China and Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review

, China project manager and senior analyst | February 1, 2018, 9:47 am EDT
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Chinese Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen signs the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on September 24, 1996.

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) repeats one of the most pervasive misconceptions about the current state of the US nuclear arsenal: that it does not compare well with the nuclear arsenals of Russia and China, which are supposedly engaged in nuclear modernization efforts the United States is neglecting.

China is making steady incremental improvements to its nuclear arsenal. But the gap between China and the United States is too wide to argue the United States is lagging behind in any meaningful way. We’ve laid out the details in a new white paper.

A Quick Comparison

China’s nuclear force is much smaller and far less capable than the nuclear force of the United States. Consider the following:

  • China’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.
  • China has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make only several hundred more. The United States has 4,480 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more.
  • China conducted 45 nuclear weapons tests to develop and certify the nuclear warheads it has in its arsenal today. The United States conducted 1,056 nuclear weapons tests.
  • China can deliver 75 to 100 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States via ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs and has another 400 nuclear warheads it could put on those ICBMs.
  • China does not currently deploy any nuclear weapons aboard ballistic missile submarines, although it could possibly deliver 60 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States aboard the five submarines it will have when the fifth one, currently under construction, is completed. The United States currently deploys about 900 nuclear warheads on ballistic missile submarines and its 248 missiles could carry as many as 2,976.

A Limited Force for a Limited Purpose

Despite the enormous disparity between Chinese and US nuclear forces, the leaked NPR about to be released by the Trump administration claims the United States needs new nuclear weapons because “China is expanding and modernizing its considerable nuclear forces” and because China “pursues entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives.” The new NPR also expresses concern about the “increasing prominence” of nuclear weapons in Chinese defense policy, including possible Chinese first use of nuclear weapons.

There is little evidence China is pursuing “entirely new” nuclear capabilities.

The NPR implies China’s ability to put multiple warheads on its silo-based ICBM, its ability to deploy ballistic missile submarines and its ability to deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft are new. That needs to be considered in context.

China has had the ability to put multiple warheads on its largest silo-based ICBM for decades. It only did so recently with some of its ICBMs, adding a total of 20 warheads. Adding warheads to the rest of these ICBMs would add only another 20 total warheads. So the decision to utilize the capability to add multiple warheads does allow for a modest increase in the number of warheads China can deliver to the United States. But it is a small increase and it is misleading to characterize it as an “entirely new” capability. The United States deployed its first ICBM with multiple warheads in 1970.

The same is true for China’s ballistic missile submarines and bombers. China has had the capability to put nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on submarines for quite a while. It commissioned its first ballistic missile submarine in 1981. It began conducting sea trials of the submarine class it is building today in 2006. It has still not actively deployed them.

China does have a new nuclear capable air-launched cruise missile but US intelligence sources state it does not currently have a nuclear mission.

There is little compellng evidence that nuclear weapons are more prominent in China’s military strategy or that China intends to use nuclear weapons first.

Authoritative Chinese military sources state that the only national security objective China aims to achieve with its small nuclear force is to maintain an ability to retaliate if another state launches a nuclear attack against China first. Those same sources also confirm China remains committed to its longstanding policy of not using nuclear weapons first.

The limited size and capabilities of China’s nuclear force lends credibility to Chinese statements about the limited role of nuclear weapons in its military strategy.

Of course, China has been incrementally improving the quality and increasing the quantity of its nuclear forces since its first test of a nuclear-armed missile in 1966. The pace of these improvements has been steady but slow, especially when compared with the growth of China’s economy. As noted above, after a half-century of continuous incremental “modernization,” China’s nuclear arsenal remains smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.

How to Keep China’s Nuclear Force Small and Limited

President Trump and many members of Congress from both parties seem to believe the United States is in a new nuclear arms race with China. There is no evidence China is engaged in a substantive build-up of its nuclear forces. But even so, for those who are concerned, the best thing the United States can do to win this hypothetical nuclear arms race with China is to limit China’s ability to build new warheads.

China cannot dramatically enlarge its nuclear force without producing more weapons-grade plutonium. And China cannot develop new lighter, variable-yield or low-yield nuclear warheads—like the United States already possesses—without resuming nuclear testing.  It stands to reason, therefore, that US and allied officials concerned about the future size and capabilities of China’s nuclear arsenal should take every measure possible to prevent China from producing more fissile material for nuclear weapons and from testing new nuclear warheads.

