World Affairs

China’s Rapidly Expanding Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Raises Concerns

China's nuclear weapons

Without explanation, China’s People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has expanded the types and quantity of its nuclear-tipped weapons more than ever before in the past five years.

In fact, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published its annual Nuclear Notebook last month. In the chapter entitled Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 2024, written by Hans M Kristensen, Matt Korda, Eliana Johns and Mackenzie Knight, “China’s nuclear weapons expansion is among the largest and fastest modernization campaigns among the nine nuclear-armed states.”

According to the chapter’s authors, China has made significant progress in its missile development over the past year. This includes expanding its three new missile silo fields for solid-fuel ICBMs, constructing more silos for liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs, and developing new versions of both ICBMs and advanced strategic delivery systems. Additionally, it is believed that China has manufactured excess warheads for future deployment on these systems. Furthermore, China has also expanded its DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which have replaced the DF-21 in their nuclear capabilities.

Nuclear weapons reduction advocates find such figures depressing. On its six Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, the PLA Navy now carries JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) in addition to land-based truck-launched and silo-launched missiles.

In the air, H-6 bombers of the PLA Air Force have been reassigned to an operational nuclear mission, and an air-launched ballistic missile which is likely to have nuclear capabilities is still being developed. Once the stealthy H-20 bomber is deployed, this capacity will grow even further.

The Chinese military has remained silent on the possible growth of their ICBM arsenal, while the writers of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ section on China have acknowledged the difficulty in obtaining accurate information from China’s PLARF. In their words, “Assessing and estimating China’s nuclear weapons capabilities is a complex task, especially considering the limited availability of official data and strict control over information about their nuclear weapons and strategy.” Beijing has never publicly disclosed the number of warheads they possess, and their reputation for secrecy regarding nuclear weapons is well-known.

The Chinese military has remained silent on the possible growth of their ICBM arsenal, while the writers of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ section on China have acknowledged the difficulty in obtaining accurate information from China’s PLARF. In their words, “Assessing and estimating China’s nuclear capabilities is a complex task, especially considering the limited availability of official data and strict control over information about their nuclear weapons and strategy.” Beijing has never publicly disclosed the number of warheads they possess, and their reputation for secrecy regarding nuclear weapons is well-known.

According to Ankit Panda, Stanton Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, there is likely no one overarching reason as to why Chairman Xi Jinping prioritizes China’s ballistic-missile arsenal.

As a first consideration, this may simply be part of Xi’s efforts to build a world-class military for China. China may also have calculated that a larger force is necessary to ensure retaliation, which is a traditional goal. A surge may also be the result of the Rocket Force’s growing political power following the reorganization of the PLA in 2015. China has not yet provided us with a convincing explanation for why the forces are growing.”

In April 2022, Admiral Charles Richard, the former leader of the US Strategic Command, commented on China’s rapid expansion of strategic forces as “breathtaking.” During a testimony last March, General Anthony Cotton, who currently heads the force, expressed concern over China’s pursuit to achieve on par or even superior quantitative and qualitative nuclear capabilities compared to the United States. While China’s professed policy is based on minimum deterrence, their existing nuclear capabilities already surpass this threshold and continue to escalate at an alarming pace.

Therefore, the Pentagon believes that China’s expansion of liquid-fueled ICBM inventory and massive new missile silo fields indicate that Beijing is moving to a launch-on-warning posture.

Part of this posture involves an early warning counterstrike strategy, relying on space- and ground-based sensors to warn of enemy missile strikes so that it can launch its own missiles before they are destroyed.

PLARF is being kept at a “moderate” level of readiness- china’s nuclear weapons

The construction of several hundred of these aforementioned missile silos has caused considerable debate regarding China’s official “No First Use” policy. According to the 2024 report, “…there is little evidence to suggest that the Chinese government has diverged from it, which is also reiterated in its 2023 national defense strategy.”

According to the four authors, China’s No First Use policy probably has a high threshold, regardless of what the specific red lines are. Even if China were to engage in conventional warfare with a military power like the United States, experts believe that a first strike would be of limited strategic value to it.”

As noted in the same report, the modernization of China’s nuclear forces may eventually impact their nuclear strategy and public statements by providing more effective means of deploying, responding, and coercing with either nuclear or dual-capable forces. The 2022 US Nuclear Posture Review also suggested that China’s ongoing efforts to expand and enhance its nuclear arsenal could potentially give them new options for using nuclear weapons in a crisis or conflict, including potential military actions against US allies and partners in the region. Furthermore, advancements in non-nuclear weapons could potentially allow for strategic strikes that produce similar effects to a first use of nuclear weapons.

After all, President Vladimir Putin played such a nuclear card to prevent NATO and the US from getting directly involved in the Ukraine conflict.

According to Panda, nuclear coercion could occur during a Taiwan contingency. “China has historically maintained a fairly restrained nuclear posture, and has hampered the threat of nuclear attack.” Xi could calculate, however, that a much larger Chinese nuclear force will instill US decision-making with greater prudence in a potential Taiwan contingency than a smaller force. He is likely to be right.”

