A recent report by the US department of Defence says that China might have already achieved nuclear triad. A key revelation in the report is about China’s advancements in its nuclear capability, it says that the accelerated pace of their nuclear expansion may enable China to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and China likely intends to have at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 — exceeding the pace and the size that 2020 China Military Power report suggested, says the DoD website.
Let’s start with the facts: China has maybe 200 nuclear weapons that can range the continental United States, very few of which are deployed during peacetime. The United States, by contrast, has well over a 1,000, depending on your accounting, that are ready within minutes to range mainland China. This does not even account for the warheads in the stockpile that can be quickly uploaded to American ICBMs and SLBMs which are not fully MIRV’d under New START. So even a doubling of China’s strategic nuclear force still leaves it multiples lower than the United States and Russia.
My main reaction to Chinese nuclear modernization is: What took it so long to start? For decades, it lived with a posture of “plausible retaliation” with maybe two dozen ICBMs that could range the continental United States. With growing conventional and nuclear counterforce capabilities, and the unrelenting pursuit of national missile defenses — which can in combination threaten to neutralize China’s second strike capability, by eliminating a large portion of the ICBMs and relying on missile defenses to intercept the residuals — the question is why China only started investing in mobility and numbers and penetration aids/hypersonics in the last decade or so. To me, all of these developments are China’s delayed effort to guarantee assured retaliation. China’s massive buildup in conventional short-range ballistic missile capabilities obviates the need for it to rely on nuclear weapons in a theater scenario, though scholars such as Caitlin Talmadge have pointed out that we cannot sleep on the risks of inadvertent Chinese nuclear escalation. But, I see continuity in overall strategy, and a delayed effort to develop the capabilities and deployment patterns — mobility, penetration, SSBNs — to implement that strategy with greater assurance.
Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and member of MIT’s Security Studies Program in an interview with The Diplomat magazine.