China’s emphasis on the development of a small number of large-yield thermonuclear weapons reflects the strategic rationale outlined by the head of China’s nuclear-weapons programme, Nie Rongzhen, in 1961.

China’s current nuclear forces consist of thermonuclear warheads with large yields. This includes multi-megaton yield thermonuclear warheads developed for the DF-3, -4 and -5 ballistic missiles, and at least one several hundred kilotonne (kt) yield warhead developed in the 1990s for China’s current generation of solid-fuelled ballistic missiles. These warheads probably make relatively inefficient use of plutonium in the primary to reduce the amount of explosives in, and therefore mass of, the warhead. Chinese designers worked hard to miniaturise the country’s warheads, yet China’s most modern warhead is unlikely to be small enough for more than one to be placed on China’s current generation of solid-fueled ballistic missiles.

Since its first nuclear explosion in 1964, China has developed only a small number of warhead designs. Although there is some question about this number, China tested a 15kt device in 1966; a 3-megatonne (mt) device in the early 1970s for the DF-3 and possibly DF-4 missiles; a 4–5mt nuclear device in the 1970s and 1980s for the DF-5 missile; and a several hundred-kilotonne warhead in the 1990s for China’s solid-fuelled missiles, including the DF-21 and DF-31. China also developed an enhanced radiation warhead (ERW) during the early 1980s, but does not appear to have deployed it.

These warheads are based on a relatively small number of nuclear tests. China conducted 45 nuclear tests, most of which were carried out during the period before China’s reform under Deng Xiaoping. China stopped nuclear-explosive testing after signing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. China probably conducts subcritical tests and other stockpile stewardship measures to ensure the viability of its nuclear-weapons designs. It is unclear whether China periodically remanufactures its warheads, as Russia does, although the Chinese warhead-handling system would seem to imply that China periodically replaces its stockpile.1 Chinese leaders always emphasised the importance of thermonuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Among the early documents related to the Chinese nuclear-weapons programme, guidance issued by the Central Committee in 1958 committed China to developing ballistic missiles and high-yield thermonuclear warheads. Unlike other nuclear powers, China conducted very few tests to develop deliverable fission devices, moving quickly instead to develop thermonuclear weapons. 

China’s emphasis on the development of a small number of large-yield thermonuclear weapons reflects the strategic rationale outlined by the head of China’s nuclear-weapons programme, Nie Rongzhen, in 1961. Rather than seeking the development of many fission devices that could be used to practical effect on a battlefield, Nie emphasised the need for a strategic retaliatory capability that would establish China’s position in the world and serve as China’s scientific and technological base.

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Jeffrey Lewis Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an affiliate with the Center for Security and International Cooperation at Stanford University.

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