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.


1 comment:

Procopius said...

Seems from the information given to be more of a systems and integration guy rather than a physics package guy, or by analogy, more Sandia than Los Alamos. IMHO the "father of the 2nd(3rd? our definitions are a little fuzzy here)should be Dr. Hu Side.