The accelerating pace of China's nuclear buildup is concerning in itself, but even more so given that the military buildup constitutes just one, but significant, part of China's general military buildup and modernization. Pictured: DF-17 hypersonic missiles at a military parade in Beijing, China, on October 1, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
When the Pentagon assessed China's nuclear arsenal in its annual report to Congress on China's military power in November 2020, it projected that China's nuclear warhead stockpile, which the Pentagon then estimated to be in the low 200s, would "at least double in size" over the next decade. The Pentagon also estimated that China was "pursuing" a "nuclear triad", meaning a combination of land-, sea- and air-based nuclear capabilities.
Just one year later, in November 2021, the Pentagon found itself acknowledging that China's nuclear buildup was taking place at an astonishing speed, with the nuclear warhead stockpile now possibly quadrupling from the estimated low 200s in 2020 over the next decade:
"The accelerating pace of the PRC's nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020."
In addition, China is no longer merely "pursuing" a nuclear triad but appears to have already achieved the basics of it:
"The PRC has possibly already established a nascent 'nuclear triad' with the development of a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improvement of its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities."
China, according to the report, is also "constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this force expansion, including increasing its capacity to produce and separate plutonium by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities," while "building hundreds of new ICBM silos, and is on the cusp of a large silo-based ICBM force expansion comparable to those undertaken by other major powers."
The accelerating pace of China's nuclear buildup is concerning in itself, but even more so given that the military buildup constitutes just one, but significant, part of China's general military buildup and modernization. Last summer, for instance, China tested its first hypersonic weapon. In space, China is putting up satellites at twice the rate of the United States and "fielding operational systems at an incredible rate," according to General David Thompson, the Space Force's first vice chief of space operations. China and Russia's combined in-orbit space assets grew approximately 70% in just two years, following a more than 200% increase between 2015 and 2018 according to Kevin Ryder, Defense Intelligence Agency senior analyst for space and counterspace in the U.S.
According to General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff:
"If you look at, again, 40 years ago, they had zero satellites...They had no ICBMs...They had no nuclear weapons... They had no fourth or fifth-generation fighters or even more advanced fighters, back then... They had no navy...They had no sub-force. Look at what they have today... So if you look at the totality, this test [of a hypersonic weapon] that occurred a couple weeks ago, is only one of a much, much broader picture of a military capability with respect to the Chinese. That is very, very significant. We're witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed."
According to Timothy Heath, a senior international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation think tank:
"It's important to see the modernizing nuclear arsenal as part of the bigger picture, in which the Chinese are building up their military capabilities in space, cyberspace, and in the conventional force. It's all happening at the same time."
On April 20, 2021, U.S. Strategic Command's chief Admiral Charles Richard made it clear in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that China is no longer a lesser nuclear threat than Russia:
"While China's nuclear stockpile is currently smaller (but undergoing an unprecedented expansion) than those fielded by Russia and the United States, the size of a nation's weapons stockpile is a crude measure of its overall strategic capability. To fully assess the China threat, it is also necessary to consider the capability of the associated delivery system, command and control, readiness, posture, doctrine and training. By these measures, China is already capable of executing any plausible nuclear employment strategy within their region and will soon be able to do so at intercontinental ranges as well. They are no longer a 'lesser included case of the pacing nuclear threat, Russia." (Emphasis in original).
China's nuclear acceleration is not all, however. There is now as well the added probability of China and Russia engaging in military coordination: In February, the two powers declared that they were entering into a strategic partnership of "no limits" and with "no forbidden areas" in an agreement that they said was aimed at countering the influence of the United States.
This cooperation has already seen China undermining Western sanctions on Russia and supplying Russian President Vladimir Putin with the lifeline he needs to continue his war in Ukraine. China has not only supplied material support through a variety of deals with Russia, it has also refrained from condemning Russia's invasion and has criticized the sanctions.
In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Russia the "most important strategic partner" for China.
"No matter how perilous the international landscape, we will maintain our strategic focus and promote the development of a comprehensive China-Russia partnership in the new era... The friendship between the two peoples is iron clad."
On April 19, China reassured Russia that it will continue to increase "strategic coordination."
China-Russia cooperation is going to affect US strategic deterrence. Admiral Richard told the Senate Armed Services Committee in early March that the US needs to have plans for scenarios in which the two powers cooperate militarily, adding:
"I'm very concerned about what opportunistic aggression looks like. I'm worried about what cooperative aggression looks like... We do not know the endpoints of where either of those other two are going either in capability or capacity. We're just now starting to work out what three-party stability looks like, what three-party deterrence dynamic works out."
In his April 20, 2021 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Richard said:
"For the first time in our history, the nation is on a trajectory to face two nuclear-capable, strategic peer adversaries at the same time, who must be deterred differently. We can no longer assume the risk of strategic deterrence failure in conflict will always remain low."
In the light of China's accelerating nuclear buildup -- and the nuclear threat that Russia poses with its thousands of tactical nuclear weapons -- this is NOT the time for the US to cancel the sea-launched nuclear cruise missile (SLCM-N), as President Joe Biden plans to do.
The missile, according to the Wall Street Journal, "is considered a 'tactical' nuclear weapon that has a lower yield than 'strategic' options and might be used on battlefield targets. The missile could be launched from submarines or destroyers" and "is needed to deter Russia and others" and, according to the article, would also be useful "in dissuading China from using a nuke on Taiwan, without the longer and fraught debate of, say, putting American nuclear weapons on Japanese soil... [and] reduce proliferation at a volatile moment."
The acceleration of China's nuclear and military modernization, and the new situation of tri-polar deterrence that the U.S. finds itself in for the first time, necessitate increases in US military research and development, acquisition and procurement. Meanwhile, Biden's proposed defense budget risks speeding the US to defeat by insufficiently taking into account the current skyrocketing inflation, as acknowledged in early April by Gen. Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord. "This budget assumes an inflation rate of 2.2%, which is obviously incorrect because it's almost 8%," Milley noted. "Because the budget was produced quite a while ago, those calculations were made prior to the current inflation rate."
"Nearly every dollar of increase in this budget will be eaten by inflation," Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said. "Very little, if anything, will be left over to modernize and grow capability."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.