Pentagon: China to more than triple its nuclear arsenal by 2035

Andy Wong/AP Photo

China is continuing to steadily expand its nuclear arsenal and could have 1,500 warheads by 2035, according to a new Defense Department study released on Tuesday.

Beijing’s current nuclear stockpile has surpassed 400 warheads, the Pentagon warned in its annual report to Congress on China’s military might. By 2035, officials expect the People’s Liberation Army to complete the modernization of its military forces.

The latest numbers show that China is on pace with the recent Pentagon estimates, according to a senior DoD official, who requested anonymity to discuss the report ahead of its release. As of January, the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that China had 350 nuclear warheads; last year, DoD estimated that China would reach 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.

While the latest report does not reflect an acceleration from last year’s pace of growth, China’s nuclear buildup over the past few years is a “dramatic acceleration” from the mid-2000s, the official said.

“This is an accelerating trend,” the official said. “We see that with the buildout of the silo fields, the creation of a nuclear triad, what they're doing with their sea bases and air components as well as the silos and their land mobile forces.”

Beijing’s arsenal is still a fraction of the size of Russia’s and the United States’, which together account for 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. As of January, Russia led the pack with 5,977 nuclear warheads; the United States was a close second with 5,428, according to SIPRI.

Washington’s and Moscow’s nuclear forces are limited by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which the two countries agreed in 2021 to extend for five years. Russia on Monday postponed scheduled arms control talks with the United States set to take place this week in Cairo, with neither side giving a reason.

But China has refused to join the talks, arguing that Russia’s and the United States’ arsenals are much larger than its own and the two nuclear superpowers’ have primary responsibility for arms control. But Beijing’s expansion “raises some questions about their intent,” the senior DoD official said.

The buildup “does raise questions about whether they are shifting away” from their previously stated strategy of having “the minimum number of nuclear weapons required for the PRC’s national security,” the official said.

In 2021, China’s rocket forces launched roughly 135 ballistic missiles for testing and training — more than the rest of the world, according to the report. That same year, China also continued building three solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile silo fields, which collectively contain at least 300 new silos.

China is also building up its space and counterspace capabilities, according to the report, developing a range of technologies including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers and orbiting space robots.

“The PLA views space operations as a means to deter and counter third-party intervention during a regional military conflict,” the report states. “Moreover, PRC defense academies suggest that reconnaissance, communication, navigation, and early warning satellites could be among the target of attacks designed to ‘blind and deafen the enemy.’”

DoD does not have a new assessment of China’s timeline for any potential invasion of Taiwan after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island sparked a crisis this summer. DoD believes China will have the capability to invade Taiwan by 2027, officials have said.

However, DoD did note Beijing’s increasingly “provocative and destabilizing actions in and around Taiwan” after the speaker’s visit, including increased flights into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, more crossings of the Taiwan Strait center line, and also conducting exercises designed to replicate an invasion, the official said.

“What we do see is the PRC establishing a new normal level of military activity,” the official said, noting that this behavior “appears to be intended to intimidate or wear down Taiwan.”

“Although again I don’t see any kind of imminent indications of an invasion, we are definitely very focused on this level of more intimidating and coercive behavior.”

U.S. officials have discussed China’s nuclear capabilities with NATO allies, including in a series of meetings in October, according to a readout of one of the meetings obtained by POLITICO.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addressed Beijing’s expanding nuclear arsenal in one of the meetings, saying the world would soon face two “near-peer” nuclear competitors — Russia and China — for the first time in its history, according to the readout.

Stoltenberg said China is evolving its nuclear deterrence strategy and broadening the role of atomic weapons in its military arsenal. Other NATO allies present at the meeting, including Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, described Beijing’s nuclear capabilities as a challenge for the alliance. Representatives from Canada underscored the need to engage Beijing in future arms control negotiations.

Erin Banco contributed to this report.