For the moment, China says it is still willing to negotiate a fissile material control treaty (FMCT) that would verifiably ban new production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

In addition, China stopped nuclear testing in 1996 and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Chinese nuclear arms control experts say their government is still willing to permanently end nuclear testing and ratify the CTBT as soon as the United States does. Entry into force of the CTBT would verifiably ban China from testing new nuclear warheads.

The Trump administration’s plan to develop and deploy new nuclear weapons does nothing to prevent China from expanding its nuclear forces. However, ratifying the CTBT and beginning negotiations on the FMCT would cap the size of China’s nuclear arsenal at its current level. Working towards the entry into force of these two arms control treaties, then, should be the top two priorities for anyone genuinely concerned about the future size and capability of China’s nuclear forces.

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  • Ryan Alt

    Russia’s very large number of new generation ICBMS and SLBMS(mirv equipped Yars,Bulava,Layner2) really does make the US arsenal look dated. There is no “supposedly” about that as anyone can see how many nuclear systems Russia has fielded over the last decade(and still more to come).

  • Fre Okin The Contrarian

    Th NPR laid bare the Pentagon/Trump administration fear US will lose in a conventional war with China. When the NPR talk of using tactical nuke to stop an enemy winning by conventional means, it implies US have hegemony in her mind. Only China and N Korea could beat US at their home turf with conventional means, not Russia, so this threat to use tactical nukes are only against these two countries who can counter attack, N Korea banking on EMP at a minimum to cause massive damage to CONUS.

    Remember US had tried to use nuclear blackmail on China during the Sino India border war in 1962, the Korean war, and also during the first Taiwan Strait crisis. All these via direct presidential threat as in the Taiwan Strait Crisis or the generals in charge recommend to POTUS to nuke China in order to win.

    BTW US even try to do this to Vietnam to clear the jungles there under Gen Westmoreland.

    Now we are back to US trying to deter her enemy with tactical nukes. This time however the Chinese is well equipped to take on US. US capacity to intimidate China is far gone after China ignore US FON, ADIZ threats.

    The people who drafted this NPR policy have no idea how the real world operates. Nationalism will take a life of it’s own, like the ordinary Chinese go ransacking Japanese businesses after Tokyo annexed Diaoyu/Senkaku in early 2012. This means even if the Chinese leadership want to avoid a nuclear war with US, they cannot due to the masses demanding revenge if US dare to use even a tactical nuke on China.

    Instead of the arrogant fixation to hang on to hegemony in Asia, US should learn to fade away gradually, much like the British Empire. US have her moment in the sun, time for her to share center stage or pull in her horns and focus on domestic agendas and compete economically or B Gone.

    There is no genocide, no event anywhere in the world that could compel US to go nuclear with her enemies. Not even Russia or N Korea besides China. The NPR policy should include UN authorization for such extreme situation to give US ultimate moral authority, not acting on her own.

    There is a difference between Homeland Security Threat and US National Interest threat overseas. Those threat overseas are result of centuries of neighborhood squabbles between US allies and her enemies. These Do Not constitute Homeland Security danger and should not be cause for using nukes, not even the tactical nukes.

    So what happen is with the fixation on National Interest overseas, the Trump administration, Pentagon may very quickly end up Harming Homeland Security.

    Isn’t America First about taking care of US Homeland Security First instead of the so called ‘National Interest’ which Should be Fronted By The People There, Not US?

    Why is NPR Policy putting US in Harms Way Instead of Allies First in Harms Way? They want to play, they pay in blood and treasure, NOT US NPR Policy that Will Trigger a Counter nuclear attack on US Homeland/CONUS Especially if the enemies Homeland, sacred soil is nuked, however small the size of the nuke.

    Somebody should enlighten the Trump administration and those who favor more precision tactical nukes on all platforms to follow the wise policy of previous administrations: Lead From Behind, Far Far Behind and not do the dirty work for the disputants there.

    Just to be clear, in this nuclear age, there will never be a Hitler moment with Russia marching across Europe, no Chinese military invasion all over Asia (their art of war doctrine and peaceful naval history is evidence), so it is extremely offensive to include the option to use tactical nukes as a deterrent against the obvious enemy: China, and it should be striked out from the NPR policy.