China's Nuclear Weapons Buildup Is a Strategic Breakout

December 7, 2023 Topic: China Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaGrand StrategyNuclear StrategyNuclear WeaponsCongress

China's Nuclear Weapons Buildup Is a Strategic Breakout

On August 12, 2021, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard summed it up: “We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China….The explosive growth in their nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I described as breathtaking.”

The October 2023 bipartisan Congressional Strategic Posture Commission’s report contained two important insights concerning the implications of China’s nuclear weapons buildup: 1) the United States will soon be threatened not by “one, but two nuclear peer adversaries, each with ambitions to change the international status quo, by force,” and 2) that China will achieve “…rough quantitative parity with the United States in deployed nuclear warheads by the mid-2030s.” Unfortunately, the situation is likely even worse. On August 12, 2021, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard summed it up: “We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China….The explosive growth in their nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I described as breathtaking.”

The Commission’s assessment of the 2027-2035 Chinese nuclear threat, while better than any published Pentagon assessment in decades, is still based upon flawed executive branch analysis. The Pentagon’s assessment of the Chinese nuclear buildup is very ominous, but it is probably substantially too low. There has been a slow recognition of this growing nuclear threat in the Pentagon reports. The October 2023 Pentagon report on Chinese military power, published after the Commission report (the Commission data cutoff was in May 2023), voiced increased concern about the unprecedented Chinese nuclear buildup. It revealed that China was accelerating its extensive nuclear modernization and that the Chinese nuclear weapons expansion was “on track to exceed previous projections,” which included in the 2022 Pentagon China report’s an estimate of 1,500 weapons in 2035. The Chinese nuclear warhead numbers released in the 2023 report indicated that China had “more than 500 operational nuclear warheads as of May 2023,” and that it would have “over 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030.” Counting “operational” nuclear weapons appears to have been selected in order to make the Chinese nuclear force look lower compared to that of the United States. The U.S. nuclear weapons numbers announced by the Biden Administration in 2021 included “active” (operational), inactive, and weapons awaiting dismantlement. It did not state how many “active” nuclear warheads the United States has.

In June 2023, for the first time since the United States developed nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the Biden Administration openly stated its acceptance of numerical nuclear inferiority. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that “…the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them.” Hence, the Biden Administration has every incentive to minimize public perception of the scope of adversary nuclear capability. This appears to be what the Pentagon is doing.

There is a large disconnect between the visible Chinese nuclear missile buildup and the Pentagon’s slow and minimal projected increase in the number of Chinese nuclear warheads. It appears that the assumptions in the Biden Administration’s threat assessment are designed to avoid reasonable conclusions concerning the motives and implications of the rapid growth of Chinese nuclear capabilities and the political objectives that motivate it. The Chinese military and nuclear buildup began when the threat to China had evaporated due to the demise of the Soviet Union. As the 2023 report of the bipartisan United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission pointed out, “Beijing continues to hold to the same aggressive course on foreign policy that it has been pursuing in recent years.” Bill Gertz observed that the report “…includes an alarming list of indicators that Beijing is preparing for war with the United States.”

The 2023 Pentagon China report stated that China had 500 ICBM launchers, 350 ICBMs, 72 armed SLBM launchers, 250 IRBM launchers, and 500 nuclear-capable IRBMs. Note that China is assessed as having substantially fewer ICBMs than ICBM launchers while having twice the number of IRBMs than IRBM launchers apparently because of a reload capability. Yet there is little difference between mobile ICBMs and mobile IRBMs and how they operate. The Chinese mobile DF-31A and the mobile DF-41 reportedly may also have a reload capability. No explanation for this difference between the treatment of Chinese mobile ICBMs and mobile IRBMs is provided in the Pentagon report. The assumption that the Chinese are building ICBM silos and mobile ICBM launchers much faster than they are constructing the missiles they will house and arming these missiles with fewer warheads than they can carry or arming their silos with their less capable ICBMs, makes little sense. In light of the low assessed Chinese nuclear warhead numbers, the reality that the Chinese are introducing multiple warhead (MIRVed) ICBMs and SLBMs seems to be almost ignored in the assessed Pentagon warhead numbers. The Pentagon has acknowledged that the MIRVed Chinese strategic missiles are the DF-5 ICBM, DF-41 ICBM and the JL-3 SLBM. (In addition, there are press reports that the new Chinese DF-31AG/DF-31B ICBM is MIRVed.) In 2021, General John Hyten, then-Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the new Chinese DF-41 ICBMs can carry ten warheads. The 2022 Pentagon China report assessed it as carrying no more than three warheads. Thus, it appears that the Pentagon has assumed no Chinese nuclear weapons progress in the approximately 15 years since the DF-31 was deployed.

