By Mark B. Schneider – Early in the Biden administration, there may have been a significant change in the assessment of the scope of the Chinese nuclear threat.
In April 2021, STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles Richard characterized the buildup of Chinese nuclear capability as “a breathtaking expansion.” The Defense Department may be in the process of changing the ridiculous assessment contained in its 2020 annual report on Chinese military power that the Chinese nuclear warheads numbered only in the “low 200s” and that it would at least double this figure in the next 10 years. In his sobering February 2021 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, Admiral Richard wrote, “China’s nuclear weapons stockpile is expected to double (if not triple or quadruple) over the next decade.” This essentially doubles the 2020 Pentagon report’s estimate, increasing the number to about 1,000 warheads by 2030. This is quite credible. China expert Richard Fisher has written, “…the breadth of the PLA’s missile building indicates that it could increase this number [300-400] rapidly, perhaps exceeding the 1,000 warheads called for by the editor of China’s hardline Global Times.”
In an article, I wrote in October 2020 entitled “The Chinese Nuclear Threat,” I pointed out that the “low 200s” estimate was one of the lowest in the world, lower than previous Pentagon estimates and the evidence outlined in the report did not support such a low number. Specifically, I noted:
After repeating every year that China was increasing the number of its nuclear weapons, the 2020 Pentagon China report says the Chinese nuclear stockpile is “currently estimated to be in the low-200s…” This clearly creates the impression that the number of Chinese nuclear weapons has declined since 2011, which is nonsense. Since 2011, there has been a substantial expansion of Chinese strategic nuclear capability. The Pentagon’s 2011 China report said China had 50-75 nuclear ICBMs, 5-20 nuclear IRBMs and no SLBMs. The 2020 Pentagon report indicates that China has 100 nuclear ICBMs, four ballistic missile submarines, each carrying 12 nuclear missiles, two additional missile submarines fitting out, 200+ nuclear-capable DF-26 IRBMs, and that some of China’s current ICBMs could carry up to five nuclear warheads each. If the 1984 declassified DIA report is used as a baseline [150-160 nuclear warheads], the addition of all these forces (not to mention Chinese non-strategic nuclear weapons modernization) has increased the Chinese nuclear forces by only 70-80 warheads. This is not credible.
I also stated that other estimates of the number of Chinese nuclear weapons go as high as 3,000 nuclear weapons.
China has traditionally been extremely secretive about its nuclear forces. In 1982, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, said that China should “…hide our capabilities and bide our time.” Yet, in 2020, in an unprecedented move, China attacked the accuracy of the Pentagon estimate in its main English language mouthpiece Global Times in an article signed by its Editor-in-Chief. He wrote, “…the [Pentagon’s] estimation of ‘low 200s’ underestimates the number of nuclear warheads in China”, adding “…that international estimation put the number of China’s nuclear warheads at over 200 in the 1980s.” Indeed, in April 2020, he stated, “China needs to expand the number of its nuclear warheads to 1,000 in a relatively short time. It needs to have at least 100 Dongfeng-41 strategic missiles.” A month later, he backed away from this somewhat, saying 1.000 nuclear warheads and 100 DF-41 ICBMs were “not [the] exact number, but the concept of magnitude.” He did state that it was his “…gut feeling is that China will increase its nuclear warheads, and I believe this is also the gut feeling of many people.”
The most amazing development was yet to come. The South China Morning Post reported that “…a source close to the Chinese military said that its stockpile of nuclear warheads had risen to 1,000 in recent years, but less than 100 of them are active.” It seems unlikely “a source close to the Chinese military” would make such a statement without at least informal official sanction.
By “active”, he probably means warheads mounted on delivery vehicles. The one hundred number appears much too low. However, non-alert bomber and non-strategic nuclear warheads are usually not mated to delivery vehicles for safety reasons. According to Danny Stillman, former head of intelligence at the Los Almost National Laboratory, Chinese warheads are not one-point safe (i.e., an accidental detonation will not produce any significant nuclear yield). Noted U.S. China expert Colonel [ret.] Larry Wortzel points out that China puts “nuclear and conventional warheads on the same classes of ballistic missiles and collocate[s] them near each other in firing units of the Second Artillery Corps…” (The Second Artillery has now been renamed the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force [PLARF].)
The 2020 Pentagon report also likely dramatically underestimates the number of Chinese non-strategic nuclear weapons. Credible sources, including Russian experts, believe the number is much higher, mainly reflecting their belief that China has a very large arsenal of tactical non-strategic nuclear weapons. As China continues to build up its strategic nuclear forces, the ratio between non-strategic and strategic nuclear weapons will likely decline. According to Richard Fischer, “Determining true numbers, however, is complicated by the PLARF’s adding some number of reloads to intermediate-, medium-, and short-range ballistic missile units and cruise missile units.”
In February 2021, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General John Hyten stated China was building nuclear weapons “faster than anybody on the planet,” including new ICBMs, cruise missiles, and nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles “that we have no defenses for.” The reference to Chinese nuclear cruise missiles is both old and new at the same time. It is old because there are previous statements by senior U.S. generals and other DoD reports that China had nuclear cruise missiles. It is new because it does not appear in the 2020 edition of the Pentagon’s report on China’s military power. In fact, in October 2020, Russian state media reported that the Chinese CJ-20 cruise missile was nuclear-capable. There are other reports that the CJ-20 is nuclear-capable.
