The Chinese military’s rapid buildup of nuclear forces is on pace to reach 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 — nearly the number of current U.S.-deployed warheads, the Pentagon said in a new survey of Chinese military power revealed Tuesday.
By contrast, two years ago the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) nuclear arsenal was limited to around 200 warheads, a stockpile that has already doubled to more than 400 warheads today, the report said. China first tested a nuclear weapon in 1964, but it has long trailed far behind the U.S. and Russia in the number of warheads in its arsenal.
The nuclear buildup could serve as a backstop for Beijing’s long-range plan for a military takeover of Taiwan, the self-ruled democratic island that China claims as its territory, the report said. The buildup includes new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and increased warhead production due to the deployment of multi-warhead missiles.
The Chinese in 2021 expanded work on three large fields in western China that will hold at least 300 new ICBMs.
China also has deployed an ultra-high speed missile called the DF-17, designed to defeat missile defenses and able to deliver both nuclear and conventional warheads.
Among China’s new and increasingly sophisticated strategic weapons is a unique delivery system called a space-based “fractional orbital bombardment system” that was tested in July 2021. The test “likely demonstrated the PRC’s technical ability to field an FOB system,” the report said, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.
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The system successfully fired a simulated warhead from an orbiting missile against a ground target after traveling nearly 25,000 miles in space.
“The PRC is investing in and expanding the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces,” the report said. “If China continues the pace of its nuclear expansion, it will likely field a stockpile of about 1,500 warheads by its 2035 timeline.”
The new DF-41 ICBM is the first road-mobile and silo-based ICBMs with an estimated three multiple warheads.
The Pentagon report, an annual survey of the country Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin refers to as the “pacing challenge” for American military planners, covers military developments in China through 2021 but also includes issues like the recent Chinese Communist Party congress held in October.
That congress granted new powers to Chinese President and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping and set policy for the ruling communist regime “focused on intensifying and accelerating the PLA’s modernization goals over the next five years, including strengthening its ‘system of strategic deterrence,’” the report said.
The party meeting also is said by military officials to set policy on Chinese efforts to eventually take over Taiwan.
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The report said China officially has a “no-first-use” nuclear policy of not being the first to employ nuclear arms in a conflict. But the report said China also could violate that policy if non-nuclear attacks threaten its forces. China also is moving to a higher alert status for its nuclear forces called “launch on warning” — at the same time Beijing called on other states to abandon that posture.
China’s nuclear missile submarine forces also are expanding with future missiles carrying multiple warheads.
The report concludes that China is expanding and diversifying its nuclear warheads by building new warheads and delivery systems equal in reliability and survivability to U.S. and Russian systems.
China’s nuclear warhead stockpile was estimated to be in the low 200s in 2020 and U.S. intelligence analysts estimated at the time it would not double until around 2030. But the PLA’s accelerated nuclear program means it will have about 1,000 warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by the middle of the decade, the report said.
Beijing has not declared what its ultimate targets for more warheads is and continues to reject arms control talks with the United States, in part by arguing its nuclear assets are far smaller than those of Washington and Moscow.
More generally, the Pentagon report said, the Chinese strategy is to achieve political, social and economic modernity as defined by the CCP that will ultimately transform the world. At the party congress in October, Mr. Xi’s variant of communist ideology was added to the constitution.
China’s nuclear stockpile poses a growing challenge for international arms control efforts. The United States, under the New START arms accord with Russia, currently has 1,550 deployed warheads with others in reserve. Military commanders have said the Chinese nuclear expansion will be the first time the United States must deter two adversarial nuclear peers, China and Russia.
China obtained much of its nuclear warhead technology from espionage against the United States.
The CIA concluded in a public assessment more than a decade ago that the Chinese military obtained secrets on every deployed nuclear warhead, including the small, submarine-launched missile warhead known as the W-88, during the Clinton administration.
The alarming Chinese nuclear expansion has been the focus of recent testimony by military commanders who have described it as both “breathtaking” in scope and a “breakout” from the past Chinese nuclear force posture.
However, a senior Pentagon official who briefed reporters on the report Tuesday appeared to play down the nuclear buildup.
The buildup is taking place at “a dramatically accelerated pace,” but is not a major change since last year, the official said.
The nuclear expansion “does raise questions about whether they’re kind of shifting away from a strategy that was premised on what they referred to as a lean and effective deterrent, where they said they would have the kind of minimum number of nuclear weapons that was required for the PRC is national security.”
The annual report made public Tuesday reflects the Biden administration’s renewed emphasis on seeking ways to engage with China despite tensions over Taiwan, human rights, trade and other issues.
China cut off climate and military talks with the United States following the August visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After President Biden met with Mr. Xi last month, the two sides are discussing a restart to the talks.
The report pulls back from earlier military power assessment, suggesting China does not pose a major military danger. Instead, the report characterizes recent PLA military advances like the nuclear expansion as a “challenge” or “concern.”
On Taiwan, the report warned that China could conduct a range of military campaigns against the island including air and maritime blockade or full-scale invasion. Chinese military forces conducted exercises that simulated an invasion, including the launch of military vehicles from civilian ships in reaction to Mrs. Pelosi’s August visit.
“Tensions between the PRC and Taiwan heightened in 2021 as the PRC intensified political and military pressure aimed at Taiwan,” the report said.
China also continued to challenge the fragile status quo across the Taiwan Strait with hundreds of warplane flights into Taiwan-controlled areas. Taiwan’s military is developing new warfighting concepts that would involve asymmetric capabilities to meet the threat from the mainland, the report said.