US Says China Pursues Own Nuclear Triad, Doubling Nuclear Capability

(Source: US Department of Defense; issued Sept. 1, 2020)

Over the next 10 years, it's expected China will double the number of nuclear warheads it possesses, while embarking on an effort to expand the ways it can deploy its nuclear capability, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad L. Sbragia said at the American Enterprise Institute.

He discussed findings of a just-released Defense Department report, "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China -- 2020."

"The report does contend that there are currently an estimated low-200s in terms of warhead stockpiles, and it's projected to at least double in size over the next decade as China expands and modernizes its nuclear forces," Sbragia said.

But equally as important is how China would be able to deliver those warheads. It intends to develop a "nuclear triad" similar to the one the U.S. has and is currently working to modernize.

"The report [also] notes that China is expanding, modernizing and diversifying its nuclear forces across the board," Sbragia said. "Just looking at the number of warheads by itself is not the entire picture, or doesn't paint a holistic understanding of where the Chinese are or where they want to go.

A nuclear triad, as it exists in the U.S., allows for land-based missile delivery, sea-based delivery from submarines and air-based delivery with bombers.

Within the next decade, Sbragia said, China plans to expand its ballistic submarine fleet and field more capable, longer-range, sea-launched ballistic missiles. It also plans to complete the development of its nuclear-capable, air-launched ballistic missiles along with bombers to deliver them. On the ground, he said, China plans to field additional mobile ICBMs and also possibly expand its silo-based ICBM capability.

"As has been noted by others, and then as the report contends ... they're obviously in pursuit of the full suite of capacities ... to include the building out of infrastructure for a more modernized, capable and larger capacity in this area," Sbragia said.

Sbragia said that the report also concludes that, besides its investments in nuclear capability, China aims to transform the People's Liberation Army into a "world-class military" by around 2050.

"While China has not defined exactly what 'world-class military' means, it is likely that China will seek to build a military that is equal to or in some cases superior to the U.S. military or the military of any other great power that China perceives as a potential threat," Sbargia said.

One aspect of that advancement towards a world-class military, he said, is power projection. The Chinese want their military to be able to operate anywhere on the globe. One step towards that is the establishment of a more robust overseas logistics network.

According to the report, China is "very likely already considering and planning for" the establishment of military logistics facilities outside China that can support naval, air and ground forces.

Some locations that they may now be considering include Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan. China already has a military installation in Djibouti.

"The Chinese do have ... an aspiration for great power status by virtually every measure of comprehensive or composite national power that you can measure," Sbragia said. "To achieve that, it means that they have to have ... global convergence at the broadest scale possible. For the PLA, that means that they do have the intent to go out. I think that's certainly one of the aspects of what 'world-class military' means ... the capacity to have influence at distance, at a time and place of their choosing. They certainly aspire to do that.

Click here for the full report (200 PDF pages), on the Pentagon website.

Click here for the transcript of a related Sept. 1 media briefing, on the Pentagon website.


WASHINGTON --- A new Pentagon report predicts that China will “at least double” the size of its nuclear warhead stockpile over the next decade as it pursues its own nuclear triad to conduct nuclear strikes by land, sea and air.

China’s modernization and expansion of its nuclear force is part of a broader effort aimed at matching, and in some cases surpassing, the United States military by 2049 as the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific region, according to the Pentagon’s annual “China Military Power” report to Congress that was released Tuesday.

The report said the number of Chinese nuclear warheads is currently estimated to be slightly more than 200 and includes those that can be fitted to ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

This is the first time the Pentagon has stated a specific number of Chinese warheads, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chad Sbragia told reporters this week.

“We're certainly concerned about the numbers,” Sbragia said, “but also just the trajectory of China's nuclear developments writ large.”

U.S. capabilities

The United States’ nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 3,800 warheads in active status, would still dwarf the Chinese arsenal. The U.S. has submarines and aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear strike, along with intercontinental ballistic missiles on land.

China lacks the ability to launch nuclear weapons from the air, but the Pentagon said the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publicly revealed the H-6N bomber as its first nuclear capable air-to-air refueling bomber late last year.

In the past 15 years, the Chinese Navy has constructed 12 nuclear submarines, six of which provide China’s first “credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent,” according to the report. By the mid-2020s it will likely build a new, guided-missile nuclear attack submarine that could provide a secret land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles.

China has declined urgings from the Trump administration to join the U.S. and Russia in a deal to limit strategic nuclear arms. Without China’s added participation, the U.S. appears poised to let an existing U.S.-Russia arms treaty known as New START expire in February 2021.

'Rule-breaking behavior'

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper warned that the world's "free and open" system forged in the wake of World War II was under attack by what he called China's "rule-breaking behavior" in the Indo-Pacific region.  He spoke in Hawaii ahead of travel in the Indo-Pacific region to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on Wednesday.   

Esper called the Indo-Pacific region the "epicenter" of great power competition, vowing not to "cede an inch" to countries that threaten international freedoms, in an apparent dig at China.   

Amid Chinese military exercises last week, Beijing fired four medium-range ballistic missiles from mainland China into the disputed waters of the South China Sea, a U.S. defense official told VOA.

The Pentagon issued a statement of concern, saying China's actions "stand in contrast to its pledge to not militarize the South China Sea and are in contrast to the United States' vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms." 


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