Unlocking the Puzzle of China’s Neutron Bomb

Why did China develop a neutron bomb that it never deployed? 

Why does China develop weapons systems that it opposes? China criticizes U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, but conducted three BMD tests of its own from 2010 to 2014. China regularly supports a treaty to ban space weapons, but has repeatedly tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) system. It is also unclear how China’s nascent hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), reportedly designated the WU-14, might fit into its military doctrine. In general, China’s rapid military modernization and opaque defense budget only exacerbate concerns over the compatibility between China’s stated views and actual practice in developing strategic weapons.

One way to answer this puzzle is to look at history, specifically the history of China’s neutron bomb program. From 1977 to 1988 China developed a neutron bomb, more formally known as an enhanced radiation weapon. Neutron bombs are specialized tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) with reduced blast effects and enhanced radiation. Similar to the BMD and ASAT puzzles, this weapon appears incompatible with China’s stated nuclear doctrine. China’s no first use doctrine emphasizes strategic forces and responding only to a nuclear attack, whereas a neutron bomb is tactical and ideal for first use against conventional forces.

The puzzle deepens because there is no evidence that China ever deployed a neutron bomb. Declassified U.S. intelligence and Chinese press reports indicate the PRC developed and tested this capability, but give no indication of deployment. The timing is odd too, as China was impoverished in the 1970s but still chose to develop an expensive weapon like the neutron bomb. It waited until 1988 to test a final design, after relations with the Soviet Union (the presumed adversary during the program) had improved.

My new National Defense University monograph uses primary sources such as biographies of Chinese nuclear weapons scientists, press reports, and technical articles to answer these questions. These sources allow us to reconstruct the neutron bomb program’s history and assess what drove decisions throughout the program. As a case study China’s neutron bomb program contributes to broader discussions about China’s weapons development decision making then and now.

The neutron bomb 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 and keeps them in reserve. The longer report also considers how this model might apply to China’s decision-making on BMD, ASAT, and HGV systems. To assess the drivers behind Chinese decisions, the report uses five variables as an analytical framework:

1.     China’s strategic environment – What security concerns drove China’s decision to build a neutron bomb?

2.     The neutron bomb’s strategic value – How did Chinese leaders perceive the neutron bomb’s strategic value against likely threats?

3.     The neutron bomb’s normative value – Would a neutron bomb enhance China’s international prestige, or lead to opprobrium because of a taboo against the weapon?

4.     Resource demands – What were the political, financial, material, and personnel demands for this weapon?

5.     Technological feasibility – What were the challenges for developing and producing a neutron bomb, and how did Chinese scientists address them?

A final intervening variable is coalition politics. Champions and opponents of any weapons program can greatly affect decisions. In the case of China’s neutron bomb, General Zhang Aiping was a key advocate for the weapon. With these variables in mind, China’s neutron bomb program followed three stages.

1977-1980: Decision and Initial Research

In 1977 Chinese media followed the controversy over the U.S. decision to develop and deploy the neutron bomb in Europe. Soviet media denounced the U.S. neutron bomb as the “perfect capitalist weapon,” and pressed China to also condemn it. Instead Chinese media kept a neutral tone, making the Soviets more alarmed over Beijing’s “silence.” On September 21, 1977 Chinese General Zhang Aiping broke the silence with—of all things—a poem in the state-run newspaper People’s Daily:

Steel alloys are not strong, and

Neutron bombs are not difficult.

When heroes study the sciences intensely,

They can storm all earth’s strategic passes.

At this point Chinese leaders had already ordered initial research into the neutron bomb. Regarding their motivations, one scientist recalled Deng’s statement in 1966 “What others have already done, we also must do; what others have not yet done, we certainly must also do.” The message was clear—if other countries had the neutron bomb so should China. Some scientists initially opposed developing a neutron bomb, because they worried such a program would disrupt higher priority work in miniaturizing nuclear warheads for use on missiles. Ultimately they acquiesced, knowing they no longer held the same political clout they once had, and that Chinese leaders were prioritizing conventional instead of nuclear weapons.

1980-1984: Developing “The Second Generation of Light Boats”