How many nuclear weapons does China have?
This is currently a subject of dispute between those who attempt to assess the Chinese arsenal’s size soberly and objectively, and those who wish to downplay and deny the Chinese military threat.
Captain David A. Adams, USN, Director of Initiatives at the US Seventh Fleet command, falls into the first camp. Proceedings, the flagship publication of the US Naval Institute and a very respective monthly magazine, has just published an article of his where he cites my estimate of the size of China’s nuclear arsenal, based on the estimates by General Viktor Yesin (Russian Strategic Missile Troops, ret.)  and Professor Philip A. Karber, the DOD’s chief nuclear strategist in the Reagan Administration .
In November 2012, you might recall, I estimated that:
China has at least 1,129 intercontinental and medium range nuclear delivery systems capable of delivering, collectively, 1,274 warheads. And that’s without counting any of its SRBMs or GLCMs, and optimistically assuming that DF-5 ICBMs can carry only two warheads.
Based on these conservative estimates, Captain Adams castigates AirSea Battle proponents, and others who plan for war with China, for assuming that China would refrain from using nuclear weapons if its mainland were bombed by the US. Based on my estimates, he says China could very well retaliate with nuclear weapons and has the capability to do that on a huge scale:
“That is why it is so important for U.S. nuclear strategy to draw the clearest possible line between any level of aggression and the invocation of nuclear defense of the United States and our allies. Delegitimizing U.S. nuclear deterrence plays right into China’s hands. Allies who lack confidence in U.S. extended deterrence will have no choice but to either bow to Chinese coercive influence or develop their own strategic arsenals. An unintended consequence of Air-Sea Battle is that it actually raises the nuclear threshold by demonstrating our intent to fight a full-scale conventional war with China. This fuels China’s incentive to prepare to win a hybrid war with conventional aspects that remain just below that threshold. It also risks severe miscalculation by undermining the certainty that conventional attacks might escalate into a calamitous nuclear exchange.
Just as the Chinese cannot be sure of our nuclear thresholds, we cannot be sure of theirs. Some analysts are convinced that China will not choose nuclear escalation even in the face of strikes on their homeland, citing the PRC’s long-standing restrained attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons. It would be a mistake, though, to assess China’s policy of restraint in light of anything other than its massive nuclear disadvantage. A closer examination suggests that Beijing’s nuclear policy “resembles mutually assured destruction in every way but name.” 8 Some analysts suggest that the United States is seriously underestimating China’s nuclear capacity. General Viktor Esin, a former commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, and Georgetown University’s Dr. Philip A. Karber estimate that China has more than 1,500 nuclear warheads hidden in a vast network of tunnels. What is certain is that the PRC has fielded “at least 1,129 intercontinental and medium-range nuclear delivery systems capable of delivering, collectively, 1,274 warheads.” 9
To understand the PRC commitment to a second-strike capability one need look no further than the country’s press for a sea-based strategic deterrent in the form of the Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine armed with the JL-2 missile. Deterring the United States is the only plausible explanation for this buildup. General Zhu Chunghu, now dean of the Chinese National Defense University, once admitted, “if the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.” 10 “
Captain Adams does have a point here. Given how large China’s nuclear arsenal is and how fast it is being grown and modernized by the PLA, any direct war between the US and China would be an absolute suicide for both countries and indeed the world.
And that is precisely why nuclear deterrence is needed to deter China and thus to keep the peace in the Pacific – as Captain Adams himself stresses.
But that is also why the US needs to implement the AirSea Battle concept Captain Adams criticizes. The only way to prevent China from attacking the US or its allies is to threaten, and be capable of credibly threatening, a deadly, painful retaliation against the Chinese mainland and to threaten the very existence of the Chinese regime.
Only thus can China be discouraged from attacking any of America’s allies in the Pacific.
Last, but certainly not least, it should be noted that China has added a lot of missiles since my November 2012 estimate:
- It has deployed a new IRBM, the DF-26C, with a range of over 3,500 kms and thus the capability to reach Guam and beyond.
- It has begun deploying, and publicly confirmed the existence of, the DF-41 mobile heavy ICBM, which is capable of delivering 10 warheads per missile. StrategyPage estimates that China has deployed “fewer than a dozen” DF-41s so far. That means anywhere from 1 to 11 DF-41s – and since each DF-41 missile can deliver 10 warheads, that means up to 110 additional warheads being targeted against the US. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission estimates China may operationally deploy the DF-41 ICBM as early as 2015, which means there will be at least 6 DF-41 operationally deployed by then.
- It has replaced its last DF-3 MRBMs with mobile DF-21s.
- It has increased the number of SRBMs deployed opposite Taiwan.
- It has certainly increased the number of the DF-31s it deploys, from the 30 then estimated to be in service.
So the number of intercontinental and medium range missiles it deploys, and the number of warheads it can deliver, has increased.
My new estimate is as follows:
|Warhead delivery system||Inventory||Maximum warheads deliverable per system||Maximum warhead delivery capacity|
|DF-5 ICBM||24||At least 6||144|
|H-6, Q-5, and JH-7 aircraft||440||1||440|
|DH-10 nuclear armed LACM||?||?||?|
|DF-11/15 nuclear armed SRBM||1,600||?||?|
In total, I estimate China to possess at least 696 intercontinental- and intermediate-range delivery systems (missiles and aircraft) capable of delivering at least 1,159 nuclear warheads.
Note, however, that this is a very conservative estimate, one that likely dramatically underestimates the size of China’s missile and nuclear arsenals, for the following reasons:
- Until 2014, it accepted the very conservative 2009 DOD estimate of China having 30 DF-31 ICBMs, even though China has, since then, deployed many more of these missiles. In 2014, the WFB’s Bill Gertz, an expert journalist covering Chinese military issues, reported that Beijing possessed 40 DF-31 ICBMs.
- It does not take into account any of China’s intermediate-range DH-10 and CJ-10 ground-launched cruise missiles and its 1,600 short-range ballistic missiles, again for a lack of reliable data to base an estimate on.
- It assumes, very conservatively, that only one DF-26C has been deployed and can carry only one warhead, even though more of these missiles have probably been deployed and may be capable of carrying multiple warheads.
- Due to a lack of data, it does not take into account any of the air-launched CJ-10 cruise missiles carried by China’s H-6K bombers, assuming that these bombers still only carry a single nuclear warhead. Were one to assume that China’s H-6K bombers carry nuclear-armed CJ-10 or CJ-20 ALCMs (nuclear-tipped variants of these missiles do exist), one would have to multiply the number of warheads carried by H-6K bombers by six.
So as you look at my estimate, bear in mind, Dear Reader, that it is a very conservative estimate, and that China’s deployed and nondeployed nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal is likely to be far larger. Putting together such an estimate is not easy due to China’s absolute nuclear opacity and the scarcity of data in open sources.
Still, the estimate provided herein, based on reliable sources, is still far more credible than those put forward by pro-unilateral-US-disarmament groups such as the Arms Control Association, the FAS, the NRDC, Ploughshares, or the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
In the near future, if and when more data becomes available, this estimate will be updated, and an estimate of the nuclear size of Russia.
UPDATE ON OCT. 2ND, 2014: Estimate updated to include new data on the DF-31 inventory size. Also note that, according to the WFB’s Bill Gertz, China has tested and will soon deploy a new variant of the DF-31 ICBM – the DF-31B. More here.
*The DF-3 is nearing retirement, and may have already been retired, from Chinese inventory.