12. Editorial Note

On February 27, 1969, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms submitted National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 13–8–69, entitled “Communist China’s Strategic Weapons Program.” The NIE was prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the National Security Agency. Its purpose was to “assess China’s strategic weapons program and to estimate the nature, size, and progress of these programs through the mid-1970s.”

The NIE concluded that the “development of strategic weapons systems has been given a high priority in China,” judged already to possess a “regional nuclear strike capability in the sense that it could now have a few thermonuclear weapons for delivery by its two operational medium jet bombers. China could also have some fission weapons in stock.” As for intercontinental ballistic missiles, the intelligence community projected that, “if the Chinese achieved the earliest possible initial operational capability (IOC) of late 1972, the number of operational launchers might fall somewhere between 10 and 25 in 1975. In the more likely event that IOC is later, the achievement of a force of this size would slip accordingly.” The latter scenario was considered more likely because “many uncertainties,” including a confused domestic political situation and limited technical and industrial resources already stretched by other internal economic demands, left “in doubt the future pace, size, and scope of the Chinese program. In general, the Chinese are taking more time in the development and production of modern weapons systems than we judged likely several years ago.” The intelligence community also predicted that “Chinese planners will come to recognize, if they do not already, that China cannot begin to match the nuclear strike capability of the superpowers,” a realization that “may lead them to forego large-scale deployments of early missile systems.”

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The NIE struck a similar note regarding China’s use of its nuclear weaponry. “So long as the Chinese strategic force remains relatively small and vulnerable,” the estimate stated, “the Chinese will almost certainly recognize that the actual use of their nuclear weapons against neighbors or the superpowers would involve substantial risks of a devastating counterblow to China.” The NIE is in the Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 79–R01012A. For the text, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 7.