How China's Nuclear Missile Stockpile Compares to the U.S.

Researchers who discovered China's new missile silo fields in the Gobi Desert have described them as the most extensive nuclear arsenal buildup since the Cold War, but also highlighted the sheer numerical difference in warheads held by China and the U.S.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS), whose analysts found 110 under-construction launch sites in Hami in China's northern Xinjiang region this month, estimates that the country has 350 nuclear warheads. For decades, it has operated around 20 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos, with another 100 or so road-mobile launchers, according to Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS.

China already has around a dozen launch facilities in Inner Mongolia. Together with those discovered in late June by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS)—119 new silos in Yumen, Gansu province—it could operate approximately 250 silo-based ICBMs, exceeding Russia and more than half that of the U.S.

"The silo construction at Yumen and Hami constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever," Kristensen and Korda said in their report on Tuesday. The missile fields could increase China's launch capacity to anywhere between 415 and 875 warheads, depending on the type of ICBMs they put in the sites, if any at all.

However, FAS estimates the U.S. and Russia each have around 4,000 nuclear warheads. That figure reaches 6,257 and 5,550, respectively, if the count includes all warheads deployed, stockpiled and retired—greater than the rest of the world's nuclear power combined.

Global Nuclear Arms Buildup Compared
The countries with the biggest nuclear arsenals, according to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists. Statista

Despite the rapid growth, China's stockpile still pales in comparison to those wielded by the U.S. and Russia. This may partly explain why China has so far refused to engage in arms control talks, which will inevitably involve a reduction of warheads.

A Department of Defense report released last year put China's nuclear warhead count in the low 200s, projecting that, over the next decade, the stockpile would "at least double in size as China expands and modernizes its nuclear forces."

Ultimately, it remains unclear whether China plans to fill each of its new silos, or whether it is giving the impression of larger nuclear capabilities.

How U.S. and Russian Nuclear Arsenals Evolved
U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles through the Cold War and beyond. Statista

Reached by Newsweek on Wednesday, a Pentagon spokesperson said: "We won't speak to matters of intelligence or commercial imagery analysis. However, as was made clear in the 2020 China Military Power Report, China continues to grow their silo-based nuclear capability."

"We specifically noted then that China had constructed an ICBM silo at one of their western training ranges smaller than China's existing CSS-4 (DF-5) silos. Additionally, numerous Defense Department leaders have testified and publicly spoken about China's growing nuclear capabilities, which we expect to double or more over the next decade. This is certainly one reason [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin has identified China as the department's pacing challenge," the spokesperson continued.

"The construction is not a surprise to us, as noted in the 2020 China Military Power Report," the statement said.

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