China’s Nuclear Arsenal Is Growing Faster Than Expected, Pentagon Says
(Bloomberg) -- China is expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities more rapidly than previously believed, the Pentagon warned in a report released on Wednesday.
The People’s Republic of China “likely intends to have at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace that the Department of Defense projected in 2020,” the Pentagon said in the latest edition of an annual report to Congress. The report also cites China’s construction of at least three silo fields, saying they will contain “hundreds” of new intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“The PRC is investing in, and expanding, the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces,” the Defense Department said. That means China “has possibly already established a nascent nuclear triad” of delivery systems, it said, and is supporting its nuclear expansion “by increasing its capacity to produce and separate plutonium by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities.”
The Pentagon’s new estimate that China is probably aiming for at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 ---including 700 “deliverable” ones by 2027 that could be mounted immediately on various missiles -- appears to be based on an evaluation of its production capacity.
It would still leave the U.S. far ahead with a current count of 3,750 warheads.
China’s modernization of its nuclear forces raises questions about the country’s ultimate intentions, according to a senior U.S. defense official who briefed reporters Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
The publication of the report, titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” comes as alarm is growing across Washington at the scope of China’s military modernization and tensions between the world’s two biggest economies rises.
But the defense official said that the report was based on developments last year and doesn’t deal directly with recent military tensions between the U.S. and China, including its repeated incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and reports that China has tested a hypersonic missile.
The U.S.’s top uniformed military officer, General Mark Milley, warned in a Bloomberg Television interview that aired last week that China’s test of hypersonic systems -- including one that was launched into orbit -- was close to a “Sputnik moment” for America. The next-generation technology, if perfected, could be used to send nuclear warheads over the South Pole and around American anti-missile systems in the northern hemisphere.
China has repeatedly accused the U.S. of over-hyping the threat posed by the People’s Liberation Army’s modernization program. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters that the U.S. should stop “perceiving China as an imaginary threat” when he was asked about Milley’s comments.
Chinese officials have also said their nuclear buildup is purely defensive in nature and in the past have pointed to their public commitment to a “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy. The U.S., by contrast, has stopped short of such a pledge.
Still, China’s leaders have called on the country to speed up its drive to create a world-class military. In remarks to a military conference last week, President Xi Jinping called for China to “break new ground” in weapons development, adding that the nation must create a “new situation” to support the production of weaponry and military equipment.
Part of China’s urgency stems from its desire to dissuade outside powers -- especially the U.S. -- from intervening if Beijing ever uses force to deliver on its position that Taiwan is part of a unified China.
“The PLA has fielded, and is further developing, capabilities to provide options for the PRC to attempt to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale, theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency,” the Pentagon report said.
The document also detailed the expanding reach of the Chinese military. The so-called anti-access capabilities of its long-range anti-ship missiles have previously focused on the “First Island Chain,” which runs from Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines, to keep U.S. aircraft carriers and other forces at bay. Now China’s military is increasingly extending that farther, according to the Pentagon.
“The PRC is beginning to field significant capabilities capable of conducting operations out to the Second Island Chain and seeks to strengthen its capabilities to reach further into the Pacific Ocean and throughout the globe,” according to the report. The Second Island Chain includes Guam, where the U.S. has a major base, and Palau, where U.S. officials have expressed interest in establishing an increased military presence.
The Pentagon also repeated previous assessments that China seeks to expand its military footprint overseas. In addition to its current base in Djibouti, the PRC has considered bases in countries including Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan, the report said.
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