The Pentagon 2020 report does not credit the Chinese with any nuclear-capable cruise missiles, despite the fact that declassified CIA documents indicate that one of the last few Chinese high-yield nuclear tests in the 1990s involved a cruise missile warhead. Regrettably, there appears to be hesitancy on the part of the drafters of the Pentagon report to credit the Chinese with more nuclear capability than they have publicly acknowledged. The Chinese are increasingly willing to credit their forces with nuclear capability, but sometimes even this is ignored in unclassified intelligence assessments.
In April 2021, Admiral Richard revealed new and important information concerning the scope of the Chinese nuclear weapons buildup in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He stated that “The CSS-20 (DF-41) became operational last year, and China has stood up at least two brigades.” This is very important because operation capability for the DF-41 alone about doubles the number of operational Chinese strategic nuclear warheads because the DF-41 is a large missile that is generally reported (including by Global Times) as being capable of carrying ten warheads. Noted military expert James R. Howe says that the DF-41 has “6-10 MIRV w/yields of 20, 90, 150 or 250 kt.” The Pentagon’s 2020 report stated that China had paraded at least 16 mobile DF-41 launchers through Beijing in 2019. Admiral Richard’s formulation of “at least two brigades” opens the possibility that there are now more than two brigades. Richard Fischer writes. “There are also reports of a rail-mobile version of the DF-41, a larger solid-fuel and silo-based ‘DF-45,’ and an HGV[hypersonic glide vehicle]-armed ICBM.”
Admiral Richard also noted that behind a complete lack of transparency, “…China is rapidly improving its strategic nuclear capability and capacity, with rapid growth in road-mobile production, doubling the numbers of launchers in some ICBM brigades, deployment of solid fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos on a potentially large-scale, an added air leg, and are well ahead of the pace necessary to double their nuclear stockpile by the end of the decade.”
These are potentially very telling threat developments. Doubling the number of launchers in some brigades will increase the number of warheads they can deliver, and the number can be higher if these are MIRVed ICBMs. For example, there are press reports that the new Chinese DF-31AG/DF-31B ICBM is MIRVed. Certainly, large-scale deployment of single warhead or MIRVed silo-based ICBMs would significantly increase the threat.
China has made public a photograph of a covered version of its new B-2/B-21-like the stealth H-20 heavy bomber. This bomber will be nuclear-capable. Indeed, China has said so. The 2020 Pentagon report stated that the H-20, “…could debut sometime in the next decade with the following features: a stealthy design, employing many fifth-generation technologies; a likely range of at least 8,500 km; a payload of at least 10 metric tons; and a capability to employ both conventional and nuclear weaponry.” China’s new air-launched nuclear-capable ballistic missile carried by a modified H-6N bomber, which China has said is nuclear-capable, constitutes a major threat development. In effect, it is a new leg of China’s strategic nuclear deterrent with implications for both strategic and theater targeting. There is also a photograph of an H-6N carrying what appears to be an air-launched hypersonic missile. Indeed, Global Times said it is a hypersonic missile. Chinese hypersonic missiles are reportedly nuclear-capable.
Candor about the growing Chinese nuclear threat is hardly universal in the U.S. Government. For example, the recently published report of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), according to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, appears to be “Watered Down and Out of Date.” (Emphasis in the original), Kristensen points to the revelation that the new Chinese JL-3 SLBM with have MIRVed warheads as being very important. Richard Fisher has concluded that this program could increase the number of Chinese nuclear SLBM warheads to 700.
A MIRVed JL-3 would mean a very large further increase in Chinese strategic nuclear capability. However, this is actually old news. While the JL-3 formulation in the NASIC report is stronger than previous statements (it appears in a slightly less explicit form in the 2020 edition of the Pentagon’s China report), Asian press reports that the Chinese plans to MIRV its SLBMs go back over a decade.
The 2020 Pentagon report does not credit China with any short-range nuclear missiles, despite the fact that the 2006 Chinese Defense White Paper said China had nuclear “tactical operational missiles of various types.” The Chinese formulation indicates more than one type of missile. “Tactical operational missiles” are what we call short-range missiles. In 2012, Russian expert Aleksey Arbatov said China had 150 nuclear operational tactical ballistic missiles.” An official at Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has said that the Chinese M-11 (DF-11/CSS-7) short-range missile “can fire a variety of warheads ranging from nuclear and chemical warheads to electromagnetic pulse warheads.” The Chinese DF-15 short-range missile is also reportedly nuclear-capable. The Pentagon’s 2020 report does not credit China with nuclear artillery, despite the fact that two declassified CIA reports reveal that one of China’s last announced high-yield nuclear tests may have been a nuclear artillery round. Russian sources also report that China has nuclear artillery rounds.
A major reassessment of China’s nuclear capabilities is long overdue. If China has about 1,000 nuclear warheads in 2030, this would represent a very serious threat. If it already has about 1,000 nuclear warheads today and is increasing that number, this would be even more alarming. Chinese provocations against most of its neighbors and the legacy of Maoist insanity concerning nuclear warfare (i.e., China can survive the loss of hundreds of millions of people) make China even more dangerous. Maoism still has an impact on Chinese thinking about nuclear war. The growing Chinese tendency to advertise the scope of its nuclear capability may very well relate to its intention regarding near-term military aggression against its neighbors and its long-term goal of devising a new world order.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.