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China Wants a Lot of Nuclear Weapons (Does the U.S. Military Care?)

China ICBM Silos

In November 2022, the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Admiral Samuel Paparo, stated that China’s Jin-class submarines (Type 094) are “equipped with JL-3 intercontinental ballistic missiles.” The press coverage focused on the increased range of the JL-3 compared to the JL-2. This is certainly important, but it is not the most significant threat issue associated with this development. In August 2021, then-STRATCOM commander Admiral Charles Richard reported that there were “six second-generation JIN-class ballistic missile submarines with JL-3 SLBMs…” According to the 2020 edition of the National Air and Intelligence Center’s (Air Force Intelligence) report on “The Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat,” the JL-3 carries multiple warheads. According to a January 2020 report in the South China Morning Post, “Unlike the previous three [Jl-3] tests, which used a conventional Type 032 submarine, the latest launch was conducted using the Type 094 nuclear submarine, according to one source.” Yet, according to the Pentagon’s 2021 report on China’s military power, “Each Jin class SSBN can carry up to 12 JL-2 SLBMs.”

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Previous Pentagon China reports gave no indication that Chinese Type 094 submarines were carrying the JL-3; that is, until the November 2022 edition. Indeed, the 2021 Pentagon China report hinted that the JL-3 was not going to be deployed until China deployed its Type 096 submarine: “The PRC’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, which likely began construction in the early 2020s, will reportedly carry a new type of SLBM.” In June 2019, Bill Gertz quoted a “defense official” as saying that while they were not sure about retrofit, “It’s our understanding that the JL-3 will be on the new Type 096 [ballistic missile submarine], which we expect to begin construction in the 2020s.” Thus, today, we see a MIRVed Chinese SLBM capability almost a decade earlier and on a larger scale than the Defense Department reportedly thought would happen in 2019.

The 2021 Pentagon China report also stated that “the PRC could field more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade.” The October 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report adopts this warhead number, saying that China by 2030 will have “at least 1,000.” This could end up as a gross underestimation of Chinese nuclear warhead numbers. The 2022 NPR apparently does not even take into account the much earlier than expected deployment and, apparently, much larger scale deployment of the MIRVed JL-3.

Some estimates of Chinese nuclear capability credited them with more than 1,000 warheads (mainly non-strategic) even before China starting deploying MIRVed SLBMs and building ICBM silos. Indeed, China attacked the accuracy of the Pentagon’s 2020 estimate in its main English language mouthpiece Global Times in an article signed by its Editor-in-Chief. He wrote, “…the [Pentagon’s] estimation of ‘low 200s’ [the 2020 Pentagon report’s estimate for the then-current  number of Chinese nuclear weapons] 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.” This is very unusual because China normally attempts to minimize foreign perceptions of the scope of its nuclear capability. Indeed, in the aftermath of the nuclear revelations in the Pentagon’s November 2022 China report, China attacked it although it did not specifically deny the numbers, saying only that the Pentagon report “makes groundless speculation about China’s military development.”

In an article I wrote in October 2020 entitled “The Chinese Nuclear Threat,” I pointed out that the “low 200s” estimate was one of the lowest estimates in the world, lower than previous Pentagon estimates and the evidence outlined in the report did not support such a low number. Indeed, in January 2021, the South China Morning Post reported that “…a source close to the Chinese military said that its stockpile of nuclear warheads had risen to 1,000 in recent years, but less than 100 of them are active.” Their term “active” apparently reflects the reported lack of mating nuclear weapons to their delivery systems in peacetime, something discussed in the Pentagon’s November 2022 China report. This apparently is a safety issue with older Chinese warheads which are reportedly not “one point safe” (i.e., no significant nuclear yield from an accidental detonation of the warhead.)

The much publicized November 2022 edition of the Pentagon’s China report estimated the number of Chinese nuclear warheads at over 400 today and about 1,500 by 2035.  Bill Gertz pointed out 1,500 warheads is about the number the U.S. deploys today and our number won’t be increasing. However, the new Pentagon numbers may rank with the worst underestimates of Chinese nuclear weapons growth that we have seen from the DoD. Indeed, in September 2022 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Madelyn Creedon, former Principal Deputy Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) within the Department of Energy, stated that, “Although estimates vary, China is projected to have between 1000 and 1500 nuclear weapons by 2030.”

The information in the 2022 Pentagon report indicates China doubled its nuclear force in two years not ten, probably making the Pentagon’s 2020 assessment the worst ever in the history of projecting China’s nuclear weapons arsenal growth. The November 2022 Pentagon report may be equally culpable. The facts stated in the Pentagon’s 2022 report make it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the 400+ number is a large underestimate. The increase in warhead numbers between 2020 and 2022 is about 200. The problem is that the 2022 report says the Chinese have 300 ICBMs compared to 100 ICBMs assessed in the 2020 report. Hence, for the 400+ number to be true, the entire increase would have to be single warhead ICBMs, which is clearly not the case. The Chinese have been adding DF-41 ICBMs and JL-3 SLBMs with multiple warheads. In addition, there would have to have been no additions to its other strategic and non-strategic modernization programs, some of which are outlined in the 2022 report.

