The Chinese Nuclear Threat

The Chinese Nuclear Threat
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
The Chinese Nuclear Threat
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
Story Stream
recent articles

In September 2020, the Pentagon issued its annual report on the People’s Republic of China’s military capabilities. A common reaction to the report is that it presents a quite sobering picture of Chinese military capabilities. This is certainly correct. However, in one important area, the report is dangerously inadequate -- its treatment of China’s nuclear capability. While its projection of Chinese nuclear capability (at least doubling over the next 10 years) has also been correctly characterized as a “wake up call," the report is likely, at least in terms of the percentage understatement, to be even more inaccurate than the late Cold War depictions of Soviet nuclear capability which got both the number of Soviet nuclear weapons (and underestimation of 17,000) and Soviet doctrine with regard to nuclear weapons first-use completely wrong. It is ironic that despite the fact that the US. has reportedly been warning Russia about the Chinese nuclear threat, the Pentagon report significantly plays down the Chinese nuclear threat. Moreover, the Russians probably credit the Chinese with many more nuclear weapons than the U.S. does.

Historically, the Pentagon report has a history of understating China’s nuclear capability. Indeed, the treatment of Chinese nuclear capability in the Pentagon’s nuclear report is frequently five to ten years behind what is available in open sources.

China has long been extremely secretive about its nuclear forces. In 1982, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, said that China should “…hide our capabilities and bide our time.”[1] This is an excellent description of historic Chinese nuclear weapons information policy -- until recently. Ironically, China’s English language mouthpiece Global Times, in an article by its Editor in Chief, stated, “the [Pentagon’s] estimation of ‘low 200s’ underestimates the number of nuclear warheads in China”, adding “that international estimation put the number of China's nuclear warheads at over 200 in the 1980s.” The latter seems fairly consistent with a declassified 1984 Defense Intelligence (DIA) report that China had “between 150 and 160 warheads.” If this assessment is correct, by the late 1980s, 200 Chinese nuclear warheads is a quite plausible number. It is implausible that 30 years later, given the large-scale Chinese nuclear modernization that has taken place, that their force is only in the low-200s.

The Global Times article was clearly intended to be a message to the U.S., possibly resulting from Chinese consideration of launching a major near-term war. In 2011, the Honorable James Miller, Principal Undersecretary of Defense For Policy, stated that "China is increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal, but is estimated to have only a few hundred nuclear weapons.” After repeating every year that China was increasing the number of its nuclear weapons, the 2020 Pentagon China report says the Chinese nuclear stockpile is “currently estimated to be in the low-200s…” This clearly creates the impression that the number of Chinese nuclear weapons has declined since 2011, which is nonsense. Since 2011, there has been a substantial expansion of Chinese strategic nuclear capability. The Pentagon’s 2011China report said China had 50-75 nuclear ICBMs, 5-20 nuclear IRBMs and no SLBMs. The 2020 Pentagon report indicates that China has 100 nuclear ICBMs, four ballistic missile submarines, each carrying 12 nuclear missiles, two additional missile submarines fitting out, 200+ nuclear-capable DF-26 IRBMs, and that some of China’s current ICBMs could carry up to five nuclear warheads each. If the 1984 declassified DIA report is used as a baseline, the addition of all these forces (not to mention Chinese non-strategic nuclear weapons modernization) has increased the Chinese nuclear forces by only 70-80 warheads. This is not credible.

Not only does the Chinese Government credit China with more nuclear weapons than does the Pentagon report, an Arms Control Association report issued a month before the 2020 Pentagon report said China has 320 nuclear weapons. In 2019, Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists estimated China had 290 nuclear weapons. Neither the Arms Control Association nor the Federation of American Scientists has ever been accused of over-estimating foreign nuclear threats.

Estimates of the Chinese nuclear force range up to three thousand nuclear weapons.[2] The dispute is mainly over how many theater and tactical nuclear weapons China has. For decades, Russian military officers, both active duty and retired, have credited the Chinese with far more nuclear weapons than U.S. estimates. In particular, in 2012, Colonel General (ret.) Viktor Yesin, former head of Russia’s Strategic Missile Force, stated that China had enough fissile material for 3,600 nuclear warheads and that it had 1,600-1,800 nuclear weapons. In 2012, Major General (ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin stated that China had about 1,600 nuclear weapons.[3] Thus, the idea of trying to convince the Russians about the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, presumably using the same numbers as the Pentagon report, is silly. Russian assessments of the number of Chinese nuclear weapons are likely much higher than what is in the Pentagon report.

In 2011, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry published a report crediting the Chinese Second Artillery (now called the Strategic Missile Force) with between 450 and 500 nuclear weapons.[4] This does not include the nuclear weapons held by the other Chinese services. The Taiwanese Defense Ministry has no nuclear deterrent, nor is it a recipient of a nuclear guarantee. Hence, it has no incentive to exaggerate Chinese nuclear capabilities.

