Pentagon warns of Chinese aim to double nuclear arsenal

Pentagon warns of Chinese aim to double nuclear arsenal
© Getty Images

China is expected to double the roughly 200 nuclear warheads it currently has over the next decade, the Pentagon said in a report released Tuesday.

“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,” the Pentagon said in its annual report on Chinese military power.

Within the overall force, the number of warheads for China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of threatening the U.S. is “expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years,” the report added.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Pentagon report is not the first U.S. warning about Chinese efforts to double its nuclear arsenal, but it is the first time the Defense Department has disclosed numbers.

The Pentagon’s projection is based on an assessment that China “probably” has enough nuclear material to double its warheads without producing new fissile material, according to the report.

Tuesday’s report comes amid particularly high tensions between Washington and Beijing, as the Trump administration blames China for the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly confronts China over issues such as Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

The new report also comes as the Trump administration is seeking to replace the last nuclear treaty between the United States and Russia with an agreement that also includes China.

The New START treaty between Russia and the United States caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 a piece. It is set to expire in February.

China has repeatedly rejected joining arm control talks, calling U.S. invitations insincere and highlighting the much larger U.S. nuclear arsenal. In July, a Chinese diplomat said Beijing would be “happy” to join talks if Washington slashes its warheads to China’s level, in a comment widely seen as facetious given the unlikelihood of the United States agreeing to that.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Trump administration, though, has warned of intelligence assessments on China’s work to increase its nuclear arsenal in arguing for the necessity of a trilateral nuclear treaty.

After a meeting in Vienna with Russia last month, Trump’s arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, said he would recommend Trump extend New START “if we do so in a way that is extensible to China ultimately,” suggesting the possibility of a separate framework to set the stage for China’s future inclusion.

The numbers in the Pentagon report, however, are less than the roughly 300 warheads arms control groups have previously estimated to be the size of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal and is still far below New START’s limits and the United States’ estimated 3,800 warhead stockpile.

Advocates said Tuesday’s report should not justify ending New START.

“Even if DoD is correct and China doubles its arsenal by 2030 to 400-500 warheads, China's arsenal will remain far smaller and less capable than that of the U.S. and Russia,” tweeted Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. “The foolishness of throwing away an extension of New START due to concerns about China can’t be overstated.”

The Pentagon said its concern is not just with the numbers, but what China’s ability to increase its stockpile signifies about its long-term intentions.

“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, which is part of the point,” Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, told a small group of reporters at an off-camera briefing, according a transcript released by the Pentagon.

Tuesday’s report also warned that China is approaching the ability to be able to deliver nuclear warheads in three ways: by land, sea and air. 

Specifically, the report said China is upgrading bomber aircraft with two new air-launched ballistic missiles, “one of which may include a nuclear payload.”

“Its deployment and integration would provide China for the first time with a viable nuclear triad of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air forces,” the report said.