How is China Modernizing its Nuclear Forces?

How is China Modernizing its Nuclear Forces?
How is China Modernizing its Nuclear Forces?
How is China Modernizing its Nuclear Forces? Top

    The advent of nuclear weapons fundamentally transformed the nature of warfare and strategy. Changes in nuclear policy, posture, and force structure in one country can have global ramifications. China is one of only nine countries that possesses nuclear weapons. Although its nuclear arsenal is small relative to those of the United States and Russia, China is rapidly expanding and modernizing its nuclear forces and may be significantly shifting its nuclear policies.

    China detonated its first atomic device on October 16, 1964. In doing so, China became the fifth country—after the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France—to successfully develop a nuclear weapon.

    Following its entrance into the atomic era, China prioritized the development of an increasingly capable arsenal composed of nuclear warheads delivered on land-based ballistic missiles. Most of China’s nuclear forces continue to be made up of land-based systems.

    China also maintains a relatively small number of ballistic missiles housed on six ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), providing China a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.

    Beijing possesses only a small contingent of air-based platforms capable of delivering nuclear weapons, but the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is investing in new strategic bombers to enhance its capabilities.

    Countries with a nuclear force structure that consists of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers are said to possess a nuclear “triad.” The ability to deliver nuclear attacks from ground, sea, and air increases the survivability of a country’s nuclear forces and adds flexibility in executing nuclear strikes. The United States and Russia (previously the Soviet Union) have long possessed full, credible nuclear triads. With the fielding of a nuclear bomber, China possesses a nascent triad.

    When China was still developing its first nuclear weapon in the early 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were already locked into a nuclear arms race that would last for decades. By 1986, the two Cold War superpowers possessed more than 64,000 warheads combined. Global stockpiles, however, began to fall as the two sides negotiated several arms control treaties. The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty, and the 2010 New START Treaty each led the United States and Russia to significantly reduce the size of their respective nuclear arsenals. 

    For decades, the world’s total number of nuclear weapons saw rapid and then steady declines, but now the number of warheads is back on the rise. China is a major contributor to this. Between 2014 and 2024, the estimated number of Chinese warheads doubled, from 250 to roughly 500. The smaller stockpiles of India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan also increased during this period. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of nuclear weapons remain concentrated in the United States and Russia. 

    The interactive below provides a breakdown of global strategic nuclear forces based on open-source data available in 2024. Each nuclear-armed country is depicted with a triangle showing the composition of their land, sea, and air strategic forces. Use the dropdown to toggle between warhead and launcher totals. Hover over the points of the triangles to isolate the three different types of nuclear weapons.

    Hover over the footnote to view details on this data.1

    In addition to strategic nuclear weapons, several countries also possess non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons. Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, which are longer-range and carry higher-yield warheads, non-strategic weapons are shorter-range systems with lower-yield warheads typically designed for attacking battlefield targets. 

    China’s Historic Nuclear Strategy and Posture

    One of the most authoritative descriptions of China’s nuclear strategy can be found in the 2006 Defense White Paper. It states that China pursues a “self-defensive nuclear strategy” with dual goals of deterring nuclear attacks against China and stopping other countries from coercing China through nuclear threats. 

    This nuclear strategy centers on deterrence through “assured retaliation,” which is the ability to survive an initial attack and retaliate with nuclear strikes that inflict unacceptable damage on the attacker. In accordance with this strategy, a key feature of China’s nuclear posture historically has been that it operates at a low alert level. Unlike U.S. and Russian forces, which keep many of their nuclear weapons on ready alert, the PLA has historically stored its warheads separately from missiles until they are paired in preparation for a retaliatory strike. 

    Also in accordance with its strategy, China long kept the size of its nuclear forces relatively limited. The 2006 Defense White Paper emphasizes that the PLA seeks a “lean and efficient” nuclear arsenal that is small but technologically capable of deterring other nuclear states. Instead of seeking parity with the United States or Russia, China’s 2015 Defense White Paper notes that China seeks “nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for maintaining its national security.” The latest defense white paper, issued in 2019, reiterates this goal of keeping China’s forces at a “minimum level.” 

