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.

11 thoughts on “STRATCOM Commander Rejects High Estimates for Chinese Nuclear Arsenal

  1. One thing I have always been curious about, is how do we know “anything” about the Chinese nuclear inventory? We interpolate the potential Chinese nuclear arsenal based on the published reports of historical Chinese weapon grade uranium and plutonium inventories but how exactly are those “reports” validated? We look at the existing Chinese nuclear infrastructure that we can “see” and interpolate those facilities could only produce this much weapon’s grade material or build this many nuclear warheads when in fact we know little about the capacity or ambitions of a nuclear China. There is no practical military-to-military exchange between Beijing and Washington. No ballistic missile data, telemetry and such, is exchanged. On the face of it, General Kehler’s statement seems odd. If we have no real clue what North Korea or Iran are up to, how can we be so definitive on China?

    #18. All warfare is based on deception. (The Art of War by Sun Tzu)

    Frank Shuler

  2. [Edited] The Telegraph: “The news came after an unnamed US official told Jane’s Defence Weekly that China’s People’s Liberation Army tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 24 which has the range to strike any city in the United States. The DF-41 missile can carry ten separate nuclear warheads, each of which can be programmed to strike at a different target, the magazine reported.”

    Reply: 10 warheads? How do they come up with this stuff? I have yet to see the Jane’s article, but I’m highly skeptical about this rumor. HK

  3. If JL-2 SLBM is armed with three 50-100kt warheads, then why would it be surprising if larger land-based DF-41 is armed with more than that? Not that I believe those rumors about ten warheads.

    Reply: Who says the JL-2 carries three 50-100 kiloton warheads? The US intelligence community portrays it as a single warhead system. Likewise, what DF-41 missile? Despite rumors of a flight test, we still have to see official confirmations or assessments that whatever was tested was indeed called DF-41. For sure, a larger missile can potentially carry a greater payload (including the DF-5A), but only if those payloads are developed and the system tested and actually deployed. I’m just urging observers to be skeptical, demand more information, demand official statements, and not rush to conclusions based on rumors. HK

  4. The New York Times is now reporting on the DF-41:

    The Global Times, a newspaper directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, reported on Wednesday that China was developing the capability to put multiple warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. But the newspaper disputed a report in Jane’s Defense Weekly that the latest Chinese ICBM, the Dongfeng-41, had already been tested last month.

    Larry Wortzel, a former U.S. military intelligence officer and retired Army colonel who is now a commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a panel created by Congress, said that China was developing the capability to put as many as 10 nuclear warheads on an ICBM plus a series of dummy warheads. The dummy warheads would have heat and electromagnetic devices designed to trick missile defense systems into perceiving them as being as threatening as the actual warheads, he said.

    “The bigger implication of this is that as they begin to field a force of missiles with multiple warheads, it means everything we assume about the size of their nuclear arsenal becomes wrong,” he said.

  5. There are also reasons for China not to publicize its number of nukes. For example, it could induce the Americans to develop more missile defense in the hope that it can overwhelm China’s limited number of nukes and delivery vehicles. It could induce other potential adversaries to produce more nukes to catch up. There are many reasons that we cannot fathom. The fact that China has never publicized its numbers suggests that it is unlikely to ever tell. The ambiguity that China seems to enjoy suggests that it wants to be perceived to have more nukes. Would there be significant difference in the attitude of the US towards China if China has 3000 vs. 300 nukes? If United States wants to spend more money borrowed from China to make more paper tigers, why should China spoil the mind game? Some experts said that US can live very safely with 311 nukes. China should be fine with the 240 that you guys estimate.

  6. From what I’ve read, China has tested a new true mirved ICBM capable of covering the entire USA but that it is not the DF-41, allegedly “cancelled years ago.”

    From testing to deployment = many years.

    If you look at the other arsenals, sane professionals generals of most nuclear powers seem to agree that anything from 150 to 300 warheads gives you enough f**k-up power to deter effectively.

    China has so many urgent domestic issues to handle that it is not about to follow the insanity of the Russia and the USA by lifting its arsenal into the thousands.

    An exasperated Pres. Charles de Gaulle of France once blurted out: “How can you can govern a country that makes 175 kinds of cheese?!”.

    He said that when ruling a population of 45 million and 1 official language.

    China is 1,300 million and 56 official languages.

    It has “Katrina” floods requiring evacuations of a million or so almost every year and they take about a week apiece (note use of the plural “s” to “flood” and “evacuation” please). And they don’t come cheap.

    Does anyone seriously think that Beijing is going to buy more than the minimum amount of nukes needed to cool any hotheads in and around Washington?

  7. The headline is correct but you never know.China must have a sufficient number of nm .Then the country won’t be subject to US blackmail as in the past.China has been threatened with nuclear destruction by the US and must be prepared for a sudden US strike.A peace treaty is no good. History is full of examples of countries reneging.A few examples will suffice.

    During ww2, Hitler attacked SU after signing a non aggression pact with Stalin Then we have the Japs assuring Roosevelt of their peaceful mission.Nothing can be further from the truth.

    That is why China must have enough nm to retaliate if the US wants to destroy China’s nm. It is the US which is the bully and like all bullies must be made aware that any attack will be met with a response sufficient to deter and if that fails to convince the former it won’t be cost free.

    I see no reason why China shdn’t continue to build more nm to blunt any US attack and cause unacceptable destruction .

  8. I wonder how can Mr. Hans M. Kristensen write this unsupported, unproved and unconfirmated number of 240 nuclear warheads and continue to call himself “scientist”.

    The normal scientific approach is to provide the list of data sources (Chinese goverment official data, public mass media, intelligence images, economical data) analyse and evalute them (how much one can trust it, how big is an error), show the outlines of nuclear warheads calculation based on these data sources. Only then one can write the result number with an error! Like: “240+/-310 (or +/- 50% or 240 + 430 -100) nuclear warheads is the result of estimation described above.”

    This strange story to tell everybody that China has 300 or 400 or even 434 (! note the precision – how one can be sure it is not 435?) is absolutely un-scientific. How one can give such a precision if there is no official Chinese data? Counted nukes by himself with Geiger counter, hitch-hiking between Chinese secret nuclear plants?

    This strange “tradition” of writing small “certain numbers” of nukes in China without any prove going back to 80-ies and now (with Chinese economy is number 2 in the world) it looks pretty stupid. Why you are still playing this false game? Is it just an unwillingness of accept own misstakes (i.e. dogma stubborness) or a wish to hide a rival’s fast strategical grow or some sort of conspiracy (secret agreement between USA and China) to reduce the treat of confrontation?

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