Report

The Pentagon Wants to Talk About China’s Nukes

China prepares to fight and win a war against the United States, the U.S. Defense Department said in its annual review.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Members of the military band rehearse.
Members of the military band rehearse before the start of the Xinhai Revolution’s 110th anniversary commemoration, which overthrew the Qing dynasty and led to China’s founding, in Beijing on Oct. 9. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

China’s nuclear arsenal is growing at a much faster rate than the United States anticipated, leaving top defense officials concerned about a lack of communication with Beijing’s top brass as the Biden administration still tries to unpack the implications of major Chinese hypersonic weapons tests earlier this year. 

The U.S. Defense Department’s annual China military power report, the agency’s public attempt to size up Beijing’s growing military might, concluded the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could have up to 700 deliverable warheads by 2027, the timeline some top officials have flagged for a possible Chinese takeover of Taiwan. And China could have at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by 2030—an uptick of 500 new warheads from the Pentagon’s projection last year—at an arsenal officials said is aimed at the United States. The increase would still leave China’s arsenal at less than a third of the size of the United States’ warhead stockpile: The United States has about 3,750 deliverable warheads.

“The [People’s Republic of China (PRC)] is increasingly clear in its ambitions and intentions. The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen its ability to fight and win wars, to use their own phrase, against what the PRC refers to as ‘a strong enemy,’” a senior defense official told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday. “And a strong enemy, of course, is very likely a euphemism for the United States.”

China’s nuclear arsenal is growing at a much faster rate than the United States anticipated, leaving top defense officials concerned about a lack of communication with Beijing’s top brass as the Biden administration still tries to unpack the implications of major Chinese hypersonic weapons tests earlier this year. 

The U.S. Defense Department’s annual China military power report, the agency’s public attempt to size up Beijing’s growing military might, concluded the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could have up to 700 deliverable warheads by 2027, the timeline some top officials have flagged for a possible Chinese takeover of Taiwan. And China could have at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by 2030—an uptick of 500 new warheads from the Pentagon’s projection last year—at an arsenal officials said is aimed at the United States. The increase would still leave China’s arsenal at less than a third of the size of the United States’ warhead stockpile: The United States has about 3,750 deliverable warheads.

“The [People’s Republic of China (PRC)] is increasingly clear in its ambitions and intentions. The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen its ability to fight and win wars, to use their own phrase, against what the PRC refers to as ‘a strong enemy,’” a senior defense official told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday. “And a strong enemy, of course, is very likely a euphemism for the United States.”

Officials and experts see the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal, which is still dwarfed by the United States’, as part of an effort to give the PLA more options to stop any U.S. defense of Taiwan. In the report, the Pentagon assesses that China has already built a nascent nuclear triad, including nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missiles, and has improved its ability to deliver nuclear warheads from ground-based silos and submarines.

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington on Wednesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was “not likely” in the next 24 months but noted Beijing is clearly building a capability to provide options for a future military operation in the region. 

The Pentagon also believes China is working to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear arsenal, moving to launch missiles on warning and adding a deeper inventory of missile silos—including three silo fields for intercontinental ballistic missiles, two of which have been publicly identified in western China through commercial satellite imagery. China has also invested in fast-breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities to improve its ability to produce and separate plutonium to make fissile material for additional warheads.

China also appears to be on a faster trajectory in developing hypersonics than the United States, beginning to field more rockets in 2020 and advancing the development of scramjet engines, which can propel missiles at up to 15 times the speed of sound. The Financial Times first reported China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile this summer that can travel in low-earth orbit and is capable of evading ground-based sensors. China has no track record of dealing with the United States on nuclear arms control, something that has flummoxed U.S. officials who have sought to get Beijing to the negotiating table. 

But China is also investing in its conventional capabilities. The Pentagon assesses that the Chinese navy will reach 420 ships by 2025 and 460 by 2030, making it by far the largest battle fleet in the world. The United States is trying to maintain a manned surface fleet of between 321 and 372 vessels—and up to 140 unmanned ships—but is steadily losing ground. China has also used its vessels to harass rival countries that make oil and gas claims in the region. 

The Pentagon is also concerned about China’s rapid buildup of conventional submarines boasting advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, with 25 Yuan-class vessels coming online by 2025. And China’s nonnuclear strike capabilities have the Pentagon concerned: U.S. bases in Japan are in range of China’s medium-range ballistic missiles while Guam, the subject of a major Pentagon debate over missile defense, could be reached by land-based missiles or Dong-Feng 26 ballistic missiles. 

But even as both militaries watch each other intently in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Pentagon and the Chinese are still having trouble feeling each other out. Although the United States and China have a defense telephone link to speak through during crises, defense officials said they’d like Chinese officials to be more forthcoming about the intentions behind the buildup, a call that seems to have so far gone unheeded.

For instance, Chinese officials became deeply concerned last fall that the United States would instigate a conflict in the South China Sea, according to a senior defense official, which prompted PLA military drills and additional deployments. That forced then-U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper to direct his top China official, Chad Sbragia, and Milley, the top U.S. military official, to address these concerns with their Beijing counterparts. The incident was first reported by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in a recent book. 

“They are clearly challenging us regionally, and their aspiration is to challenge the United States globally,” Milley said on Wednesday. “They want to challenge the so-called liberal rules-based order. … They want to revise it.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?