Jeffrey LewisChinese Alert Rates and Russian Paranoia

Readers may remember when I popped over to Yverdon-Les-Bains this summer to attend an EastWest Institute Meeting on Reframing Nuclear De-Alert. It was a very interesting meeting with an outstanding cast of characters. Oh, and thermal baths.

The estimable Walter Pincus had some very nice things to say about the report in the The Washington Post, but unfortunately fixated on this section:

One enlightening section of the study points out how other nuclear-armed states handle operational status. China keeps an estimated 30 strategic systems on high alert, according to the study. It identified 12 as liquid-fueled ICBMs with two-megaton warheads “ready to launch in approximately 30 minutes,” and 18 solid-fueled ICBMs “in silos on a 20-minute alert.”

Just to be clear, the report says the opposite — that China’s forces are on low alert. The section that Pincus quotes is a dissenting view, offered by one of the Russian participants. Here is the full-text of the passage from the report:

As seen in the previous section, both Russia and the United States believed that keeping a large portion of their strategic forces on alert is essential to deterrence and strategic stability. China, on the other hand, is said to keep a portion of its missiles on low alert with the warheads separated. Even during the Cold War, Chinese ICBMs would sit in their silos unfueled and without their warheads. China thus seems to be willing to live with this seeming vulnerability even though it is not clear if the situation is likely to last. The reasons for this relaxed deployment may be partly technological (China may not possess the counterforce capabilities of the U.S. and Russian variety) and partly organizational (the scientific establishment rather than the military has traditionally exercised more influence in nuclear weapons development and deployment). However, the most important reason may be political, as nuclear weapons are viewed as weapons of coercion and not use. The mere fact of possession creates parity and achieves almost all the deterrence China desires.

During the discussions another view of China’s deployment was presented. Per this view, even though China may not possess nuclear war fighting capabilities on par with Russia and the United States, it does have a small number of strategic systems on high alert twenty-four hours a day. The 2nd Artillery, in charge of nuclear weapons, may have thirty ICBMs on continuous alert, including twelve liquid-fueled DF5s with 2-megaton warheads ready to launch in approximately thirty minutes as well as eighteen solid-fueled DF31 missiles in silos on a twenty-minute alert.

As you can clearly see, the consensus of the group as laid out at the beginning was that Chinese missile forces are on “low alert with the warheads separated.”

One of the Russian participants expressed “another view” that was stereotypically paranoid about the capabilities of Chinese strategic forces. When that view was read aloud, there were a lot of puzzled looks around the table. I definitely got in the comment queue.

There was some other really good stuff on the Chinese posture that didn’t make it into the report — including one participant who stated that Chinese warheads are stored kilometers from the silos.

That’s about all I can say given that the meeting occurred under the Chatham House Rule.

I presume readers are familiar with the phenomenon of extreme assessments of foreign nuclear programs by Russian observers. I was very recently at a meeting where one colleague noted dryly, “It is wrong to stereotype entire countries, but if it weren’t wrong, we would say the Russians are paranoid.”

Case in point.


  1. Scott Monje (History)

    Given the phenomenon of extreme assessments, how do we explain Russia’s relatively laid-back attitude toward Iran?

  2. MK (History)

    Liquid-fueled missiles on alert?

  3. John Schilling (History)

    China’s liquid-fueled missiles all use N2O4/UDMH propellants; these can be stored indefinitely at room temperature. A very similar propellant combination was used in the US Titan II missiles, which were kept on alert status from 1962-1987, and for that matter in most of Russia’s cold-war era ICBMs and even some SLBMs.

    There is no technical reason why the Chinese cannot keep their missiles on launch-on-warning alert for years at a time. There is also no evidence that they actually do this. Short of the Chinese actually allowing on-site inspection of their ICBM forces, there isn’t likely to be conclusive evidence either way.

    Which gives room for any degree of paranoia, caution, optimism, and/or complacency one wishes to bring to the table. The Russians, not surprisingly, prefer paranoia in this case.

  4. Lurking Observer (History)

    If China only keeps “a small number” of ICBMs on alert, and keeps, apparently some 30 ICBMs on alert, how many ICBMs does China have?

    According to IISS, the total number of Chinese ICBMs is only ~32 or so. This would suggest that they keep nearly 100% of their ICBMs on alert—-which would certainly put the “small number” in a different context?

  5. walter pincus (History)


    I was not trying to characterize the Chinese alert level, rather just list it along with others. The numbers, I felt, speak for themselves given comparison of 30 Chinese missiles to the U.S. 1,000 and the Russian 1,200.


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