Most press sources, including China’s English language mouthpiece Global Times, say the DF-41 is capable of carrying ten warheads. In addition to the silo basing and the road-mobile DF-41 ICBMs, the DF-41 has also reportedly been tested from a rail-mobile launcher. The DF-5 is a large MIRVed ICBM which the 2022 Pentagon report credits as being able to carry “up to five MIRVs.” Noted China expert Richard Fisher says that an improved version of the DF-5 has been tested with ten warheads. The Pentagon reports contain no warhead number for the Jl-3 SLBM. Richard Fisher has credited it with up to six warheads. James R. Howe, Vice President of Vision Centric, indicated that the JL-3 could carry three to ten warheads. It is interesting to note that in 2019, President Xi stated that China’s sea-borne nuclear forces must advance by “leaps and bounds.”

China also has an extensive nuclear-capable bomber program including upgraded versions of H-6 (based on the Soviet Tu-16), a new heavy stealth bomber under development and is also developing a new stealthy medium bomber (the existence of which was finally confirmed in the Pentagon’s 2023 China report.) The nuclear weapons carried reportedly include ballistic and cruise missiles and presumably nuclear bombs. In 2023, General Anthony Cotton, Commander of the United States Strategic Command stated that, “The air-refuellable H-6N bomber is armed with new nuclear-capable cruise missiles and air-launched ballistic missiles that may be nuclear capable….”

The Strategic Posture Commission’s report noted that China is developing “…fractional or multiple orbital bombardment systems (FOBS or MOBS) that could potentially threaten an unwarned preemptive attack on the United States.” (Emphasis added). The 2023 report of the bipartisan United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission observed that, “China is also pursuing a space-based nuclear weapon that has the potential to threaten the U.S. homeland with a new global strike capability, and it is developing frontier technologies that could lead to a paradigm shift in warfighting.” This is a reference to the Chinese FOB/MOB system that also involves a hypersonic vehicle, but the orbital capability is more important. (While the minimal U.S. air defenses cannot intercept hypersonic gliders neither can they intercept ordinary ballistic warheads when released from low earth orbit.) The report also noted “…the possibility that China could permanently deploy nuclear weapons in space, effectively adding a fourth leg to its nascent nuclear triad.”

The October 2023 Pentagon report on Chinese military capabilities ignores the multiple orbital capability of this Chinese weapon. This is an important omission because a multiple orbital system can launch no warning Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attacks on the United States, its allies and its military forces as well as attacks on critical time urgent targets such a nuclear command and control, bomber bases and Trident submarine bases. The October 2023 Pentagon China report does not even mention the nuclear EMP threat from China. Yet, even the 2005 edition of the Pentagon report noted that, “Some PLA theorists are aware of the electromagnetic effects of using a high-altitude nuclear burst to generate high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP), and might consider using HEMP as an unconventional attack, believing the United States and other nations would not interpret it as a use of force and as crossing the nuclear threshold.” The 2004 report of the Congressional Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack stated that, “China and Russia have considered limited nuclear attack options that, unlike their Cold War plans, employ EMP as the primary or sole means of attack.” In light of the very weak U.S. nuclear command and control system, zero warning orbital nuclear EMP attack is a serious threat.