Beyond rapidly growing its ballistic missile force, the report says China could double its nuclear stockpile in the coming years.
By Joseph Trevithick
Imaginechina via AP
There is no year-over-year change in the number of short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) and medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) launchers, though the number of total missiles in both cases have been revised. In 2019, the Pentagon said that China had between 750 and 1,500 SRBMs and between 150 and 450 MRBMs, while it simply said that the country had more than 600 SRBMs and more than 150 MRBMs in 2020. SRBMs are defined as ballistic missiles with ranges between 300 kilometers (186 miles) and 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), while MRBMs can reach distances of between 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) and 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles).
The most dramatic change in the Pentagon’s assessment of the PLARF’s ballistic missile inventory between 2019 and 2020 was with regards to intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM), which have ranges between 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) and 5,500 kilometers (3,417 miles). At present, China’s sole operational IRBM is understood to be the DF-26, “which is capable of conducting both conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets, as well as conventional strikes against naval targets,” according to the Pentagon. The Chinese military highlighted its long-range anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities in a recent major exercise in the South China Sea.
However, at present, there does not appear to be any further public evidence of new Chinese silo construction for the DF-41 to further support the Pentagon’s assessment. There is also mention of possible rail-mobile DF-41s, something China reportedly tested in 2015, but it is unclear how seriously the PLARF is exploring this capability. The Soviet Union notably did deploy a similar system during the Cold War, the RT-23 Molodets, and Russia more recently looking into bringing that capability back before shelving those plans in favor of missiles armed with nuclear-armed hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, known as Avangard.
The Pentagon also separately said that China’s nuclear arsenal could grow to include new warheads, including a potential lower-yield warhead for the DF-26, and new delivery systems. A lower yield nuclear weapon could indicate that the Chinese military may bee looking at a so-called escalate-to-deescalate policy, in which a limited nuclear strike could be used to bring a quick end to a conflict before outside powers might be able to intervene or to otherwise dissuade them from doing so. The U.S. government says that Russia has such a policy in its nuclear doctrine, but experts dispute that it exists.
The U.S. government has accused China, as well as Russia, of conducting low-yield nuclear tests in violation of international agreements, which could support the development of new nuclear weapons, but has not publicly provided evidence to substantiate this. In addition, as The War Zone, among others, has pointed out in the past, so-called sub-critical nuclear testing, in which there is no actual nuclear detonation, is permitted under existing arms control regimes and the U.S. conducts such experimentation, as well.
All of this comes as the United States is engaged in negotiations with Russia about extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which limits the number of nuclear warheads and various strategic delivery systems that each country can have, and is otherwise set to sunset next year. The U.S. government has been campaigning to bring China into the discussions and potentially expand the deal into a trilateral arrangement.
China has expressed virtually no interest in doing so. Beyond a spike in geopolitical friction with Washington over a host of different issues, Beijing is unlikely to see any benefit in making itself a party to such an agreement in the near future given that its existing nuclear arsenal is so small compared to that of the U.S. and Russian militaries. The Pentagon looks to be making a case in its latest China assessment for getting them to accept limits now before they can expand the size of their stockpile. Chinese officials have already countered these calls by saying it would be willing to talk nuclear arms control with the United States if it agreed to reduce its arsenal to China’s level first.
Whether or not the Chinese grow their ballistic missile and nuclear forces in the ways that the Pentagon expects, it is clear that the People’s Liberation Army is working to significantly expand its capabilities in both regards to better challenge the United States, as well as other potential adversaries.
Contact the author: Joe@thedrive.com