China is aggressively developing its next generation of nuclear weapons, conducting an average of five tests a month to simulate nuclear blasts, according to a major Chinese weapons research institute.
Its number of simulated tests has in recent years outpaced that of the United States, which conducts them less than once a month on average.
Between September 2014 and last December, China carried out around 200 laboratory experiments to simulate the extreme physics of a nuclear blast, the China Academy of Engineering Physics reported in a document released by the government earlier this year and reviewed by the South China Morning Post this month.
In comparison, the US carried out only 50 such tests between 2012 and 2017 – or about 10 a year – according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
As China joins the US and Russia in pursuing more targeted nuclear weapons as a deterrent against potential threats, the looming arms race would in fact serve the opposite purpose by increasing the risk of a nuclear conflict, experts warn.
Pentagon officials have said the US wants its enemies to believe it might actually use its new-generation weapons, such as smaller, smarter tactical warheads designed to limit damage by destroying only specific targets.
But with these relatively safer and less destructive weapons in hand, governments may end up losing the inhibition to use them.
“The use of small warheads will lead to the use of bigger ones,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie told the Post.
Still, despite China being highly unlikely to actually deploy its nuclear weapons, it remained necessary to develop them, he said.
“If other countries use nuclear weapons on us, we have to retaliate. This is probably why there is research to develop new weapons.”
Although an international ban prevents nuclear weapons from being tested – with high-profile exceptions like North Korea – the major nuclear powers have been able to continue conducting simulated tests.
Such tests are typically carried out using high-powered gas guns that fire projectiles at weapons-grade materials in laboratories.
Over the past three years, Chinese nuclear scientists have performed more such tests than their American counterparts have in 15 years.
In tunnels deep under mountains in Mianyang, southwestern Sichuan province, where China’s main nuclear design facilities are based, loud blasts from these experiments can be heard more than once a week.
In comparison, between 2003 and 2017, the US fired a total of 150 simulated shots at its Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research (Jasper) facility at the Nevada National Security Site.
The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has in recent years revealed a series of new nuclear weapon programs, including smaller weapons, as well as a super torpedo capable of wiping out coastal cities.
“It’s not clear to me how successful the Russian programme will be, but it has stirred everyone up on the subject,” Lewis said.
US officials have said they want America’s nuclear arsenal to be a “credible” deterrent to the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
The Donald Trump administration has been more willing than previous administrations to discuss the possibility of using nuclear weapons – most notoriously in the president’s own rhetoric such as the threat to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea.
“After some debate, the US decided it needed to think about warheads, without the need for actual tests,” Lewis said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if China saw all this and decided that it had better get in the game.”
China’s new generation of tactical nuclear weapons are designed for use in close-range battles, for example by wiping out an entire aircraft carrier group.
Beijing is embroiled in a number of territorial disputes in areas such as the South China Sea and the Himalayas. It has also never renounced the use of force to bring self-ruled Taiwan back under its control.
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