Jeffrey LewisHow many Chinese nuclear weapons?

Today, I am working on the dissertation chapter about Chinese nuclear deployments. Recent reports by the Council on Foreign Relations, National Resources Defense Council and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (subscription) all describe the People’s Republic of China as the world’s third largest nuclear power, ahead of the British and French, with 400 or so warheads.

Those estimates are quite a bit higher than the official DoD estimate in Proliferation: Threat and Response (PTR), which assesses China “currently has over 100 nuclear warheads” deployed operationally. “Deployed operationally” means the warheads are stored near land-based ballistic missiles, as one can see from an earlier DoD estimate.

NAIC estimates, China has 140 nuclear ballistic missiles (including 20 ICBMs) – NAIC is on the high side, given how the right-wing excoriates the CIA. CFR, NRDC and IISS all have higher estimates because they include 1) submarine launched ballistic missiles, 2) aircraft delivered gravity bombs and 3) tactical nuclear weapons – none of which DoD does (or should) count as deployed:

  • In the 1980s, DIA found no evidence that China had deployed nuclear gravity bombs to airfields and, based on the antiquity of the aircraft, concluded China did not assign nuclear missions to any of its aircraft.
  • CMP and PTR do not mention possible Chinese tactical nuclear weapons other than theater ballistic missiles like the CSS-5 (counted above), but CMP describes Beijing’s decision to arm its SRBM force with conventional warheads as a response to “the political and practical constraints associated with the use of nuclear armed missiles.”

I think “more than 100” or even “about 100” are the best answers to “How many nuclear weapons does China have?” One might add “deployed operationally” to be very precise.

Who cares? The size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal – more to the point: The deliberate decision to focus on a small land-based missile force kept unfueled and without warheads mated—undermines much of the threat construction supporting the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review. Keith Payne, principal architect of the NPR, is more explicit about needing strategic force modernization to deter the Chinese in his own writing than was the NPR. Hans Kristensen at NRDC, one of the good guys and the source of one of the DIA documents, has a nice study of how China made its way into nuclear planning documents as Russia became less convincing as a rationale.