Monday, December 28, 2009

China's Nuclear Warhead Modernization and Stewardship: The Man Behind the Scenes

In a recent dinner table discussion, a youthful family member asked who makes China's nuclear weapons. The question is intriguing: which individual is most responsible for designing, developing, and manufacturing the nuclear weapons that China now has in its inventory? Since China has a small but real inventory of nuclear weapons that factor into U.S. policymaking with regards to Taiwan, it would be good to know the man behind China's second generation of nukes.

Once a decision has been made to invest resources in a major program, the traditional practice of China’s senior political and military leadership has been to assign a chief designer (总设计师) to manage the research and development (R&D) process. John Lewis and Xue Litai’s China Builds the Bomb offers an outstanding overview of the humans behind China’s first generation nuclear device, including chief designer Li Jue. However, that was a long time ago and the PLA Second Artillery’s stockpile now includes a new generation of miniaturized warheads.

Xu Zhilei: The Man Behind China’s Second Generation of Nuclear Warheads

The individual credited with leading the effort to design and develop China’s second generation of nuclear warheads has modest roots in Ningbo, Zhejiang province (for examples of sources, click here and here). Born in 1930, Xu Zhilei (徐志磊) graduated from Shanghai's Datong University in 1952 and served as a precision machining specialist in the Shanghai Machine Tool Factory (上海机床厂) for the next 10 years. In August 1963, he was recruited into the Ninth Academy’s design department to work on China’s first nuclear device. Among his specialties was hydrogen embrittlement, structural engineering, and component design. He was said to be a leading figure in four ground tests and two flight tests of China’s first generation nuclear weapons. In 1987 and again in 1989, Xu was a recipient of one of China’s highest prizes for defense S&T achievement for design and manufacturing on the fissile core of a nuclear device, known as the “pit.”

In the 1980s, Xu was appointed as chief designer for the miniaturized warhead sub-system on two new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Concurrently, Xu functioned as deputy chief designer for the DF-31 program. In this position, Xu oversaw the technical aspects of 10 nuclear tests. In heading up the warhead sub-system of the DF-31, Xu Zhilei ostensibly would have supported Wang Yongzhi (王永志) and Liu Baoyong (刘宝镛), who have been cited as the chief designers of the missile system (presumably the DF-31 and DF-31A respectively). Wang and Liu are both from the China Academy of Launch Technology's First Design Department. Other key DF-31 sub-systems include solid rocket motors, which unsubstantiated reporting refers to as the FG-6 and FG-7. Passing reference is made to Xu’s involvement in a neutron bomb (中子弹) program.

Nuclear Warhead Stockpile Reliability

So Xu Zhilei could be viewed as the father of China's second generation of nuclear warheads. However, since finalization of the miniaturized design, he also has been cited as a key player in ensuring the reliability of China’s existing stockpile of nuclear warheads. Authoritative writings indicate that he and the China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP) have supported a “certain base” of the Second Artillery to upgrade its storage, inspection, and transportation support systems for second generation warheads. Assisting Xu in the stockpile stewardship program included Peng Xianjue (彭先觉), Tang Xisheng (唐西生), and Liu Senlin (刘森林) from the China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIAE).

Reliability and safety of nuclear warheads have become sensitive issues in Chinese politics. Veterans from four units associated with testing, storage, and maintenance of nuclear warheads in the 1960s and 1970s have submitted legal claims to the Chongqing city government related to radiation-linked health problems. The specific warhead storage units were all under the former Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND) 22 Base, which was an outgrowth of a security regiment known as the 8322 Unit. The warhead storage, transportation, and maintenance function was resubordinated to the Second Artillery in the late 1970s.

One of the 22 Base entities – the 89902 Unit – was headquartered in Shangwuzhuang’s Nabucang (纳卜藏) village, around 50 kilometers northwest of Xining, Qinghai province. While it's unclear what role these facilities play today, the old 89002 unit administrative compound can still be seen on Google Earth. Unverified references indicate the current presence of regimental-level support elements subordinate to the 56 Base. Elements that appear to be linked with the Nabucang administrative facility can be seen along the roads stretching out from the compound and into some pretty desolate territory.

