137. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 13–8–73



China has arrived as a nuclear power. Over the past several years China has deployed on the order of a hundred strategic delivery vehicles—half missiles and half bombers—and stockpiled nuclear weapons to go with them. These weapon systems have the range to hit US forces and bases in Asia as well as targets in the eastern USSR, but cannot attack the continental US. With optimum success in its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development program, China might gain a capability against the continental US [5 lines not declassified] missiles probably could survive a Soviet disarming attack even if it employed nuclear weapons. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the Chinese have now acquired at least the beginnings of a credible nuclear retaliatory capability against the USSR.

There is no doubt that the Chinese intend to become a major nuclear power. In addition to the large ICBM now under development, they are working on an SSBN system and there is a very extensive program for the development and production of solid-propellant rocket motors for strategic missiles.

The total Chinese effort is an ambitious one relative to the resources available, but in relation to US and Soviet programs it remains a small effort and its pace is such that after 15 years of work China does not appear to be catching up to the superpowers.


1. The Chinese have developed a significant capability for strategic nuclear strike by bombers, and by missiles all around the periphery of China. They are estimated to have operational:

[9 lines not declassified]

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—some 60 Tu–16 Badger bombers, with a radius of action of 1,650 nm, deployed at four airfields.

[5 lines not declassified]

2. The deployment pattern of these forces is aimed at a capability to strike around the entire periphery of China. The launch sites of both the CSS–1 and the CSS–2 are dispersed in a way to insure coverage of US bases and installations to the east and south of China as well as of targets in India and the USSR east of the Urals. The Tu–16 bomber could cover all these areas.

3. This regional coverage will be extended, possibly starting as early as 1974, by the deployment in silos of the CSS–X–3. [1½ lines not declassified] While the upper end of this range would be sufficient to reach Moscow [1½ lines not declassified] the CSS–X–3 could not reach any part of the US except a small part of Alaska.

4. Chinese programs for developing weapons that could hit the continental US are moving forward, but not, as yet, with a great deal of apparent success.

—The Titan II class CSS–X–4 ICBM has the potential to cover all of the US [5 lines not declassified]

—A program for a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) system is under way, but the lead unit will not become operational until [less than 1 line not declassified]3

—There is no evidence of Chinese development of an intercontinental bomber; even if one were now being designed, it probably would not be operational before [less than 1 line not declassified]

Chinese Strategic Capabilities

. . . against United States Forces and Bases in Asia

5. Launch sites for the CSS–1 and the CSS–2 are grouped opposite South Korea and Japan, opposite Taiwan and Okinawa, and opposite the Philippines and Southeast Asia. While the CSS–1 covers only targets or approaches to China in the immediate area, CSS–2s are located so that the ones opposite Korea and Indochina can cover Taiwan, and those opposite Taiwan can cover Korea and much of Southeast Asia. The Tu–16 bomber could cover all these areas, as well as reconnoitering and attacking US naval forces in the western Pacific. Thus any US base or force in the Far East is within range of a substantial number of missiles and bombers.

6. [3 lines not declassified] they have deployed some CSS–1s in locations where they could be used to cover possible invasion routes from Korea, Taiwan, or Indochina.

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7. The Chinese have shown that they consider survivability to be the key to their strategic missile deployment. From the beginning of CSS–1 deployment in 1966, some units were deployed in the semimobile mode. [17 lines not declassified]

. . . against the USSR

8. Many of these forces are also within range of the USSR. A few CSS–1s in Manchuria can hit the Soviet maritime province. All the CSS–2s, except a half dozen in southern China, can hit some part of southern Siberia and the Soviet Far East. The Tu–16s have the range to penetrate the USSR as far as the Urals from forward bases in China. Despite this ability and the apparent Chinese concern with the Soviet threat, the deployment has shown no marked anti-Soviet bias. The Chinese retaliatory capability against the USSR will grow over the next few years as more CSS–2s are deployed and as the CSS–X–3 reaches initial operational capability (IOC).

9. [12 lines not declassified] Consequently, the Chinese probably believe they now have acquired the beginnings of a credible nuclear retaliatory capability against the USSR.

