Chinese Nuclear Force Modernization: How Much is Enough?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 8

How Many More ICBMs Will Follow?

The modernization of China’s nuclear missile force capabilities has led a number of analysts to ponder the question of “how much is enough” for China. Some have speculated that China may take advantage of the declining numbers of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals to “rush to parity” with the nuclear superpowers. Others have even argued China already could have secretly amassed a much larger number of nuclear weapons than is widely believed, apparently basing this conclusion largely on their interpretation of the motives behind China’s large-scale construction of tunnels to support Second Artillery Force (SAF) operations (Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2011; “China’s ‘Underground Great Wall’ and Nuclear Deterrence,” China Brief, December 16, 2009). No compelling evidence has been provided to support these assertions, however, and several analysts have shown that they are based on questionable sourcing and flawed research (Asia Security Watch, January 9; Federation of American Scientists, December 3, 2011). Nonetheless, Chinese nuclear force modernization is real in both quantitative and qualitative terms. As the latest Annual Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China indicated, China is moving toward a larger and more survivable force consisting of silo-based and road-mobile ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).

These force modernization developments should come as no surprise. China has long sought an assured retaliation capability, though for many years China lived with a relatively modest and potentially vulnerable nuclear force [1]. More recently, however, China has been modernizing its nuclear forces in pursuit of “effective” nuclear deterrence, a requirement that can be traced to Chinese military publications such as the 1987 edition of the authoritative book, The Science of Military Strategy. More recently, China’s national defense white paper in 2006 described China’s nuclear strategy as requiring a “lean and effective nuclear force capable of meeting national security needs” but official Chinese sources provide little in the way of specifics with regard to how many nuclear weapons or what type of force structure is required to meet this objective (State Council Information Office, China’s National Defense in 2006). Non-governmental experts in the United States estimate China currently has a few hundred nuclear warheads [2]. Given China’s lack of transparency, however, analysts must draw their own conclusions about how many nuclear weapons Beijing believes will be enough to allow China to achieve its deterrence objectives in the future.

The writings of Chinese strategists shed some light on this problem in that they suggest quite strongly that China will continue to modernize and expand its nuclear missile force These same strategists, however, see little benefit to be gained by amassing thousands of nuclear weapons in an attempt to achieve parity with the United States and Russia. With respect to its nuclear missile force, China has shown determination to maintain the secure, second-strike capability that is required to ensure that it will have a credible strategic deterrence force—even in the face of advances in adversary ISR, precision strike and missile defense capabilities. Yet the writings of Chinese strategists strongly suggest going much beyond what is required for an unquestionably credible assured retaliation capability would lead to diminishing returns at best and strategic instability at worst. For example, Major General Yao Yunzhu of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science (AMS), a prominent analyst of nuclear issues, argues China adheres to the views of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who clearly believed “deterrent effectiveness does not increase in proportion with numbers of nuclear weapons,” but rather that “a survivable and invulnerable small arsenal can be equally effective in terms of deterrence” [3]. Along similar lines, Sun Xiangli argues the experience of the U.S.-Soviet competition during the Cold War shows the pursuit of a “war-fighting” strategy “does not substantially increase the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence.” Moreover, because it requires a very large nuclear arsenal, it consumes “substantial economic and technological resources.” Worse still, Sun argues, large arsenals and “war-fighting” strategies lead to strategic instability and increase the risk of nuclear war [4].

Assessments such as these appear to reflect the longstanding views of senior leaders. As a recent article based on Chinese military publications and the memoirs and selected works of key figures in China’s nuclear weapons programs points out, “Chinese leaders have believed that nuclear weapons were basically unusable on the battlefield and that once mutual deterrence was achieved, a larger arsenal or arms racing would be costly, counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating” [5]. China thus is unlikely to attempt to exceed the United States or Russia in terms of the number of nuclear weapons it deploys. Nonetheless, there is ample reason to believe Beijing will increase the size of its nuclear arsenal as needed to ensure that it maintains an assured retaliation capability in response to perceived security challenges. This could result in substantial increases to the quantity and quality of China’s nuclear arsenal.

