Nuclear Stand Off: The United States fears China’s lead in nuclear warheads and ICBMs

STRATCOM oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal and believes China can surpass it in ICBMs. The United States still has a numerical advantage over China in deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and ICBM launchers. China has doubled its stockpile of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2020. The United States believes that China now possesses 300 ICBMs and launchers.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

The United States of America believes that China can surpass it in terms of the number of nuclear warheads carried by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). The United States no longer has a numerical edge over China in certain aspects of the ICBM programme, as reported by the Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which oversees the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

Recently, StratCom sent a secret opinion to Congress under a paragraph of the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act requiring Congress to be notified if China beats the U.S. on any of the three ICBM stockpile counts.

James Inhofe, a Republican politician and U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, in a letter, sent on Monday to STRATCOM commander Admiral Charles Richard, insisted that the Pentagon declassify the report as required by law.

Inhofe tweeted the letter he sent, saying that he had “just seen the tip of the iceberg” about the expansion of China’s military strength. The administration of Joe Biden has a responsibility to be transparent and forthright with the American people regarding the danger that Beijing poses to the established order of the world and to our (U.S., ed.) way of life, he wrote.

Mike Rogers, the Republican who represents Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a number of senior members of the strategic forces committees in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, including Senator Deb Fisher and Representative Doug Lamborn, also put their names on the letter.

If the People’s Republic of China (PRC) deploys more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or ICBM launchers than the United States, StratCom is mandated by law to inform Congress. The United States still has a numerical advantage over China in the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and ICBM launchers, according to data that the Pentagon compiled for its annual report on China and a document that the Congressional Research Service compiled. This suggests neither criterion constitutes a reason for StratCom to issue a notification.

DF-17 HGV, Image: CCTV

In the third paragraph of the statute, notification is required if it is determined that China possesses an equal number of or more nuclear warheads on its ICBMs than the U.S.

In an interview with Defense News, the chairman of the East Asia Nuclear Nonproliferation Project, Geoffrey Lewis, stated, “The classified notice most likely indicates that China has installed more nuclear warheads on its ICBMs than the United States.” Lewis is a member of the International Security Advisory Board, which is part of the State Department; nevertheless, he does not have access to a classified Strategic Communications evaluation.

“Undoubtedly, we are talking about warheads,” – said Lewis. “The report on China’s military power says that Beijing’s nuclear stockpile has exceeded 400 units.”

The document states that if China continues to build up its nuclear capability at the current rate, then by 2035, it “will most likely have a stockpile of about 1,500 warheads.” The report claims China has doubled its stockpile of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2020.
The United States believes that China now possesses 300 ICBMs and launchers. But even with that, they are still behind the United States, which has 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 450 launchers for those missiles.

Lewis pointed out that the Dongfeng-41 missile used by China may “carry multiple warheads,” which means that 300 of these missiles can give you slightly more than 400 warheads. Meanwhile, the United States 400 Minuteman III missiles have only room for a single intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warhead.

When asked by Defense News magazine, lawmakers and their staff could not provide evidence that the number of ICBM warheads in China served as the basis for the notification, given the secret nature of the matter.

An aide to a member of Congress clarified, under the condition of anonymity, that they are unable to comment on the situation because of privacy concerns.

He later added that leading Republican lawmakers, writing to Richard in STRATCOM, “strongly recommend that the administration address the related secrecy issues to provide statutory disclosure notice and ensure that the public is kept as informed as possible about China’s growing nuclear threat.”

As per the Congressional Research Service (CRS), as of September 2021, the United States possessed a total of 1,389 warheads that were carried on 665 active ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers.

Henry Sokolsky, executive director of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, wondered if the U.S. could maintain its numerical advantage over China’s nuclear arsenal if Beijing continued its current pace of nuclear modernization in addition to confronting the Russian arsenal.

“I don’t know how long it will take our system to install another 1,500 warheads on our missiles,” Sokolsky said. “It can take a long time and cost a lot. If you go in this direction, is there any reason to believe that the other side will just sit and wait for us to catch up? I don’t think so.”


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