10. But the Chinese no doubt feel that their deterrent force remains vulnerable and marginal in several respects:

—[1 paragraph (5 lines) not declassified]

—[1 paragraph (4 lines) not declassified]

—[1 paragraph (3 lines) not declassified]

—[1 paragraph (6 lines) not declassified]

. . . against the Continental United States

11. While the USSR has been within range of Chinese nuclear attack for several years, it will be several more before the continental US is vulnerable. The CSS–X–3 , if fitted with a payload weighing about 2,000 pounds and deployed in northern China, could reach a number of important targets in the northern US. [7 lines not declassified] the only CSS–X–3 silos observed under construction are beyond the range of the continental US, even with a 2,000 pound payload. [6 lines not declassified]

12. The CSS–X–4 ICBM program has been plagued by delays and mishaps. This very large missile dates back at least to 1967, when work began on the launch pad at the test center. Construction of the test pad proceeded at a deliberate pace, [12 lines not declassified]

13. [17 lines not declassified]

14. [12 lines not declassified]

15. Like the CSS–X–4, China’s program to develop a SSBN system is both a measure of China’s determination to achieve a credible deterrent and an illustration of the hazards of forecasting rates of progress [Page 635] toward that goal. It is probable that China’s modern high-speed attack submarine is nuclear-powered. But this submarine is now back at a shipyard [6 lines not declassified]

16. If a missile were ready for the submarine by late 1976, the entire system could be operational by [less than 1 line not declassified] allowing a minimum time for testing the integrated system and achieving readiness for operations.4 If missile flight testing does not begin soon, or if serious difficulties are encountered, the IOC of the entire system would be delayed [29 lines not declassified] Thus it appears that the Chinese are committed to a substantial solid-propellant program, and could start flight tests at any time.

The Chinese Approach to Their Strategic Programs

18. Chinese strategic attack programs represent, in sum, an attempt to build the strategic capability befitting a major power. These programs are generally well-conceived and include all the elements of a balanced strategic force. When considered in relation to Chinese technical resources, they represent a rather ambitious effort, even building on the substantial know-how and material aid furnished initially by the USSR and the great amount of technical information in the public domain. When considered in relation to US and Soviet programs, however, Chinese strategic programs represent a small effort and slow progress. After 15 years, China is still a considerable distance from an intercontinental capability, and does not appear to be catching up to the superpowers.

19. Even so, the programs generally show no great sense of urgency. They are carried out systematically and at a deliberate pace. The R&D programs often show the results of the comparatively small numbers of people working on them. If successful, test results are not confirmed by a large number of follow-up tests. If unsuccessful, correction of the failures sometimes takes a long time. The Chinese do not always do things the way the US or the USSR would do it, but they show they understand the principles and are working steadily at the job.

20. Reflecting limited Chinese resources, R&D and deployment is carried out with an economy of means. Many fewer missiles or nuclear devices have been tested than is US or Soviet practice to arrive at similar products. The CSS–2 development program, for example, was characterized by relatively few test firings by US and Soviet standards, and was spread over a period of 4–5 years. [5½ lines not declassified]. [Page 636] Economy of means was also evident in the design of the CSS–X–3. It consists essentially of the proven CSS–2 as the first stage plus a smaller liquid-propellant second stage. The CSS–X–3, in turn, was used as China’s first space-launch vehicle with the addition of a fairly small third stage. And the CSS–X–4 probably will be used to orbit photoreconnaissance or communications satellites before it is operational as an ICBM.

Considerations with Regard to Future Forces

21. Judgments as to whether China will emphasize capabilities against the USSR or the US in the future, and at what rate strategic programs will move toward their objectives, are obscured by a marked slowdown [2½ lines not declassified] production of Tu–16s was cut in half in 1972; and there have been no space shots for two years. [1 line not declassified]. This lack of activity can be explained in part on technical or programmatic grounds, but it is possible that a more general explanation also applies.

22. The slowdown may reflect fallout from the death of Lin Piao5 and the subsequent purge within the military leadership. Any diversion of resources from military programs could have been the result of the reduced role and influence of military leaders. It may also be that China’s leaders have re-evaluated defense priorities and policies and decided that China’s strength would be greater in the long run if a larger portion of their limited resources were devoted to building up the economic base of the country, rather than to immediate military use. It could be that no decision has been made on these issues, and that the slowdown reflects indecision arising from a continuing power struggle in the leadership. And, finally, it may be that with the reconciliation of China to the world, the US withdrawal from Vietnam, and the de-escalation of the Sino-Soviet disputes from military to diplomatic confrontation, Chinese leaders do not feel impelled to push as hard as in the years of crisis.

23. But whatever the cause, it seems likely the present policy disputes will be resolved and technical problems overcome, so that military programs again will move ahead, more rapidly than in the past year and a half, but with greater regard for the achievement of a more balanced economic growth.