    Survivability is the key to China’s strategy of assured retaliation. For many years, China’s leaders perceived that their silo-based, liquid-fueled missiles were vulnerable to a preemptive strike. To address this concern, China undertook significant efforts to secure and modernize its nuclear forces. 

    During the mid-1980s, China expanded a series of underground facilities to shelter its nuclear (and conventional) weapons from enemy attack. After the U.S. military demonstrated significant precision strike capabilities during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, China sped up work to reinforce and expand these underground facilities. The Department of Defense (DoD) estimates these facilities number in the thousands, with China constructing more each year. 

    Another distinguishing feature of China’s nuclear strategy is its no first use (NFU) policy, which it has maintained since it first detonated a nuclear weapon in 1964. China’s NFU pledge commits Beijing to only employ its nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack by another country. The 2006 Defense White Paper reiterates Beijing’s long-held position that China will not use or threaten to use its nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or in “nuclear-weapon-free zones.” It also declares that China will not enter an arms race. 

    Beijing’s official NFU policy differentiates China from most other nuclear-armed states. India is the only other country to have an NFU policy. However, New Delhi conditions its NFU pledge. In 2003, the Indian government announced that India retains the option of a nuclear first strike “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons.” 

    Other countries do not have NFU policies. The Soviet Union, under Leonid Brezhnev, committed to an official NFU policy in 1982, but the Russian Defense Ministry announced the end of the policy in 1993.2 Moscow now holds a policy that allows for the use of nuclear weapons in response to conventional threats. The United States commits to not employing nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states but reserves the right to strike first against nuclear-armed countries to defend the U.S. homeland and U.S. allies and partners. 

    While China’s official NFU policy is officially unconditional, many observers are skeptical that the PLA will abide by this policy during a conflict. For instance, Chinese officials have privately indicated that a conventional strike on China’s nuclear forces or command and control systems could provoke a nuclear response from Beijing. It remains unclear whether—and under what circumstances—China might initiate use of nuclear weapons. 

    China’s Shifting Nuclear Posture

    Under President Xi Jinping, China is pursuing sweeping efforts to modernize and strengthen the PLA, including an unprecedented expansion and upgrading of its nuclear forces. These shifts have brought into question long-held tenets of China’s nuclear strategy and posture. 

    Crucial reforms to China’s nuclear forces kicked off in December 2015, when the Second Artillery Corps, which operates China’s land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces, was renamed the PLA Rocket Force and upgraded from an independent branch to a full military service.3  

    In the years that followed, China began to significantly increase the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal. In its 2022 report on China, the Pentagon assessed China’s stockpile had “surpassed 400 warheads.” However, this figure is climbing rapidly as nuclear modernization continues apace. In the 2023 report on China’s military power, the DoD assessed China had over 500 warheads, suggesting an increase of approximately 100 warheads over the span of one year.  

    In the coming years, China is expected to further expand its nuclear arsenal. The 2023 DoD report on China estimates that the country’s nuclear stockpile could grow to more than 1,000 warheads by 2030, and it states that China will likely “continue growing its force to 2035 in line with previous estimates” of approximately 1,500 warheads.  

    It is worth noting that U.S. government estimates have fluctuated significantly in the past. In 2020, the DoD estimated that China’s stockpile was in the “low-200s” and would double by 2030. However, the DoD later assessed that China had probably accelerated the expansion of its nuclear forces in 2021 and accordingly adjusted its future estimates.4

    Beyond the growing number of warheads, there are signs that China is changing its nuclear policies. The 2022 DoD report on China’s military assessed that the PLA is implementing a launch on warning (LOW) posture—referred to in Chinese as “early warning counter-strike” (预警反击)—wherein Beijing initiates a counter-strike once a launch warning has been received but before targets in China have been hit. Chinese military experts and PLA officers alike have expressed that moving to a LOW posture is advantageous.  

