China’s nuclear arsenal set to double in the next decade

Harry Lye 2 September 2020 (Last Updated September 2nd, 2020 11:53)

The size of China’s nuclear warhead stockpile is set to double over the next decade, according to the US Department of Defense (DoD) ‘2020 China Military Power Report‘.

China’s nuclear arsenal set to double in the next decade
The Dongfeng-31A intercontinental ballistic missile is in service with the Chinese Army. Image courtesy of IceUnshattered.

The US estimates that China has a stockpile of 200 nuclear warheads, which could reach at least 400 by 2030.

The DoD report adds that China is pursuing its own ‘nuclear triad’ with the development of air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia said: “In the report, we do estimate the current state is in the low 200s. We’re certainly concerned about the numbers. Not just about the numbers, however, and I think that’s to your point a little bit, is not only about the numbers, but also just the trajectory of China’s nuclear developments writ large.

“We do believe that over the next decade, that China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history, China’s history.”

Sbragia said this showed China was moving away from ‘their historical minimum deterrence posture’ to a position where the country can ‘readily grow their force beyond this number’.

Sbragia added: “Combined with a near-complete lack of transparency regarding their strategic intent and the perceived need for a much larger, more diverse nuclear force, these developments pose a significant concern for the United States and why we certainly included that in this year’s report.”

The DoD report says that China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear force and move to a ‘launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force’.

In 2019, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) revealed the H-6N, China’s first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuelable bomber.

A key part of China’s nuclear programme is organised by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), which enhances China’s ‘strategic deterrence’. In 2019, the PLARF launched more ballistic missiles in tests and training than the rest of the world combined.

The report reads: “The PRC is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and will require increased nuclear warhead production, partially due to the introduction of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities.”

The DoD estimates that over the next five years, the number of nuclear-armed Chinese land-based ICBMs capable of reaching the US will grow to roughly 200.

New START with China?

The US is looking to create a new trilateral nuclear framework with China and Russia that would place limits on all three countries nuclear arsenals. Up until this point China has chosen not to participate in US-led discussions on a new trilateral nuclear treaty.

Sbragia said: “The United States believes it is time for China to participate in nuclear arms control. While China has praised agreements such as the New START and INF, it has also sought to avoid participating in the arms control itself.

“At some point, we think it is going to be prudent for us to do so, as the right thing for any nation with these kinds of capacities to achieve. China needs to halt the upward and destabilizing trajectory of its nuclear build-up and work closely to reduce nuclear risks.”

China is not currently signed up to any existing treaties controlling nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Sbragia added: “The United States is willing to make progress with Russia while waiting on China to recognise its interests in behaving like a great power and a responsible nuclear weapons state by pursuing negotiations in good faith”