China has long maintained a much smaller nuclear arsenal than Russia or the United States for ‘minimum deterrence,’ meaning it had just enough nuclear firepower to assure Beijing’s retaliatory strike could still inflict unacceptable devastation. The United States for example actively deploys 1,550 nuclear warheads and has many more in reserve. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) inventory is estimated to count in the low hundreds.
China’s stance was underlined by Beijing’s No First Use policy professing it would only use nuclear weapons in retaliation to an enemy’s nuclear first strike.
These developments have spurred speculation and anxiety regarding China’s nuclear doctrine. Is Beijing now inclined to use nuclear arms more coercively, including more “useable” lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons? Is its “no first use” policy a sham?
How Many Nuclear Warheads Does China Have—and How Many Does Beijing Want?
In 2020, the Defense Department assessed China possessed nuclear warheads in the “low 200s,” a total expected to double, while the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pegged the number higher at 350. But the 2021 Defense Department report indicates a new normal.
“The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027,” the report states. “The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020.”
The big driver in the increase? In the summer of 2021, U.S. researchers using commercial satellite imagery identified three massive fields in remote areas of China (beyond the range of U.S. cruise missiles) studded with over 300 missile silos under construction. That includes 120 silos in Yumen, Gansu province; 110 silos near Hami in eastern Xinjiang province; and 80 silos at Ordos, Inner Mongolia, which is a region in China.
the Bulletin cautions the Defense Department projection seems based on Chinese silo construction, noting that some silos may remain empty to force U.S. nuclear planners to waste counterforce missiles in a “shell game” strategy.
the Bulletin enumerated multiple reasons Beijing is likely pursuing this expansion of its nuclear force. These reasons range from “protecting the retaliatory capability against a first strike” to “overcoming the potential effects of adversarial missile defenses” to “better balancing” the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force “between mobile and silo-based missiles.” Additionally, China wants to increase its “nuclear readiness and overall nuclear strike capability to account for improvements to Russia’s, India’s, and the United States’ nuclear arsenals; and strengthening a sense of national prestige.”
Does China Have the Necessary Plutonium for the Nuclear Missile Buildup?
China ceased military plutonium production in the mid-1980s, but has enough material on hand to double force size according to the Bulletin—“but a tripling—and certainly a quadrupling—would probably require production of additional material.”
However, such production is feasible with China’s existing civilian reactors, and especially with two CFR-600 fast-breeder reactors due to become operational in 2023 and 2026.
These could produce enough material for 990-1,550 warheads according to the Bulletin, which “could exceed [the ICBM force] of either Russia and the United States.” However, higher estimates would also require greatly expanded missile production, or cramming a maximum number of independent nuclear warheads in each missile.
Like Washington, Beijing has signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and furthermore claims adherence to it. However, a high-level activity observed at China’s Lop Nur nuclear test site suggests ongoing “zero-yield” tests.
Is China’s No-First-Use Pledge Genuine? And Under What Circumstances Does it Apply?
Beijing’s No First Use policy has aroused much skepticism as of course such pledges can be broken opportunistically. But until recently, it was arguably credible because China’s arsenal was so much smaller it would have been insane to initiate a nuclear exchange with the U.S. or Russia.
Despite current force expansion, No First Use still guides how China’s nuclear forces are trained and organized: with missiles and warheads stored separately, making a large-scale launch of nuclear weapons on short notice (or by accident) difficult.
Indeed, most of China’s nuclear warheads are stowed in Base 67 at Taibai (near Baoji). However, a small number of warheads are forward-deployed to China’s six operational missile bases. The Defense Department report further assesses: “The PLA probably currently selects its nuclear strike targets to achieve conflict de-escalation and return to a conventional conflict with a remaining force sufficient to deter its adversary.”
Obviously, China’s stockpile would be dispersed to operational brigades during times of high tension or war. But ordinarily, that means only a fraction of China’s nuclear stockpile is deployed and immediately accessible to operational units.
But would China authorize a nuclear attack if its nuclear forces came under concerted conventional attack by U.S. cruise missiles and stealth bombers?
The Defense Department and the Bulletin concur that Chinese officials and officers have signaled privately Beijing might indeed initiate nuclear retaliation against a conventional attack “threatening the survival of the PLA’s nuclear forces or the CCP itself.” Unfortunately, that creates a risk Beijing might misinterpret U.S. strikes against dual-capable missiles as aimed at nuclear disarmament.
Missile Warning System: Are China’s Nukes on a Launch-on-Warning Hair-Trigger?