    According to reports, the PLARF has been conducting military exercises involving LOW response, which would require some warheads and missiles to be stored together. Additionally, in 2019 Russia offered to help develop a Chinese early warning system needed for a LOW posture, and as of 2022, China likely already has at least three early-warning satellites in orbit to support LOW capabilities. Shifting toward a LOW policy represents a significant change that is indicative of a more offensive nuclear force posture. It also has significant implications for Beijing’s NFU policy, since it would mean initiating a Chinese nuclear counter-strike against an opponent before China itself is struck.  

    China’s Rapidly Modernizing Capabilities

    China is not only increasing its stockpile of warheads. It is also pursuing major qualitative technological improvements to its launch and delivery systems across all three legs of the nuclear triad. The sections below detail key developments that are underway.  

    Land-Based Forces

    Historically, China’s nuclear deterrent has centered on its land-based ballistic missile forces. In the early 2000s, China made significant advances by fielding road- and rail-mobile ICBMs to complement its existing silo-based Dong Feng-5 (DF-5) ICBMs. In 2006, the PLA fielded the DF-31, which features a maximum range of 8,000 km. An improved variant, the DF-31A, entered service in 2007 and has a range of up to 11,200 km. Another variant, the DF-31AG, was revealed in 2017, with a similar range but greater off-road capabilities. 

    The DF-31A and DF-31AG are loosely comparable to Russia’s Yars (RS-24), which is also a solid-fueled, road-mobile ICBM with a range of 10,500 km. As of 2023, Russia possessed an estimated 171 road-mobile RS-24 launchers, each carrying four warheads on multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). By comparison, in 2024 China is estimated to possess 24 DF-31As and 64 DF-31AGs, each carrying a single warhead per missile.5

    More recently, the fielding of the new DF-41 has played a significant role in generating growth of China’s nuclear arsenal. The DF-41 is a road- and rail-mobile ICBM that entered service around 2020. With an estimated operational range of 12,000–15,000 km, the DF-41 is believed to have one of the longest operational ranges of any missile in the world. Some reports claim the DF-41 could be MIRVed with up to 10 warheads, but the DoD assesses that it likely carries no more than three warheads per missile.  

    In addition to longer-range ICBMs, the PLARF has fielded advanced new medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). The new DF-17, first fielded in 2020, is equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle, meaning it can maneuver at hypersonic speeds to better counter adversary missile defenses. With an approximate range of 1,800 km, the DF-17 is focused on targets in the Western Pacific. The DF-17 likely has a primarily conventional mission, but some launchers may also be designated for nuclear missions.

    After years of prioritizing road-mobile systems, China is now also significantly modernizing and expanding its silo-based ICBM forces. A series of open-source satellite imagery analyses helped to uncover the fact that between 2020 and 2021, China began building approximately 350 new ICBM silos across northwestern and central China. In 2023, the DoD assessed that China “probably completed the construction” of these silo fields and estimates that they contain “at least 300 new ICBM silos.” This is the primary reason for the rapid increase in the estimated warhead totals in 2023.  

    The shift to building ICBM silos marks a significant change in China’s nuclear force posture. It suggests that China is seeking to add greater diversity to its ICBM forces beyond the road-mobile systems that have predominated in recent decades. Yet it is unclear whether China plans to fill each silo with versions of the DF-31A or DF-41, or a combination of both. China could also intentionally leave some silos empty and employ a “shell game” to bolster China’s deterrence at a reduced cost.6 If China does fill each silo with a missile and each missile is MIRVed with multiple warheads, this would lead to a dramatic expansion of China’s arsenal over the next decade, along the levels estimated by the DoD.  