24. As for the question of disarmament, Peking has stated its willingness to engage in discussions aimed at total nuclear disarmament. [Page 637] This is, of course, a propaganda stance, and does not necessarily mean that the Chinese always would oppose discussions on arms limitation short of total nuclear disarmament. They are determined, however, to have no part of any agreement which might freeze China in a state of marked inferiority.

25. While these are reasonable estimates of how things may go, Mao’s past record of leading the nation abruptly and unpredictably into sweeping changes of policy—such as the Great Leap Forward, the split with the Soviets, and the Cultural Revolution—makes projections of Chinese national policy especially hazardous. These uncertainties are compounded by the probability that Mao and Chou and other veteran leaders will pass from the scene before long and be succeeded by a new generation of leaders of whom almost nothing is known.

26. Despite the potential uncertainties of policy, the constraints on and momentum of weapons development and production can at least be used to set limits on what can reasonably be accomplished in the growth of the Chinese strategic forces. Thus, given the long lead times and technological difficulties of intercontinental systems, regional forces capable of attacking only Eurasian areas will predominate over the next several years.

27. Force projections under alternative assumptions might be as follows:6

—If the Chinese show little more urgency and no greater rate of development progress over the next several years than in the past year or so, they may have by mid-1978 some 140 missiles and an equal number of Tu–16 bombers for use against peripheral targets, including those in the USSR, but only some 15 ICBMs and one or two SSBNs for use against the US.

—If the Chinese develop new missiles more rapidly and allocate more resources to both regional and intercontinental forces, they could have by mid-1978 some 200 missiles and an equal number of Tu–16s for use against peripheral areas, and some 30 ICBMs and a few SSBNs which could attack the US.

—With optimum success in developing missile systems, and some shift in resources to hasten their deployment, the Chinese might by 1978 have a peripheral force of about the same size as the first case above, but qualitatively improved, and some 40 ICBMs and several SSBNs capable of attacking the US.

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28. Whatever the composition of the force, it is certain that the Chinese will have no more than a deterrent capability vis-à-vis the US and the USSR (considerably greater vis-à-vis the USSR) throughout the 1970s. Small in relative numbers, deficient in necessary accuracy, and lacking sophisticated penetration aids and multiple re-entry vehicles, China’s missile force will have no counterforce capability. An early warning system to cover only the approaches from the USSR may be operational within three or four years, but even in this case warning times will be minimal because of the short distance from Soviet missile bases to Chinese targets, and China will probably have to continue to rely on the survivability of its force and the deterrent value of a retaliatory capability.

[Omitted here is the Discussion portion of the estimate.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Council, Job 79R1012A: Intelligence Publications Files, Box 461, NIE 13–8–7, China’s Strategic Attack Programs. Top Secret. The CIA and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State, Defense, and the Treasury, and the AEC participated in the preparation of the estimate. The DCI submitted the estimate with the concurrence of all members of the USIB, with the exception of the representative of the FBI, who abstained on the grounds that the subject was outside of his jurisdiction.
  2. For additional analysis see NIE 13–8–73, China’s Strategic Attack Programs (Supporting Analysis), dated 7 June 1973, Top Secret, All Source, [handling restriction not declassified] [Footnote in the original. Attached, but not printed.]
  3. The Director of Naval Intelligence, Department of the Navy believes that the first SSBN and its missile system could reach IOC by [date not declassified] [Footnote in the source text.]
  4. The Director of Naval Intelligence, Department of the Navy believes that the first SSBN and its missile system could reach IOC by [date not declassified–] [Footnote in the original.]
  5. Lin Piao (Lin Biao), PRC Minister of Defense from 1959 to September 1971; Vice Chairman of the CCP Central Committee (Politburo) from August 1966 to September 1971. Lin died in September 1971 when his plane crashed in Mongolia, following what appeared to be a failed coup to oust Mao. Following Lin’s death, he was officially condemned as a traitor by the Communist Party of China.
  6. The alternative force developments presented here represent possible directions that Chinese strategic attack forces could take. It should be emphasized that no one of them is to be considered an estimate that Chinese attack forces will be composed of the particular weapon systems in the precise numbers listed. They are intended only to be illustrative models of possible trends and differing emphases, and are developed primarily for broad policy use at the national level. They are not intended for defense planning purposes; projections developed for planning in the Department of Defense are included in the Defense Intelligence Projections for Planning (DIPP). [Footnote in the source text.]