China Surpasses U.S. in Nuclear Missile Launchers; U.S. Unprepared to Deter Growing Threat

COMMENTARY China

China Surpasses U.S. in Nuclear Missile Launchers; U.S. Unprepared to Deter Growing Threat

Feb 9, 2023 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY

Former Senior Policy Analyst, Center for National Defense

Patty-Jane was a senior policy analyst for nuclear deterrence and missile defense at The Heritage Foundation.
Soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army cheer during the 2021 International Army Games on August 24, 2021 in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China. Wang Xiaojun / China News Service / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The Pentagon announced yesterday that China has surpassed the U.S. in the number of intercontinental ballistic missile launchers it has.

The former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, stated, “As I assess our level of deterrence against China, the ship is slowly sinking.”

Strengthening U.S. forces will likely require a long-term commitment, which means sufficient budget requests from the current and future administrations.

As China engages in a rapid nuclear buildup as part of its strategy to achieve global dominance, the Pentagon announced yesterday that the communist nation has surpassed the U.S. in the number of intercontinental ballistic missile launchers it has.

The U.S. nuclear force was designed over a decade ago to deter primarily Russia, not both Russia and China. While the U.S. is modernizing its nuclear capabilities, it’s not to the scale we will need to deter this growing threat.

The Pentagon’s announcement means that China has built enough missile silos or mobile launch platforms to exceed the 450 missile silos the U.S. has in the Midwest.

The Pentagon clarified that China has not yet filled all of the missile launchers with the long-range missiles themselves, but now that the launchers are complete, that will be the logical next step.

As the former commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, testified before Congress just this week, China’s “dream of national rejuvenation by 2049 … will be enhanced by their nuclear capability.”

In addition to this massive expansion of its ICBM force, China is cranking out nuclear warheads; has completed a nuclear triad of land, air, and sea nuclear capabilities with the deployment of a strategic bomber; and is improving its arsenal of regional nuclear missiles that can reach the U.S. island of Guam.

It has also tested technologies previously unknown to Russian and U.S. arsenals like a fractional orbital bombardment system, which can circle the globe before releasing a nuclear missile on a hypersonic trajectory.

For these reasons, the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, stated, “As I assess our level of deterrence against China, the ship is slowly sinking.”

Given the speed of China’s nuclear buildup, he is probably right. Public imagery in summer 2021 first revealed that China was building over 300 new missile launchers. Given that China already had around 300 missile launchers in its arsenal, it must be well underway with this new construction to have surpassed the 450 launchers in the U.S.

If China has moved this quickly in such a short timeframe, the U.S. should prepare for an even greater expansion in the years to come. The Pentagon had recently predicted that China would be able to deploy as many warheads as the U.S. does by 2035. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if China moves that timeline up.

Indeed, this news, plus the knowledge of China’s spy balloon recently hovering over U.S. nuclear missile bases, should signal China’s intent to race to nuclear parity with the U.S.—if not nuclear superiority.

The U.S. needs to wake up to this growing reality for which it is woefully unprepared. Current U.S. nuclear force structure—the number and types of U.S. nuclear weapons—was designed over a decade ago based on the need to deter primarily Russia, since China was believed to maintain perhaps only a couple hundred nuclear weapons. How times have changed.

The U.S. is modernizing its nuclear capabilities, but only to replace what we already have on a one-to-one basis. And it is moving at a slow pace.

As China continues its nuclear expansion, the U.S. needs a nuclear force able to convince China that the costs of using nuclear weapons overwhelmingly outweigh any benefits. Right now, it’s unlikely the U.S. can do that with a nuclear force not big enough to take on Russian and Chinese nuclear forces at the same time.

It is well past time the U.S. make plans to strengthen its nuclear forces to bolster deterrence of the growing Chinese threat. These efforts should include increasing the overall size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and fielding additional capabilities like the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile. The U.S. will also need to improve its ability to make changes to its nuclear forces as the threat continues to quickly evolve.

Strengthening U.S. forces will likely require a long-term commitment, which means sufficient budget requests from the current and future administrations and consistent funding from Congress. Given that nuclear weapons pose the only existential threat to the U.S. and that nuclear deterrence remains our top national security priority, America must be prepared to meet the challenge.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal

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