    In addition to fielding new launchers, China is developing advanced nuclear delivery systems as well. In July 2021, it tested a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) carrying a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). This technology allows the FOBS to remain in orbit for an extended period before re-entering the atmosphere. This ability to vary the timing of de-orbiting, combined with a more unpredictable HGV flight path could make it easier for Chinese warheads to evade missile defenses.  

    Sea-Based Forces

    While China’s nuclear forces have historically been dominated by land-based systems, the PLA is pushing to strengthen the other legs of its nascent triad. The sea-based leg of China’s nuclear forces was solidified in 2015 when the PLA Navy (PLAN) introduced the Julang-2 (JL-2) SLBM. With a range of 7,200 km, the JL-2 allows China to target Hawaii and Guam but not the continental United States.7 The JL-2s were initially fielded on China’s four Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).  

    However, in 2022, U.S. officials revealed that the Type 094s are now equipped with the newer JL-3 SLBM. The JL-3s have a considerably longer range of approximately 10,000 km, enabling them to reach portions of the continental United States from China’s littoral waters. As of 2023, China has introduced an additional two Type 094 SSBNs for a total of six. Each of these can carry up to 12 JL-3s, giving the PLAN an estimated total of 72 nuclear warheads.  

    Although the JL-3 provides China a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent, it is less capable than the SLBMs of Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. As of 2023, Russia possesses 11 SSBNs with a total of 176 launchers. Russia’s SLBMs are all MIRVed with either four or six warheads per missile, equipping Russia with 896 SLBM-based warheads. The U.S. Trident II D-5 is even more capable. It features a range of 12,000 km and can deliver a volley of eight MIRVed warheads, for a total of 1,920 warheads dispersed across 14 SSBNs.8 Notably, the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal is entirely sea-based and composed solely of Trident II D-5 missiles armed with British warheads. 

    In the coming years, China is expected to launch a new SSBN, the Type 096. In 2023, the DoD assessed that they are “probably intended to field MIRVed SLBMS” and will likely enter service in the late 2020s or early 2030s. Reports suggest that the submarine will be significantly stealthier than the Type 094, with enhanced vibration and noise reduction. Unconfirmed reports have rumored the Type 096s will be significantly larger than the current Type 094s, allowing the 096s to be equipped with 24 vertical launch tubes rather than 12.  

    Airborne Forces

    The air-based component of China’s strategic deterrent has, until recently, occupied a lower priority. In 2018, the DoD assessed that the PLA Air Force was “re-assigned a nuclear mission,” specifically focusing on nuclear-capable bombers, and in 2019, China publicly revealed its H-6N strategic bomber. The H-6N is optimized for long-range strikes owing to its in-air refueling capabilities, and it is able to carry nuclear-armed air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBM). It was operationally fielded in 2020, completing China’s nascent nuclear triad.

    China is also developing a new nuclear-capable subsonic strategic stealth bomber, the Xian H-20, which is expected to be China’s rough analogue to the U.S. B2 Spirit stealth bomber and the new B-21 Raider strategic bomber. Little is known about the H-20, but it is speculated to be fielded sometime in the 2030s and to have a range of more than 10,000 km. If the H-20 is assisted with aerial refueling, its range could be extended farther to allow for more global reach.

    Potential Limitations on China’s Nuclear Buildup

    While China's nuclear modernization is expected to continue, China may face constraints. Chief among these is China’s relatively small reserve of weapons-grade fissile material, which is needed for nuclear detonations. The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimated in 2021 that China’s fissile material stockpile stood at 14 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and 2.9 metric tons of plutonium—enough to produce only a few hundred warheads. This pales in comparison to Russian and U.S. reserves and is even smaller than the amount held by France and the United Kingdom. 

