Chinese Nuclear Capabilities and Competition With the U.S.

Chinese Nuclear Capabilities and Competition With the U.S.
inhua/Li Gang
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The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released on February 3, 2018, follows the steps of the National Security Strategy 17 (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy 18 (NDS), confirming China, together with Russia, as U.S. main strategic competitors. According to them, the re-emersion of inter-state strategic competition is the main threat for U.S. national security in the global environment since Beijing and Moscow are striving to limit Washington’s power projection in their areas of influence. In addition, the NPR points that while the U.S. was seeking a smaller, less dangerous and less powerful atomic stockpile, the PRC moved in the opposite direction, increasing and modernizing its own.

For the major developments in China’s nuclear doctrine across decades, reference is made to my article on evolving Chinese Nuclear Doctrine. Here, I shall consider only Chinese intercontinental atomic capabilities that could be unleashed against U.S. territory in a nuclear strike, leaving the theater, short, medium and intermediate-range capabilities out, though they could be used for attacking or deterring the U.S. in case of a regional or local conflict.

Regarding the warheads, Beijing’s atomic stockpile should count between 180 and 270 units (according to the different estimates) coherently with the purposes of “existential deterrence” and “minimum deterrence.” The Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) force should consist of about 50-70 carriers, only 40-50 of which could realistically reach U.S. territory. The Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) inventory is hard to estimate, but it’s easier to find out the number of the submergible ships in charge of launching them (4 SSBNs in service). The air domain is the major weak spot of Beijing’s strategic triad. Indeed, PRC can rely only on a limited and outdated fleet of bombers (H-6), mainly former-Tupolev-16 withdrawn 25 years ago in Russia.

Facing the U.S. offense-defense superiority, it is doubtful whether China can ensure a second-strike, the key aim of its nuclear strategies. The land-based ICBM stock, in fact, is vastly more vulnerable to a first strike and interceptors, since it is fixed (launched by silos) and liquid-fuelled. The submarine missile force, in turn, suffers a structural limit: the active SLBMs (JL-1 type, 1000+ range) should be launched by submarines from a forward position in the Pacific to reach U.S. territory, beyond the first and the second chains of islands surrounding China, the several U.S. allies and the numerous U.S. overseas bases (firstly Guam and Hawaii). The U.S. naval primacy is substantiated, in fact, in a preponderant presence in the Pacific against which China has no equal weapons. This is also the reason why PRC considers a national security priority to ensure the exclusive exploitation of the adjacent seas and archipelagos. As mentioned, China could not even rely on its strategic air force (about 20 H-6 bombers with a range of 3100+ km).

21st-century Chinese leadership has initiated a wide program of modernization to remove these constraints and ensure effective deterrence.

With regards to the intercontinental force, the test of Dongfeng-41 (DF-41), a new ICBM MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles) solid-fuelled and mobile-launched, has been a massive turning point. The DF-41 will become operational in 2018 and will be the first of the next generation of ICBMs with a plausible 12000+ km range, able to reach U.S. territory from China. In the submarine domain, the ongoing modernization proceeds both for the ships (SSBN) and for the missiles. Four new submarines are expected to become operational in the coming years, fitted with wider storage for missiles to easily accommodate the new JL-2 (~ 7000 km range). A successor (JL-3) has already entered the development phase, but no information has leaked out yet. To complete the strategic triad, the People’s Liberation Army is developing a new strategic bomber, the H-20, to replace the old vehicles. It is worth mentioning the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system tested in the last years and deemed “successful” by Chinese military leaders, that has acquired hit-to-kill capabilities.

In conclusion, analysts seem to agree that the ongoing modernization is assuring China the long sought-after second-strike capability. This will necessarily transform the Asian security context and, therefore, the U.S. and the People's Republic should set new bilateral and, only afterward, multilateral frameworks to face the new scenario. If the U.S. accepts China as a strategic interlocutor, it will be possible to negotiate a common set of rules to reduce friction and misunderstanding chances and to promote win-win outcomes, tackling those slippery fields left to the subjective perceptions of the leadership. For this purpose, the U.S. and China can still benefit from a pacific and constructive relation as a breeding ground to build that framework.

Lorenzo Termine is an Italian student in International Relations (MD), and a Chinese Foreign and Security policy analyst for various Italian magazines. He is also a Junior Fellow at, a think tank on IR and Geopolitics based in Rome. You can follow me on Twitter at @LorenzoTerm and Linkedin.

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