China Ballistic Missiles and Nuclear Arms Thread


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Chapter 1
How Many Nuclear Warheads China Might Acquire
by 2030 Thomas B. Cochran and Henry D. Sokolski Abstract

Overview The projected number of nuclear weapons China might have by 2030 has grown in the last two years. In 2019, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) said China might “at least double” its arsenal of nuclear weapons by 2030, which the Pentagon estimated in September of last year to be in the “low 200s.”3 That suggested China’s arsenal might grow to as many as 500 warheads by 2030 “without new fissile production.”4 Three months later, in December of 2020, though, the Federation of American Scien3. See U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, September 1, 2020), available at
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Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF. 4. See, Alex Ward, “China may double its nuclear arsenal in just 10 years. Don’t panic.,” Vox, September 2, 2020, avail- 7 tists (FAS) estimated that China had, not in the low 200s, but 350 nuclear weapons.5 Finally, in February of 2021, Admiral Charles A. Richard, U.S. Commander of Strategic Command, wrote that the Chinese nuclear arsenal “is expected to double (if not triple or quadruple) over the next decade.” More recently, Admiral Philip Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, confirmed this projection. 6 His designated successor, Admiral John Aquilino, noted, however, that even if China quadrupled its current nuclear weapons arsenal, it would not surpass the number of nuclear weapons America currently deploys.7 This later projection makes sense if one adds the 350 nuclear weapons we now believe China has (based on unclassified estimates) to the roughly 480 weapons we believe China could make from the weapongrade plutonium (WGPu) we believe it has stockpiled but not yet weaponized.8 All these projections currently, however, only look at existing “military” fissile stocks. If, in addition, one dials in the roughly 1,440 kgs of WGPu China is capable of producing from the two “civilian” breeder reactors is has under construction, and the 110 kgs of WGPu it could recover by processing blanket material from its small experimental fast breeder reactor, Beijing conservatively could acquire not “between 400 and 500 nuclear weapons,”9 but most likely at least 1,270 nuclear warheads by 203010 — closing in on or exceeding the roughly 1,300 strategic warheads the United States currently has deployed on its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Our projections are conservative. The most contingent assumption is that China will follow through on the construction and planned operation of two additional, large fast breeder reactors and at least one nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, which it is building (but has not yet completed) to recover the WGPu from breeder reactors’ used radial blanket fuel. Our projections do not include the additional separated plutonium that might be produced in a second large demonstration reprocessing plant China has just begun constructing (which may come on line before 2030),12 or the nuclear weapons China might produce using highly enriched uranium (HEU) exclusively. Nor do our projections consider China’s ability to double the number of warheads by making composite cores (WGPu and HEU) in the thermonuclear primaries. Our projections excluded these options because they would entail new, untested weapons designs. Nor do our projections consider weapons that China might make from plutonium it could extract from the axial blankets in its planned fast reactors or from plutonium it could generate in its thermal power reactors (both heavy water and light water moderated). Extracting more plutonium from its thermal power reactors would require building additional fuel reprocessing capacity. If one dials in these additional nuclear weapons materials’ sources, though, the total number of nuclear warheads China might make by 2030 increases by a factor of at least two or more. None of this is inevitable. China has only just begun construction of its first large, 200 tons per year (t/y) spent reactor fuel reprocessing plant. Nor has it completed work on its two 600 MWe fast breeder reactors. These plants are projected to begin operation in three and five years. More important, it is debatable that it is in China’s interest to ramp-up its nuclear arsenal so aggressively. China has actually complained about Japan’s ability to make more than 2,500 nuclear weapons from the separated civilian plutonium Japan has on its soil. China also has objected to Japan’s plans to start operating its Rokkasho commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in 2023.13 With a design capacity of 800 t of spent fuel per year and operating at an assumed 75 percent capacity factor, Rokkasho could separate at least 1,200 bombs’ worth of plutonium or more a year, assuming 5 kgs of reactor-grade plutonium (RGPu) per warhead

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“The global security environment is now today a three-party nuclear peer reality where the PRC [the People’s Republic of China] and Russia are stressing and undermining the rules-based international order,” Strategic Command head Adm. Charles Richard told the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Ala. “I’m not sure what strategic stability looks like in a three-party world.”

Richard explained that today’s deterrence does not look like the Cold War, where both superpowers could rely heavily on “passive” measures to constrain destabilizing actions.

“[T]here are many passively stable two body orbital regimes that you can stick stuff in, but there are exactly zero passively stable three body orbital regimes. They all require active stabilization. And I don’t even know what that means when the forces can’t be described by physics but are political, so we have gotten to think through this much harder than we have in the past,” he said.

As Richard indicated, in physics the three body problem refers to the inherent difficulty in predicting the effect three bodies in space will have on each other. (It was also the name of an award-winning sci-fi novel by Chinese writer Liu Cixin that used the problem as a central plot device.)