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China’s rapidly expanding nuclear weapon stockpile remains opaque..


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Without providing the world with any word of explanation, in the past five years, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) of China has expanded the types and quantity of its nuclear-tipped weapons more than at any point in its history.

Indeed, last month, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published its annual in-depth Nuclear Notebook. The chapter entitled Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 2024, authored by Hans M Kristensen, Matt Korda, Eliana Johns and Mackenzie Knight, warned, “In all, China’s nuclear expansion is among the largest and most rapid modernization campaigns of the nine nuclear-armed states” in the world.

The chapter’s authors stated that in the past year, “China has continued to develop its three new missile silo fields for solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBM], expanded the construction of new silos for its liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs, has been developing new variants of ICBMs and advanced strategic delivery systems, and has likely produced excess warheads for eventual upload onto these systems once they are deployed. China has also further expanded its dual-capable DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile [IRBM] force, which appears to have completely replaced the medium-range DF-21 in the nuclear role.”

For those advocating reductions in nuclear weapons, such figures make grim reading. Apart from land-based truck-launched and silo-launched missiles, the PLA Navy is now carrying JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) on its six Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

In the air, H-6 bombers of the PLA Air Force have been reassigned to an operational nuclear mission, plus there is continued development of an air-launched ballistic missile that likely has a nuclear capability. This capacity will grow even more once the stealthy H-20 bomber is fielded.

Chinese military spokesmen have neither confirmed nor denied the expansion of the ICBM force, and the authors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists chapter on China acknowledged the opacity of the PLARF: “Analyzing and estimating China’s nuclear forces is a challenging endeavor, particularly given the relative lack of state-originating data and the tight control of messaging surrounding the country’s nuclear arsenal and doctrine.” Beijing has never officially revealed warhead numbers, and its opacity regarding its nuclear capability is legendary.

When asked why Chairman Xi Jinping is prioritizing China’s ballistic-missile arsenal in such a fashion, Ankit Panda, Stanton Senior Fellow, Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told ANI: “There is likely no one overarching reason.

For one, this may simply be part of Xi’s broader efforts to pursue a world-class military for the country. China could also have calculated that a larger force is necessary for assuring retaliation, which is a traditional objective. The surge could also be a result of the Rocket Force gaining greater political power after the 2015 reorganization of the PLA. We simply do not know the exact answer, since China has yet to give us an authoritative case for why the force is growing.”

Admiral Charles Richard, the previous commander of the US Strategic Command, said in April 2022 that China’s expansion of strategic forces was “breathtaking.” The force’s current commander, General Anthony Cotton, testified vexingly last March that “China seeks to match, or in some areas surpass, quantitative and qualitative parity with the United States in terms of nuclear weapons. China’s nuclear capabilities already exceed those needed for its long-professed policy of ‘minimum deterrence’, but China’s capabilities continue to grow at an alarming rate”.

It is thus the Pentagon’s opinion that massive new missile silo fields and the expansion of China’s liquid-fueled ICBM inventory show that Beijing is moving to a launch-on-warning posture to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces.

It believes part of this posture involves implementing an “early warning counterstrike” strategy, relying on space- and ground-based sensors to warn of enemy missile strikes so that China has time to launch its own missiles before they are destroyed. On the other hand, China

insists it is keeping the PLARF at a “moderate” readiness level.

The construction of several hundred of these aforementioned missile silos has created considerable debate regarding China’s official “No First Use” policy. The 2024 report noted, “…There is little evidence to suggest that the Chinese government has deviated from it, which is also reiterated in its 2023 national defense strategy.”

The four authors added: “Regardless of what the specific red lines may be, China’s No First Use policy probably has a high threshold. Many experts believe there are very few scenarios in which China would benefit strategically from a first strike, even in the case of conventional conflict with a military power such as the United States.”

The same document observed: “The modernization of the nuclear forces could gradually influence Chinese nuclear strategy and declaratory policy in the future by offering more efficient ways of deploying, responding, and coercing with nuclear or dual-capable forces. The 2022 US Nuclear Posture Review suggested that China’s trajectory of expanding and improving its nuclear arsenal could ‘…provide [China] with new options before and during a crisis or conflict to leverage nuclear weapons for coercive purposes, including military provocations against US allies and partners in the region’. Advanced non-nuclear weapons could also provide a strategic strike capability that may achieve effects similar to a first use of nuclear weapons.”

Could a Taiwan invasion scenario constitute such an occasion where China might threaten the use of nuclear weapons? After all, President Vladimir Putin played such a nuclear card to keep NATO and the US from getting directly involved in the Ukraine conflict.

Panda offered his assessment of whether nuclear coercion could occur amidst a Taiwan contingency. “China has historically shied away from issuing nuclear threats, and has traditionally maintained a fairly restrained nuclear posture. Xi could calculate, however, that a much larger Chinese nuclear force will imbue US decision-making with greater prudence in a potential Taiwan contingency than a smaller force. He is likely right about that.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimated that China currently fields 438 nuclear warheads, plus another 62 warheads that have been produced but not operationalized. This assessment corresponds almost identically to the 500 warheads estimated by the Pentagon in last year’s report on China’s military capabilities.

In past editions of these reports, the US Department of Defense predicted that the PLARF’s nuclear warhead stockpile would reach 1,000 by 2030, and perhaps even 1,500 by 2035, many of which will be “deployed at higher readiness levels” and most fielded on systems able to reach the continental United States.

However, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted that some previous Pentagon estimates have proven inaccurate, plus there are many variables that are difficult to predict when reaching such figures by the US military. For instance, how many missile silos will China eventually build, how many will actually host a missile, and how many warheads are on each weapon? Also, how many ballistic missile submarines and bombers will be constructed, and how many DF-26 ballistic missiles will be deployed, and what percentage of them will have a nuclear mission?

A table in the chapter listed the following amounts for each missile type: IRBMs comprising the DF-26 (x108); ICBMs represented by the DF-5A (x6), DF-5B (x60), DF-31A (x24), DF-31AG (x64) and DF-41 (x84); SLBMs of JL-3 type (x72); gravity bombs dropped by H-6K bomber aircraft (x10),and air-launched ballistic missiles carried by H-6N bombers (x10).

There are some interesting points to note in this independent assessment. One is that all nuclear-tipped versions of the DF-21 and DF-31 are likely retired, as are JL-2 SLBMs previously carried on submarines.

The DF-17 hypersonic medium-range ballistic missile was once thought capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, but now the general consensus is that this is not the case. In addition, the report assumed that half of China’s DF-26 IRBM inventory is armed with nuclear warheads, even though there is no data to verify

how accurate this approximation is.

Regarding the DF-26 missile, which can have either a conventional or nuclear warhead, such ambiguity makes it difficult for another party during hostilities to decide how they are being targeted. This obviously creates doubt and the risk of swift escalation.

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