The Pentagon expects China to have an arsenal of at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, according to a new report, with the U.S.’ top military official on Wednesday calling the pacing threat of Beijing a “really significant” challenge for the next 10 to 20 years.
The projected nuclear stockpile detailed in the department’s latest annual report on China’s military activities, released Wednesday, is greater than what was predicted in last year’s report and would represent an increase of five times over the 200 warheads the country is estimated to maintain currently.
“Throughout 2020, the [Chinese military] continued to pursue its ambitious modernization objectives, refine major organizational reforms, and improve its combat readiness in line with those goals. This includes [China] developing the capabilities to conduct joint long-range precision strikes across domains, increasingly sophisticated space, counterspace, and cyber capabilities, and accelerating the large-scale expansion of its nuclear forces,” the Pentagon writes in its report.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke earlier in the day on the Pentagon’s view of China as the “pacing threat” to U.S. national security, and cited Beijing’s rapid military modernization overhaul and effort to develop new weapon systems, fighter aircraft, submarines, satellites, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).
“We’re witnessing, in my view, one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed,” Milley said during a discussion at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington, D.C. “If we, the United States military, don’t do a fundamental change to ourselves in the coming 10 to 15 to 20 years then we’re going to be on the wrong side of a conflict with China.”
On ICBMs specifically, the report states China is developing capabilities to “improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and will require increased nuclear warhead production, partially due to the incorporation of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle capabilities.”
The Pentagon notes China has begun building at least three solid-fueled ICBM silo fields, which officials said could hold hundreds of individual nuclear silos, and that Beijing may be on track to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027.
The new report arrives in the wake of China’s recent demonstration of its potential hypersonic weapon capability, which Milley called a “very significant test.”
“Is hypersonics new? No, they’re not new. They’ve been around for a while. So, in that limited, narrow sense, it’s not a Sputnik moment because Sputnik was new at the time,” Milley said, citing the significance of the test as being another example of China’s overall modernization push.
The report also notes China has the third largest aviation force in the world, with over 2,800 total aircraft of which 2,250 are combat aircraft, and the largest navy in terms of number of ships, currently totaling around 355 ships and submarines.
“In the near-term, [China] will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the [Chinese military’s] global power projection capabilities. The [Chinese military] is enhancing its anti-submarine warfare capabilities and competencies to protect the [People’s Liberation Army Navy] aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines,” officials write in the report.
Milley said he’s particularly concerned about China’s ability to contest the space and cyber domains, while adding he believes the U.S. still remains ahead of any other country in space-based capabilities.
“There are significant capabilities that happen in space today that our economy, our country and our military entirely depend on. And the same with any modern, advanced industrial society. The same thing with the Chinese, for that matter. So operations in space, and second to that is cyber, those are going to be key determiners of who has decisive advantage at the beginning of a conflict,” Milley said. “I don’t want to get too much into dominance or not dominance in space. I would just say that space, today, is a new domain of war, conflict. We don’t want to have a conflict in space. We’ve got good systems in space. And I would say we are the number one country on Earth that has capabilities in space but other countries are close behind.”
The report notes China’s push to focus on the space domain, particularly counter-space capabilities to include “direct ascent, co-orbital, electronic warfare, and directed energy capabilities—that can contest or deny an adversary’s access to and operations in the space domain during a crisis or conflict.”
“[China’s] space enterprise continues to mature rapidly and Beijing has devoted significant resources to growing all aspects of its space program, from military space applications to civil applications such as profit-generating launches, scientific endeavors, and space exploration. [China] is employing more sophisticated satellite operations and is probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counter-space missions,” officials write in the report.