Indeed, many observers expect China to field a larger and more sophisticated nuclear force over the next 10 to 15 years. The DIA presentation in the annual worldwide threat assessment provided Congress expresses this foreign consensus. Last year, DIA Director Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr. testified “[China] currently has fewer than 50 ICBMs that can strike the continental United States, but probably will more than double that number by 2025” (DIA Public Affairs, March 10, 2011).

At least three key factors are likely to influence Chinese decision-making about what exactly it requires in terms of nuclear force structure. First, at a broad level, China’s perception of its external security environment and its relationships with major powers is an important consideration. At a more operational level, China also must consider potential nuclear and conventional threats to its silo-based, road-mobile and sea-based nuclear forces. Finally, China also will weigh its concerns about future missile defense developments that could undermine its ability to maintain an assured retaliation posture capable of deterring potential adversaries.

Chinese scholars suggest missile defense is the most important factor in determining China’s future requirements. According to Yao Yunzhu, for example, U.S. missile defense deployments will be “the most significant factor that will influence China’s nuclear calculus” [6]. Furthermore, according to Chu and Rong, “Trying to retain the credibility of its nuclear deterrent in the face of a BMD system, China may increase its nuclear arsenal until it is beyond doubt that it is large enough” [7]. Chinese writers rarely provide specific numbers, but Chu and Rong suggest perhaps 200 nuclear warheads could be needed today, with that number possibly increasing to 300 or 400 in the future.

Yao writes China will need to “reevaluate the sufficiency of its nuclear arsenal to counter U.S. missile defense systems and retain a guaranteed ability to retaliate.”Yao argues, however, such a reassessment will result only in variation in the size of China’s nuclear arsenal, not in changes to the “basic nature” of China’s nuclear policy. In short, as Yao puts it, the purpose of Chinese nuclear missile force modernization “is to keep valid its longstanding nuclear policy” [8].

Implications of Chinese Nuclear Missile Force Developments

In recent years, the SAF has made impressive strides in the development of its nuclear deterrence capabilities. The deployment of road mobile ICBMs is giving China the assured retaliation capability it has long sought for its growing, but still relatively small nuclear missile force. Over the next ten years, China can be expected to continue to strengthen the SAF’s nuclear missile force, which will remain the most important element of China’s nuclear deterrent posture. Perhaps the most vital development in this regard could be the deployment of MIRVed road-mobile ICBMs.

China almost certainly does not plan to build thousands of nuclear weapons, but the development of Chinese nuclear capabilities still will have major implications. First, the SAF’s growing nuclear arsenal will make China a more important consideration in discussions about future nuclear arms control agreements. Chinese nuclear force modernization will become a more important consideration for Russia and the United States as they reduce the size of their own nuclear arsenals. Moreover, China’s integration into the global nuclear reduction process that President Obama outlined in his 2009 Prague speech, as well as that of the other nuclear powers, will eventually be required to make further progress toward his long-term vision of a world free of nuclear weapons—a goal recently echoed by Hu Jintao (Xinhua, March 27). The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review reflects this challenge, stating, “over time” the United States “will also engage with other nuclear weapon states, including China, on ways to expand the nuclear reduction process in the future.”

Chinese scholars expect that China will face greater pressure as a result. Teng Jianqun of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-run think tank China Institute for International Studies, for example, sees Washington’s approach as still focused mainly on Russia, but notes “as bilateral disarmament progresses, the US will certainly pay increasing attention to China’s arms control policies” [9]. Beijing, however, is clearly reluctant to be drawn into the process, especially given China’s small nuclear arsenal relative to the U.S. and Russian arsenals. As Teng explains, “American and Russian stockpiles make up more than 90 percent of the world’s total nuclear weapons. Though both nearly have halved their nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War, their total number of nuclear weapons is still many times greater than that of states with small nuclear forces. Only when the two great nuclear powers have reduced their arsenals to an appropriate level will China follow suit.” It should be noted, however, that government-affiliated Chinese analysts have not specified what number would constitute an “appropriate level,” suggesting Beijing will remain reluctant to enter into such negotiations.