The Pentagon’s 2020 report states that China will more than double its nuclear capability over the next decade and that by 2025 it will add more than 200 nuclear warheads. Any reasonable reading of the facts revealed in the report would suggest that this has already happened. The report states, “Development of the CSS-X-20 (DF-41), a new MIRV-capable, road-mobile ICBM, continued in 2019, and the PRC paraded at least 16 road-mobile DF-41 launchers during the 2019 parade that Beijing said belonged to two PLARF brigades. China appears to be considering additional DF-41 launch options, including rail-mobile and silo basing.” The report also relates that the "DF-41 (CSS-X-20) ICBM fielding [is] possible in the near term" and that silos for this missile are being built.

In January 2017, Global Times said the DF-41 had been deployed. In November 2017, Global Times reported that the system would be deployed within months. The Pentagon report’s conclusion that a missile apparently tested since 2012, for which at least 16 mobile launchers existed in 2019 and which had been deployed to two operational Chinese missile brigades, is not now operational is rather astounding.

The DF-41 reportedly has a launch-weight of 80,000-kg, which is roughly that of the U.S. Peacekeeper ICBM, which carried ten warheads. The DF-41 reportedly also carries 10 nuclear warheads. One Russian analyst reports that the yield of DF-41 warheads is150-kt.[5] Noted expert James R. Howe says that the DF-41 has “6-10 MIRV w/yields of 20, 90, 150 or 250 kt.” This seems credible in light of the size of the DF-41 ICBM and the scope of Chinese nuclear weapons espionage against the U.S. through which China obtained detailed design information about all U.S. nuclear weapons. The computers used to design all existing U.S. nuclear weapons (in the 1970s and 1980s) were primitive compared to those that would have been available to the Chinese over the last decade to design the warhead or warheads for the DF-41.

According to the  State Department’s 2020 report on arms control non-compliance, there are “concerns regarding its [China’s] adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard adhered to by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France in their respective nuclear weapons testing moratoria.” Over 20 years before, the Congressional Cox Committee report concluded China might be conducting covert nuclear testing. The Congressional Commission reached the same conclusion on the Strategic Posture of the United States. It is quite possible that nuclear tests of substantial yield can be conducted covertly.

According to Siegfried Hecker, former Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, “[M]ost [new] designs could be adequately tested at yields between one and ten kilotons." Ambassador Dr. Paul Robinson, former Director of the Sandia National Laboratory who participated in the CTBT negotiation said, "At that time [1995], we in the U.S. labs requested that the permitted test level should be set to a level which is, in fact, lower than a one-kiloton limit, which would have allowed us to carry out some very important experiments, in our view, to determine whether the first stage of multiple-stage devices was indeed operating successfully.”

Assuming 10 warheads per missile, the 2019 DF-41 force paraded through Beijing seems to be about the entire 2025 DF-41 force projected in the 2020 Pentagon China report. Despite the fact that the Chinese said that at least 16 paraded launchers belonged to two missile brigades, no additional launchers appear to be assessed by 2025. This makes no sense since, according to China expert Rick Fisher, each Chinese missile brigade has 16 launchers. Thus, it would be necessary to at least double this number to fill out the two brigades the Chinese say have DF-41s. It seems that the 2020 Pentagon report assumes no reload capability for Chinese mobile missile launchers. It also apparently assumes that none of the other new Chinese missile programs noted in the report (rail-mobile DF-41s, a significant number of silo-based DF-41, DF-5C and DF-31B ICBMs) and an air-launched ballistic missile) will be deployed. China has reportedly tested the DF-31B. Chinese non-deployment of all of these systems would be unprecedented, not to mention an enormous waste of money.

The nuclear warhead numbers related in the Pentagon 2020 report – 200 more ICBM warheads by 2025 and at least doubling of Chinese strategic nuclear warheads over the next decade – can account for only about the existing Chinese DF-41 force and the two additional type 096 ballistic missile submarines projected in the report. This seems to be a rather remarkable combination of best-case assumptions about the future Chinese nuclear threat to the U.S. In addition, only two type 096 ballistic missile submarines carrying the new JL-3 SLBM are assessed to be deployed over the next decade. (James R. Howe estimates that China will build 5-8 type 096 submarines.) The JL-3 is reported to carry MIRV warheads. Howe estimates 6-10 warheads per missile. The Pentagon report is silent on this issue. The potential for massive threat underestimation exists. More than a decade ago, there were a number of reports in the Asian press that China was planning to deploy 576 warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Howe also believes that the JL-2 SLBM can be modified to carry two to three warheads.. Howe estimates China has enough fissile material for 3,878 nuclear warheads.

In May 2020, the Editor in Chief of Global Times stated China needed 1,000 nuclear warheads and 100 DF-41s. This may well be the Chinese objective. China’s Underground Great Wall, 3,000 miles of deep underground missile tunnels, makes no sense unless China plans a large increase in its force of mobile ICBMs.[6] If so, if the other Chinese strategic nuclear systems are added to this number, the Chinese will likely have more strategic nuclear warheads than the U.S.