Russia and the United States maintain a Launch-on-Warning posture with land-based nuclear missiles on round-the-clock alert, ready to launch a counterstrike shortly after an incoming strike is detected. This comes with the risk that a technical error or human misjudgment triggering an “accidental” nuclear retaliation as testified by multipleclose calls.
Though Beijing has criticized U.S. and Russian LoW stance, the Defense Department report claims China too is adopting a “posture called ‘early warning counter strike’ . . . broadly similar to the U.S. and Russian LoW postures” in which detection of an incoming attack could lead to the launch of retaliatory missiles before the incoming warheads have hit their target.
The Defense Department cites as supporting evidence China’s construction of additional ICBM silos, deployment of modernized command-and-control systems, and development of improved early warning system including powerful phased array radars, geostationary satellites situated to detect launch flashes, and procurement of Russian technical assistance.
However, the Bulletin argues these developments “could be seen as a Chinese reaction to what it sees is an increasing risk against the survivability of its retaliatory nuclear force.” Furthermore, China’s investment in early-warning capability may be to pave the way for a missile defense system using the HQ-19 missile last tested February 2021.
Does China Have or Want More ‘Useable’ Low-Yield Nukes?
Russia maintains thousands while the United States has a few hundred, tactical nuclear weapons intended to destroy high-value military targets without triggering escalation to strategic nuclear warfare. But while China has precise DF-21 and DF-26 missiles that could deliver effective low-yield strikes, tactical nuclear weapons use is not officially part of Chinese doctrine.
This has not prevented much speculation to the contrary. The Defense Department report cites a Chinese article in 2012 as “provid[ing] the doctrinal basis” for ‘controlled use’ of low-yield nukes. Reportedly, PLA strategists fear the United States might use tactical nukes if it is unable to defeat a PLA invasion of Taiwan using conventional forces, and argues for tactical nuclear weapons capable of proportional response.
However, that PLA officers have occasionally discussed the option hardly proves a change in doctrine has been implemented. David Logan wrote for War on the Rocks in 2020 “More than three decades ago, U.S. intelligence estimates were predicting that China would soon field these kinds of capabilities. But 35 years later, those predictions have yet to come true.”
Overall, China’s nuclear forces appear set to greatly expand in the coming decade. Quantitative and qualitative growth in turn will expand Beijing’s options for how it employs its nuclear deterrence, but it does not follow that every option will be doctrinally embraced.
A companion article for reviews the composition and organization of China’s land-, sea- and air-based nuclear force.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.
Baghdad (Agenzia Fides) – Yesterday, Tuesday, January 4th, the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, received a delegation from the movement of Muktada al-Sadr from Karkh, a district of the Iraqi capital west of the Tigris, at his residence in Baghdad. This was reported by official sources of the Chaldean Patriarchate and added that the representatives of the political party, led by the Shiite leader Muktada al-Sadr, conveyed their New Year’s greetings to the Patriarch, stating that the conversation between the delegates and the Primate of the Chaldean Church would focus on the general situation in the country and the next stages of the political and legal development, which is being pushed forward at the behest of the political movement, in order to return to the rightful Christian owners real estate – houses and land – to the legitimate Christian owners – which in recent years had been illegally stolen from them by individuals and organized groups. The meeting between the Chaldean Patriarch and the exponents of the Sadrist movement acquires significance in the light of the delicate political-institutional phase Iraq finds itself. On December 27, the Iraqi Supreme Court rejected the appeals presented by some Shiite political forces believed to be pro-Iranian and contested the results of the October 10 parliamentary elections. The ruling of the Supreme Court finally confirmed the electoral success of the Muktada al-Sadr movement, which will occupy 73 of the 329 available seats in parliament. The Fatah Alliance, in which the Shiite parties that objected to the election result have joined forces, will only have 17 seats (compared to 48 members in the previous parliamentary assembly). On the last day of 2021, Iraqi President Barham Salih convened the first session of the new parliament, in which MEPs must elect the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, two vice-presidents and form the political groups. The new MPs must elect the new President of the Republic within 30 days of taking office and the new Prime Minister within the next 15 days. In the new political scenario of Iraq, the balance of power in parliament also confirms the new meaning of the Shiite leader Muktada al-Sadr, who is also known as the founder of the Mahdi Army, a militia that – officially dissolved in 2008 – was founded in 2003 to support the foreign armed forces who were present in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Analysts have seen several changes over the past decade in the leader who dissolved his militia in 2008 and does not appear to be allied with Iran. In the past, Muktada al-Sadr went so far as to call for an end to the “quota system” which, since the death of Saddam Hussein, has placed the administration of power in Iraq on a sectarian basis. In the country upset in recent years by the jihadist