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Pentagon says China's nuclear arsenal is growing fast

November 3, 2021

In a new report, the Pentagon has revised its past estimates of China's nuclear arsenal. The revised number of Chinese nuclear warheads is more than double the amount envisaged one year ago.

Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 travel past Tiananmen Square during a military parade
The US believes China will have 1,000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade Image: Reuters/J. Lee

A Pentagon report released to Congress Wednesday said China was expanding the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal at a speed much greater than the US Department of Defense had predicted one year ago.

The report found that China has broadened and accelerated the rate at which it upgrades its military arsenals. Beijing has publicly stated that it wishes to match or exceed the United States as a global superpower by the middle of the 21st century.

In its report, the Pentagon states that it believes China could increase the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal to 1,000 by 2030, while also not disclosing the number China has at present. Just one year ago, the Pentagon asserted China had around 200 nuclear warheads and that this arsenal would likely double in size by 2030.

Does China have the nuclear triad?

The Pentagon believes that China may have the trio of delivery system mechanisms known as the nuclear triad for launching a nuclear payload by air, land and sea that the US and Russia have had for decades.

Washington assesses, though, that China is unlikely to launch an unprovoked nuclear strike on a nuclear power such as the United States. Instead, the Department of Defense believes China is building up its capabilities to establish credible deterrence and terrify its adversaries with a credible threat of nuclear annihilation if Beijing is crossed.

China started to build at least three new missile fields that could "cumulatively contain hundreds" of underground silos where intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) can be launched, the report notes.

China's well-known test of the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile, which features a hypersonic glide vehicle to evade US missile defense technology, is mentioned.

Biden says US will defend Taiwan

Echoes concern of chairman of the Joint Chiefs

The report is based on information that the Pentagon collected through 2020 and does not mention the expression of concern last month from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, about the hypersonic weapon tests China carried out last summer.

Shortly before the report's release Wednesday, Milley told the Aspen Security Forum that China's hypersonic missile test and other advances confirm what is at stake.

"We are witnessing one of the largest shifts in global and geostrategic power that the world has witnessed," he said.

Taiwanese face growing uncertainty

How will it play in the Pacific?

The Biden administration is currently undertaking a congressionally mandated comprehensive review of its nuclear policy. It has not yet disclosed how concerns over China could affect US nuclear policy, though a follow-on to the US, UK and Australian agreement known as AUKUS, which provides nuclear submarine technology to Australia, is expected.

The Pentagon notes that nuclear is far from the only area where China's military, the People's Liberation Army, is keen to test the US as China works to enhance its power in all domains, namely air, land, sea, space and cyberspace.

The Defense Department is concerned that overseas bases China is looking to develop could someday "interfere with" US military operations and maybe even support military operations against the US. Chinese President Xi Jinping has said China will be a global military power by 2049.

The report also noted US concerns over Taiwan, the self-governing democracy that China views as a breakaway territory.

Pentagon defense planners believe that several scenarios could unfold were China to make an effort to recapture Taiwan, such as a joint blockade campaign against Taiwan, an amphibious invasion, air and missile strikes, cyberattacks, and the possible seizure of offshore territories.

The Pentagon used the report to question China's compliance
with international biological and chemical weapons agreements. Studies carried out at Chinese military medical institutions have discussed identifying, testing and characterizing groups of "potent toxins" that could potentially have dual civil-military use.

The report did not touch on the origins of the coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China, where the Wuhan Institute of Virology is located.

ar/nm (AFP, AP, Reuters)