The 2022 Pentagon report is clearly minimizing the numerical implications of Chinese deployment of MIRVed strategic missiles. It states that the DF-41 “is likely intended to carry no more than three warheads.” This statement is probably another underestimate. The assessment must assume that there has been no technical progress in Chinese nuclear warheads in about 25 years. Moreover, it is a statement of intent not capability. How can the Pentagon be confident of Chinese intent particularly when it has been so wrong so recently? National Technical Means of Verification provides data on capability not intent. Intent can be inferred from the characteristics of the missiles and the numbers being deployed. This is not what the Pentagon appears to be doing. Then-STRATCOM commander Admiral Charles Richard and then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten stated that the DF-41 is an up to a ten warhead missile. Three warheads are what a small ICBM like the U.S. Minuteman can carry.

Just before his retirement, Admiral Richard sent Congress a legally required notification which, according to Bill Gertz, said “that China’s military has passed the U.S. in at least one of three areas — the number of nuclear warheads, strategic missiles or launchers.” The only category in which China could have surpassed the U.S. by November 2022 would be in the number of warheads deployed on ICBMs. For China to have more than 400 warheads on its ICBM force, it would require a current nuclear force substantially larger than just having “surpassed 400 warheads. Several Republican members of Congress have stated that the Pentagon has been withholding critical data from Congress on the growth of Chinese ICBM warheads.

Starting with the Pentagon report’s 400+ number for current capability, what the report actually says is, “The Department 0f Defense estimates that the PRC’s operational nuclear warheads stockpile has “surpassed 400 warheads.” The bolded language has never previously appeared in the annual Pentagon report. Its meaning is unclear. The report also compares the current 400+ number with what was projected in the 2020 version of the report. It states, “In 2020, the DoD estimated China’s operational nuclear warhead stockpile was in the low-200s and expected to at least double by 2030.” The actual language in the 2020 report made no reference to this being a “DoD” estimate or that it related to “operational” warheads. It states, “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 U.S. nuclear weapons community uses the terms “active” and “inactive” not “operational” warheads. For example, in October 2021, when the Biden administration released the number of U.S. nuclear weapons, it stated that the number included “active” and “inactive” weapons. Could it be that the new language was intended to delay public and Congressional awareness of the Chinese surge and delay the legal requirement for a notification concerning the scope of the threat posed by the Chinese ICBM force?

The Pentagon report has a very bad track record of accurately warning about nuclear weapons developments in China. Its historic treatment of Chinese development of a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) for its SLBMs was particularly inadequate. Usually, it merely confirms open-source information that has appeared in the Asian press much earlier. The Pentagon reports of 10 to 15 years ago gave little indication of what is now being reported in the 2022 edition concerning Chinese nuclear weapons programs. However, MIRVed Chinese SLBMs were discussed in the Asian and American press 10-20 years ago. The unexpected Chinese deployment of the JL-3 on their six Jin-class ballistic missile submarines is the latest example of errors on the part of the Pentagon in its assessment of the growth of the Chinese nuclear capability. The unexpected deployment of “hundreds of new ICBM silos” by China is more significant but when the two are put together, the near-term threat expansion is just enormous. Indeed, the difference between the 2020 and 2021 Pentagon reports records an increase of 150% in the number of projected Chinese nuclear warheads by 2030.

It is interesting to note that the Pentagon report’s 2021 reassessment projecting 1,000+ Chinese nuclear warheads by 2030 came after 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.” He talked about deploying 100 DF-41s to accomplish this objective. Global Times says the DF-41 is a ten warhead missile. The CSIS Missile lists its launch-weight as 80,000-kg, or roughly a Peacekeeper-class ICBM which was also a ten-warhead missile. It is not necessary to have a missile of this size and expense to deliver only three nuclear warheads.

The 2022 Pentagon 1,000 warhead estimate for 2030 uses the same new formulation as the 400+ number: “By 2030, DoD estimates that the PRC will have about 1,000 operational nuclear warheads.” (Emphasis added) This is actually slightly lower than what is included in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review report released about a month before which said that, by 2030 the PRC will have “at least 1,000 deliverable warheads” (Emphasis added). The 2022 Pentagon report estimates a Chinese “stockpile of about 1,500 warheads” by 2035; it does not refer to this as a DoD estimate or characterize it as the operational force.

In July 2020, Admiral Richard stated that “…China is on a trajectory to be a strategic peer to us by the end of the decade.” In August 2021, Admiral Richard characterized the increase in Chinese nuclear capability as “breathtaking. And that word, breathtaking, may not be enough.” This is likely to be a lot closer to reality than the 2022 Pentagon report’s assessment. Admiral Richard has stated that there are now 360 DF-41 silos with “up to 10 warheads” each. This alone could carry up to 3,600 warheads. In addition, there are “at least two brigades” of road-mobile DF-41s (China said this in 2019). While we don’t have any official JL-3 warhead number, Rick Fisher, a noted expert on Chinese military capability, credited the JL-3 with up to six warheads. However, at a Committee on the Present Danger China Webinar in December 2022, he attributed three warheads to the JL-3 based on press reports concerning Chinese testing. Russia state-run Sputnik News reports up to three says 5-7 warheads. The South China Morning Post reported that the Jl-3 was expected to carry ten warheads.

