Here's What You Need to Remember: In October, the PLA tested an apparent space-based nuclear delivery system, indicating it’s developing more exotic weapons to defeat the United States’ limited-capacity missile defense systems.
China has long maintained a much smaller nuclear arsenal than Russia or the United States for ‘minimum deterrence,’ meaning it had just enough nuclear firepower to assure Beijing’s retaliatory strike could still inflict unacceptable devastation. The United States for example actively deploys 1,550 nuclear warheads and has many more in reserve. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) inventory is estimated to count in the low hundreds.
China’s stance was underlined by Beijing’s No First Use policy professing it would only use nuclear weapons in retaliation to an enemy’s nuclear first strike.
However, in 2021 satellite photos confirmed Beijing was finally embarking on a dramatic expansion of its nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, in October, the PLA tested an apparent space-based nuclear delivery system, indicating it’s developing more exotic weapons to defeat the United States’ limited-capacity missile defense systems.
These developments have spurred speculation and anxiety regarding China’s nuclear doctrine. Is Beijing now inclined to use nuclear arms more coercively, including more “useable” lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons? Is its “no first use” policy a sham?
It is worth examining two reports published late in 2021 surveying China’s nuclear doctrine and capabilities: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China released by the Department of Defense; and Chinese Nuclear Forces 2021 by Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen, published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Though differing in their epistemological tendencies, the reports taken together offer a measured perspective on changes to China’s nuclear forces.
How Many Nuclear Warheads Does China Have—and How Many Does Beijing Want?
In 2020, the Defense Department assessed China possessed nuclear warheads in the “low 200s,” a total expected to double, while the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pegged the number higher at 350. But the 2021 Defense Department report indicates a new normal.
“The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027,” the report states. “The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020.”
The big driver in the increase? In the summer of 2021, U.S. researchers using commercial satellite imagery identified three massive fields in remote areas of China (beyond the range of U.S. cruise missiles) studded with over 300 missile silos under construction. That includes 120 silos in Yumen, Gansu province; 110 silos near Hami in eastern Xinjiang province; and 80 silos at Ordos, Inner Mongolia, which is a region in China.
the Bulletin cautions the Defense Department projection seems based on Chinese silo construction, noting that some silos may remain empty to force U.S. nuclear planners to waste counterforce missiles in a “shell game” strategy.
the Bulletin enumerated multiple reasons Beijing is likely pursuing this expansion of its nuclear force. These reasons range from “protecting the retaliatory capability against a first strike” to “overcoming the potential effects of adversarial missile defenses” to “better balancing” the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force “between mobile and silo-based missiles.” Additionally, China wants to increase its “nuclear readiness and overall nuclear strike capability to account for improvements to Russia’s, India’s, and the United States’ nuclear arsenals; and strengthening a sense of national prestige.”
Does China Have the Necessary Plutonium for the Nuclear Missile Buildup?
China ceased military plutonium production in the mid-1980s, but has enough material on hand to double force size according to the Bulletin—“but a tripling—and certainly a quadrupling—would probably require production of additional material.”
However, such production is feasible with China’s existing civilian reactors, and especially with two CFR-600 fast-breeder reactors due to become operational in 2023 and 2026.
These could produce enough material for 990-1,550 warheads according to the Bulletin, which “could exceed [the ICBM force] of either Russia and the United States.” However, higher estimates would also require greatly expanded missile production, or cramming a maximum number of independent nuclear warheads in each missile.
Like Washington, Beijing has signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and furthermore claims adherence to it. However, a high-level activity observed at China’s Lop Nur nuclear test site suggests ongoing “zero-yield” tests.
Is China’s No-First-Use Pledge Genuine? And Under What Circumstances Does it Apply?
Beijing’s No First Use policy has aroused much skepticism as of course such pledges can be broken opportunistically. But until recently, it was arguably credible because China’s arsenal was so much smaller it would have been insane to initiate a nuclear exchange with the U.S. or Russia.
Despite current force expansion, No First Use still guides how China’s nuclear forces are trained and organized: with missiles and warheads stored separately, making a large-scale launch of nuclear weapons on short notice (or by accident) difficult.
Indeed, most of China’s nuclear warheads are stowed in Base 67 at Taibai (near Baoji). However, a small number of warheads are forward-deployed to China’s six operational missile bases. The Defense Department report further assesses: “The PLA probably currently selects its nuclear strike targets to achieve conflict de-escalation and return to a conventional conflict with a remaining force sufficient to deter its adversary.”
Obviously, China’s stockpile would be dispersed to operational brigades during times of high tension or war. But ordinarily, that means only a fraction of China’s nuclear stockpile is deployed and immediately accessible to operational units.
The Defense Department and the Bulletin concur that Chinese officials and officers have signaled privately Beijing might indeed initiate nuclear retaliation against a conventional attack “threatening the survival of the PLA’s nuclear forces or the CCP itself.” Unfortunately, that creates a risk Beijing might misinterpret U.S. strikes against dual-capable missiles as aimed at nuclear disarmament.
Missile Warning System: Are China’s Nukes on a Launch-on-Warning Hair-Trigger?
Russia and the United States maintain a Launch-on-Warning posture with land-based nuclear missiles on round-the-clock alert, ready to launch a counterstrike shortly after an incoming strike is detected. This comes with the risk that a technical error or human misjudgment triggering an “accidental” nuclear retaliation as testified by multiple close calls.
Though Beijing has criticized U.S. and Russian LoW stance, the Defense Department report claims China too is adopting a “posture called ‘early warning counter strike’ . . . broadly similar to the U.S. and Russian LoW postures” in which detection of an incoming attack could lead to the launch of retaliatory missiles before the incoming warheads have hit their target.
The Defense Department cites as supporting evidence China’s construction of additional ICBM silos, deployment of modernized command-and-control systems, and development of improved early warning system including powerful phased array radars, geostationary satellites situated to detect launch flashes, and procurement of Russian technical assistance.
However, the Bulletin argues these developments “could be seen as a Chinese reaction to what it sees is an increasing risk against the survivability of its retaliatory nuclear force.” Furthermore, China’s investment in early-warning capability may be to pave the way for a missile defense system using the HQ-19 missile last tested February 2021.
Does China Have or Want More ‘Useable’ Low-Yield Nukes?
Russia maintains thousands while the United States has a few hundred, tactical nuclear weapons intended to destroy high-value military targets without triggering escalation to strategic nuclear warfare. But while China has precise DF-21 and DF-26 missiles that could deliver effective low-yield strikes, tactical nuclear weapons use is not officially part of Chinese doctrine.
This has not prevented much speculation to the contrary. The Defense Department report cites a Chinese article in 2012 as “provid[ing] the doctrinal basis” for ‘controlled use’ of low-yield nukes. Reportedly, PLA strategists fear the United States might use tactical nukes if it is unable to defeat a PLA invasion of Taiwan using conventional forces, and argues for tactical nuclear weapons capable of proportional response.
However, that PLA officers have occasionally discussed the option hardly proves a change in doctrine has been implemented. David Logan wrote for War on the Rocks in 2020 “More than three decades ago, U.S. intelligence estimates were predicting that China would soon field these kinds of capabilities. But 35 years later, those predictions have yet to come true.”
Overall, China’s nuclear forces appear set to greatly expand in the coming decade. Quantitative and qualitative growth in turn will expand Beijing’s options for how it employs its nuclear deterrence, but it does not follow that every option will be doctrinally embraced.
A companion article for reviews the composition and organization of China’s land-, sea- and air-based nuclear force.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.