WASHINGTON -- An annual report on China produced for the U.S. Congress and released on Wednesday does not include as much information on the country's nuclear weapons program as in past years, according to experts.
The publication produced by the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission is eagerly anticipated each year by defense wonks. The 12-member commission was established in 2000 for the purpose of advising lawmakers on commercial and military matters related to China. The body is made up equally of Republican and Democratic appointees.
Typically the report offers new insights from the U.S. defense and intelligence communities on the status of China's conventional and unconventional military capabilities.
However, independent analysts reviewing this year's 465-page document said they did not see in it much detail on strategic nuclear weapons that was not already publicly available.
"Many nuclear-weapons issues are not addressed at all, including the status of the apparently stalled [Dongfeng]-31 ICBM deployment or the much-rumored-but-elusive DF-41 ICBM," said Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, referring to ground-based ballistic missiles.
Last year's edition appears to have offered greater depth in analyzing China's nuclear arsenal, to which the report in past years has devoted an entire section. This time around, there was no separate topic area on the nation's atomic weapons.
The 2012 report included mention of reports that the People's Liberation Army was testing the little-understood DF-41, revealing the missile was likely to have the ability to fire multiple independently targetable warheads.
The commission's 2010 version also gave considerable attention to the damage that Chinese missiles could do to U.S. military bases in Asia.
This year's document, however, seems to commit comparatively fewer words to the nuclear threat that China poses to the United States, though it did touch on Beijing's expected acquisition of a credible submarine-based deterrent.
Commission member Larry Wortzel said the body does not always cover the same information in reports from one year to the next.
"We tend to look for major trends or developments," which means that "some subjects get more lengthy treatment one year and not the other," he said in a Thursday e-mail.
The document does not discuss the controversial topic of just how many nuclear arms China is believed to possess. Last year's commission report noted how estimates vary widely from thousands of warheads to just a few hundred, and that a projection of around 240 weapons appears to be the more widely accepted view among weapons analysts.
Wortzel, who during a lengthy Army career did two tours of duty as a military attaché in China, said the commission assessed that "not much has changed" in outside projections made about the size of China's nuclear arsenal since 2012, "so we felt there was no need to repeat that material."
Kristensen said he hoped the dearth of words included in the report regarding China's nuclear stockpile meant the authors had concluded that past claims of an arsenal measuring in the thousands are unfounded.
Part of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission's mandate is to monitor, investigate and report to Congress issues related to Chinese proliferation practices. As such, commission staff is empowered to interview U.S. defense and intelligence officials about the status of China's military development, according to Gregory Kulacki, the Union of Concerned Scientists' China project manager.
"It's really not a comprehensive report; it's more a summary of events" in the last year, Kulacki said on Wednesday. "There's nothing in the report one couldn't learn by following the news stories, which is surprising considering the amount of time and money that is put into maintaining that commission."
The report did offer a projection that China would begin operating its "first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent" before the year is over. The Chinese navy has deployed three Jin-class ballistic-missile submarines and "probably will field two additional units by 2020," it reads.
Kulacki said he thought that projection lacked sufficient substantiation.
"I don't think China is moving quite that fast" on its ballistic-missile submarine program, he said.
The commission last year said China had fielded two Jin-class nuclear-capable vessels, and this year indicated that another such submarine had become operational. A total of five Jin-class vessels are expected.
Kristensen said he found an "important error" in the report's conclusion the strategic submarines with their JL-2 ballistic missiles, which have an estimated range of 4,600 miles, would be able to carry out nuclear attacks on the mainland United States from China's coastal waters.
"That is not correct, a fact that anyone with a map can check," the nuclear analyst said in an e-mail.
Beijing would need a submarine-launched ballistic missile with a range of at least 5,200 miles to be capable of striking Seattle, for example, if launched from Chinese littoral waters, he concluded in a recent FAS blog post.
Wortzel defended having included the assertion that JL-2 missiles fired from Chinese waters could strike the U.S. mainland on the grounds the contention was sourced directly from the Office of Naval Intelligence's 2009 assessment on the Chinese navy.