China rapidly modernising nuclear launch capabilities: Sipri report
Until less than a decade ago, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was armed with mainly liquid-fuelled land-based ballistic missiles and a few sea-based ballistic missiles, with a small stockpile of gravity bombs available for bombers, Sipri report said
BEIJING: China maintains at least 350 nuclear warheads, more than double of India’s 160, many fewer than the US and Russia, and has rapidly expanded its launch capabilities in recent years, a new report by a Swedish watchdog tracking arms trade and disarmament has said.
Until less than a decade ago, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was armed with mainly liquid-fuelled land-based ballistic missiles and a few sea-based ballistic missiles, with a small stockpile of gravity bombs available for bombers, the report said.
That’s changed in the past five years.
“Since around 2017, China has started to put in place a triad of nuclear forces - solid-fuelled mobile and siloed land-based missiles, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and bombers with a full, re-established nuclear mission - in order to strengthen its nuclear deterrence and counterstrike capabilities in response to what it sees as a growing threat from other countries,” the Stockholm international Peace Research Institute (Sipri) said in the report released on Monday.
The report said the ratio of stockpiled and stored warheads has changed because additional and new launchers became operational in 2021.
“These warheads have been assigned to China’s operational land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and to nuclear-configured aircraft,” the annual Sipri report, titled Armament, Disarmament and International Security, said.
The report was released a day after Chinese defence minister, Wei Fenghe, praised his country’s progress in “nuclear deterrence” in a speech at the just-concluded Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.
“China has developed its capabilities for over five decades. It’s fair to say there has been impressive progress,” he said. “China’s ... policy is consistent. We use it for self defence. We will not be the first to use nuclear (weapons),” Wei said.
Wei said the ultimate goal of China’s nuclear arsenal was to prevent nuclear war.
“We developed nuclear capabilities to protect the hard work of the Chinese people and protect our people from the scourge of nuclear warfare,” he added.
The “hard work” on China’s nuclear arsenal is showing, the Sipri report indicated.
In 2021 commercial satellite imagery revealed that China had started construction of what appeared to be more than 300 new missile silos across at least three distinct fields in northern China, the report said.
“If China eventually fills each suspected silo site with a single-warhead missile, the number of warheads attributed to China’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, estimated at January 2022 as around 190 warheads, could more than double to approximately 450 warheads,” it said.
“If each suspected silo were filled with a missile equipped with three multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), this number could rise to approximately 1,000 warheads.”
The Sipri report acknowledged that despite the continuing growth in the sophistication and size of its nuclear arsenal, “there is no official public evidence that the Chinese government has deviated from its long-standing core nuclear policies, including its no-first-use (NFU) policy”.
“The Chinese posture has always involved procedures for loading warheads onto launchers in a crisis, but with warheads kept in central storage, separate from their delivery vehicles, during peacetime.”
India, the report said, has a growing stockpile of about 160 nuclear weapons - a small increase from the previous year. “These weapons were assigned to a maturing nuclear triad of aircraft, land-based missiles and ballistic missile submarines.”
Overall, at the start of 2022, nine states - the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea possessed approximately 12,705 nuclear weapons.
“About 3,732 of these warheads were estimated to be deployed with operational forces and around 2,000 of these were kept in a state of high operational alert,” the report added.
Worryingly, the report added that the global stockpile of nuclear weapons is expected to rise in coming years for the first time since the Cold War due to global tensions. “There are clear indications that the reductions that have characterised global nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War have ended,” Sipri’s Hans Kristensen, said.