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Why Does China Have A Small Nuclear Arsenal?

September 13, 2016

The DF-26 is a solid fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of striking targets several thousand kilometers from its launch site. It’s meant to replace the older DF-21’s and give the PLA an “assassin’s mace” advantage against its rivals. When armed with a conventional payload it can be used to attack offshore warships. It was debuted during a commemorative military parade in 2015. Via Wikimedia Commons.

China is the undisputed nuclear titan of Asia–whether civilian or military. But how come it never sought to equal the atomic hard power of Russia and the United States? What follows is a tale fraught with ambition, prudence, and quiet determination.

Rattled by the outcome of the Korean War, China’s quest for the bomb had glib threats by US commanders like Curtis LeMay as its impetus. Fortunately, relations between Peking and Moscow were so close in the 1950s almost no barriers existed on what they shared. Including nuclear weapons research undertaken from 1954 to 1956 at locations such as the Ministry of Machinery Building and the Institute of Physics and Atomic Energy in Beijing. Even when the romance fell apart soon after enough know-how remained with the Chinese for the uranium fission bomb detonated in Lop Nur on October 16, 1964.

It announced the People’s Republic’s entry into the elite nuclear club, albeit ranking it a distant bottom placer among members then. (The US, the USSR, the UK, and France.) 32 months later China successfully tested its first hydrogen bomb in Lop Nur and began its quest to attain ballistic missiles. Therein lay the problem. A genuine delivery system for the PLA’s thermonuclear weapons wasn’t adopted until 1980. This hardly compared to the thousands of ground and submarine-based MIRVs the Americans and Soviets had perfected at the time.

With the Cold War over China’s nuclear forces counted as larger than Israel’s and its total warheads equaled those stockpiled by France, give or take a few handfuls. In the meantime, China’s neighbors–India, Pakistan, and North Korea–introduced their own nuclear capabilities in the 1990s and 2000s.

Beijing isn’t falling behind these upstarts but it isn’t galloping ahead either. Short of an official explanation, the reasons why are speculative. For example, since its nukes are reserved as a second strike option for avenging an attack on the mainland, there’s no rush to grow its stockpile. Plus: Nukes and their infrastructure are a waste of money, anyway, with billions needed as insurance for a country’s existence. So what has China done with its planet killers?

No First Use

Any serious attempt to demystify China’s nuclear arsenal always bears a confessional tone, wherein the author acknowledges the dearth of scholarship and credible sources on the topic. While this remains true, digging up enough research published in the last 30 years proves the opposite. There’s a remarkable amount of serious writing on China’s nukes and simple corroboration does work at uncovering its secrets. Well, at least some of them.

A near forgotten gem is Shen Dingli’s The Current Status of Chinese Nuclear Forces and Nuclear Policies published during his post-doctoral stint at Princeton University in 1990. Shen, who now teaches International Studies at Fudan University, assembled a detailed overview of China’s nuclear capabilities in the late Deng Xiaoping-era. Shen fine-tooth combs the subject matter, including details about Beijing’s multi-billion dollar sale of conventional DF-3A MRBMs to Saudi Arabia in 1987, a transaction that makes China appear a less than the responsible nuclear power.

Shen’s 50-page treatise offers the reader a glimpse into a rising Chinese hegemon. “The US intelligence community predicted in 1986 that China’s nuclear arsenal will double by 1996,” is one such awe-inspiring nugget on page 4. Shen’s own citations place the nuclear warheads at the PLA’s disposal at a high 350. But how many ICBMs did China have at the time? Just 10.

So few, in fact, and they were aimed at the Soviet Union.

Shen’s research hasn’t aged well because the decade following its publication saw China’s peaceful rise and an incremental modernization of the PLA and the Second Artillery Corps responsible for its nuclear missiles. Its vast and obsolescent bomber fleet was scrapped (a transition Shen took note of) and developing better ICBMs, multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV), and nuclear submarines occurred at a snail’s pace.

But the Pentagon’s Annual Report to Congress for 2016 serves as a stark reminder the PLA are making specific improvements. Its findings reveal the PLA Rocket Forces’ silo-based ICBM stockpile now have between 75 to a hundred missiles and these are divided between DF-5’s and DF-5B’s, either of which are as menacing as Russia’s R-36 ICBMs.

This is proof that despite China’s long-held no first use stance, its nukes aren’t neglected.


Saudi Arabia is the sole international customer for the nuclear-capable DF-3 ballistic missile. Designed in the 1960s and tested successfully in 1967, the DF-3 was a lackluster system plagued by engine trouble and unimpressive range. It did succeed as a test bed for China’s subsequent DF-4 and DF-5 ICBMs and the national space program. In 1987 Saudi Arabia paid $3.25 billion for either “several dozen” or over a hundred improved DF-3A’s with conventional warheads. The usefulness of this stockpile has always been in doubt.

