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 TIME on politics Congressional Quarterly CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and Congressional Quarterly

PRC Theft of U.S. Nuclear Warhead Design Information

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PRC Theft of U.S. Nuclear Warhead Design Information


The Peopleís Republic of Chinaís penetration of our national weapons laboratories spans at least the past several decades, and almost certainly continues today.

The PRCís nuclear weapons intelligence collection efforts began after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, when the PRC assessed its weaknesses in physics and the deteriorating status of its nuclear weapons programs.

The PRCís warhead designs of the late 1970s were large, multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons that could only be carried on large ballistic missiles and aircraft. The PRCís warheads were roughly equivalent to U.S. warheads designed in the 1950s. The PRC may have decided as early as that time to pursue more advanced thermonuclear warheads for its new generation of ballistic missiles.

The PRCís twenty-year intelligence collection effort against the U.S. has been aimed at this goal. The PRC employs a "mosaic" approach that capitalizes on the collection of small bits of information by a large number of individuals, which is then pieced together in the PRC. This information is obtained through espionage, rigorous review of U.S. unclassified technical and academic publications, and extensive interaction with U.S. scientists and Department of Energy laboratories.

The Select Committee judges that the PRCís intelligence collection efforts to develop modern thermonuclear warheads are focused primarily on the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

As a result of these efforts, the PRC has stolen classified U.S. thermonuclear design information that helped it fabricate and successfully test a new generation of strategic warheads.

The PRC stole classified information on every currently deployed U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The warheads for which the PRC stole classified information include: the W-56 Minuteman II ICBM; the W-62 Minuteman III ICBM; the W-70 Lance short-range ballistic missile (SRBM); the W-76 Trident C-4 SLBM; the W-78 Minuteman III Mark 12A ICBM; the W-87 Peacekeeper ICBM; and the W-88 Trident D-5 SLBM. The W-88 warhead is the most sophisticated strategic nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal. It is deployed on the Trident D-5 submarine-launched missile.

In addition, in the mid-1990s the PRC stole from a U.S. national weapons laboratory classified U.S. thermonuclear weapons information that cannot be identified in this unclassified Report. Because this recent espionage case is currently under investigation and involves sensitive intelligence sources and methods, the Clinton administration has determined that further information may not be made public.

The PRC also stole classified information on U.S. weapons design concepts, on weaponization features, and on warhead reentry vehicles (the hardened shell that protects a warhead during reentry).

The PRC may have acquired detailed documents and blueprints from the U.S. national weapons laboratories.

The U.S. Intelligence Community reported in 1996 that the PRC stole neutron bomb technology from a U.S. national weapons laboratory. The PRC had previously stolen design information on the U.S. W-70 warhead in the late 1970s; that earlier theft, which included design information, was discovered several months after it took place. The W-70 has elements that can be used as a strategic thermonuclear warhead or an enhanced radiation ("neutron bomb") warhead. Following the initial theft of W-70 design information, the PRC tested a neutron bomb in 1988.

Classified U.S. Nuclear Weapons Information Acquired by the PRC

Designation Design Laboratory Weapon Platform

W-88 Los Alamos Trident D-5 SLBM

W-87 Lawrence Livermore Peacekeeper/M-X ICBM

W-78 Los Alamos Minuteman III Mark 12A ICBM

W-76 Los Alamos Trident C-4 SLBM

W-70 Lawrence Livermore Lance SRBM

W-62 Lawrence Livermore Minuteman III ICBM

W-56 Lawrence Livermore Minuteman II ICBM

The PRC may have also acquired classified U.S. nuclear weapons computer codes from U.S. national weapons laboratories. The Select Committee believes that nuclear weapons computer codes remain a key target for PRC espionage. Nuclear weapons codes are important for understanding the workings of nuclear weapons and can assist in weapon design, maintenance, and adaptation. The PRC could make use of this information, for example, to adapt stolen U.S. thermonuclear design information to meet the PRCís particular needs and capabilities.

During the mid-1990s, it was learned that the PRC had acquired U.S. technical information about insensitive high explosives. Insensitive high explosives are a component of certain thermonuclear weapons. Insensitive high explosives are less energetic than high explosives used in some other thermonuclear warheads, but have advantages for other purposes, such as thermonuclear warheads used on mobile missiles.

The PRC thefts from our national weapons laboratories began at least as early as the late 1970s, and significant secrets are known to have been stolen as recently as the mid-1990s. Such thefts almost certainly continue to the present.

The Clinton administration has determined that additional information about PRC thefts included in this section of the Select Committeeís Report cannot be publicly disclosed.

The PRCís Next Generation Nuclear Warheads

The PRC has acquired U.S. nuclear weapons design information that could be utilized in developing the PRCís next generation of modern thermonuclear warheads.

The Department of Energy identifies two general design paths to the development of modern thermonuclear warheads:

  • The first path, which apparently has been followed by the Russians, emphasizes simplicity and reliability in design
  • The second path, which the U.S. has taken, utilizes innovative designs and lighter-weight warheads

The Select Committee judges that the combination of the PRCís preference for U.S. designs, the PRCís theft of design information on our most advanced thermonuclear warheads, and the PRCís demand for small, modern warheads for its new generation of mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles will result in the PRC emulating the U.S. design path to develop its next generation of thermonuclear warheads.

The PRC has already begun working on smaller thermonuclear warheads. During the l990s, the PRC was working to complete testing of its modern thermonuclear weapons before it signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996.1 The PRC conducted a series of nuclear tests from 1992 to 1996. Based on what is known about PRC nuclear testing practices, combined with data on PRC warhead yield and on PRC missile development, it is clear that the purpose of the 1992 to 1996 test series was to develop small, light warheads for the PRCís new nuclear forces.2

These tests led to suspicions in the U.S. Intelligence Community that the PRC had stolen advanced U.S. thermonuclear warhead design information. These suspicions were definitely confirmed by the "walk-in" information received in 1995.

