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The Pentagon Is Freaking Out: China Could Have 1,000 Nuclear Weapons by 2030

China 1000 Nuclear Warheads
Image: Creative Commons.

The Problem: Not only are China’s nuclear warheads greater in number but they are also dispersed. As a result, China‘s nuclear posture has changed too.

 The Report That Started It All

The Department of Defense’s annual report on China, the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, outlines just how far China’s investment in its military has taken the country. In particular, the just-released document sheds light on China’s nuclear weapons program, both in terms of modernization and sheer numbers.

One of the key takeaways: “The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020.”

Last year’s Department of Defense report on China estimated the country had only around 200 nuclear warheads.

The sheer number of China’s nuclear weapons is not the only concerning revelation revealed in the document. So too is Beijing’s nuclear posture, which has shifted to a Launch on Warning footing. “.This warning posture, dubbed “early warning counterstrike,” essentially means that simply the warning of an incoming nuclear missile strike could lead to an immediate counterstrike before enemy missiles can strike targets in China.

People’s Liberation Army publications also suggest “multiple manned C2 organs are involved in this process, warned by space and ground-based sensors, and that this posture is broadly similar to the U.S. and Russian LOW posture. The PRC probably seeks to keep at least a portion of its force on a LOW posture, and since 2017, the PLARF has conducted exercises involving early warning of a nuclear strike and launch on warning responses.”

Numbers Game

Still, despite the ramping up of nuclear weapons and facilities, China’s nuclear stockpile has nowhere near parity with the United States’ stockpile, which stands at about 3,750 warheads. However, the number of American warheads is decreasing due in part to nuclear material decay and a slower replacement pace.

 At the moment, however, China’s nuclear policy “prioritizes the maintenance of a nuclear force able to survive a first strike and respond with sufficient strength to conduct multiple rounds of counterstrike,” the Department of Defense document explained, emphasizing that the deterrent effect a threat of “unacceptable damage to its military capability, population, and economy” would have.

Nuclear Triad

In 2019, China cemented the air component of China’s nuclear triad with the H-6N bomber, a strategic bomber capable of carrying a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile. In addition, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is developing a stealthy flying wing-type strategic bomber, perhaps akin to the United States’ B-2 Spirit bomber.

What Next? 

The United States has encouraged China to join in strategic arms talks with themselves and Russia. However, Beijing has consistently declined, citing China’s relatively small nuclear warhead stockpile compared to other countries. Though in light of China’s recent and ongoing nuclear expansion, that argument may not be relevant.

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer with The National Interest. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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