In addition to these two programs, the 2022 Pentagon China report reveals that there is now a new silo construction program. It states, “The PRC is also building more silos for DF-5 class ICBMs; increasing the number of brigades while simultaneously increasing the number of launchers per brigade though there is currently no indication this project will approach the size or numbers of the solid propellant missile silos.” The DF-5 is a large MIRVed ICBM which, according to this report, carries “up to five MIRVs.”

In an apparently effort to minimize perceptions of the growth of the Chinese nuclear force, the November 2022 Pentagon report states the “over 300” new Chinese silos will house the DF-41s and the DF-31s. This is apparently the first reference linking the new silos to the older and much less capable single warhead DF-31s. In contrast, the 2020 Pentagon China report identified these new silos as being for the DF-41s. It stated, “According to state media, the CSS-X-20 (DF-41) ICBM can be launched from silos; this site is probably being used to at least develop a concept of operations for silo basing this system.”

Is there any evidence that these silos are for the DF-31? Has the DF-31 ever been launched from a silo? The timing of the Chinese silo construction is clearly related to the availability of the DF-41. If the Chinese wanted a silo-based DF-31, they could have built it during the George W. Bush administration. The 2022 Pentagon report itself notes that the DF-41 has improved range and accuracy compared with the DF-31.

According to Hans Kristensen and Matt Korba of the Federation of American Scientists. “Although the lower estimates [of Chinese nuclear weapons numbers] have varied, they have generally been correct, while the higher estimates and projections for significant increases have been incorrect.” In reality, none of these estimates (and they are all estimates) have been proven correct or incorrect. China is a communist dictatorship that practices extreme secrecy and deception. Much of what China is going on in the nuclear weapons arena can be concealed (for example, in the Underground Great Wall). What can’t be concealed, particularly with respect to the DF-41 silo program, is strong evidence to support the higher estimates. Indeed, in 2011, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry credited the Chinese Second Artillery (now called the Strategic Missile Force) with between 450 and 500 nuclear weapons.

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 Chief of Staff of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, 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.

It has been argued in the U.S. that China does not have enough fissile material for a giant increase in its nuclear capability. That argument almost certainly lacks merit. In addition to the Russian estimates, in the U.S., there are a range of estimates for the Chinese fissile material stockpile. One recent assessment is that China had by 2021 produced enough plutonium for 1,300 nuclear warheads at known military production facilities. In addition, there is the possibility of composite “pits” using plutonium or U-235 or even weapons based upon U-235.[3] This was accomplished in the U.S. weapons program shortly after the first nuclear weapons were produced. The low estimates of Chinese fissile material don’t even assume that China will use plutonium from civilian nuclear power reactors for nuclear weapons, presumably because the U.S. would not because of our attitudes concerning nuclear proliferation. Moreover, it also assumes we know everything that is going on in China concerning nuclear weapons which we clearly do not.

China has many non-strategic ballistic missiles, many of which are dual-capable. The large warhead weights associated with conventional warheads open the possibility that China may use low-yield non-strategic nuclear weapons with very small amounts of fissile material. A 1995 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that 1-3 kilograms of plutonium and 2-7-kg of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) are necessary to make a 1-kiloton nuclear weapon, and 2 kilograms of plutonium and about 4 kilograms of HEU could make a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon. Japan’s Kyodo News Agency has reported that North Korea (hardly an advanced economy) declared in the Six Party Talks that its first nuclear weapon used only 2 kg of plutonium in its 2006 first nuclear test. The estimated yield of this test ranged from sub-kiloton to five kilotons. The 2022 Pentagon China report notes that, “The PRC probably seeks lower yield nuclear warhead capabilities to provide proportionate response options that high-yield weapons cannot deliver….The DF-26 [IRBM] is the PRC’s first nuclear-capable missile that can conduct precision strikes, and therefore, is the most likely weapon system to field a lower-yield warhead in the near term.” The report does not provide any number for the DF-26 but says the number is growing. However, the 2021 Pentagon China report indicated that China had 200 IRBM launchers and 300 missiles. The DF-26 is the only Chinese IRBM mentioned in this report.

Today, the low estimates of Chinese nuclear weapons numbers and projected growth are so far below the delivery capability of the missiles that China is known to be building that they lack any credibility. Just the silo-based DF-41s and the Jin submarine-based JL-3s can deliver many times as many warheads as the Chinese are credited with in the low estimates. In particular, the Chinese strategic missiles are nuclear-only so there is no question of what percentage of them carry conventional warheads. Moreover, the silo-based DF-41s and the JL-3 programs represent only a portion of a much larger Chinese nuclear modernization and expansion program. The Chinese would have to be crazy to fund these programs unless they plan to deploy thousands of strategic nuclear warheads. The late Dr. Peter Pry, before the revelation of the JL-3’s deployment, predicted that China would have 4,000 nuclear warheads by 2030. This is likely to be a lot more accurate than what is assessed in the 2022 Pentagon report.

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 as 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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