WASHINGTON ― China plans to double its stockpile of nuclear warheads in the next decade, including those designed to be carried atop ballistic missiles that can reach the United States, the Pentagon said in a report released Tuesday.
Even with such increases, China’s nuclear force would be far smaller than that of the United States, which has an estimated 3,800 warheads in active status and others in reserve. China’s nuclear warhead stockpile is estimated to be in the low 200s.
In its annual “China Military Power” report to Congress, the Pentagon said the modernization and expansion of China’s nuclear forces is part of a broader effort by Beijing to develop a more assertive position on the world stage and to match or surpass America by 2049 as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia said at an American Enterprise Institute event Tuesday that the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, is “not intended to be merely a showpiece of Chinese modernity” but a tool of Chinese statecraft.
“The Communist Party has spent the last several years completely tearing out and rewiring the PLA organizationally with the goal of transforming into a joint force that is more combat ready, innovative and global,” Sbragia added.
On the nuclear side, China is developing a nuclear air-launched ballistic missile and revealed the H-6N as its first nuclear-capable bomber that can be refueled midair. China is also moving toward a more ready “launch-on-warning” posture for its missiles with an expanded silo-based force, the Pentagon report said.
The report noted that the number of warheads on China’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of threatening the U.S. is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years. China’s ICBM arsenal consists of 100 missiles with various ranges, the report said.
The analysis comes as the U.S. is in nuclear talks with Russia ahead of the expiration of the New START nuclear pact. A key sticking point is the U.S. demand to include China in any new agreement, even as China has repeatedly refused.
Separately this week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper suggested likeminded nations in the Pacific ― India, Australia and Japan ― could form a NATO-like alliance, whose apparent aim would be to deter China. This week, Esper was wrapping up his trip to Hawaii, Palau and Guam, where he has met with senior leaders from across the region
Pentagon officials on the trip also highlighted internal discussion to redistribute U.S. forces concentrated in South Korea and Japan to Guam and points farther south.
“Maybe the future is going to be less about bases and more about places — being able to operate across a multiplicity of locations, which give us the flexibility and the agility to respond to a variety of different threats and challenges,” David Helvey, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs, told reporters.
China, the report noted, has increased its defense budget, and surpassed the U.S. with a ground-launched missiles in larger numbers with greater ranges than the U.S., and in shipbuilding. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has a battle force of more than 350 ships and submarines, in comparison with the U.S. Navy’s 293 ships.
Sbragia noted that China’s ability to project power in the region and beyond has advanced dramatically in recent years.
China’s global ambitions have, the report stated, likely led it to consider Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan as potential locations for PLA military logistics facilities.
“I don’t think they’ve reached final conclusions on any of those yet,” Sbragia said. “But their aspirations are not small, and they’re not limited to a single geographic location. This is global in scale.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.