The Chinese military’s rapid buildup is on pace to reach 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 — nearly the number of current U.S.-deployed warheads, the Pentagon said in a survey of Chinese military power revealed Tuesday.
Two years ago, the People’s Liberation Army’s nuclear arsenal was limited to about 200 warheads, a stockpile that has doubled to more than 400 today, the report said. China first tested a nuclear weapon in 1964, but it has long trailed far behind the U.S. and Russia in the number of warheads in its arsenal.
The nuclear buildup could serve as a backstop for Beijing’s long-range plan for a military takeover of Taiwan, the self-ruled democratic island that China claims as its territory, the report said. The buildup includes intercontinental ballistic missiles and increased warhead production because of the deployment of multiwarhead missiles.
In 2021, Beijing expanded work on three large fields in western China that will hold at least 300 new ICBMs.
China also has deployed an ultra-high-speed missile called the DF-17, designed to defeat missile defenses and able to deliver both nuclear and conventional warheads.
Among China’s increasingly sophisticated strategic weapons is a unique delivery, space-based “fractional orbital bombardment system,” which was tested in July 2021. The test “likely demonstrated the PRC’s technical ability to field an FOB system,” said the report, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.
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The system successfully fired a simulated warhead from an orbiting missile against a ground target after traveling nearly 25,000 miles in space.
“The PRC is investing in and expanding the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces,” the report said. “If China continues the pace of its nuclear expansion, it will likely field a stockpile of about 1,500 warheads by its 2035 timeline.”
The DF-41 is the first road-mobile and silo-based ICBM with an estimated three multiple warheads.
The annual Pentagon report, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin calls the “pacing challenge” for American military planners, covers developments in China through 2021 but also includes the Chinese Communist Party’s congress in October.
That congress granted new powers to Chinese President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping and set policy for the regime “focused on intensifying and accelerating the PLA’s modernization goals over the next five years, including strengthening its ‘system of strategic deterrence,’” the report said.
Military officials say the party also meets to set policy on Chinese efforts to eventually take over Taiwan.
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The report said China officially has a “no first use” policy of not being the first to employ nuclear arms in a conflict. Yet it said China could violate that policy if non-nuclear attacks threaten its forces. China also is moving to a higher alert status for its nuclear forces called “launch on warning.” At the same time, Beijing called on other states to abandon that posture.
China’s nuclear missile submarine forces also are expanding with future missiles carrying multiple warheads.
The report concludes that China is expanding and diversifying its nuclear warheads by building warheads and delivery systems equal in reliability and survivability to U.S. and Russian systems.
China’s nuclear warhead stockpile was estimated to be in the low 200s in 2020, and U.S. intelligence analysts estimated at the time that it would not double until around 2030. Yet the PLA’s accelerated nuclear program means it will have about 1,000 warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by the middle of the decade, the report said.
Beijing has not declared its ultimate targets for more warheads and continues to reject arms control talks with the United States, in part by arguing that its nuclear assets are far smaller than those of Washington and Moscow.
More generally, the Pentagon report said, the Chinese strategy is to achieve political, social and economic modernity as defined by the CCP that will ultimately transform the world. At the party congress in October, Mr. Xi’s variant of communist ideology was added to the constitution.
China’s nuclear stockpile poses a growing challenge to international arms control efforts. The United States, under the New START arms accord with Russia, has 1,550 deployed warheads and others in reserve. Military commanders have said the Chinese nuclear expansion means the United States, for the first time, must deter two adversarial nuclear peers: China and Russia.
China obtained much of its nuclear warhead technology from espionage against the United States.
The CIA concluded in a public assessment more than a decade ago that the Chinese military obtained secrets on every deployed nuclear warhead, including the small, submarine-launched missile warhead known as the W-88, during the Clinton administration.
The alarming Chinese nuclear expansion has been the focus of recent testimony by military commanders, who have described it as “breathtaking” in scope and a “breakout” from the past Chinese nuclear force posture.
A senior Pentagon official who briefed reporters Tuesday appeared to play down the nuclear buildup.
The buildup is taking place at “a dramatically accelerated pace” but is not a major change since last year, the official said.
The nuclear expansion “does raise questions about whether they’re kind of shifting away from a strategy that was premised on what they referred to as a lean and effective deterrent, where they said they would have the kind of minimum number of nuclear weapons that was required for the PRC’s national security.”
The annual report reflects the Biden administration’s renewed emphasis on seeking ways to engage with China despite tensions over Taiwan, human rights, trade and other issues.
China cut off climate and military talks with the United States after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. After a meeting between President Biden and Mr. Xi last month, the two sides are discussing a restart to the talks.
The report pulls back from military power assessments suggesting that China does not pose a major military danger. Instead, the report characterizes PLA military advances, including the nuclear expansion, as a “challenge” or “concern.”
On Taiwan, the report warned that China could conduct a range of military campaigns against the island, including air and maritime blockades or a full-scale invasion. Chinese military forces conducted exercises that simulated an invasion, including the launch of military vehicles from civilian ships in reaction to Mrs. Pelosi’s visit.
“Tensions between the PRC and Taiwan heightened in 2021 as the PRC intensified political and military pressure aimed at Taiwan,” the report said.
China also continued to challenge the fragile status quo across the Taiwan Strait with hundreds of warplane flights into Taiwan-controlled areas. Taiwan’s military is developing war-fighting concepts that would involve asymmetric capabilities to meet the threat from the mainland, the report said.
“This year’s report documents a relentless ramp-up of PRC military capabilities toward 2027 and beyond,” said Andrew S. Erickson, professor of strategy and research director at the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute.
“Despite having over 400 nuclear warheads already, and expanding at a rate that would reach 1,500 by 2035, Beijing refuses to acknowledge its buildup, let alone engage in arms control discussions.”
Mr. Erickson said the buildup is “the dangerous results of Xi’s decade-and-counting in command: demanding unconditional deference at home and, increasingly, abroad.”