Nuclear Notebook: Chinese Nuclear Forces 2021

Posted: 18th November 2021

By Hans M. KristensenMatt Korda, November 15, 2021

The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, and Matt Korda, a senior research associate with the project. The Nuclear Notebook column has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987. This issue’s column examines China’s nuclear arsenal, which we conclude has now surpassed France’s as the world’s third largest. We estimate that China’s stockpile now includes roughly 350 operational warheads with more in production. The stockpile is projected to increase further in the next decade but remains significantly smaller than that of Russia or the United States. To see all previous Nuclear Notebook columns, click here.

China is continuing the nuclear weapons modernization program that it initiated in the 1990s and 2000s, but is expanding it significantly by developing and fielding more types and greater numbers of nuclear weapons than ever before. Since our previous Nuclear Notebook on China in December 2020, the Federation of American Scientists and others have disclosed that China has begun construction of hundreds of new ballistic missile silos across the country and has fielded at least two brigades of the new DF-41 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which is thought to be capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) (Figure 1). China has also continued deploying the more maneuverable DF- 31AG ICBM launcher and the DF-26 dual-capable intermediate-range ballistic missile, and is also introducing the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle that might be dual-capable. At sea, China commissioned two additional ballistic missile submarines and is developing a new type with an improved ballistic missile. Additionally, China has recently reassigned a nuclear mission to its bombers and is developing an air-launched ballistic missile that might have a nuclear capability.

We estimate that China has produced a stockpile of approximately 350 nuclear warheads for delivery by approximately 280 operational land-based ballistic misiles, 72 sea-based ballistic missiles, and 20 nuclear gravity bombs assigned to bombers. Additional warheads are thought to be in production to eventually arm additional road-mobile and silo-based missiles, a new sea-launched ballistic missile, and bombers (see Table 1). This estimate is higher than the “low-200” warheads reported by the Pentagon in its 2020 report to Congress (US Defense Department 2020a); however, the Pentagon’s estimate only referred to “operational” nuclear warheads and therefore presumably excluded warheads assigned to the newer launchers that were in the process of being fielded.

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