Though a nuclear power for decades, China has long been believed to possess a relatively modest arsenal. That will likely change, however, as the U.S. Department of Defense suspects that Beijing will expand its capabilities to include more than 1,000 nuclear weapons by the end of the decade.
Last year, the Pentagon wrote in an annual report that it estimated China’s nuclear weapon stockpile to be approximately 200.
The informally named “China Military Power Report” from this year, however, warns that the People’s Republic of China “is investing in, and expanding, the number of its land, sea, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces.”
It estimates that by 2027, the communist state will have 700 warheads with delivery vehicles such as missiles, bombers, or submarines available, and that this number will rise to 1,000 by 2030.
The report comes after months of news that China has been constructing hundreds of new missile silos in the northern and western parts of the country. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy has also added several Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to its fleet since 2015, with the newest commissioned this year. Each submarine of this class can carry 12 nuclear-capable missiles.
Last year’s report had predicted China would double its estimated 200 nuclear weapons over the next decade.
‘Modernize, diversify, and expand’
The report states that China aims to “modernize, diversify, and expand” its nuclear force over the next ten years. Investments are being made in land, sea, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms.
“They’re [China] creating capabilities that suggest they might be moving away from a decades-long approach to their nuclear policy and strategy,” a senior defense official said.
China has long held a no-first-use policy with regard to its nuclear weapons, an approach shared by the former Soviet Union. But Beijing could abandon the no-first-use commitment, as it shifts to a “launch on warning” posture.
This strategy, similar to that of the United States and Russia, mean that nuclear weapons units can use their ordnance upon detection of enemy launch, rather than having to wait to confirm that a nuclear detonation has occurred. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear warheads deployed, meaning that its arsenal would have been very difficult to destroy in a “first strike.”
The U.S. and Russia, which succeeded the Soviet Union after its collapse in 1991, still maintain about 10,000 nuclear warheads between them, far outstripping even the expanded Chinese arsenal.
The report also notes a possible connection between the rapid Chinese construction of nuclear power plants — including waste reprocessing and plutonium breeder facilities — and Beijing’s apparent drive for more warheads. Plutonium, a man-made element enriched from uranium, is commonly used in nuclear weapons.
One centerpiece in the PRC’s nuclear expansion is the creation of a credible “nuclear triad,” referring to land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear weapons delivery. In addition to silos and mobile launchers, bombers, and submarines, the Chinese have also made strides in developing hypersonic glide vehicles.
In October, reports emerged that the PRC had successfully tested a hypersonic missile capable of hitting any location on earth. However, the missile missed its intended landing point by 24 miles.
According to the Pentagon report, “the PRC has possibly already established a nascent ‘nuclear triad’ with the development of a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improvement of its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities. New developments in 2020 further suggest that the PRC intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.”
On Nov. 2, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) released a report detailing the construction of the three suspected silo fields in China. “The apparent missile silo fields are still many years away from becoming fully operational and it remains to be seen how China will arm and operate them,” the report states.
The Pentagon report comes as Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned about China’s growing military capabilities at the Aspen Security Forum.
Primarily citing China, Milley said that there are a “lot of challenges in the national security world.” He pointed out that China wants to challenge the United States at the international stage and is seeking to “revise” the “so-called liberal rules-based order.”
Milley believes China will be a big challenge for the United States over the next 10 to 20 years. The world is seeing a massive shift in global geostrategic power that is creating a fundamental change to the nature of war, he said.
“The last big [shift] was the introduction of the airplane, mechanization, and the radio. Today, you’re seeing robotics, artificial intelligence, precision munitions, and a wide variety of other technologies that, in combination, are leading to a fundamental change in the character war. And if we, the United States military, don’t do a fundamental change ourselves in the coming 10 to 20 years, we’re going to be on the wrong side of a conflict,” Milley said.