Airmen from the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron prepare a reentry system for removal from a launch facility, Feb. 2, 2018, in the F. E. Warren Air Force Base missile complex. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Braydon Williams via DVIDS.
KYIV, Ukraine — More than three decades after the Cold War's conclusion, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has once again raised the specter of nuclear conflict. While Russia’s nuclear bullying over Ukraine is worrying, so is China’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal.
In its 2022 National Security Strategy, the White House warned of the parallel nuclear threats posed by Russia and China. According to the document, "By the 2030s the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries."
The New START arms control agreement — a Cold War carryover that still moderates Russian and American nuclear forces — does not apply to China. After an "accelerated" expansion of its nuclear arsenal in 2021, China currently has more than 400 nuclear warheads, the Department of Defense said in report released Nov. 29.
Titled the “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China," the annual Pentagon report warned that China could nearly quadruple its nuclear arsenal to 1,500 warheads by 2035. That projected number is still smaller than America’s currently deployed nuclear warhead arsenal. Even so, China may have already surpassed the US in one aspect of its nuclear force.
Senior Airman Andrew Parrish, 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron topside technician, prepares the forward section, of a reentry system, for secure transportation, Feb. 2, 2018, in the F. E. Warren Air Force Base missile complex. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Braydon Williams via DVIDS.
According to the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, US Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, is required to notify Congress if China’s nuclear force overtakes the US in one of three ways: the total number of intercontinental ballistic missiles; the number of ICBM launchers; or the number of nuclear warheads loaded onto ICBMs.
Defense News reported Wednesday, Dec. 7, that STRATCOM sent Congress a classified update, suggesting one of those three metrics may have been met.
According to open-source information, the US still leads China in total numbers of ICBMs and ICBM launchers. However, each of America’s 400 Minuteman III ICBMs is armed with only one nuclear warhead, while China’s 300 ICBMs are equipped to carry multiple warheads. Thus, even with fewer missiles and launchers, China, with its expanding nuclear arsenal, could now have an edge in the number of warheads loaded onto land-based ICBMs.
Military vehicles carry DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles during a parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender during World War II held in front of Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, Sept. 3, 2015. Photo by Voice of America via Wikimedia Commons.
Along with several other Republican lawmakers, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, penned a letter pressing STRATCOM to release an unclassified version of its alert to Congress, specifying which of the three nuclear metrics China had surpassed.
"I’ve said it many times—we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to China’s growing military might,” Inhofe wrote Monday on Twitter. He added that the Biden administration “must be open and honest with the American people about the threat Beijing poses to global order and our way of life.”
Even if China has gained ground, America’s nuclear triad maintains far more deployed nuclear warheads than the 400 loaded onto land-based ICBMs. According to a May 2022 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists report, the US military maintains an estimated stockpile of 3,708 nuclear warheads, of which about 1,744 are deployed and ready for combat on short notice. The remainder are held in reserve.
A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress from Barksdale Air Force Base, La, receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker from RAF Mildenahall, England, Sept. 27, 2017, over the Mediterranean Sea. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Benjamin Cooper.
In addition to the 400 American nuclear warheads loaded onto Minuteman III ICBMs, the US also has 944 nuclear warheads on submarine-based missiles, 300 at strategic bomber bases, and about 100 tactical nuclear warheads based in Europe, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported in May. The US Department of Energy also holds about 1,720 intact but retired nuclear warheads awaiting dismantlement. Combined with the Department of Defense’s arsenal, the American nuclear arsenal amounts to some 5,428 warheads.
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, America’s nuclear weapons are stored at 24 sites in 11 US states, as well as in five European countries. Not counting weapons waiting for dismantlement, Washington is the US state with the most nuclear weapons.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin recently backed off some of his earlier nuclear threats over Ukraine, he said at an event on Wednesday that the threat of nuclear war is "increasing."
Of Russia's approximate stockpile of 4,477 nuclear warheads, some 1,588 are deployed on ballistic missiles and at bomber bases, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported in February. The remainder are held in reserve. By that measure, the US maintains a numerical advantage over Russia in terms of deployed nuclear warheads.
Underscoring the need to modernize America's nuclear arsenal, the White House's 2022 National Security Strategy said America's "competitors and potential adversaries are investing heavily in new nuclear weapons."
According to the White House document, "Nuclear deterrence remains a top priority."
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