The Department of Defense disclosed its count of China’s nuclear warheads for what is believed to be the first time in a new 200-page report on China’s rapidly growing military power and said that the country’s stockpile of nuclear warheads may double this decade.
The department assesses that China has an operational nuclear warhead stockpile in the low 200s, a small but deadly force that could make an adversary with a larger arsenal think twice. “Over the next decade, China will expand and diversify its nuclear forces, likely at least doubling its nuclear warhead stockpile,” the Pentagon argued in its annual China Military Power report, the latest of which was released Tuesday.
The Pentagon report explains that China is believed to have “enough nuclear materials to at least double its warhead stockpile without new fissile material production.”
Discussing the report at a virtual American Enterprise Institute event Tuesday afternoon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia stated that “just looking at number of warheads by itself is not the entire picture.”
He said that “China is expanding and modernizing and diversifying its nuclear forces across the board.”
“China’s nuclear forces will significantly evolve over the next decade as it modernizes, diversifies, and increases the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms,” the new Pentagon report states.
The newly-released report also noted that China intends to put at least a portion of its nuclear forces, particularly its expanding silo-based force, on a “launch on warning” status, which would mean that some weapons would be armed and ready for launch with limited notice during peacetime, as the US does with its intercontinental ballistic missile force.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper previewed the Pentagon’s expectation that China’s nuclear warhead stockpile will double over the weekend, writing in a social media post that “as Communist China moves to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile, modernizing our nuclear force and maintaining readiness is essential to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The US is in the process of modernizing the various legs of the nuclear triad in response to advances by China and Russia. At the same time, the US has been pushing China to join an arms control agreement placing limits on nuclear arms expansion.
“If the US says that they are ready to come down to the Chinese level, China would be happy to participate the next day,” the head of the Chinese foreign ministry’s arms control department said in July, the South China Morning Post reported. “But actually, we know that’s not going to happen.”
The US has several thousand more nuclear warheads than China has in its stockpile. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the US has a total nuclear weapons inventory of about 5,800, an arsenal only rivaled by Russia.
In addition to its assessments on China’s evolving nuclear force, the Pentagon also reported that “China has already achieved parity with—or even exceeded—the United States in several military modernization areas.”
In particular, China is outpacing the US in shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air-defense systems.
The Department of Defense says that China has “the largest navy in the world” and “is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes,” it has over 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles, and it has “one of the largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems.”
China’s objective as it modernizes its fighting force is to achieve a world-class military by the end of 2049, a goal publicly stated by China’s leadership.