News Brief

China's Nuclear Arsenal Growing Fastest Globally, ICBM Count May Surpass US And Russia Within A Decade: Report

Kuldeep Negi

Jun 17, 2024, 01:30 PM | Updated 01:30 PM IST

Missiles being showcased in a Chinese military parade
Missiles being showcased in a Chinese military parade

China is expanding its nuclear forces at a faster rate than any other country and may surpass both Russia and the United States in the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) within a decade, according to a new report.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its annual yearbook on Monday, revealing that China has increased its nuclear warhead stockpile by 90, bringing the total to 500 as of January this year.

The report highlights China's growing nuclear capabilities, with its current count of 238 ICBMs potentially exceeding the US' 800 and Russia's 1,244 within ten years.

However, China's overall arsenal remains significantly smaller than those of the two largest nuclear powers. The US holds 5,044 warheads, while Russia has 5,580.

"China is expanding its nuclear arsenal faster than any other country," said Hans Kristensen, associate senior fellow with SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.

"But in nearly all of the nuclear-armed states, there are either plans or a significant push to increase nuclear forces," Kristensen added.

As of January 2024, the global nuclear stockpile comprised an estimated 12,121 warheads, with the US and Russia collectively owning nearly 90 per cent of them.

Around 9,585 of these warheads are operational, while the remainder consists of retired Cold War-era weapons pending dismantlement.

SIPRI noted a slight increase in Russia’s deployed warheads, rising from 1,674 to 1,710 over the past year.

Despite claims of weapons being deployed in Belarus, the report found “no conclusive visual evidence” to support this.

SIPRI's report also indicated setbacks in nuclear arms control and disarmament diplomacy in 2023.

Russia suspended the last strategic nuclear arms control treaty with the US, withdrew ratification of a test-ban treaty, and issued nuclear threats in response to Western support for Ukraine.

The ongoing conflict in Gaza has hindered efforts to engage Israel in nuclear-free Middle East talks and disrupted Iranian-US diplomatic initiatives.

Dan Smith, SIPRI’s director, expressed concern over the trend of increasing operational nuclear warheads.

“While the global total of nuclear warheads continues to fall as Cold War-era weapons are gradually dismantled, regrettably we continue to see year-on-year increases in the number of operational nuclear warheads,” Smith said.

“This trend seems likely to continue and probably accelerate in the coming years and is extremely concerning," Smith added, SCMP reported.

China is reportedly constructing around 350 new silos for its land-based ballistic missiles.If each silo houses a single-warhead missile, China could deploy around 650 warheads on its ICBMs within a decade.

However, if these silos store missiles with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), the ICBM warhead count could exceed 1,200.

The Pentagon's report last year drew similar conclusions, estimating China’s operational warheads could surpass 1,000 by 2030.

Kristensen suggested that China’s ICBM expansion is driven by concerns over US first-strike capabilities and efforts to overcome American missile defences, thereby enhancing its nuclear deterrence.

China has remained tight-lipped about its nuclear arsenal, dismissing US estimates as a pretext for Washington to expand its own nuclear capabilities.

China maintains a “no first use policy” and asserts that it keeps the minimum number of warheads necessary for national security, according to Lin Jian, a foreign ministry spokesman.

SIPRI reported that as of January 2024, 346 of China’s warheads were assigned to land-based ballistic missiles, comprising 70 per cent of its nuclear force.

The air force and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines held 20 and 72 warheads respectively, with the remaining 62 stored for non-operational missiles.

US intelligence suggests China is placing solid-fuel missiles in silos, conducting naval deterrence patrols, and potentially developing a launch-on-warning capability, indicating a shift toward pairing warheads with their launchers.

“The Chinese navy conducts ‘near-continuous at-sea deterrence patrols,’ which appears to imply the submarine at sea is carrying nuclear-armed missiles. Each submarine can carry up to 12 ballistic missiles that we assume is each equipped with one nuclear warhead," Kristensen noted.

Kristensen concluded that the expanding nuclear capabilities on both sides could prompt the US to increase its nuclear presence in the Indo-Pacific, a development contrary to both nations’ interests.

Despite this progress, the report raises doubts about the reliability of Chinese missiles amid reports of corruption in the PLA Rocket Force, potentially undermining its modernisation efforts.

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Kuldeep is Senior Editor (Newsroom) at Swarajya. He tweets at @kaydnegi.

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