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    China's Nuclear Weapon Program

    "During the past years we have been busy doing other things, and there was not enough time for us to pay attention to this matter [of nuclear weapons]. Sooner or later, we would have had to pay attention to it. Now, it is time for us to pay attention to it. We can achieve success provided we put it on the order of the day. Now, [because] the Soviet Union is giving us assistance, we must achieve success! We can also achieve success even if we do this ourselves".
    - Mao Zedong, Janurary 1955

    The People's Republic of China tested its first nuclear device on October 16, 1964 and became the world's fifth nuclear power. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, China became the only Communist nation to possess nuclear weapons as recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Despite being one of the largest nations on the planet, in terms of size, population, and economic force, China possesses a relatively small nuclear arsenal compared to those of other nuclear weapons states.

    China began development of nuclear weapons in the late 1950s, following the events of the Korean War, French Indochina War, and Taiwan Strait Crisis. During this time China's military was still largely technologically undeveloped and was receiving large amounts of assistance from the Soviet Union since the early 1950s. Soviet nuclear aid was given to China, and several eastern European nations, under the pretext that it would be used for peaceful purposes.

    Assistance from the Soviet Union included an experimental nuclear reactor, fissile material samples, facilities for processing uranium, a cyclotron, and some equipment for a gaseous diffusions plant. Soviet nuclear physicists were also dispatched to China to work alongside Chinese scientists. At one point an experimental nuclear device was planned to be given to China.

    Differences in political ideologies and national interest between The People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s resulted in the Sino-Soviet split. This event marked the end of nuclear cooperation between the two socialist nations and China continued independent development of nuclear weapons. Mao Zedong viewed this split as further justification for ending the Superpower monopoly on nuclear weapons and considered the Soviet Union as great a threat as the United States.

    On October 16, 1964 China detonated a nuclear bomb in the Lop Nor desert located in northwestern China, code named 596. The uranium-235 implosion fission device exploded with a force equivalent to 22 kilotons of TNT. China did not develop the means to produce plutonium at the time so uranium was used as the fissile core for the device.

    The 596 test came as a great surprise to the West as the earliest estimates of a Chinese nuclear test were predicted to be at least several months away. China also had the advantage of being the fifth nation to develop nuclear weapons. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the fundamental aspects of nuclear weapons production was publicly known and by studying published literature on this subject from the West, China took avenues to the bomb which were most likely to succeed and avoided developmental “dead ends”. The Chinese preferred small-scale simulation tests rather then full-scale experiments and labored over each step along the developmental process to avoid costly mistakes.

    China tested an experimental thermonuclear device on May 9, 1966. This was the shortest time span any of the five nuclear nations needed to test experimental thermonuclear devices after its first detonation. China developed a fission bomb capable of being deployed on strategic missiles only two years after 596. On June 17, 1967, China detonated a two-stage thermonuclear bomb and became a thermonuclear power. Only 32 months separated China's first nuclear detonation with the detonation of a true hydrogen bomb.

    The exact state of China's nuclear arsenal is shrouded in secrecy and only estimates of it exist in the West. The most recent reports in 2006 indicate China possesses only 130 nuclear warheads , deployed on land-based missiles, sea-based missiles, and bombers. China does not have MIRV capability though could quickly develop such a capacity if required as it continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal.

    China's first strategic missile, the DF-2, was largely a failure and was soon replaced by the DF-3. China maintains a mainly land-based nuclear arsenal, deployed on 80 land-based nuclear-capable ballistic missiles of four types: the DF-3, DF-4, DF-5, and DF-21. China's sea-based strategic force is compromised of a single “Xia” class nuclear ballistic missile submarine, armed with the JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). China's deploys a small number of nuclear weapons on the aging Hong-6 bomber and Qian – 5 attack aircraft.

    Nuclear Testing China, along with Great Britain, has conducted the least amount of nuclear tests out of the five nuclear weapons states. Between 1964 and 1996, China conducted 45 nuclear tests. 25 of these tests were conducted in the atmosphere above the Lop Nor dry lake in Xinjiang, China. 20 underground nuclear tests were conducted between 1969 to 1996.

    The site for all of China's nuclear tests is Lop Nor, a region of salt lakes and marshes. This inhospitable land is situated between the Tian Shan and the Kuruktag mountains in the southeastern portion of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwestern China. In 1958 a unit of handpicked PLA officers were dispatched to western China to find a suitable location for the testing of nuclear weapons. Lop Nor was officially established as a nuclear test site on October 16, 1959.

    China's first nuclear test, code named 596, was a uranium-235 fission implosion bomb that yielded 22 kilotons. Uranium was used for the first nuclear device because the means for plutonium production was not yet developed by China at the time. Atmospheric testing was conducted either on steel towers or dropped from aircraft. China's first air dropped nuclear test was conducted on May 14, 1965 (35 kilotons). A year later, on May 6, China successfully air dropped and detonated an experimental thermonuclear device.

    Published on: 2010-03-11 (6793 reads)

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