offensive, by the proclamation of the Islamic Caliphate with a strategic base in Mosul and by the coexistence of various and potentially rival forces on the heterogeneous front that led to the reconquest of almost all the areas that had fallen into the hands of the militias jihadists, Muqtada al Sadr tried to profile himself as a potential mediator. His visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2017 to meet Prince Mohammed bin Salman was also interpreted in this perspective. Exactly one year ago (see Fides, 4/1/2021), Muqtada al Sadr ordered the creation of a Committee to collect and verify news and complaints regarding cases of illegal expropriation of real estate suffered in recent years by Christian owners in various regions of the country. The communiqué that started the campaign named the names of the Muktada al-Sadr employees who were selected as members of the committee, as well as the email addresses and Whatsapp accounts to which Christian owners had been betrayed and property documents relating to real estate – Houses and land – illegally confiscated from individuals or clans in recent years. The initiative of the Sadrist Movement, (see Fides, 25/11/2021), triggered a singular competition between antagonist political blocs, intent on competing for the flag of forces “protecting” the interests of Christian citizens and their property rights. On Monday, November 22, Judge Faiq Zidan, President of the Supreme Judicial Council – the highest administrative body of the ordinary judiciary – had received a delegation from the “Bablonia Movement”, a political group considered close to the pro-Iranian Shiite parties, which in the elections of the October 10 has obtained four of the five seats reserved for parliamentarians of Christian faith. The delegation included Ryan al-Kildani, general secretary of the movement, and Evan Faeq Yakoub Jabro, former Minister for refugees and migration in the outgoing government of Mustafa al Kadhimi. The meeting also discussed issues related to real estate owned by Christian owners and the steps to be taken to protect their property rights. (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 5/1/2022)
Attacks on American troops stationed in Iraq and Syria in recent days, attributed to Iran-backed militia forces, came as the nuclear talks in Vienna were making some progress.
US officials in recent weeks had warned that they expected more attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria, in part because of the second anniversary of the killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
Soleimani who was Iran’s top military and intelligence operator in the Middle East, organizing anti-American and anti-Israeli militant groups, was killed by a targeted US drone strike on January 3, 2020, directly ordered by former US president Donald Trump.
Two explosive-laden drones were shot down on Tuesday by Iraq’s air defenses as they approached the Ain al-Asad air base, which hosts US forces, west of Baghdad, an official of the US-led international military coalition said.
A similar attack was foiled on Monday, when Iraqi air defenses downed two drones as they approached a base hosting US forces near Baghdad’s international airport.
Separately, another coalition official told Reuters that the coalition had carried out strikes against an “imminent threat” after they saw several rocket launch sites near the Green Village in Syria.
While this official did not say which country in the coalition carried out the strikes or who was responsible for the launch sites, Iranian-backed militia groups have occasionally targeted US forces in both Iraq and Syria.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby refused to say that the latest attacks were tied to Iran, but said they follow a pattern of attacks that were carried out by Iranian networks in the past.
“I’m not in a position now to get into specific attribution. That said, we continue to see threats against our forces in Iraq and Syria by militia groups that are backed by Iran,” Kirby told reporters.
He also said the coalition strikes in Syria were not carried out by aircraft but did not provide more details on the threat.
The attacks came as nuclear talks continued with Iran in Vienna that seem to be making some progress. Critics of the talks to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement known as JCPOA say that even if negotiations prove successful they would not impact Iran’s agressive behavior in the region and its network of militant proxies.
Iranian threats of revenge and retribution increased in the past one week as Soleimani’s death anniversary approached. Both Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and hardliner president Ebrahim Raisi warned that those involved in the Soleimani’s killing must be held responsible.
“If Trump and (former Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo are not tried in a fair court for the criminal act of assassinating General Soleimani, Muslims will take our martyr’s revenge,” Raisi said in a televised speech on Monday.
The United States is leading the international military coalition fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and in Syria.
There are roughly 900 U.S. troops in Syria and another 2,500 in Iraq.
China‘s endorsement of a rare nonproliferation statement this week may have been its first step toward arms control dialogue with the world’s nuclear powers, in which Beijing could finally disclose the true size of its weapons stockpile, an expert has predicted.
The joint statement released concurrently by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—or the “P5″—on Monday committed to preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons. China, of which the estimated warhead count remains dwarfedby those of the United States and Russia, is hesitant to discuss a reduction of its own arsenal, the exact nature of which remains opaque.
