China likely plans to double its stockpile of nuclear warheads in this decade, including those designed to be carried atop ballistic missiles that can reach the United States, the Pentagon said in a report released Tuesday.
Even with such increases, China’s nuclear force would be far smaller than that of the United States, which has an estimated 3,800 warheads in active status and others in reserve.
Unlike the U.S., China has no nuclear air force, but the report said that gap may be filled by developing a nuclear air-launched ballistic missile.
The Trump administration has been urging China to join the U.S. and Russia in negotiating a three-way deal to limit strategic nuclear arms, but China has declined. Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have said China’s arsenal is too small to be included in negotiated limits.
In its annual “China Military Power” report to Congress, the Pentagon said the modernization and expansion of China’s nuclear forces is part of a broader effort by Beijing to develop a more assertive position on the world stage and to match or surpass the United States by 2049 as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region.
“China’s nuclear forces will significantly evolve over the next decade as it modernizes, diversifies, and increases the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms,” the report said.
“Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile — currently estimated to be in the low 200s — is projected to at least double in size as China expands and modernizes its nuclear forces.”
Within that force, the number of nuclear warheads on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of threatening the United States — currently about 100, according to the report — “is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years,” it said.
“As Communist China moves to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile, modernizing our nuclear force and maintaining readiness is essential to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote on Twitter.
As Communist China moves to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile, modernizing our nuclear force and maintaining readiness is essential to a free and open Indo-Pacific. pic.twitter.com/MNbIvDdTkS
— Dr. Mark T. Esper (@EsperDoD) August 29, 2020
The Trump administration is pursuing a plan, begun during the Obama administration, to replace all major elements of the nuclear force — submarines, long-range bombers and land-based missiles — over the next 30 years at a cost projected to top $1 trillion.
It’s unclear whether the full plan would be pursued in the event Democrat Joe Biden wins in November.
Chad Sbragia, the deputy secretary of defense for China policy, said in an interview on Monday that China’s nuclear expansion plan may foreshadow even more ambitious plans.
“An ability to double the stockpile not only demonstrates a move away from their historical minimum deterrence posture but places them in a position where they can readily grow their force beyond this number,” Sbragia said.
The Pentagon report also raised the possibility that China may adopt a higher level of nuclear combat readiness.
Currently, it keeps its nuclear warheads stored separately from its missiles and launchers and thus would need advance warning to get them ready for war. The report said unspecified evidence emerged in 2019 indicating that China wants to keep at least a portion of its force on a higher state of alert known as “launch on warning.”
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