Second, beyond the implications for arms control, challenges for escalation management that arise from the SAF’s growing capabilities and evolving doctrine also merit consideration. In particular, some of China’s thinking with respect to using the missile force to send signals aimed at influencing an adversary raises the possibility of miscalculation or inadvertent escalation in a crisis. The risk of miscalculation could be heightened by uncertainty over the message that one side is trying to convey to the other or by overconfidence in the ability to control escalation. Some of the signaling activities described in Chinese publications easily could be interpreted not as a demonstration of resolve or as a warning, but as preparation to conduct actual nuclear missile strikes, possibly decreasing the ability of policymakers to successfully manage an unfolding crisis or even escalating a conflict rather than limiting its destructiveness.

Indeed, some Chinese sources raise troubling questions about potential miscalculations that could result from attempts to increase the intensity of deterrence during a crisis or a conventional conflict. For instance, one SAF publication suggests Chinese missile force units can attempt to deter an adversary by conducting simulated missile launches. For China’s solid-fueled mobile systems, this involves deploying the mobile missile forces to training areas and fake launch sites just before the enemy’s reconnaissance satellites are about to pass overhead. The mobile missile units can then prepare their equipment, erect the missiles and conduct pre-launch inspections. China’s liquid-fueled missiles also can carry out simulated launch preparations. The purpose is to persuade the enemy to believe China’s missile forces are prepared to strike enemy targets, thus convincing the enemy to abandon activities that China considers particularly threatening. According to the same SAF publication, such simulated missile launches “make the enemy believe that our missile forces are already in a situation of waiting for an opportunity or conducting pre-combat exercises; because of this, the enemy will consider the consequences and abandon some of its activities” [10].

Although Chinese authors appear to demonstrate at least some awareness of the danger that actions intended to deter an adversary could instead trigger escalation, discussions of these risks in the relevant publications are quite limited. For instance, Zhao Xijun notes deterrence must be calibrated to maximize the chances of achieving the desired results. If the level of threat is too low, it will not influence the enemy; but, if it is too high, the enemy may lash out in desperation. Zhao also offers a cautionary note that deterrence operations accidentally could trigger escalation if they are poorly timed: "Whether the timing for conducting the military deterrence of the missile forces is correctly chosen will directly affect the progress of deterrence and its outcome. If the appropriate timing is chosen, then deterrence will deter the enemy, contain the eruption of war and obtain the objective of peace with the small price of deterrence. If inappropriate timing is chosen, then deterrence may cause the situation to deteriorate, even leading to the eruption and escalation of war" [11]. Nonetheless, how Chinese decision makers would determine the “right” timing is not clearly specified, and the available sources suggest that Chinese thinking about the risks of specific actions may be rather underdeveloped. Importantly, they do not appear to reflect a detailed assessment of how potential adversaries might react to some of these actions, which could make attempts at escalation management in a crisis or conflict extremely challenging and potentially very dangerous.


  1. Taylor Fravel and Evan Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security, Vol. 35, No. 2, Fall 2010, pp. 48–87.
  2. Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2011,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 6, No. 6, November 2011, pp. 81–87.
  3. Yao Yunzhu, “Chinese Nuclear Policy and the Future of Minimum Deterrence,” Strategic Insights, Vol. 4, No. 9, September 2005.
  4. Sun Xiangli, “Analysis of China’s Nuclear Strategy,” China Security, No. 1, Autumn 2005, p. 27.
  5. Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” p. 87.
  6. Yao Yunzhu, “Chinese Nuclear Policy and the Future of Minimum Deterrence,” Strategic Insights, Vol. 4, No. 9, September 2005
  7. Chu Shulong and Rong Yu, “China: Dynamic Minimum Deterrence,” in Muthiah Alagappa, ed., The Long Shadow: Nuclear Weapons and Security in 21st Century Asia, Stanford: StanfordUniversity, 2008, p. 171.
  8. Yao, “Chinese Nuclear Policy and the Future of Minimum Deterrence.”
  9. Teng Jianqun, “China’s Perspectives on Nuclear Deterrence and Disarmament,” in Malcolm Chalmers, Andrew Somerville and Andrea Berger, ed., Small Nuclear Forces: Five Perspectives, Royal United Services Institute, Whitehall Report 3-11, December 2011, p. 50.
  10. People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force, The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, Beijing: PLA Press, 2004, p. 289.
  11. Zhao Xijun, Intimidation Warfare: A Comprehensive Discussion of Missile Deterrence, Beijing: NationalDefense University Press, May 2005, pp. 35, 172.