According to October 2021 estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, China wields the world’s third-largest number of nuclear warheads at 350, but former Cold War arms-race rivals Russia and the U.S. respectively have 6,257 and 5,600, with the figures accounting for all deployed, stockpiled and retired warheads awaiting disarmament. France and the United Kingdom, meanwhile, have 290 and 225 warheads, respectively.
The Defense Department‘s own analysis suggests China’s nuclear warheads number in the low 200s, but it expects Beijing to deploy around 700 by 2027 and at least 1,000 by 2030, the Pentagon said in November 2021’s China Military Power Report. U.S. officials have expressed alarm at what they consider a rapid buildup.
Hong Kong-based military analyst Leung Kwok-leung told Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency on Tuesday that China’s part in the joint statement could indicate a readiness to sit down for arms control talks. The dialogue could result in China finally revealing—at least among the P5, if not publicly—the size of its nuclear stockpile.
China is the only P5 state not to disclose its nuclear arsenal. Leung believes Beijing could make transparent the number of nuclear submarines, strategic bombers and nuclear-capable missile silos it operates, but he said the process could take up to a decade or more.
In their statement, the P5 affirmed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” They also recommitted never to target each other or any other country with nuclear weapons.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price described the five-nation statement as extraordinary and suggested Washington was among its strongest advocates.
“It underscores that even in times of tensions, countries have a responsibility to exercise restraint, especially concerning nuclear weapons,” he said. “I called it an extraordinary statement because it really is. It’s the first time that all five nuclear weapon states, parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, have affirmed together that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Earlier in the day, Beijing’s top arms control official Fu Cong told reporters that U.S. claims about its expanding nuclear arsenal were not true. He also said China’s nuclear force shouldn’t be estimated based on satellite images.
Fu, who said China would continue to modernize its nuclear weapons, dismissed the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons near Taiwan. “Nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent. They are not for war or fighting,” he said.
He told China’s state broadcaster CGTN that the joint statement was “a document of historical significance.” It demonstrates the P5’s “collective will to maintain world peace and reduce the risk of a nuclear war,” Fu said.
“I think this is important by itself, but also especially against the current background of high tension both in Europe and to a lesser extent in this part of the world. People need to realize this,” he said.
The Statista graph below shows the world’s estimated nuclear arsenal as of October 2021.
Israel’s attack on targets in the Gaza Strip last week threatens to end the fragile peace with the Palestinian factions, writes Mohamed Abu Shaar
Israeli air strikes on Gaza on Sunday shattered a ceasefire that had lasted for several months between Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Israel said two rockets had been fired from Gaza towards Tel Aviv and that Israeli strikes had targeted a Hamas location in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip that it claimed housed a rocket factory belonging to Hamas’ armed wing. Other targets included military lookout posts in northwest Gaza.
The Israeli attack came a few hours after the Israeli army announced it had observed two rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Tel Aviv that had fallen into the sea. Early warning systems did not activate in Israel before the rockets landed in the water, but Israel said it viewed the incident as crossing a “red line” by armed Palestinian factions in Gaza.
Hamas said the launch of the two rockets had been accidental due to bad weather conditions and sent messages to Israel via mediators saying that lightning had caused the rockets to launch and denying that they were part of ongoing rocket testing.
Hamas sometimes launches test rockets into the Mediterranean Sea as part of its development of its military capabilities.
However, Israel’s political and military leadership was not convinced by Hamas’ explanation. Facing popular and media pressure at home, it decided to respond by bombing Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
Tel Aviv’s response was “measured,” according to some observers, and Israel wanted to lay down the rules of engagement with the armed Palestinian factions in Gaza and at the same time not trigger an all-out confrontation. This was especially after Egypt had put pressure on both sides to exercise self-restraint and prevent a broader confrontation.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said of the incident that “all the tales by Hamas about thunder and lightning that happen every winter do not fool us. Anyone who aims a rocket towards Israel must pay the price.”
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Rav-Aluf Aviv Kochavi said the same thing after meeting with military commanders to decide how to respond to the Gaza rockets.
Israel’s state-owned KAN news agency quoted an official as saying that “this is a serious incident and is unacceptable.” He added that despite claims that the Islamic Jihad group could have been behind the rocket launches, Hamas controlled the Gaza Strip and “was responsible” for them.
Despite signals that neither side wants further escalation, Israeli analysts believe that Hamas is turning up the heat to pressure Israel to make compromises on lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip.