    China would need to produce additional fissile material to develop more than 1,000 warheads, and there is evidence that China is doing so by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John F. Plumb testified in 2023 that the DoD is concerned about Russia assisting China with producing HEU in new fast breeder reactors. Chinese officials have claimed the reactors are intended for civilian energy use, but the DoD has stated that “China has described the reactors as a ‘national defense investment project’ subject to military nuclear facility regulations.”  

    Additionally, China’s nuclear forces continue to face challenges with corruption. In 2023, Xi purged several high-ranking military officials, many of whom were active or retired senior leaders of the PLARF. Around the same time, widespread but unsubstantiated reports emerged claiming Chinese rockets were filled with water rather than fuel and that Chinese missile silos suffered from other quality issues. The veracity of these reports on quality issues is unclear, but it is evident that corruption remains a problem for the PLARF and China’s nuclear modernization.  

    Drivers of China’s Nuclear Expansion

    The causes behind China’s nuclear expansion are hotly debated, and it is possible that multiple drivers are shaping Beijing’s decisionmaking. One potential explanation is that Beijing seeks great power status on the international stage. Chinese leaders may believe that to attain that status, China needs to achieve approximate nuclear parity with the United States and Russia.  

    This rationale has implications for the prospects of future strategic arms control agreements. To date, Beijing has balked at engaging in arms control talks on the basis that its forces are much smaller than U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. If China reaches parity with the two leading nuclear powers, Beijing may feel open to engaging in arms control talks on a more equal footing.  

    Another key driver may be the evolving nuclear and missile defense capabilities of other countries. The U.S. military is currently updating all three legs of its aging nuclear triad and is estimated to spend $634 billion between 2021 and 2030 to modernize and maintain its nuclear arsenal. Russia has been replacing aging Soviet-era weapons, including its ICBMs and SLBMs. Russia has also developed the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle to avoid missile defense systems. Likewise, India currently has at least four new weapons systems that are under development to modernize India’s nuclear air, sea, and land-based systems. Efforts include developing the Agni-IV IRBM and the Agni-V ICBM. India is also developing a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), the Nirbhay, which looks similar to the American Tomahawk or the Pakistani Babur. 

    The United States is also continuing to build out its ballistic missile defense programs, which Beijing considers to be a serious challenge to its nuclear deterrent. The U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, for example, provides the United States with a limited capability to defend against intermediate and long-range ICBMs by attacking incoming missiles outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. China is concerned that this erodes the deterrence value of its ICBMs.  

    As part of the annual ChinaPower Conference, experts Dr. Tong Zhao and Dr. Fiona Cunningham debate whether China's nuclear expansion represents a shift in its nuclear strategy and doctrine.

    Chinese officials have likewise expressed concern about the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. When the United States and South Korea agreed to deploy a THAAD battery in Seoul in 2016, Beijing strongly protested and claimed that the system’s advanced radar was capable of undermining its strategic deterrent. In 2022, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol expressed interest in adding additional THAAD batteries, drawing further protest from China.  

    Beijing worries that the establishment of an advanced, multi-layered U.S. missile defense architecture weakens China’s strategic deterrent by diminishing its ability to deliver a retaliatory nuclear attack. To avert this outcome, China is MIRVing more of its warheads. MIRVs are much harder to defend against than a single warhead, as they require missile defense systems to destroy multiple targets simultaneously. Many of China’s missiles also carry penetration aids, such as decoys and chaff, designed to boost their offensive capabilities.   

    Finally, Chinese leaders may be reconceptualizing how they plan to use nuclear weapons in a crisis, especially amid heightened U.S.-China tensions. Facing the prospect of a conflict over Taiwan, Beijing may seek to strengthen its nuclear capabilities to gain additional political and military leverage in the event of a conventional conflict over the island.  

    Due to China’s lack of transparency on these issues, it is impossible to fully understand Beijing’s motives or to accurately grasp the exact nature of China’s evolving capabilities. Nevertheless, it is clear that Chinese leaders are intent on significantly increasing their nuclear capabilities and they are making deep investments to achieve their goals. ChinaPower