Currently, China has 438 nuclear warheads, plus another 62 that have been produced but not yet been operationalized, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Pentagon estimated 500 warheads in its report on China’s military capabilities last year, almost identical to this assessment.

In past editions of these reports, the US Department of Defense predicted that the PLARF’s nuclear warhead stockpile would reach 1,000 by 2030, and perhaps even 1,500 by 2035, with many of them “deployed at higher readiness levels” and most fielded on systems able to reach the continental United States.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists observed that previous Pentagon estimates have been unreliable. This is partly due to the complexity of predicting figures for the US military. For example, it is difficult to determine the exact number of missile silos China will build, how many warheads each of these weapons will hold, and how many missiles will be deployed. Additionally, uncertainties remain about the number of ballistic missile submarines and bombers in construction as well as the percentage of DF-26 missiles with nuclear capabilities.

This chapter listed the following amounts for each missile type: IRBMs of the DF-26 (x108); ICBMs of the DF-5A (x6), DF-5B (x60), DF-31A (x24), DF-31AG (x64) and DF-41 (x84); SLBMs of the JL-3 type (x72); gravity bombs dropped by the H-6K bomber aircraft (x10), and air-launched ballistic missiles carried by H-6N bombers (x10).

One interesting point in this independent assessment is that all nuclear-tipped versions of the DF-21 and DF-31 are likely to be retired, as are the JL-2 SLBMs that were previously carried by submarines.

DF-17 hypersonic medium-range ballistic missiles once were thought capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but now it is generally accepted that they cannot. In addition, the report assumed that half of China’s DF-26 IRBM inventory is armed with nuclear warheads, even though there is no data to verify

The accuracy of this approximation- china’s nuclear weapons

When another party is being targeted by the DF-26 missile, which can be equipped with either a conventional or nuclear warhead, the ambiguity creates doubt and the potential for rapid escalation.

According to Panda, there are risks here, but those risks could serve as deterrents for China, he said. The Chinese leadership may interpret US and allied attempts to possibly attack Chinese DF-26 forces as an attack on the country’s nuclear forces, with escalating consequences.”

Thus, Panda suggested that this should be a topic for dialogue between China and the US. However, Beijing refuses to engage on nuclear weapons control frameworks with the USA.

“China has said the US and Russia need to reduce force sizes to that of Beijing before arms control can commence; we might now be looking at a world where China moves closer to where the United States and Russia are.” As US-Russia arms controls fray almost completely in the coming decades, we could face a three-way arms race.”

A tripartite arms race over nuclear weapons threatens to erode the relative stability of the Cold War.

Apparently, China is developing a HQ-19 anti-ballistic missile system and a hit-to-kill midcourse interceptor aimed at IRBMs and ICBMs.

It would still take many years for it to develop.”

There are currently 45 brigades of the PLARF equipped with ballistic or cruise missile launchers, according to the authors. The PLARF has expanded its number of missile brigades. Thirty of these have nuclear launchers, or are about to do so. A new missile is also believed to be in development.

This missile is alleged to have a range of 5,000-8,000 kilometers, called the DF-27. In light of the fact that such a range is redundant for nuclear strikes, since such distances are easily reached by ICBMs, this suggests that the DF-27 may only be used for conventional strikes. China performed a multirole hypersonic glide vehicle flight test in February 2023 for the DF-27, which travelled 2,100 kilometers.

In July 2021, China tested a fractional orbital bombardment system, which was particularly significant due to its unprecedented nature. However, there are some factors that limit the PLARF’s advancement.

In order to expand its nuclear stockpile, China needs plutonium, highly enriched uranium (HEU), and tritium. China possessed 14 tonnes of HEU and 2.9 tonnes of separated plutonium by late 2022, an amount sufficient to double its nuclear weapon inventory in the last five years according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

Furthermore, in order for China to expand its arsenal – potentially reaching the 1,000 warhead mark as stated by the Pentagon – it will require an increase in the production of fissile material. As noted by Kristensen, Korda, Johns and Knight, the Chinese nuclear missile force faced difficulties in early 2024 due to reports of corruption within the People’s Liberation Army. This has led to a decline in confidence regarding their overall capabilities, particularly within the Rocket Force.

As a result of recent dismissals of top defense officials and widespread corruption, the Chinese leadership may not be able to arm missiles with warheads in peacetime. PLARF is a strategic force, but Xi regrets the lack of loyalty amongst its top leadership, and corruption evident in the organization. Investing heavily in this missile force is one thing, but Xi has serious reservations about its political, as well as likely combat, reliability.

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I'm Shruti Mishra, Editorial Director @Newsblare Media, growing up in the bustling city of New Delhi, I was always fascinated by the power of words. This love for words and storytelling led me to pursue a career in journalism. In this position, I oversee the editorial team and plan out content strategies for our digital news platform. I am constantly seeking new ways to engage readers with thought-provoking and impactful stories.

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