Hamas is under pressure from its promises to Palestinians in Gaza after the last war with Israel in May 2021 to the effect that this military confrontation would be the prelude to an end to the economic troubles and successive crises in the Gaza Strip.
This was explicitly stated by leader of Hamas Yahya Al-Sinwar, but obstacles have emerged in Israeli preconditions on lifting the Gaza siege, linking it to a prisoner-exchange deal between Israel and Hamas. Hamas rejects this link and wants the two issues to remain separate.
Egypt is making herculean efforts to de-escalate tensions between the two sides and avoid confrontations on the ground, especially since Cairo has plans to assist in the reconstruction of Gaza.
This will require calm and stability to ensure that Egypt can help to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and rebuild what was destroyed during the war in May.
Other than the two rockets fired from Gaza, there are other elements that could push military confrontation to the fore. Islamic Jihad and its military wing have threatened that there will be a military response if Hesham Abu Hawwash, a Palestinian prisoner held by Israel who has been on hunger strike for 140 days, dies.
Hawwash’s health is deteriorating quickly, according to medical reports by Palestinian agencies that focus on detainees in Israeli prisoners.
“Hesham Abu Hawwash is being subjected to premeditated murder by the occupation forces, who are arrogantly determined to deliver a loss to the Palestinian people,” said Qadura Fares, president of the Palestinian Prisoners Association.
Abdel-Qader Al-Khateeb, undersecretary of the Commission for Detainees and Former Detainees Affairs, said that “Hawwash is approaching the end by the minute and is on the brink of death. Doctors are talking about the probability of sudden death or blood clots that will have permanent consequences.”
The Palestinian government has said it will hold Israel responsible if there are repercussions if Hawwash dies, especially after other threats by Palestinian detainees held in Israeli prisons. Tensions are already high after a Palestinian detainee stabbed an Israeli guard at the Israeli Nafha Prison.
Ziyad Al-Nakhala, secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, said that “if Hesham Abu Hawwash dies, we will view this as a premeditated assassination by the enemy and will respond as we would to any other assassination.”
This is being seen as a clear reference to a military response if Hawwash dies, which would drag Gaza into further confrontation.
Khaled Al-Batsh, a member of Islamic Jihad’s politburo, confirmed that Al-Nakhala’s position is shared between the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as their military wings.
Although Islamic Jihad is leading the threats against Israel if Abu Hawwash dies, Hamas will be forced to participate in any future fighting, especially since Abu Hawwash’s cause is supported by the majority of Palestinians.
While Israel and the Palestinian factions want to uphold the truce, at least for now, any sudden developments on the ground could end the fragile calm in Gaza.
But Palestinians hope that Egypt’s ongoing efforts will prevent any extensive military confrontation, especially since they are still suffering from the consequences of the confrontation six months ago.
China on Tuesday said it would keep modernizing its nuclear program in the name of “safety” but called on the United States and Russia to make greater cuts to their arsenal stockpiles.
“China will continue to modernize its nuclear arsenal for reliability and safety issues,” Fu Cong, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s arms control department said Tuesday, first reported the South China Morning Post.
Fu’s comments come one day after the five states recognized under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — the U.S., Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China, who are also the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council — issued a joint pledge to lower the risk of nuclear war.
The P5 affirmed that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and that “nuclear weapons — for as long as they continue to exist — should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.”
While the U.N. permanent member nations hold the greatest number of nuclear arsenals, nations like India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have known stockpiles as well.
The U.S. and Russia have been working to reduce their nuclear stockpiles since the end of the Cold War when there were roughly 60,000 nuclear weapons between the two superpowers.
According to data from the Arms Control Association, Russia has the largest nuclear arsenals in the world with more than 6,255 warheads on hand. The U.S. comes in second with 5,550 warheads.
China ranks a distant third with 350 nuclear warheads.
A Department of Defense report in November found that China may be ramping up its nuclear capabilities and could have 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and reach 1,000 warheads by 2030.
China’s arms control director general denied the report Tuesday and said the country’s nuclear force could not be determined by satellite photos.
“On the assertions made by U.S. officials that China is expanding dramatically its nuclear capabilities, first, let me say that this is untrue,” Fu said.
Fu reiterated China’s stance that Beijing will not enter into an agreement with Washington or the Kremlin to reduce its nuclear warhead capabilities until the U.S. and Russia have drastically diminished their stockpiles.
“We will be happy to join if they have reduced to our level,” Fu said.
“The two superpowers need to … drastically reduce their nuclear capabilities to a level comparable to the level of China, and for that matter to the level of France and the U.K., so that other nuclear states can join in this process,” he added.