Stockpile stewardship programs and technologies have become increasingly important in the wake of China’s signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. However, legislative bodies in both China and the United States have yet to ratify the CTBT. While maintaining a moratorium on nuclear tests, Beijing authorities have asserted the need to continue to evaluate the safety and reliability of its nuclear weapons. Further detail on the Second Artillery’s nuclear warhead storage and handling system can wait for another time. But as a starter, it’s good to know that Xu Zhilei not only led the design and development effort for China’s second generation of nuclear warheads, but also has been a leading figure in ensuring the safety of China's existing warhead inventory.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

The PLA Air Force Over the Horizon Radar Brigade

Over the last year, there has been substantial interest in China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). When deployed, its strategic goal would likely be to influence Taiwan’s domestic polity and manipulate the cost-benefit calculus of U.S. policymakers.

The ballistic missile program itself – the DF-21D – has been the primary focus. However, the cueing and surveillance architecture that would support an ASBM capability remains somewhat of a mystery. An integrated sensor network would be needed for initial situational awareness of maritime activity in the Western Pacific Ocean and to cue an ASBM before launch. A key element is believed to be a skywave over the horizon (OTH) radar. In November 2008, Sean O'Connor posted a great analysis of the OTH radar system and its role in an ASBM program on his IMINT & Analysis website, including the Google Earth image above. Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang (Naval War College and RAND), Mark Stokes (Project 2049 Institute), Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin (China Security), and Tony Capaccio (Bloomberg) also have addressed the OTH radar cueing issue. However, limited information exists on specific capabilities and how an OTH radar system would fit in to a broader architecture.

One interesting insight is its subordination. A Chinese blogger posted an article in November 2007 that highlighted a PLA Air Force (PLAAF) “Skywave Brigade” (天波旅). The post first appeared on the Wangchao bulletin board website and has been reposted hundreds of times since then. The author asserts that the brigade operates China’s first strategic early warning system in over 20 years, when a brigade operated a missile early warning system in the area of Xuanhua, north of Beijing. The missile early warning radar has been dismantled. The author, careful to avoid censors, uses Pinyin abbreviations for locations of the transmitter and receiver and names of the commander and political commissar of the PLAAF radar brigade. He/she also notes a requirement for additional sites in Fujian and presumably other locations along the east coast for measuring the ionosphere.

Taiwan Link research confirms much of the Chinese author’s analysis. A relatively new PLA Air Force radar brigade – the 95980 Unit – operates the OTH radar system. The PLAAF “Skywave Brigade" is situated in the southern edge of Xiangfan [襄樊], Hubei province, or specifically in Yingpan Village in the Xiangcheng District. On Google Earth, a guarded underground facility can be seen to the east of the village. While not confirmed, the mountain complex could house the OTH surveillance and warning system.

The PLAAF radar brigade has at least six subordinate elements (fendui). Two are near Xiangfan: the 52nd Element in the Zaoyang Municipal District and the 53rd in Nanzhang County. The blog poster notes that the OTH transmitter is in “ZY” and receiver is in “NZ.” The OTH receiver array that Sean O’Connor discovered on Google Earth indeed is in Nanzhang county. The coastal sites subordinate to the OTH brigade are:

-- 61st Element based near Xitangqiao Village [西塘桥镇];

-- 64th Element located near Fuqing [福清],

-- 66th Element near Jinjiang [晋江], Fujian province Sanshan Village [三山]; and

-- 67th Element near Wenlin City Shitang Village [石塘镇].

Most likely subordinate to the Guangzhou Military Region Air Force (GMRAF), the radar brigade's priority probably is air activity. Maritime tracks that the system generates could be filtered off to PLA Navy watch centers for tagging and correlation. More analysis would have to be done to figure out the command and control and service coordination arrangements.