China Accelerates Next-Gen Nuclear Weapons Development To Compete With US, Russia

As we have been documenting over the last year and beyond, China is rapidly modernizing its military; unveiling a new stealth bomber, an array of guided-weapons, and deploying further from home. Their most recent focus has been on next generation nuclear weapons – as Beijing ramps up blast experiments for nukes comprised of smaller, smarter warheads designed to limit damage by targeting specific targets, according to the South China Morning Post

Between September 2014 and last December, China carried out around 200 laboratory experiments to simulate the extreme physics of a nuclear blast, the China Academy of Engineering Physics reported in a document released by the government earlier this year and reviewed by the South China Morning Post this month.

In comparison, the US carried out only 50 such tests between 2012 and 2017 – or about 10 a year – according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. –SCMP

China’s development of next gen nukes will put them in direct competition with the United States and Russia, sparking concerns by experts over the prospect of a new cold war arms race that has the potential of boiling over into thermonuclear war. 

Of primary concern is the notion that nations possessing smaller, targeted nukes might be more inclined to use them vs. larger and more devastating munitions – which could easily lead down the slippery slope of larger nuclear exchanges. 

These new weapons are considered more “usable” for tactical tasks such as destroying an underground bunker while generating little radioactive fallout.

Pentagon officials have said the US wants its enemies to believe it might actually use its new-generation weapons, such as smaller, smarter tactical warheads designed to limit damage by destroying only specific targets.

But with these relatively safer and less destructive weapons in hand, governments may end up losing the inhibition to use them. -SCMP

The use of small warheads will lead to the use of bigger ones,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie told the Post. “If other countries use nuclear weapons on us, we have to retaliate. This is probably why there is research to develop new weapons.”

While an international ban prohibits China from testing actual nuclear weapons (a ban North Korea has laughed at for years), major nuclear powers continue to conduct testing via high-powered gas guns that fire high speed projectiles at weapons-grade laboratory materials.

The tests are conducted using a large, sophisticated facility known as a multi-stage gas gun, which simulates the extreme heat, pressure and shock waves produced in a real nuclear blast.

The experiments with the gas gun provide scientists with the data they need to develop more advanced nuclear weapons.

In the past, researchers used supercomputers to draw on historic data derived from live nuclear tests performed before the international ban was imposed in the 1990s.

But new technology that emerged in recent years, such as hypersonic vehicles and artificial intelligence, opened the door for the development of new nuclear weapons that could be smaller in size and more precise.

The gas gun works by using special explosives to force a piston along a hydrogen-filled metal tube. Once the hydrogen gas reaches a certain temperature and pressure, an “impactor” is released which travels at incredibly high speeds of at least 18,640 MPH towards a target. 

Smaller than a saucer, the impactor is comprised of the same materials used in a nuclear warhead such as plutonium, metal, plastic or foam of different densities – resulting in a chemical reaction similar to that of a nuclear detonation. 

[insert: gas gun.JPGf29bb5ca-5f25-11e8-a4de-9f5e0e4dd719_972x_130850.jpg , f2cf81f2-5f25-11e8-a4de-9f5e0e4dd719_972x_130850.jpg ]

US gas gun at Jasper facility in Nevada

The impactors are quite difficult to produce, as even the slightest structural defect at the microscopic level of just a few nanometers can ruin the experiment, according to Luo Guoqiang of China’s Minyang research center. 

The making of the impactor involves the cream of precision manufacturing. Thanks to numerous breakthroughs in recent years we are now beating our counterparts in the US with a series of impactors with superior performance,” he said.

Well made impactors, allow experiments to proceed faster at lower cost, while obtaining higher quality data. 

Over the past three years, Chinese scientists have carried out more such gas gun tests than the United States has in 15 years. 

In tunnels deep under mountains in Mianyang, southwestern Sichuan province, where China’s main nuclear design facilities are based, loud blasts from these experiments can be heard more than once a week.

In comparison, between 2003 and 2017, the US fired a total of 150 simulated shots at its Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research (Jasper) facility at the Nevada National Security Site. -SCMP

That said, China can’t hold a candle to the United States when it comes to advanced nuclear technology, according to Professor Wang Chuanbin, from the State Key Laboratory of Advanced Technology for Materials Synthesis and Processing at the Wuhan University of Technology.

Wang says that the number of live tests conducted by China pales in comparison with the U.S., which has set off over 1,000 nuclear warheads since 1945 beginning with the Manhattan Project. China, meanwhile, has only carried out 45 live tests. 

“It is possible we are in a hurry to catch up,” Wang said.

James Lewis, senior vice-president at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said a new round of the nuclear arms race had already begun, though public opinion had yet to catch up with the grim reality.

The White House is considering a US$1.2 trillion plan to upgrade its nuclear stockpile. Earlier this year, the Pentagon announced it would develop new low-yield nuclear weapons that could be mounted on conventional cruise missiles and launched by submarines.

The White House’s developments are in response to Russia’s recent actions, according to Lewis, who notes that Russian President Vladimir Putin has revealed a series of new nuclear weapon designs – including smaller, tactical nukes – as well as a “super torpedo” capable of wiping out coastal cities. 

“It’s not clear to me how successful the Russian programme will be, but it has stirred everyone up on the subject,” Lewis said. “After some debate, the US decided it needed to think about warheads, without the need for actual tests. It wouldn’t surprise me if China saw all this and decided that it had better get in the game.”

Following a February announcement by US officials of a new nuclear weapons policy, an editorial was published in Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times which said that China would seriously consider going public with its tactical, low-yield nuclear weapons program in response. 

“China is a nation capable of massively increasing the size and improving the technology of its nuclear stockpiles,” stated the newspaper, adding “China needs a new policy to deal with a new situation.”

And as we mentioned last week, Bank of America’s Mike Hartnett writes that the “trade war” of 2018 should be recognized for what it really is: the first stage of a new arms race between the US & China to reach national superiority in technology over the longer-term via Quantum Computing, Artificial  Intelligence, Hypersonic Warplanes, Electronic Vehicles, Robotics, and Cyber-Security.

At the end of the day, the China First strategy will be met head-on by an America First strategy.  Hence the “arms race” in tech spending which in both countries is intimately linked with defense spending. Note military spending by the US and China is forecast by the IMF to rise substantially in coming decades, but the stunner is that by 2050, China is set to overtake the US, spending $4tn on its military while the US is $1 trillion less, or $3tn.

This means that some time around 2038, roughly two decades from now, China will surpass the US in military spending, and become the world’s dominant superpower not only in population and economic growth – China is set to overtake the US economy by no later than 2032  – but in military strength and global influence as well.

And, as Thucydides Trap clearly lays out, that kind of unprecedented superpower transition – one in which the world’s reserve currency moves from state A to state B – always takes place in the context of a war.

Which explains BofA’s long-term strategic recommendation: “We believe investors should thus own global defense, tech & cybersecurity stocks, particularly companies seen as “national security champions” over the next 10-years.