The Select Committee judges that the PRC is developing for its next generation of road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles smaller, more compact thermonuclear warheads that exploit elements of stolen U.S. design information, including the stolen design information from the U.S. W-70 Lance warhead or the W-88 Trident D-5 warhead.

The following graph shows an unclassified history of the PRCís thermonuclear weapons development and its acquisition of classified information from the United States.

Completing the development of its next-generation warhead poses challenges for the PRC. The PRC may not currently be able to match precisely the exact explosive power and other features of U.S. weapons. Nonetheless, the PRC may be working toward this goal, and the difficulties it faces are surmountable. Work-arounds exist, using processes similar to those developed or available in a modern aerospace or precision-guided munitions industry. The PRC possesses these capabilities already.

The Impact of the PRCís Theft of U.S. Thermonuclear Warhead Design Information

Mobile and Submarine-Launched Missiles

The main application of the stolen U.S. thermonuclear warhead information will likely be to the PRCís next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The PRC is developing several new, solid-propellant, mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles. These include both road-mobile and submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Road-mobile ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles require smaller, more advanced thermonuclear warheads. The Select Committee judges it is likely that the PRC will use a new, smaller thermonuclear warhead on its next generation road-mobile, solid-propellant ICBM, the DF-31.

The DF-31 is likely to undergo its first test flight in 1999, and could be deployed as early as 2002. Introduction of the PRCís new, smaller thermonuclear warhead into PLA service could coincide with the initial operational capability of the new road-mobile DF-31 ballistic missile system.

The Select Committee judges that the PRCís thermonuclear warheads will exploit elements of the U.S. W-70 Lance or W-88 Trident D-5 warheads. While the PRC might not reproduce exact replicas of these U.S. thermonuclear warheads, elements of the PRCís devices could be similar.

Acceleration of PRC Weapons Development

The PRCís theft of classified U.S. weapons design information saved the PRC years of effort and resources in developing its new generation of modern thermonuclear warheads. It provided the PRC with access to design information that worked and was within the PRCís ability to both develop and test. And it saved the PRC from making mistakes or from pursuing blind alleys.

The loss of design information from the Department of Energyís national weapons laboratories helped the PRC in its efforts to fabricate and successfully test its next generation of nuclear weapons designs. These warheads give the PRC small, modern thermonuclear warheads roughly equivalent to current U.S. warhead yields.

Assessing the extent to which design information losses accelerated the PRCís nuclear weapons development is complicated because so much is unknown. The full extent of U.S. information that the PRC acquired and the sophistication of the PRCís indigenous design capabilities are unclear. Moreover, there is the possibility of third country assistance to the PRCís nuclear weapons program, which could also assist the PRCís exploitation of the stolen U.S. nuclear weapons information. Nonetheless, it is patent that the PRC has stolen significant classified U.S. design information on our most modern thermonuclear warheads.

While it is sometimes argued that eventually the PRC might have been able to produce and test an advanced and modern thermonuclear weapon on its own, the PRC had conducted only 45 nuclear tests in the more than 30 years from 1964 to 1996 (when the PRC signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), which would have been insufficient for the PRC to have developed advanced thermonuclear warheads on its own. This compares to the approximately 1,030 tests by the United States, 715 tests by the Soviet Union, and 210 by France.3

The following illustrates the evolution of smaller U.S. warheads.4

Effect on PRC Nuclear Doctrine

Deploying new thermonuclear weapons provides the PRC with additional doctrinal and operational options for its strategic forces that, if exercised, would be troublesome for the United States.

Smaller, more efficient thermonuclear warheads would provide the PRC with the opportunity to develop and deploy a multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) should it decide to do so. These smaller designs would allow the use of lighter and faster reentry vehicles that may be better able to stress and to overcome ballistic missile defenses.

The PRC has expressed considerable opposition to U.S. deployment of ballistic missile defenses.

Other advantages of increased warhead yield-to-weight ratios include extended missile ranges and accuracy improvements. Smaller warheads result in a more compact missile payload, extending the range of ballistic missiles. This permits the use of smaller-diameter sea-launched ballistic missiles and mobile missiles to strike long-range targets. Longer range could enable PRC ballistic missile submarines to strike the U.S. from within PRC waters, where they can operate safely.

Multiple Warhead Development

The deployment of multiple warheads on a single missile requires smaller warheads that the PRC has not possessed.

The Select Committee has no information on whether the PRC currently intends to develop and deploy multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle systems. However, the Select Committee is aware of reports that the PRC has undertaken efforts related to multiple warhead technology.

Experts believe that the PRC currently has the technical capability to develop and deploy silo-based ballistic missiles with multiple reentry vehicles (MRVs) and multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Experts also agree that the PRC could develop and deploy its new generation of mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles with MRVs or MIRVs within a short period of years after a decision to do so, and consistent with the presumed timeframe for its planned deployment of its next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Back  |  Forward


pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

PRC Acquisition of U.S. Technology
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

PRC Theft of U.S. Nuclear Warhead Design Information
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

High Performance Computers
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

PRC Missile and Space Forces
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Satellite Launches in the PRC: Hughes
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Satellite Launches in the PRC: Loral
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Launch Site Security in the PRC
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 5 | 6

Commercial Space Insurance
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

U.S. Export Policy Toward the PRC
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Manufacturing Processes
pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

pages 1 | 2 | 3

pages introduction | A | B | C | D | E | F

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