China will probably have 4,000 nuclear warheads by 2030

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry

November 18, 2021

Two of the most untrustworthy sources of information on planet Earth are Communist China and the politicized Biden intelligence community.

Recently, the intelligence community raised its estimate of the number of nuclear warheads that China will have by 2030 from 400 to 1,000—in effect acknowledging that their original estimate was too low by 150%.

And the new estimate is still way too low, probably by 400%, because China will probably have 4,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.

For years, the intelligence community and academics, the latter mostly China-friendly “scholars” and anti-nuclear activists, have low-balled China’s nuclear arsenal as comprising about 300 warheads.

Early last year, Biden’s intelligence community lowered their estimate of the number of China’s nuclear warheads to 200, which was criticized as too low even by the leftwing anti-nuclear Union of Concerned Scientists.

However, over the summer, the intelligence community was taken by surprise by the discovery that China is rapidly building 350 new ICBM silos.  Global Times, a media mouthpiece for Beijing, opined that China should rapidly deploy large numbers of their newest and best ICBM, the DF-41, in case there is a future challenge from the U.S. over Taiwan’s independence or China’s ownership of the South China Sea.

China’s DF-41 ICBM carries 10 warheads.  China already has about 50 DF-41 ICBMs deployed on mobile launchers, capable of delivering 500 nuclear warheads.

If China deploys another 350 DF-41s in silos, they will have the capability to deliver an additional 3,500 warheads, for 4,000 warheads deliverable altogether by the DF-41 alone.

China is also modernizing and increasing its number of Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and strategic bombers.  Counting these, Beijing could conceivably have capability to deliver more than 4,000 nuclear warheads against the U.S. by 2030.

So how do President Biden’s intelligence community and anti-nuclear academics manage to ignore China’s current and impending nuclear delivery capabilities, and conclude China will have only 1,000 warheads by 2030, far fewer than Beijing will be able to deliver by ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers?

One favorite theory, much repeated in the press, is that China may leave most of the new ICBM silos empty, filling only a few with ICBMs, to increase their survivability by a “shell game” strategy.

Never mind that there is no evidence to support the “shell game” theory and that mobile DF-41s are far more survivable and less expensive than the imagined “shell game”—hope springs eternal among those who would low-ball the nuclear threat.

The main argument for only 1,000 warheads by 2030 is based on the premise that China’s future number of nuclear warheads can be calculated accurately from China’s estimated capability to manufacture plutonium and enriched uranium for nuclear weapon pits, used to trigger a thermonuclear explosion.  However:

  • Estimating China’s ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium and uranium from known plants is not precise. Dramatically different estimates can be made by tweaking a few variables.
  • We do not know China’s real capability to produce plutonium and uranium. China is probably hiding some or even most of these vitally important facilities, like Russia’s underground Krasnoyarsk-26 and North Korea’s recently discovered Kangson uranium enrichment facility.  Recently, the intelligence community was surprised to discover China is almost finished building two new breeder reactors, that by 2023 will be making large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium.
  • The estimated amount of plutonium or uranium used to make a pit can make a huge difference in the estimated capability to make nuclear weapons. Union of Concerned Scientists estimates China needs 5-8 kilograms of plutonium or uranium for a pit.  But a good designer can make a pit with only 1 kilogram, increasing the possible number of nuclear weapons by 5-8 times greater than UCS estimates.

Ignoring China’s known growing missile firepower and their known actual raw capability to deliver nuclear weapons and focusing instead on China’s much fuzzier potential capability to make plutonium and uranium, is the safer refuge for those who would deny the reality of China’s dramatically escalating nuclear threat.

Historically, better analysts than those in the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Biden intelligence community have assessed that China has many more than 300 nuclear warheads, a guesstimate that has been treated as gospel by the press for over a decade.

In 2012, former defense department analyst and Georgetown University professor, Phillip Karber, assessed that China could be hiding 3,000 nuclear weapons.  Karber’s perfectly reasonable analysis provoked the wrath of UCS and the arms control community, who insisted that China could not possibly make more than about 300 nuclear weapons.

In 2012, Russian General Viktor Yesin assessed that China had enough fissile material to make 3,600 nuclear weapons, but probably deployed 1,600-1,800.  Another Russian assessment, by General Vladimir Dvorkin, estimates China had 1,600 nuclear weapons in 2012 (nine years ago).

These Russian estimates are largely ignored in the West.

Assessments of China’s nuclear capabilities and doctrine in U.S. academic, arms control and intelligence communities have been driven by wishful thinking and a political agenda:

  • Globalists and the China lobby (pervasive in U.S. government, academia, and business) want to believe that decades-long pro-China policies are resulting in “convergence” beneficial to the U.S., including by the absence of a growing existential nuclear threat from China.
  • Anti-nuclear activists and arms control zealots have for years used China as a “good example” that the U.S. should emulate, by reducing U.S. nuclear weapons to a few hundred for Minimum Deterrence, and by pledging nuclear “No First Use.” This fantasy view of China is dissolving fast as Beijing rapidly builds toward nuclear superiority and threatens nuclear strikes against Japan, Australia, and the United States.
  • Guesstimating China’s nuclear arsenal at 1,000 warheads by 2030 enables the pro-China lobby and the press to claim that the U.S. still has more nuclear weapons than China, and to blame the U.S. for not doing enough to stop the arms race. 1,000 warheads just happen to be the number that the arms control community wants the U.S. to adopt, in their hoped-for next phase of further reducing U.S. nuclear weapons.

The jig is up for the pro-China lobby, anti-nuclear activists, and arms control zealots if Washington accepts the reality that China will have 4,000 nuclear weapons by 2030.  This is ten times the number of nuclear weapons on U.S. ICBMs, and nearly three times the number of U.S. nuclear weapons operationally deployed on the entire U.S. nuclear Triad, including all ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers.

China is building the capability to deliver 4,000 nuclear weapons because it will have 4,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.  China’s trajectory toward 4,000 nuclear weapons is aimed at global domination.

Unfortunately, too many in Washington are falling for the Biden intelligence community estimate without thinking.  Why in the world would China build the capability to deliver 4,000 nuclear weapons, when it supposedly can manufacture only 1,000 warheads by 2030?

From such intelligence miscalculations, Afghanistan, 9/11s, Vietnams, Korean Wars, and Pearl Harbors are made.

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, served as Chief of Staff of the Congressional EMP Commission, Director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum, on the staffs of the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA.  He is author of Blackout Warfare (2021) and The Power And The Light (2020).