China will have 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, according to the Pentagon. On November 29, the Department of Defense released its annual report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” also known as the “China Military Power Report.” Military hawks in Congress jumped on the Pentagon’s prediction that China’s nuclear arsenal would grow from about 400 weapons now to an estimated 1,500 in 2035 to call for more money for the military. This prediction was extensively covered in the popular media. The House and Senate approved an $858 billion Pentagon budget for the fiscal year 2023 during the first two weeks of December. This is about $45 billion more than President Biden had asked for, with most of the extra money going toward counter-Chinese armament.
It is important to question these assumptions so we don’t get involved in a new, dangerous arms race. Many people in Washington are already doing this to support the expansion of the United States’ already substantial nuclear arsenal. We must specifically address these three crucial issues: First, how accurately have the news media and US politicians summed up the conclusions of the most recent report? Second, how much of the Pentagon’s claims should we take as accurate? What inferences should we make about the size and composition of America’s nuclear arsenal after all of this?
To start with the first, the headlines and political commentary frequently exaggerate or misinterpret what is in the Pentagon document. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), for instance, doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal from 200 warheads in 2020 to 400 in 2022, according to the report, and “could have about 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 if they continue to expand their stockpile at the current pace,” CNN reported on November 29. But while such claims can be found in the study, they are usually backed up by information rarely mentioned in news stories.
Consider the claim that China went from having 200 to 400 nuclear weapons between 2020 and 2022. If you read the paper carefully, the only thing that backs up this claim is that “Beijing probably stepped up its nuclear growth” in 2021, which caused the number of warheads to go up. Probably? There is no proof for this claim, yet it’s possible that it happened. In any case, none of the significant media accounts contains the word “possibly.”
But the Pentagon’s estimate that the PRC will have about 1,500 warheads by 2035 is based on this unproven claim that Beijing “probably” sped up its stockpile building in 2021. This is done by extrapolating the future gains of 200 warheads. According to the research, “If China keeps up its current rate of nuclear development, it will probably have a stockpile of roughly 1,500 warheads by 2035.” (emphasis added.) Once more, media summaries of the report omit the term “likely.”
The Pentagon’s research also assumes that Beijing can significantly increase its production of uranium and plutonium that can be used to make weapons. This is what led them to estimate that China has 1,500 warheads. However, it accepts that this will necessitate building brand-new reactors and reprocessing infrastructure. There are rumors that the Chinese are constructing nuclear facilities for civilian use that will also be able to meet the military’s demand for warheads, but there are no guarantees that this will be the case. Only that “China is likely building new nuclear production and reprocessing facilities to help its nuclear forces grow” (emphasis added) is said. The claim that the PRC will have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035 is just a guess, and it should be called that. But this critical background information and its qualifier haven’t been talked about in the news about the Pentagon paper.
Since the news media likes to make headlines that get people’s attention, it is not surprising that they chose to focus on the most outrageous claims in the Pentagon’s 2022 assessment of China. But the Pentagon can’t be cleared of blame when it sends out false or misleading information, which it often does.
Take the Pentagon’s claim that “the PRC has an arsenal of about 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles.” This would be a legitimate cause for alarm if accurate because it is three times the number given in the 2021 version of this report. In the 2022 report, however, there is neither a list of China’s ICBM stockpile nor any data to back up this massive increase in its ICBM arsenal. Most estimates of China’s ICBM stockpile by experts outside of the government disagree with this claim. The well-known list of “Chinese Nuclear Weapons” by Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists only has 110 real ICBMs and several hundred ballistic missiles with ranges shorter than intercontinental. To reach its 300 ICBM estimate, the Department of Defense likely aggregated all of these types; however, this is false and wrong.
Think about how the Pentagon has discussed China’s plans to make a fully functional “triad” of nuclear weapons. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), nuclear submarines that can fire missiles (SSBNs), and long-range strategic bombers are the three parts of this retaliation system. A $1.8 trillion program started by the Obama administration replaces each “leg” of the tripartite system that the US has been using since the 1960s with new, more advanced weapons. But the PRC has mostly relied on its few intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and even fewer missile submarines and long-range bombers to stop a nuclear attack by an enemy. The Pentagon says that Beijing is quickly “modernizing, diversifying, and expanding” its nuclear force, but it doesn’t have much evidence to back up this claim.
China’s current SSBN fleet comprises six Jin-class (Type 094) submarines. It is “likely” that these submarines didn’t start doing almost constant deterrence missions at sea until 2021. (In contrast, the US began continual at-sea missile-armed submarine patrols in 1959.) Also, these submarines must be stationed east of Hawaii to hit targets in the eastern US with their JL-2 missiles, which have a range of only 4,300 miles (US missiles have a range of 7,400 miles). This makes them extremely vulnerable to highly effective US anti-submarine forces while traveling. The JL-3 long-range missile will be added to the Type-096 SSBN, a new and more powerful SSBN. The PRC is currently developing it. However, there are no signs of hurriedness in this undertaking. The Pentagon paper claims that Type-096 submarine building “will likely begin in the early 2020s,” but it doesn’t say when they would go into service or when the JL-3 might start operating.
China hasn’t been in a hurry to update the bomber part of the triad, either. The Chinese have upgraded the aircraft over the years, but it wasn’t until 2020 that they deployed a version that can be refueled in flight, the H-6N, which allows it to fly intercontinental distances. The H-6 is the only long-range bomber in service, and it is a Chinese variant of the Soviet Tu-16 bomber that dates from the 1950s. It is said that this version will have pylons on the outside that will let it carry air-launched ballistic missiles “that may be able to use nuclear weapons.” Still, no information is given regarding the projectile’s potential future availability.
When you add it all together, the Pentagon’s assessment of China’s triad activities is entirely inaccurate. It should say: “The PRC is slowly putting together the parts of a fully operational nuclear triad, but it is unlikely to reach this goal until at least the early 2030s.”
No Need to Panic
But even though China doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to add to and improve its nuclear arsenal, it is clear that it, like Russia and the US, wants to improve what it already has. Senior Chinese officials have remained silent on the matter, so precisely what the PRC plans to do in this process is unclear. But most US and Chinese academic experts think Beijing wants to improve its second-strike retaliation capabilities in response to US improvements in offensive and defensive nuclear capabilities. The Department of Defense has said that these projects are moving quickly, but they have been going on for a while and are making steady progress.
Also, Washington shouldn’t use the fact that China is improving and adding to its nuclear weapons as a reason to do the same. Even if the Pentagon is right and China has gone from 200 to 400 nuclear warheads in the last two years, its arsenal is still small compared to the US, which has about 5,400 warheads, and Russia, which has about 5,980. Also, even if China can overcome its current limits on making nuclear weapons and build 1,500 warheads by 2035, which is not a sure thing, Russia and the United States will still have much bigger arsenals.
The United States has no reason to worry about China’s plans to modernize its nuclear weapons. It doesn’t need to buy more nuclear weapons on top of those already covered by the Pentagon’s massive $1.8 trillion modernization plan, which many analysts think is already too much. Instead, the US should stick to a nuclear deterrence strategy that depends on keeping a secure second-strike retaliation capability to stop an enemy’s first strike. High-level talks between the US and China are needed to figure out how to reduce the chances of mistakes and unintentional escalation caused by both countries upgrading their nuclear arsenals at the same time and becoming more hostile toward each other over Taiwan and other important issues.