Red China’s “Capitalist Bomb”: Inside the Chinese Neutron Bomb Program

By Jonathan Ray China Strategic Perspectives 8

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Jan. 1, 2015 — DOWNLOAD PDF

Executive Summary

This paper examines why China developed an enhanced radiation weapon (ERW) but did not deploy it. ERWs, better known as “neutron bombs,” are specialized nuclear weapons with reduced blast effects and enhanced radiation, making them ideal tactical and antipersonnel weapons. Declassified U.S. intelligence and Chinese press reports indicate the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was interested in an ERW in 1977 and successfully tested a device on September 29, 1988. To date, however, these sources provide no evidence of deployment. This study exploits primary source documents to reconstruct the ERW program’s history, assesses drivers behind decisions throughout the program, and considers broader implications for PRC decisionmaking on weapons development. This case study suggests a model of a “technology reserve” in which China develops a weapons technology to match the capabilities of another state but defers deployment. This paper presents an analytic framework for examining how the technology reserve model might apply to China’s decisionmaking on ballistic missile defense (BMD), antisatellite (ASAT), and hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) systems.

The framework considers five variables as potential drivers of China’s ERW decisionmaking. Specifically, it assesses the strategic environment of the PRC, the strategic value and normative value of the ERW, as well as the resource demands and technical feasibility of the ERW program. The framework also considers coalition politics of the ERW program as an intervening variable that influenced each of the above variables throughout the program’s history. The ERW program’s history comprised three phases:

1. 1977–1980: Decision and Initial Research. In 1977, Chinese media followed the controversy over the U.S. decision to develop and deploy an ERW in Europe. Soviet media denounced the ERW and grew concerned at China’s silence on the controversy. After General Zhang Aiping [张爱萍] signaled the PRC’s interest in the ERW in the People’s Daily, scientists involved in the ERW program (herein referred as the weaponeers) began initial research and development (R&D). Some weaponeers argued against developing the ERW, worrying that it was unnecessary and would disrupt higher priority work on warhead miniaturization. Ultimately, they acquiesced to orders and combined the ERW and warhead miniaturization research to master common principles of the two systems.

2. 1980–1984: Research and Development. In 1980, General Zhang told a member of a visiting U.S. delegation that China needed the ERW as a hedge against the Soviets. The weapon fit into China’s military strategic guideline of “active defense” to defend against a Soviet armored thrust and invasion. By then, the weaponeers were dividing the ERW problem into constituent parts, or “principles,” and solving them individually. From 1982 to 1984, China conducted five tests related to the ERW and warhead miniaturization. On December 19, 1984, the weaponeers conducted a successful “principles breakthrough” test. One weaponeer metaphorically described the successful test by saying that “the second generation of light boats has passed the bridge.”

3. 1985–1988: Pause and Reevaluation. In 1985, China halted nuclear testing for 30 months. The pause coincided with a Soviet moratorium on testing and a leadership reshuffle that neutralized ERW proponent General Zhang. In 1986, the weaponeers warned PRC leaders that the United States and Soviet Union could conclude a nuclear test ban treaty, and they proposed accelerated testing to complete warhead designs. The Central Committee approved the report and provided funding. On September 29, 1988, China successfully tested an ERW design and added it to what one weaponeer called the “technology reserve.”

No variable individually explains the ERW program’s decisions and outcomes. A tense strategic environment and the ERW’s high strategic value against Soviet armored divisions correlate with the program’s R&D but do not explain the final test in a more relaxed strategic environment. Similarly, the ERW’s normative value was initially high as a technological achievement, but a taboo against the weapon was firmly in place before the final test. Resource demands and technological feasibility were challenges at the program’s beginning, and even after the weaponeers combined ERW and miniaturization research to conserve resources, the program still stalled in 1985. The 1988 final ERW design test for China’s “technology reserve” reflects both a hedge against changes in China’s strategic environment and the culmination of research. The evidence is incomplete, but it indicates that an ERW coalition led by General Zhang Aiping championed the program from 1977 to 1984 but fell apart before the ERW’s completion.

This analytic framework and “technology reserve” model of matching a capability but deferring deployment help frame analyses of the PRC’s decisionmaking for its BMD, ASAT, and HGV programs. A cursory analysis indicates arms control possibilities for BMD, continued development of ASAT capabilities, and multiple possible outcomes for HGV development. Key themes and lessons from the ERW case study include the following:

  • Strong leaders versus institutional capacity. Coalitions with strong leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhang Aiping drove the ERW program in a time of weak institutions. Today, China’s weapons development processes are more institutionalized but are still susceptible to factional politics. 
  • Technology parity as an ideological imperative. Matching other states’ military technologies is an extension of Chinese techno-nationalism into weapons development decisions. 
  • Importance of potential adversaries’ reactions. Soviet alarm over the ERW as a disruptive capability made the weapon more attractive to Chinese leaders. U.S. reactions to contemporary PRC weapons systems should be calm. 
  • Need to update Chinese open-source research techniques. This research benefited from studies on Chinese open-source research techniques, but such literature is dated. Newer sources such as social media, blogs, chat rooms, and updated databases highlight the need for more current discussions.