China is making nuclear weapons faster than the United States expected, and China’s navy and arsenal of anti-ship missiles continue to grow, according to the Defense Department’s latest report on Chinese military power.
Released Thursday, the report found that China had a stockpile of more than 500 nuclear warheads as of this May – up from roughly 400 last year – and China is “on track to exceed previous projections.”
The Defense Department also estimates that China will have more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 – an increase over previous projections. By contrast, the United States currently has about 3,000 nuclear warheads, according to the State Department.
A senior defense official who spoke to reporters on Wednesday declined to specify exactly how many more nuclear warheads the Defense Department now expects China to build during the next seven years.
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“We’re saying over 1,000: We’re not trying to suggest that it’s dramatically higher,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under rules established by the Pentagon. “We wouldn’t put ‘over 1,000’ if we thought that wasn’t the right way to describe it.”
When asked to clarify how the Defense Department’s current projection for China’s nuclear arsenal in 2030 differs from its 2021 estimate, the official replied: “I think I would just underscore the word ‘over’ in terms of over 1,000.”
The official also said that China still has a “No First Use” policy regarding nuclear weapons, but there may be exceptions.
“I would note that, as we’ve pointed out in the report a number of times over the years, that there are indications in some of their openly published military literature and articles by Chinese scholars and foreign policy and arms control and nuclear policy experts that do suggest that there are circumstances under which they would, perhaps, judge that their policy didn’t apply, or that it could be invalidated,” the official said.
In addition to expanding its nuclear arsenal, China continues to outpace the United States in building ships and submarines. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy – the largest navy in the world – now has more than 370 vessels, up from about 340 last year, according to the latest report on Chinese military power.
The U.S. Navy has about 293 ships and submarines, and that number is expected to reach a low of 285 ships and submarines in Fiscal Year 2026, according to the Navy’s most recent budget proposal.
While American ships and submarines still have more vertical launching system cells that can fire a larger variety of missiles than Chinese vessels, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is closing the gap, said retired Navy Capt. Thomas Shugart, a military innovation expert with the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.
Not only is the U.S. Navy decommissioning its cruisers, but it has also scheduled to decommission its four Ohio-class guided-missile submarines later this decade, Shugart told Task & Purpose.
“Those four ships together are about 40% of our undersea VLS [vertical launching system] cell count,” Shugart said. “That is going to take a big chunk out of the VLS part of the fleet. While the submarine force is building new submarines which do have VLS cells, that’s going to take a long time to come back from.”
Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is building frigates and destroyers that have “plentiful” missile batteries, Shugart said.
Another threat to the U.S. Navy is China’s land-based Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, which can strike targets on and beyond Guam both on land and at sea.
China currently has about 500 such missiles, up from 300 in 2021, according to the Defense Department’s latest report on Chinese military power. Those missiles include the DF-26, which can strike land targets and ships up to 4,000 miles away.
The DF-26 poses a “significant threat” to most forms of military power that the United States has in the Indo-Pacific region, Shugart said. With that many Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, China can target American aircraft carriers as well as smaller ships, such as destroyers.
“We know that they’ve been practicing missile shots on destroyer-shaped targets in the desert,” Shugart said. “It’s probably like a $30 million missile? Why wouldn’t you trade a $30 million missile for a $2 billion ship, even if it’s not a carrier?”
With its ability to strike piers, airfields, and other installations as well as ships at sea, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force can vastly extend the China’s navy’s reach against presumably stronger opponents, said James Holmes, the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
“Even if the PLA Navy fleet remains inferior to ours, as I believe it does, adding that extra combat power to the fleet could tip the balance against U.S. and allied forces,” Holmes told Task & Purpose. “China understands it needs to harness the combined capacity of its joint force in order to prevail.”
One unanswered question is how close the People’s Liberation Army Navy is to parity with the U.S. Navy.
That’s difficult to assess in peacetime because all militaries keep secret any capabilities their weapons systems have that might give them an advantage in combat, Holmes said.
“You cannot peek inside them to see how well they will perform in battle, the ultimate arbiter of what does and does not work,” Holmes said.
Holmes said he guesses the Chinese navy remains about a generation behind the U.S. Navy because it would be a big leap for the People’s Liberation Army Navy to match American ships’ technology.
“And it’s unclear how proficiently Chinese mariners will handle their fancy new kit,” Holmes said. “The best you can do is watch what they do in peacetime deployments and exercises and make your best guess.”
UPDATE: 10/19/2023; this story was updated with information about the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
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