STRATCOM Commander Rejects High Estimates for Chinese Nuclear Arsenal

STRATCOM Commander estimates that China has “several hundred” nuclear warheads.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) has rejected claims that China’s nuclear arsenal is much larger than commonly believed.

“I do not believe that China has hundreds or thousands more nuclear weapons than what the intelligence community has been saying, […] that the Chinese arsenal is in the range of several hundred” nuclear warheads.

General Kehler’s statement was made in an interview with a group of journalists during the Deterrence Symposium held in Omaha in early August (the transcript is not yet public, but was made available to me).

General Kehler’s statement comes at an important time because much higher estimates recently have created a lot of news media attention and are threatening to become “facts” on the Internet. A Georgetown University briefing last year hypothesized that the Chinese arsenal might include “as many as 3,000 nuclear warheads,” and General Victor Yesin, a former commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, recently published an article on the Russian web site vpk-news in which he estimates that the Chinese nuclear weapons arsenal includes 1,600-1,800 nuclear warheads.

In contrast, Robert S. Norris and I have published estimates of the Chinese nuclear weapons inventory for years, and we currently set the arsenal at approximately 240 warheads. That estimate – based in part on statements from the U.S. intelligence community, fissile material production estimates, and our assessment of the composition of the Chinese nuclear arsenal – obviously comes with a lot of uncertainly and assumptions, but we’re pleased to see that it appears to fit with the “several hundred” warheads mentioned by General Kehler.

Like the other nuclear weapon states, China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal, but it is the only one of the five original nuclear powers (P-5) that appears to be increasing the size of its warhead inventory. That increase is modest and appears to be slower than the U.S. intelligence community projected a decade ago. Those who see an interest in exaggerating China’s nuclear developments thrive on secrecy, so it is important that China – and others who know – provide some basic information about trends and developments to avoid exaggerated estimates. The reality is bad enough as it is.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

FAS Roundup: August 20, 2012

Case dismissed based on state secret privilege, Bio agents app, new CRS reports  and much more.

From the Blogs

  • Court Dismisses Case Based on State Secrets Privilege: On August 14, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit which alleged that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had engaged in unlawful surveillance of Muslim residents of southern California. The court granted the Obama Administration’s claim that the state secrets privilege precluded litigation of the case. The plaintiffs in the case contended that the FBI had “conducted an indiscriminate ‘dragnet’ investigation and gathered personal information about them and other innocent Muslim Americans in Southern California based on their religion.” The government said various aspects of the subject were too sensitive to be addressed in open court.

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Reframing the Energy Discussion: Cubic Miles of Oil

Courtesy of Shutterstock.

In 2006, the world finally surpassed an enormous benchmark: the consumption of one cubic mile of oil each year. That’s equivalent to 1.1. trillion gallons or 26 billion barrels of oil.

In the conversation surrounding energy consumption, it can be hard to keep interest and sustain any meaningful dialogue as commentators must often wade through various units and conversions in discussing new energy sources. How does a Btu compare to a kWh? How many barrels of oil does it take to produce the same amount of energy as a ton of coal? Continue reading

FAS Roundup: August 13, 2012

Congress resists efforts to reduce secrecy, U.S. strategy in Yemen, new CRS reports and much more.

From the Blogs

  • Justice Department Silent on IG Role in State Secrets Cases: The Department of Justice told Congress recently that it would not disclose the number of state secrets cases involving alleged government misconduct, if any, that have been referred to an Inspector General for investigation. Under a revised state secrets policy that was announced by Attorney General Holder in 2009, the Department committed to referring credible claims of government wrongdoing that could not be adjudicated in court because the state secrets privilege had been invoked to the Inspector General of the relevant agency for further investigation.
  • The 52 Percent Solution in Yemen: Debate has picked up on the U.S. strategy in Yemen. John Brennan, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, recently explained the administration’s policy, which had been accused of focusing narrowly on counterterrorism. Mark Jansson, director of Special Projects, writes that ultimately we should not get caught up in the numbers game in evaluating U.S. policy towards Yemen. More balance would be great, but balance is not the sole indicator of efficacy. What Americans and Yemenis alike need to know is whether the plan for Yemen is actually working.
  • Congress Resists Efforts to Reduce Secrecy: Ordinarily, critics of government secrecy focus their ire — and their strategy — on executive branch agencies that refuse to release certain national security-related information to the public. Steven Aftergood writes that  to an extent that is not widely recognized or understood, it is Congress that has erected barriers to greater openness and has blocked efforts to improve transparency.

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Talks at U.S. Strategic Command and University of California San Diego

By Hans M. Kristensen

It’s been a busy week with two talks; the first to the U.S. Strategic Command’s Deterrence Symposium on August 9, and the second to the Public Policy and Nuclear Threats “boot camp” workshop at the University of California San Diego on August 10.

STRATCOM asked me to talk on the question: Will advanced conventional capabilities undermine or enhance deterrence. My panel included former STRATCOM Commander General James Cartwright, former SAC CINC General Larry Welch, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs Madelyn Creedon. The panel was chaired by Rear Admiral John Gower of the U.K. Ministry of Defense. My speech is reproduced below. The video of Panel #7 is available later at the STRATCOM web site.

UCSD asked me to speak on New Directions for U.S. Nuclear Strategy. My panel included Daryl Press, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, and Anne Harrington, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. A copy of my briefing slides is available here.

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