department with claims that disclosures to the press violated his privacy rights. The civil case was settled in 2006 with 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. The agencies concluded 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 more than 900 theater-range intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Outfitted with nuclear warheads, the missiles “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 has deployed large phased-array radars in the past year, the admiral said. It was yet another technological advance where sensitive U.S. technology played a role.

China obtained technology for phased-array radars in 2005 from 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 was sentenced to 24 years in prison. He died in prison in October.

China military affairs expert Rick Fisher said it is likely that U.S. nuclear warhead design insights boosted China’s breakout to nuclear superiority over the United States.

China’s stockpile could exceed 4,000 warheads in the coming years based on the country’s development and deployment of small MIRVs, he said. A Chinese source in 2017 said the DF-41 ICBM could carry up to 10 warheads weighing 165 kilos each. He said the source’s information could not be confirmed.

“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 Arms Control Association stated in a 2019 fact sheet that the DF-41 could carry up to 10 warheads.

The Pentagon report said the DF-41 is expected to be armed with three warheads.



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