On November 29, the Ministry of Defense released its annual report on China’s military power. The document offers a public-facing look at how the United States military rates the one country it truly considers a potential rival. Most notably, the report suggests that China is not only expanding its nuclear arsenal, but is potentially on track to deploy 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035.
Warheads are hardly the only measure of a nation’s destructive power, but they are the most salient. China already has the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world after Russia and the United States.
In the report, the Pentagon estimates that China’s arsenal currently exceeds 400 nuclear warheads. The Federation of American Scientists, which conducts an independent assessment of nuclear forces, estimated China’s arsenal at more than 350 warheads by early 2022. To get to 1,500 warheads by 2035, China would need to produce 85 warheads each year until then.
China’s arsenal, while large and growing, is relatively in line with the arsenals of India, Pakistan, the UK and France. More specifically, the Federation estimates that India has 160 nuclear warheads, while France has 290. (North Korea and Israel, with 20 and 90 respectively, have the fewest.)
These arsenals are all an order of magnitude smaller than the 5,428 for the United States and 5,977 for Russia. That’s a huge change in scale, with the world’s largest arsenal about 300 times the size of the world’s smallest. It is also a divide largely defined by history. The United States and the Soviet Union, from which Russia inherited its nuclear arsenals, were the first two countries to develop and test nuclear weapons, and they did so in the context of the Cold War, after the United States used two nuclear bombs at the end of World War II.
Importantly, the arsenals of the United States and Russia remain bound by arms control treaties, especially the New START treaty. While the US and Russia both keep thousands of warheads in stockpiles or reserves, they each actively deploy about 1,600 warheads. That’s similar to the total the Pentagon estimates it’s working toward.
Throughout the Cold War, arsenal increases were driven by advances in technology and changes in strategy. More warheads in more missiles, including missiles that could carry and launch multiple warheads at once, developed as an approach to ensure destruction in the face of developments around advanced defenses, such as missile interceptors or silos hardened against nuclear attack. New technologies, such as the continued development of hypersonic weapons by Russia, China and the United States, could similarly redirect arsenal design to more warheads so that the missiles launched in an attack can do enough damage upon arrival.
Warheads are the smallest unit of a nuclear arsenal. After all, they are the part that causes the explosions. But a nuclear warhead on its own is just a threat waiting to be sent somewhere far away. What really determines the effectiveness of warheads is the resources available to launch them.
In the United States, what is known as the nuclear triad exists: intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from silos, submarine-launched missiles, and weapons delivered by aircraft. But even that seemingly simple triad fails to capture the complexity of the launch. The United States can fire air-launched cruise missiles with bomber warheads, a weapon that follows a different trajectory than gravity bombs or ballistic missiles.
The Pentagon report outlines China’s air, sea and land platforms. Air is covered by China’s existing H-6N bomber class. At sea, China has six operational nuclear-armed submarines, and development of a next-generation nuclear-armed submarine is expected this decade. On land, China has both road-mobile missile launchers, capable of moving and launching long-range missiles across the country, and growing silo fields, capable of housing ICBMs underground.
The distribution of nuclear warheads about submarines, airplanes, road-mobile missiles and silos, because it can suggest what kind of nuclear war a country expects or wants to avoid. Silos are particularly notable for being designed to launch in retaliation for a first strike, like submarines, but unlike submarine-launched missiles, silos are placed specifically to attract incoming attacks, diverting enemy firepower from civilian or military commands like a missile sink.
Road-mobile missiles, on the other hand, are vulnerable when found, but can be moved to avoid attacks such as submarines and bombers, only with the added property of being visible from space. The act of signaling – when a nation uses the position and readiness of nuclear weapons to indirectly communicate with other nations – is tricky, but one of the signs countries look for is clear mobilization as seen from satellite photography.
Ultimately, the proliferation of warheads suggests a growing arsenal, though it’s hard to know what the final state of that arsenal will be. Producing nuclear weapons is hard, dangerous work. Using it, even as a deterrent, is also risky.
What is certain, in any case, is that the days of talking about Russia and the United States as the world’s predominant nuclear powers may well be coming to an end. Cold War arms control and limitation treaties, which halted and then significantly reduced arsenal size, were made in the context of two countries agreeing. Reducing arsenals in the 21st century will likely be a multi-party effort.