December 11, 2023

China is speeding up efforts to expand and modernize its nuclear arsenal, in line with the country’s aim to replace the U.S. as the preeminent military power, according to a new Department of Defense report.

The China Military Power Report, released annually as requested by Congress, details Beijing’s progress on technology, its military doctrine, and its increasingly belligerent posture in potential flashpoints in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. The report paints a picture of an increasingly nuclear-capable China, now estimated to possess more than 500 operational nuclear warheads, up from approximately 400 two years ago.

This marks a significant increase over the past three years. The 2020 edition of the report put China’s warheads in the low 200s and predicted that the number would double over 10 years. Yet, China is well on its way to having 700 nuclear warheads by 2027, and more than 1,000 by the end of the decade, the report says.

PLA soldiers marching in parade formation
Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army march during a parade to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, at Tiananmen Square on October 1, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images)
Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

China’s stockpile is still far behind those of Russia and the U.S., which each boast over 5,000.

China has also likely finished constructing in excess of 300 missile silos and at least partially loaded them with intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Department of Defense said, allowing it improved “launch-on-warning” rapid counterattack potential.

The East Asian nation is increasing and diversifying its collection of intercontinental ballistic missiles. One such missile, already being fielded on Chinese Type 094 submarines, is capable of hitting the continental U.S. from China’s coastline. China is believed to also be developing, for the first time, conventional missiles capable of traveling that distance.

Last week, a congressional committee capped its yearlong review on the U.S.’s worldwide strategic military posture with a list of recommendations. These included a whole-of government overhaul and the expansion of Washington’s own nuclear force to prepare for China joining Russia as a nuclear peer.

This Federation of American Scientists think tank issued a response casting doubt on some on the recommendations, saying they “constitute a recommendation to participate in an arms race.”

The Department of Defense also said that between the fall of 2021 and the fall of this year, it has counted over 180 instances of aggressive, and sometimes dangerous, behavior exhibited by Chinese pilots as they intercept aircraft operated by the U.S. and its allies.

As a prelude to its China report, the Pentagon declassified videos and images documenting some of these intercepts The footage, which was shot in international airspace of the East and South China Seas, shows Chinese pilots flying within a few yards of American military planes, firing flares, and making high speed passes that force the other pilot to take evasive measures.

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