“The PRC is investing in, and expanding, the number of its land, sea, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces.”
Representatives from the Department of Defense delivered the annual report, colloquially referred to as the China Military Power Report, to Congress on Nov. 3.
The report outlines Beijing’s strategy to achieve a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of communist rule in China, and the role of nuclear weapons in that strategy.
A Growing Stockpile
The 2020 China Military Power Report assessed that China had approximately 200 nuclear weapons in total and that it had the capability to double that number over the next decade.
The new report has raised that estimate to an expected five-fold increase by 2030, and it states that China will have at least 200 land-based nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States within five years.
Reasons for this increase in estimation cited by the report include new investments in nuclear energy infrastructure, efforts to double the number of launchers in some missile units, and the discovery of several sites suspected by the United States of housing nuclear missile silos.
“The PRC has commenced building at least three solid-fueled ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missles] silo fields, which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos,” the report reads.
The report also states that China’s new nuclear energy efforts could cross-function as a means of developing the extra plutonium needed for the desired nuclear weapons buildup.
“The PRC is 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,” the report reads. “Though this is consistent with the PRC goal of closing the nuclear fuel cycle, the PRC likely intends to use some of this infrastructure to produce plutonium for its expanding nuclear weapons program.”
Advancing Nuclear Technologies
China isn’t only expanding its nuclear capacity, however. It’s also evolving its capabilities through military modernization, developing disruptive technologies such as hypersonic cruise missiles, according to the report.
“The PRC probably intends to develop new nuclear warheads and delivery platforms that at least equal the effectiveness, reliability, and/or survivability of some of the warheads and delivery platforms currently under development by the United States and/or Russia,” the report reads.
This development is taking place across the “nuclear triad,” of sea, land, and air-based nuclear capabilities. It includes new ICBMs, nuclear attack submarines, stealth strategic bombers, hypersonic glide vehicles, and cruise missiles.
“The PRC is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and will require increased nuclear warhead production, partially due to the incorporation of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities,” the report reads.
MIRVs are a type of missile payload consisting of multiple warheads launched from a single missile, each of which can be independently aimed at its own unique target once detached from the rocket that brought it to orbit.
In all, the report has found that China would continue to expand and enhance its nuclear capabilities over the next decade as it seeks to integrate its nuclear, space, and cyber capabilities into an integrated force.
An Evolving Posture
The report outlines that China maintains a “no first use” policy, despite its ongoing buildup of nuclear weapons. The policy states that China will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, nor will it use or threaten to use them against non-nuclear states.
As such, China’s nuclear policies prioritize the ability of its forces to survive an initial nuclear strike from an adversary.
“The PRC’s nuclear weapons policy currently prioritizes the maintenance of a nuclear force able to survive a first strike and respond with sufficient strength to conduct multiple rounds of counterstrike, deterring an adversary with the threat of unacceptable damage to its military capability, population, and economy,” the report reads.
But support for that position may be changing among the Chinese regime’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The report notes that some PLA officers had previously discussed the first use of nuclear weapons in the event that the PLA’s nuclear forces or the Chinese Communist Party itself were to be existentially threatened.
The report also notes that the PLA is implementing a so-called launch-on-warning posture.
This means that China is placing some of its nuclear units on an alert, so that if they receive a warning that a nuclear weapon has been launched against them, they’ll immediately retaliate with their own nuclear forces without waiting to verify that the attack is real by waiting for a detonation.
Nuclear units in the United States and Russia maintain similar postures.
The report also states that PLA planners would likely seek to avoid a protracted series of nuclear exchanges against a superior adversary, although PLA documents from 2012 explored the ramifications of so-called “small-yield” nuclear weapons that could be used in a more precise manner.
“Such discussions provide the doctrinal basis for limited nuclear employment on the battlefield, suggesting PRC nuclear thinkers could be reconsidering their long-standing view that nuclear war is uncontrollable,” the report reads.