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Nuclear Numerology Chinese Style

I would like to take issue with a figure included in the fact box “China on Key Nuclear Issues” in the January/February issue of Arms Control Today: the assertion that China may have “Up to 400 [nuclear] warheads total.”

Although this estimate has become the consensus among nongovernmental analysts in recent years, a better assessment would be about 100 weapons. In April 2004, the Chinese government issued a fact sheet that stated, “[a]mong the nuclear-weapon states, China…possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal.” The statement implies that China possesses fewer than 200 nuclear weapons, the generally accepted size of the British nuclear arsenal. The Chinese statement is plausible in light of a Defense Department estimate in Proliferation: Threat and Response (2001) that “China currently has over 100 nuclear warheads.”

Although China may maintain some additional number of warheads in a single stockpile site, no evidence exists to assess the size or composition of the stockpiled forces. Counting such weapons would be largely irrelevant in any event, as China lacks delivery vehicles for these weapons.

A more relevant and objective estimate would focus on China’s deployed arsenal. Estimates crediting China with 400 or more nuclear weapons typically assume deployment of three types of nuclear weapons—submarine-launched ballistic missiles, aircraft-delivered weapons, and tactical nuclear weapons. Yet, intelligence community assessments suggest that China does not deploy these classes of weapons:

Submarine-launched ballistic missiles
Recent editions of Chinese Military Power (Department of Defense, 2004) and Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat (National Air and Space Intelligence Center, 2003) make clear that U.S. intelligence experts do not consider China’s JL-1 SLBM deployed.

Aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons
The National Security Council, in a declassified 1993 report to Congress, concluded that “[t]he Chinese Air Force has no units whose primary mission is to deliver China’s small stockpile of nuclear bombs.” This conclusion could be drawn from both the obsolescence of China’s inventory of nuclear-capable aircraft and the lack of storage facilities for nuclear weapons at Chinese airfields.

Tactical nuclear weapons
Evidence for a Chinese tactical nuclear weapons stockpile dates to the 1970s and 1980s. Reviewing that evidence, the Defense Intelligence Agency admitted in 1984 that it had “no evidence confirming production or deployment” of tactical nuclear weapons. Since then, the intelligence community has provided no new claims of such weapons in Chinese hands. Recent editions of Proliferation: Threat and Response and Chinese Military Power do not mention Chinese tactical nuclear weapons. To the contrary, Chinese Military Power specifically identifies Beijing’s short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) force as conventionally armed—a feature that frees Beijing from “the political and practical constraints associated with the use of nuclear-armed missiles.”

If these types of nuclear weapons are removed from the estimate, the Chinese nuclear force would be judged as comprising approximately 18 DF-5 ICBMs, 12 DF-4 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), and 45 DF-3 and DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) launchers. China would then be viewed as deploying 75-120 strategic nuclear weapons, depending on whether the MRBM launchers are counted as having a refire capability. This is consistent with both the Department of Defense’s estimate that China has “more than 100” nuclear weapons, as well as the Chinese statement that it possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal of the five nuclear states recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. A better estimate, then, would be that China maintains “about 100 nuclear weapons.”

There is, of course, the matter of the future size of the Chinese arsenal. China is developing a new, solid-fueled ballistic missile to replace the DF-4 (CSS-3). Variants would arm China’s newest ballistic missile submarine and replace the DF-5 (CSS-4).

In December 2001, the intelligence community predicted that China would deploy approximately 75-100 strategic nuclear warheads aimed primarily against the United States over the next 15 years (and another two dozen shorter-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching parts of the United States).

This estimate assumed that China chose one of two modernization paths: emphasizing either large numbers of DF-31 solid-fueled ballistic missiles or placing multiple warheads on the DF-5A.

To date, there is no evidence that China has either begun to place multiple warheads on the DF-5A or deployed the DF-31. Moreover, the number of Chinese ballistic missiles (and, by proxy, deployed nuclear weapons) has probably declined from a peak of about 140 warheads in 1984.

Past intelligence community estimates in 1984 and 1993 regarding the future size of China’s nuclear forces exaggerated the size and scope of Chinese nuclear weapons deployments. I would not, therefore, be surprised if China’s nuclear weapons arsenal in December 2016 is still closer to 100 than 400.


Jeffrey Lewis is a post-doctoral fellow in the Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs.



Posted: March 1, 2005