The Massive Expansion of China’s Strategic Nuclear Capability
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
The Massive Expansion of China’s Strategic Nuclear Capability
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
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In late June 2021, The New York Times broke a very important story about Chinese construction of large numbers of ICBM silos for its new large DF-41 ICBM stating, “Researchers in the United States have identified the construction of 119 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos in a desert in northwestern China …" The analysis was conducted by Mr. Jeffery Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. According to Mr. Lewis, “If the silos under construction at other sites across China are added to the count, the total comes to about 145 silos under construction.” The U.S. Department of State voiced concern about China’s actions. 

The Chinese DF-41 ICBM is not a small Minuteman-class missile but rather a large Peacekeeper-class missile and is generally reported as capable of carrying ten warheads. Peter Huessy of the Mitchell Institute has pointed out, “Just this deployment alone will provide China over one thousand new on-alert warheads—1,450—almost double the day-to-day U.S.A. on-alert force and by itself a nuclear force roughly equal to the entire current U.S. nuclear-deployed force of 1,490 sea- and land-based missile warheads.” Chinese media have talked about a DF-41 leveling New York City, but that is not its real function. The threat posed by such a large DF-41 silo deployment (and all we know at this point is the 145 launchers is what they are now building rather than the maximum number they plan to deploy) is its ability to destroy large numbers of U.S. military targets. Deployment of 1,450 warheads is about 75% of the U.S. Cold War ICBM force, and this does not count the other Chinese ICBMs and SLBMs, including the mobile DF-41. In light of the massive reduction in the number of U.S. ICBMs and military bases since the end of the Cold War, the silos-based DF-41 force could probably launch a coordinated attack against about all major U.S. military facilities. This is an extremely serious development.

Mr. Lewis deserves praise for bringing the large-scale Chinese silo construction to the attention of the world. Prior to his announcement, all we heard from official Washington were generalities such as “…Beijing has accelerated its nuclear expansion and is on track to exceed our previous projection.” However, Mr. Lewis’s suggestion that this silo construction may be part of a Chinese multiple aim-point system with only one out of ten silos containing missiles is not credible. This is not any normal nuclear threat assessment or arms control analysis. Under the original START Treaty, each launcher for ICBMs or SLBMs was assumed, for counting purposes, to contain a missile. There is apparently no evidence for any Chinese interest in a multiple aim-point system for ICBM basing. It is reasonable to assume that if Mr. Lewis had any evidence for this, he would have cited it. He did not do so either in his interview with The New York Times or in his article on the subject which appeared in Foreign Policy. However, there is ample evidence of Chinese interest in nuclear force expansion.

According to the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Scott D. Berrier, “The Fifth Plenum [of the Chinese Communist Party] communique in October 2020, specifically called for strengthening strategic forces and creating high-level strategic deterrence.” In April 2020, the Editor in Chief of China’s main English language mouthpiece Global Times said that "China needs to expand the number of its nuclear warheads to 1,000 in a relatively short time. It needs to have at least 100 Dongfeng-41 strategic missiles.” In November 2020, Global Times characterized the DF-41 as one of “the breakthroughs across all [the] services.” It is interesting that Global Times did not really deny The New York Times story but launched a vicious personal attack on Mr. Lewis, characterizing him as “an amateur,” and saying that, “Lewis may not understand the basic features of [the] DF-41 before shooting off his mouth at the media.” The argument that Global Times made (i.e., that the DF-41 could not be a silo-based ICBM because it is a mobile ICBM) is nonsense. Global Times continued, “China should neither confirm nor deny such [a] 'revelation' and let the Western media imagine it. This is what a nuclear deterrent means. By doing so, China will smash any U.S. attempt to suppress China’s nuclear capacity building.” It seems clear that China did not want such a disclosure just before the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

China has a major nuclear buildup underway that goes well beyond the DF-41 silos.  In February 2021, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General John Hyten stated China was building nuclear weapons “faster than anybody on the planet,” including new ICBMs, cruise missiles, and nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles “that we have no defenses for.” In April 2021, Admiral Charles Richard, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, revealed new and important information concerning the scope of the Chinese nuclear weapons buildup in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He stated that “The CSS-20 (DF-41) became operational last year, and China has stood up at least two brigades.” In April 2021, Major General Michael J. Lutton, Commander, Twentieth Air Force, Air Force Global Strike Command, stated that:

Specifically, Russia, China, and North Korea share five themes in foreign nuclear development and proliferation:

    • Increasing numbers or capabilities of weapons in existing programs;
    • Enduring security threats to weapons and material;
    • Developing delivery systems with increased capabilities;
    • Developing nuclear weapons with smaller yields, improved precision, and increased range for military or coercive use on the battlefield;
    • Developing new nuclear weapons without conducting large-scale nuclear tests.

