China likely plans to double its stockpile of nuclear warheads in this decade, including those designed to be carried atop ballistic missiles that can reach the United States, the Pentagon said in a report released Tuesday.
Even with such increases, China’s nuclear force would be far smaller than that of the United States, which has an estimated 3,800 warheads in active status and others in reserve. Unlike the U.S., China has no nuclear air force, but the report said that gap may be filled by developing a nuclear air-launched ballistic missile.
The Trump administration has been urging China to join the U.S. and Russia in negotiating a three-way deal to limit strategic nuclear arms, but China has declined. Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have said China’s arsenal is too small to be included in negotiated limits and that by pressing China to join in such talks the Trump administration has created a pretext for walking away from the existing U.S.-Russia arms treaty known as New START. That deal is due to expire in February but could be renewed for up to five years if Moscow and Washington agree.
In its annual “China Military Power” report to Congress, the Pentagon said the modernization and expansion of China’s nuclear forces is part of a broader effort by Beijing to develop a more assertive position on the world stage and to match or surpass America by 2049 as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region.
“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 report said. “Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile — currently estimated to be in the low 200s — is projected to at least double in size as China expands and modernizes its nuclear forces.”
Within that force, the number of nuclear warheads on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of threatening the United States — currently about 100, according to the report — “is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years,” it said.
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists and a specialist in China’s force, said the “low 200s” Pentagon estimate is slightly lower than his own estimate of about 300.
“The low number of course somewhat weakens the Trump administration’s warnings about Chinese capabilities” and its concerns that Beijing may be aiming to achieve nuclear parity with the United States, he said.
Tuesday’s report to Congress is not the first time the Pentagon has predicted a doubling of China’s nuclear stockpile. In a speech at the Hudson Institute in May 2019, the then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, said, “Over the next decade, China will likely 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 China’s history.” Ashley said China’s stockpile was in the “low couple hundreds.”