China Rejects Policy of Nuclear Launch on Warning of an Incoming Attack

October 28, 2019
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

International and Chinese participants discuss verification technologies at the 16th PIIC Beijing Seminar on International Security in Shenzhen, China. The conference was sponsored by the Chinese Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA), the Program for Science and National Security Studies (PNSS) at China’s Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics (IAPCM) and the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

Fu Cong, the director general of the Arms Control Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently called on all nuclear weapons states to abandon the policy of preparing to launch nuclear weapons on warning of an incoming nuclear attack. He issued the unprecedented official statement in his keynote address to a major international arms control conference held in Shenzhen in mid-October.

Cong also asked nuclear weapons states to take additional steps to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in their national security doctrines, including joining China in publicly committing to never use nuclear weapons first.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s criticism of launch on warning comes less than two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced China was cooperating with Russia “to model a national early warning system.” At present only the United States and Russia have systems that allow them to detect missile launches. Those systems give both nuclear-armed nations the option to launch a retaliatory response as soon as the system warns them of an incoming missile attack. Russia and the United States keep their missiles on high alert so they are ready for rapid launch on warning.

Both the Russian and the US early warning systems have a history of generating false warnings. The practice of combining those systems with preparations for rapid launch creates the danger that either country could start a nuclear war by mistake.

China’s current policy is to wait to retaliate until after being struck first. It protects its small nuclear force of several hundred nuclear capable missiles from an enemy first strike by hiding them in a large network of underground tunnels. The missiles are kept off alert and the warheads are stored separately. They would be brought together and mated with the missiles only after the Chinese leadership gave the order to prepare for a launch.

Some Chinese officials are concerned recent improvements to US satellite reconnaissance, forward-based radars, precision guidance systems and ballistic missile defenses might lead US decision makers to believe China’s nuclear forces could be neutralized, allowing the United States to strike China first without fear of nuclear retaliation. Recent improvements to Chinese nuclear forces, in particular the development of a longer range intercontinental ballistic missile that can carry multiple warheads, are intended to convince US decision-makers not to take that risk.

Several years ago researchers at the Chinese Academy of Military Science (AMS) suggested China could eliminate concerns about the vulnerability of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch on warning posture. Fu Cong responded to a question about the AMS suggestion by stating that in his view a launch on warning posture would be incompatible with China’s long-standing promise not to use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances.

Cong also said he was unaware of Putin’s statement on cooperation on an early warning system, but that the existence of such a project did not imply that China would change its nuclear policy and shift to a launch on warning posture. Such a change would also require China to keep its missiles on constant alert with warheads attached so that they could be launched quickly. A former director of China’s nuclear weapons lab told me privately that the cooperative project with Russia on warning technology would increase China’s overall situational awareness but would not lead to a change China’s nuclear doctrine, policy or practice.