The Numbers

A helpful independent study on the subject is Claire Mills’ Nuclear Weapons–A Country Comparison published for the House of Lords in 2016. Though citing the Pentagon‘s latest Annual Report, Mills’ own research gives a modest assessment of the PLA’s capabilities while acknowledging impressive breakthroughs.

“China is thus considered to have transitioned from possessing a small, unsophisticated and highly vulnerable nuclear force to a more modern one with an improved strike capability,” Mills writes.

Mills does give a low number for the PLA’s nuclear warhead stockpile: “approximately 260” compared to Shen’s 350 from 26 years prior. 260 warheads is the same figure reported by the Arms Control Association in its metrics for global stockpiles, a figure trailing France but higher than the UK’s. Mills believes more than half that amount, 160, are operational–a higher assessment than the Pentagon’s–even if this figure is divided between 50-60 ICBMs and the remainder are IRBMs, i.e. missiles with a 5,000 kilometer range.

A curious shortcoming, asserts Mill, is the lack of a nuclear triad where nukes are divided between land-based sites, warships, and aircraft. In Shen’s 1990 treatise he mentions an SSBN program underway. This was too generous. During the 1980s the PLAN deployed a lone Xia-class boomer with 12 missiles for testing purposes. Today the PLAN have four Jin-class SSBNs that aren’t even sent on genuine deterrent patrols. As for the airborne arm of the nuclear triad? With most of the H-6 fleet gone, other than suspected R&D on an air-launched cruise missiles there’s zilch.

In size, scope, and scale, China’s nuclear arsenal does bear a striking resemblance to France’s, albeit with a slight gap at the warhead count. The resemblance extends to an unsavory French practice. As a recipient of US technical assistance for its domestic nuclear program, France wasted no time sharing its expertise with Israel in the 1950s and exporting nuclear equipment to Iraq, Iran, and South Korea–all countries who once flirted with the possibilities of homegrown atomic weapons.

China is guilty of the same but worse. From the 1980s onward it played nurse to Pakistan’s own ambitions and sold ballistic missiles across the Africa, Middle East, Africa, South Asia. Even North Korea’s pint-sized atomic aspirations owe their existence to Chinese assistance. Why the clientele of rogues? One can guess to counter-balance perceived enemies, be it the US or rival neighbors.

The Payoff

In the event China has to confront a hostile power, what nuclear forces can it bring to bear? As shown by the available reading material, its arsenal from the 1960s until the 2010s ranked it a middleweight with serious performance gaps. That doesn’t mean the dragon can’t incinerate its enemies. The pinnacle of China’s nuclear forces are its reliable DF-5 and DF-5B ICBMs. The former is silo-based and the latter is a MIRV capable system. Both can reach targets within the US and the EU.

Aside from these juggernauts there are two additional headaches to contend with. The older DF-4, a limited-range two-stage ICBM available in presumptive dozens, and the cutting edge DF-31 on its mobile platform. The latter is almost as good as its Russian counterpart. For enemies at close range the PLA Rocket Forces have the DF-21, an intermediate system whose “D” variant can target warships and bases.

If the PLA needs to deal with troublesome adversaries on the battlefield, at least a thousand short-range “tactical”  missiles are at its disposal that may or may not be armed with nukes. But multiplying nuclear warheads never appealled to the PLA and their political bosses so improving their reach is the medium-term goal with the DF-26, DF-27, DF-31, and DF-41 programs.

In summation, as lethal as it appears on paper, until the late 2010s China had a limited menu against existential threats. This influenced the belief that it was unrealistic for China to double or triple its nuclear warhead stockpile in the short-term. As its scientific and industrial breakthroughs have shown, the point now is to improve delivery systems for the same longstanding goal: a genuine second strike option in case of nuclear attack. Besides, the potential for an apocalyptic nuclear exchange is nil until longstanding treaties between Russia and the US started breaking down.

Since 2020, however, the Pentagon has pushed a serious reassessment of China’s nuclear arsenal after it confirmed raw intelligence that multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) are being added to DF-5B ICBMs. This anticipated further evidence from satellite imagery collected in 2021 of the PLA Rocket Force were constructing land-based silos for its ICBMs. Taken together, China’s military have pivoted from decades of restraint and are engaged in a nuclear weapons arms race by enlarging the ICBMs it can threaten multiple adversaries with. It’s abundantly clear China’s nuclear weapons are one of the Communist Party’s survival tickets. Whatever the outcome of minor skirmishes over borders and waters, the home front remains unassailable.