Chinese Nuclear Deceptions

Senior Fellow
Chinese nuclear missiles during a military parade on September 3, 2015, in Beijing, China. (Xinhua/Pan Xu via Getty Images)
Chinese nuclear missiles during a military parade on September 3, 2015, in Beijing, China. (Xinhua/Pan Xu via Getty Images)

As Yankee great Yogi Berra explained, “its tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” For decades, the US intelligence community has projected its best future assessment of China’s nuclear arsenal, but not it appears with a great deal of accuracy, in part due to the complete lack of transparency by the Chinese government when it comes to that country’s nuclear forces.

As a result, this long-established Chinese secrecy led to the unfortunate establishment of a commonly accepted narrative consisting of five key parts all of which were constantly repeated by the CCP leaders: (1) China maintains a very minimum deterrent of only a few hundred nuclear weapons at most. (2) China’s deterrent strategy consists of never using nuclear weapons first. (3) China’s nuclear warheads are always stored considerably distant from its missile delivery systems, further evidence of its peaceful intentions. (4) China is not interested in any arms racing with other nuclear powers. And (5) consistent with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), China does not contribute to the deployment of nuclear weapons elsewhere.

Deviating from this conventional wisdom rarely occurred in reports from the US intelligence community or security policy think tanks. In 2006, for example, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Federation of American Scientists concluded that China deployed no more than one hundred forty five nuclear warheads of which only one hundred five warheads were deployed on strategic (long range) ballistic missiles.

Their report did reveal modest growth in Chinese nuclear forces but attributed to China’s need to overcome the Bush administration’s irresponsible deployment of a new missile defense system in 2003-4, consisting of 44 interceptors. (The study claimed some Chinese missiles were aimed at Russia, but ironically no increase in China’s nuclear forces was ascribed to overcoming Moscow’s 100 missile defense interceptors.)

As for China’s pledge not to se nuclear weapons first, the CCP angrily reacted to Japan’s pledge to help defend Taiwan, adding that China would use sufficient nuclear force against Japan to “once again” make Japan surrender as it had done at the end of World War II.

In just this past week, when the US intelligence community concluded that China’s nuclear arsenal would grow ten-fold to fifteen hundred warheads from 2006 to 2035, the shocked reaction from the “peaceful rise” community was swift.

The projected numbers were rejected as simply an estimate of what China “could” build as opposed to what it “was” going to build, even though recent actual deployments says Strategic Command’s Admiral Charles Richard kept doubling every few months and were apparently the basis for the new future estimates.

In an earlier 2022 assessment, the projection from the intelligence community was that China would have at least one thousand warheads by the end of the current decade, or by 2030. That was comparatively high compared to most earlier assessments, although not inconsistent with unofficial Chinese announcements of current Chinese goals. Still, nuclear disarmament advocates swiftly rejected the number. Jeffery Lewis, self-described as an “arms control wonk,” belittled the estimates of 360 new Chinese ICBM silos, citing claims the holes in the ground were really a new wind farm.

Wind farms to be optimum have holes for the wind towers fourteen feet in diameter and have to include a very large platform around the silo to hold the wind tower in place, unlike a missile where the weapon is entirely underground. Wind farms also place their silos close together rather than at distances of 2-3 miles as missile silos built by China were.

The Chinese silos were ten feet in diameter, exactly room enough for the deployment of Chinese DF-31 and DF-41 missiles, or US Peacekeeper ICBMs, implying upwards of a possible 3600 warheads, more than double the highest current US government estimate of future Chinese nuclear forces.

Quickly trying to recover from initial stumbles, Chinese minimalists produced a new benign explanation—the missile silos were mostly decoys in which fake missiles would be deployed, confusing US warfighters eager to attack China’s missile silos.

The only problem was there was no evidence of such Chinese underground shuttle construction. And the Chinese according to former Pentagon official Phil Karber already had rail mobile ICBM forces now deployed in mountain tunnels at an estimated cost of $55 billion just for the tunneling and railroad costs alone, providing China with considerable “survivable” ICBMs. As nuclear expert Mark Schneider warned, the three hundred sixty missile silos being built for new ICBMs were a first strike force.   

While it is true previous DIA growth estimates circa 1986 that projected China’s nuclear forces at between six to eight hundred warheads by 1990 and then 2000, respectively, were far too high, the current numbers are based on actual real deployments, which as the retiring head of US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard has explained, are “breathtaking” and actually have already for a number of times more than doubled previous estimates of Chinese force levels.

The new Pentagon estimates also assumed two things: the DF-31 and DF-41 missiles being placed in the silos will have no more than three warheads, although the DF-41 has reportedly been tested with ten warheads. In addition, the Chinese sea launched ballistic missiles are estimated to carry only one warhead each, like the US original Polaris submarine missiles, as opposed to the estimated two to three warheads Chinese tests have indicated the JL-3 sub launched missiles can carry. Not only were the new Chinese missiles solid fueled, but they could also now be on alert 24-7 and not have to be refueled repeatedly to go on alert, further advancing the number of Chinese warheads “ready to go.”.

Using such estimates, the Pentagon study took the three to four hundred current inventory of Chinese warheads, increased by one thousand with the estimated new ICBM warheads and added another two hundred sub-based warheads to get to the projected fifteen hundred warheads by 2035. However, in a study completed in 2022 for a Hudson Institute Triad symposium, nuclear experts James Howe and Rick Fisher from Vision--Centric and International Strategy and Assessment Center, respectively, concluded China “could” deploy over 3500 nuclear warheads including both strategic and theater systems by 2035.

Not only is China poised to lead an arms race exceeding US-deployed nuclear weapons, (limited by New START to one thousand five hundred fifty warheads) this was on top of China’s pro-proliferation activities. As Tom Reed, the deputy national security adviser to President Reagan wrote in his The Nuclear Express, the Chinese leader Deng deliberately decided in 1981 to proliferate nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, with the idea that such rogue nuclear armed states would when nuclear armed, cause the US grave harm.

Finally, the previous low estimates of China’s nuclear forces rested on the assumption that China did not possess the capability to produce very much nuclear fissile material from which to fashion nuclear pits and therefore warheads.

Given China’s assumed very limited production capacity, it was further assumed China had no choice but to build very few weapons, each with huge multiple megaton warheads, used almost entirely for “city busting” as their dozens of nuclear warheads could not cover the over 500-700 US nuclear military targets or strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, and thus instead of adopting a counter-military strategy, China had adopted a more pacifist city busting retaliatory strategy that was widely described as “deterrent only” and not part of a dangerous “warfighting” doctrine.

But the NPEC and its founder Henry Sokolski have re-estimated China’s fissile material production capability, and these new numbers were cited by the US Department of Defense as being consistent with the new Chinese deployment numbers that when projected forward give the new estimates of 1500 a sound basis, even though some DOD assumptions used minimize the possible growth in Chinese nuclear forces.

Read in RealClearDefense.