The 2020 Pentagon report’s bottom-line estimate of the low-200s for the current Chinese nuclear force implies only a very small Chinese inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons. This is particularly striking in light of the Pentagon report’s revelation that China has 200+ plus nuclear-capable DF-26 IRBMs. The report also credits the Chinese with an unspecified number of nuclear-capable CSS-5 Mod 2 and Mod 6 (DF-21) MRBMs and the nuclear-capable "CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) ASBM.” The Pentagon report does not credit the Chinese with any nuclear-capable cruise missiles, despite the fact that declassified CIA documents indicate that one of the last Chinese high-yield nuclear tests in the 1990s involved a cruise missile warhead. A 2009 report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) credited the Chinese DH-10 (CJ-20) cruise missile as being nuclear-capable. The 2012 and the 2013 Pentagon’s China reports and the Commander of the U.G. Global Strike Command stated that the new Chinese H-6 K bomber carries nuclear-capable cruise missiles. In October 2020, Russian state media reported that the Chinese CJ-20 cruise missile was nuclear-capable. There are other reports that the CJ-20 is nuclear-capable. Chinese hypersonic missiles are also reportedly nuclear-armed.

The 2020 Pentagon report does not credit China with any short-range nuclear missiles, despite the fact that the 2006 Chinese Defense White Paper said China had nuclear “tactical operational missiles of various types.” The Chinese formulation indicates more than one type of missile. “Tactical operational missiles” are what we call short-range missiles. In 2012, Russian expert Aleksey Arbatov said China had 150 nuclear operational tactical ballistic missiles.[7] An official at Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has said that the Chinese M-11 (DF-11/CSS-7) missile “can fire a variety of warheads ranging from nuclear and chemical warheads to electromagnetic pulse warheads.” The Chinese DF-15 is also reportedly nuclear-capable. The 2020 report does not credit China with nuclear artillery, despite the fact that two declassified CIA reports reveal that one of China’s last announced Chinese high-yield nuclear tests may have been a nuclear artillery round. Russian sources also report that China has nuclear artillery rounds.

Why is the Pentagon’s 2020 China report so bad concerning Chinese nuclear capability? The main reasons are apparently the prevalence of political correctness within the Washington beltway and decades of Chinese disinformation. The report notes the existence of Chinese disinformation, but counterintelligence has long been a U.S. weak point. A less significant cause is probably the lack of any real expertise on nuclear weapons among the report’s drafters. A February 2020 article in the U.S. Naval Institute publication Proceedings stated. “Anecdotal evidence shows that both junior and senior officers lack key knowledge of U.S. naval combat

capabilities, platforms, weapons, and sensors.” Knowledge of nuclear weapons in the China threat assessment community is probably much lower, and it is apparently impacting U.S. assessments of Chinese nuclear capabilities.

There is a clear need for another B-team exercise similar to the one conducted in the 1970s regarding the Soviet Union. A grossly inaccurate estimate of Chinese nuclear capability is a serious problem. It may have already impacted decision making in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. It could also substantially impact arms control negotiations with China (if they ever happen). If the Chinese capability is 1,000 or more nuclear weapons, this has great relevance to our nuclear arms control objectives with Russia. Worse still, it could impact crisis decision making in the U.S. if China initiates military action in the Asia Pacific region.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.


[1] Quoted in Ty Bomba, “China’s Global Strategy,” Modern War, Issue 34, April 2018, p. 48.

[2] Aleksey Arbatov, “Russia: Problems in Involving PRC in Nuclear Arms Limitation, Transparency Talks,” Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer Online, July 8, 2012. (Translated by World News Connection. No longer available on the internet)

[3] “China may have 1,600-1,800 nuclear munitions – experts,” Interfax, September 28, 2012. (Translated by World News Connection.)

[4] “Section 2 PRC Military Capabilities and Threats,” Republic of China (Taiwan) Ministry of National Defense, 2011, available at

[5] “Section II: Minimum Deterrence: Fragile Hope of a Constant and Benign Threat Environment,’ (Fairfax Va.: National Institute for Public Policy, September 14, 2014), p. 20, available at https: // 54/Documents/FOID/Reading%20Room/Other/Litigation%20Release%20-%20Section%20II% 20Minimum% 20Deterrence%20Fragile%20Hope.pdf

[6] “ROK Daily: China Builds Underground ‘Great Wall’ Against Nuke Attack,” Chosun Ilbo Online, December 14, 2009. (Translated by World News Connection).: Bret Stephens, “How Many Nukes Does China Have? Plumbing the secret Underground Great Wall,” The Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2011, available at article/SB1000142405297020 4346104576639502894496030.html.; J. Michael Cole, “What Is the PLA Hiding Underneath Hebei?” Taipei Times Online, August 30, 2011 available at editorials/archives/2011/08/30/2003511 997.CPP20091215540002

[7] “Russian and Miscellaneous Documents (provided by World News Connection),” November 8, 2012. (Translation by World News Connection.)

Show comments Hide Comments