The Chinese military is rapidly building up its strategic missile forces and is on track to deploy up to 1,000 warheads by 2030 — nearly four times the previous estimates, the Pentagon acknowledged in its annual report on Chinese military power made public Wednesday.
In another sign of Beijing’s quickly expanding military capabilities, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed China’s recent test of a hypersonic missile, which circled the globe from pole to pole in practicing the delivery of a nuclear weapon.
The disclosure that China’s People’s Liberation Army is expected to field a missile force with 1,000 warheads in less than 10 years sharply expands on intelligence from 2020 warning that China’s force of about 250 warheads would double by the end of the decade. China strongly resisted Trump administration pressure last year to join nuclear arms control talks with the U.S. and Russia. Beijing said its nuclear arsenal was far smaller and was intended solely for defensive purposes.
The warheads are being fielded on at least 350 new multiple-warhead DF-41 missiles being readied for three intercontinental ballistic missile bases discovered in western China.
“The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027,” said the report, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the [Defense Department] projected in 2020.”
The Pentagon said China likely has set up an emerging nuclear triad by developing a nuclear-tipped, air-launched ballistic missile and improved ground- and sea-based strategic capabilities.
A few years ago, Chinese nuclear forces were limited to a handful of long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States and several hundred warheads. The small force was based on China’s “no first use” policy of unleashing its forces only in retaliation of an attack.
U.S. military analysts now say China is moving to a “launch on warning” nuclear posture similar to that employed by the United States and Russia to deter nuclear-armed adversaries, with more nuclear weapons and more options on when and where to fire them.
“New developments in 2020 further suggest that the PRC intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force,” the report said.
The hundreds of Chinese warheads will match the effectiveness, reliability and survivability of some warheads and strike platforms that the United States and Russia are developing, the report said.
The report said last year that the Pentagon’s assessment of China’s warhead stockpile, estimated to be in the “low 200s,” would double in 10 years. That pace has changed radically, according to the new report. “Since then, Beijing has accelerated its nuclear expansion, which may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030,” the report said.
Infrastructure for the expansion includes increased production and separation of plutonium by building fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities. Chinese activity at a nuclear test site in western China has continued “year round.” It includes the use of small-scale explosive chambers, test tunnels and methods to block seismic data to international monitoring stations.
The nuclear weapons expansion is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s drive to build a “world-class” military by the middle of the century. Chinese state media and retired PLA commentators have backed the acceleration. They say China needs 1,000 warheads and a switch from no-first-use to mutually assured destruction to bolster its deterrence capabilities.
The speed and size of the buildup in the next years are beyond what is needed for responding to a first strike, the Pentagon report concluded.
The U.S. analysis also predicted that China would try to mask the pace of its nuclear buildup by claiming continued adoption of a limited nuclear force, the report said. China is building “hundreds” of ICBM silos and “is on the cusp of a large silo-based ICBM force expansion comparable to those undertaken by other major powers.”
The silos could be used for DF-41 or DF-31 ICBMs, and workers are preparing for large-scale construction.
Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, told The Washington Times in an interview Wednesday that many in the U.S. military senior ranks are not surprised by the sharp uptick in China’s nuclear force and in its military capabilities more generally.
“One of the most interesting things about being a China watcher over maybe the last 10, 15 years has been it’s the only country, certainly in my memory, and I’ve had people in the intelligence community tell me that they’ve never seen a country that consistently accelerates faster than we estimate,” Gen. Hinote said.
“The Soviets didn’t do that, certainly not North Korea or Iran, anything like that. But China has done a good job of taking their economic power … and applying that to acceleration of military capability.
“I always expect China is going to be pushing the edge of that envelope increasingly forward,” he added.
China caught the attention of military planners around the globe with a still-unexplained weapons test that Gen. Milley on Wednesday called “very, very significant” in the context of Beijing’s overall large-scale buildup of high-technology forces.
“In my view, we’re witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed,” Gen. Milley said at a conference in Washington.
The Chinese hypersonic missile test appeared to be part of a developing fractional orbital bombardment system — a long-range nuclear strike capability designed to hit targets from polar trajectories in ways that could evade early warning radar and missile defenses. The strike vehicle orbited the Earth before attempting to hit a land target, according to reports of the test.
Hypersonic strike weapons travel at extremely high speeds and can maneuver, making them difficult to track and target with anti-missile interceptors.
The Pentagon report, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” said China’s land-based nuclear forces include ICBMs deployed in silos and on road- and rail-mobile launchers. The number of launchers is being doubled in some ICBM units.
Chinese Jin-class missile submarines can fire submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), but only north and east of Hawaii to reach the U.S. East Coast, the report said.
“As the PRC fields newer, more capable, and longer ranged SLBMs such as the JL-3, the PLA [navy] will gain the ability to target the continental United States from littoral waters, and thus may consider bastion operations to enhance the survivability of its sea-based deterrent,” the report said. The submarine launch areas likely will be the South China Sea and Bohai Gulf, where missile submarines are based.
PLA nuclear bombers include the H-6N, which has been modified for air-to-air refueling and for carrying nuclear-tipped, air-launched ballistic missiles.
China wants to replace the United States as the leading superpower and is taking steps with its military to achieve that goal, Gen. Milley said at the Aspen Security Forum.
The four-star general said hypersonic weapons are not new and that the recent Chinese test was not a game-changing “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the launch of the first satellite by the Soviet Union, setting off the space race. But he said the test represented a major advance in China’s military capabilities, which include the relatively recent acquisition of advanced space capabilities, intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, jet fighters, warships and submarines.
“So if you look at the totality, this test that occurred a couple of weeks ago is only one of a much, much broader picture of a military capability with respect to the Chinese that is very, very significant.”
The Chinese arms buildup of unique weaponry has changed the character of modern warfare. Gen. Milley compared the shift to the change brought on by the introduction of military aircraft in World War II.
Robotic weapons, the application of artificial intelligence and the use of precision-guided munitions, in combination, “are leading to a fundamental change in the character of war …,” Gen. Milley said. “If we, the U.S. military, don’t do a fundamental change to ourselves, in the coming 10 to 15 to 20 years, then we’re going to be on the wrong side of a conflict.”
Gen. Milley agreed with a questioner that the polar-orbiting hypersonic strike vehicle could upset the balance of power. “I think there is the potential for that. There could be strategic instability introduced into that,” he said.
The strategic threat posed by China is producing a “tripolar world” expanding the U.S.-Soviet strategic confrontation that defined the Cold War, he said.
“We’re entering into a world that, in my view, is potentially more strategically unstable than the last 40, 50, 60 years,” he said. “That means we’re going to have to put a premium on maintaining great-power peace.”
Despite recent Chinese military moves against Taiwan and stepped-up Chinese warplane incursions into the defense zone surrounding the island, Gen. Milley said he does not believe Beijing’s communist leadership will attack or use other methods to retake Taiwan in the next 24 months.
But, he added, the Chinese are “clearly and unambiguously” building forces for a possible future strike.
“In the near future, probably not. But anything can happen,” Gen. Milley said of a Taiwan-China showdown.
Asked whether the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan emboldened China, the Joint Chiefs head warned U.S. adversaries against learning the wrong lessons.
“If Russia or China or any other adversary is interpreting the conclusion of our involvement in Afghanistan in a way that determines weakness or walking away or turning our back, I think that would be a misinterpretation on their part,” he said. “I would caution any country out there to think that the United States in any way, shape or form is weak. That would be a bad call.”
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.
Correction: This article was initially published online with an incorrect byline.