While the new silos are apparently for the DF-41, noted China expert Richard Fischer writes, “There are also reports of a rail-mobile version of the DF-41, a larger solid-fuel and silo-based ‘DF-45,’ and an HGV[hypersonic glide vehicle]-armed ICBM.”

No nation has ever built an ICBM multiple aim-point system. The Carter administration started such a program for a 4,600 aim-point system, but it quickly died due to costs and effectiveness concerns within a few years. It did not involve silos. As an alternative, the Reagan administration proposed basing 100 Peacekeeper ICBMs in silos in a concept called “dense pack,” which attempted to limit effective Russian targeting against the system through close location and fratricide effects (the first Russian warheads to detonate and destroy the subsequent warheads). According to Mr. Lewis, the Chinese silos are located three kilometers apart, which is anything but a defense pack. He characterized the Chinese ICBM base as “enormous—more than 700 square miles …" “Dense pack” involved basing 100 missiles in 15 square miles. It was never built. The Chinese deployment appears to be a traditional method of laying out an ICBM deployment. If all the Chinese wanted was a dozen surviving silo-based DF-41s, they could have built them in a mountainous area like China’s original DF-5 ICBM silos and, this time, use the new super concrete. Concrete with 30,000 psi compression strength is now commercially available. A cheap way to augment survivability is G.P.S. jamming and even short-range cruise missile defense. Moreover, alternatively, an even cheaper way is another dozen DF-41 mobile ICBMs based in China’s Underground Great Wall, 5,000-km of deep underground tunnels.

What China wants is a lot of missiles and nuclear warheads. Chinese interest in nuclear targeting of military forces goes back a long time. China scholars originally called it “limited deterrence.” A 2004 article by Gao Yan in Hong’s Kong Kuang Chiao Ching, a magazine reputed to have close ties to the P.R.C. military, argued that "an all-out conflict can take place between China and the United States over the issue of Taiwan at any time" and that China must have a nuclear capability "balancing and offsetting the United States' hegemonic power.” The article further concluded that China’s concept of nuclear war: 

Is completely wrong and absurd … Minimum nuclear deterrence is only a phase-specific strategy that one is forced to adopt in the early stage of nuclear weapons development because of insufficient nuclear capability….,[China would have] to compromise or concede defeat at a certain stage [unless it is] able to totally destroy any enemy through nuclear attack and the targets must include all enemy strategic military, economic and population centers.” (Emphasis added).

The timing of the start of the silo construction and the Global Times’ endorsement of prompt deployment of 100 DF-41s and 1,000 nuclear warheads is unlikely to be a coincidence. The large DF-41 silo constructions raise the possibility that in less than a decade, China will have more deployed nuclear weapons than the U.S. China has now reached the stage that its ICBMs are more than a match for U.S. ICBMs because of Chinese technical advancements and the drift of U.S. nuclear weapons policy toward Minimum Deterrence. Due to the combination of Chinese technical inferiority and economic limitations, the objective of parity or superiority wasn’t feasible until recently.

The large-scale DF-41 deployment is exactly what one would expect in light of China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy and its ongoing military provocations, which could precipitate a war. Noted China expert Gordon Chang has recently listed worrisome Chinese actions:

  • Beijing looks as if it is preparing for a full-scale invasion of Indian territory... Ladakh is not the only hotspot. There is a Chinese encroachment in India's Sikkim as well as incursions in neighboring Bhutan and Nepal.
  • Lately, Xi's references in public pronouncements have become unmistakable, and his subordinates have been clear that Xi believes that everyone outside China owes him obedience. While spouting tianxia-like language and bellicose words, Xi has been getting the Chinese people ready for war.
  • The changes signal the growing clout of the People's Army inside the Party and highlight the militarization of the country's external relations. China is fast becoming a military state.
  • Xi Jinping, on July 1, told the world what he is going to do. We are, in all probability, in the last moments of peace.
  • China in recent weeks has sent tens of thousands of troops to its disputed border with India in Ladakh, high in the Himalayas.
  • Beijing looks as if it is preparing for a full-scale invasion of Indian territory.

In a speech delivered on July 1st to commemorate the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping said, The Chinese people will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us,” reads a quote translated by The New York Times. “Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.” According to Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, China may seek to occupy Taiwan by military means within the next six years. This could explain the ongoing nuclear weapons activity, the belligerent statements by their most senior officials, their continuing military buildup, and the unusual nuclear disclosures in Global Times about the scope of their nuclear capability. Gordon Chang has observed that the silo construction program “suggest[s] China is now shifting to war-fighting mode.”

An official disclosure of the scope of China’s nuclear capability will probably not occur until just before an attack. The objective would be to deter U.S. military support to the victim of Chinese aggression, and if necessary, defeat the U.S. and our allies with nuclear strikes.


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.



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