China’s New Nuclear Weapons

Heritage Explains

China’s New Nuclear Weapons

China is rapidly expanding its nuclear capabilities. This week, Patty-Jane Geller, a senior policy analyst in Heritage’s Center for National Defense explains how many nukes the U.S. has in comparison to Russia and China and what a nuclear deterrence strategy looks like in today’s environment. 

Michelle Cordero: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Michelle Cordero and this is Heritage Explains. Nuclear deterrence means using the threat of nuclear retaliation to convince your opponent that using nuclear weapons would not be worth the cost. You might be familiar with this strategy because it helped us win the Cold War. Here's my favorite president, Ronald Reagan:

Ronald Reagan: This nation's military objective has always been to maintain peace by preventing war. This is neither a democratic nor Republican policy. It's supported by our allies and most important of all it's worked for nearly 40 years. What do we mean when we speak of nuclear deterrence? Certainly we don't want such weapons for their own sake. We don't desire excessive forces or what some people have called overkill. Basically it's a matter of others knowing that starting a conflict would be more costly to them than anything they might hope to gain. And yes, it is sadly ironic that in these modern times, it still takes weapons to prevent war.

Cordero: As much as I love those remarks, that speech was a long time ago and I just don't think that people have the same feelings about nuclear war. The threat doesn't feel as real as it did back then. Generations ahead of me don't remember or care about the well known mantra of "Peace through strength." In fact, at the beginning of 2022, the Biden administration actually said it would be their goal to reduce the role of US nuclear weapons in our strategy. But our guest today says that makes no sense because our adversaries like Russia and China are doing the complete opposite. Here's Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of US Strategic Command testifying last year on just how dire the situation is:

Admiral Charles: For the first time in our history, the nation is facing two nuclear capable, strategic peer adversaries at the same time, both of whom have to be deterred differently. Chinese and Russian advances are eroding our conventional and strategic deterrents. China in particular, I submit, cannot be considered anymore a lesser included case in this context. The remarkable expansion of nuclear and strategic capability is evidence of their drive to be a strategic peer by the end of the decade.

Cordero: So what kind of nuclear abilities does the US actually have in comparison to Russia and China? What should a nuclear deterrent strategy look like in today's environment? Today, Patty-Jane Geller, a Senior Policy Analyst for nuclear deterrents and missile defense in the Heritage Center for National Defense, explains. Our conversation after this short break.

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Cordero: Patty-Jane, thank you so much for joining us.

Patty-Jane Geller: Thanks so much for having me on.

Cordero: Okay, so let's start at a really 101 level. How many nuclear weapons do we have today?

Geller: That's a great question and surprisingly kind of a complicated question. The United States has a total arsenal of about 3000 nuclear weapons, but we are limited to the number of nuclear weapons we could actually deploy, meaning put on our missiles, put out on our submarines, actually use in a conflict if we needed to. The United States is a signatory to the new START Arms Control Treaty with Russia right now where we're limited to only deploying about 1550 of these nuclear warhead and those are spread across our ground base missiles, our AirLaunch missiles and then our nuclear submarines that are out at sea.

Cordero: Why do we have that amount? Is there a strategy around those forces?

Geller: When we signed the new START Treaty with Russia, this was around 2010 and the important thing to think about is the threats we were facing at 2010. We had come out of the Cold War 20 years ago, this was before Russia invaded Ukraine for the first time. We were getting along with Russia not too bad. The Obama administration actually proclaimed Russia to no longer be an adversary at all in 2010. So the goal of the new START Treaty was to just reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world that both the United States and Russia had. So we agreed on this number of about 1550 total deployed nuclear weapons. And our government, and I guess Russia's government, determined that would be enough to deter the other. So that 1550 nuclear weapons was what we needed to deter Russia from attacking the United States with our nuclear weapons. That's what we thought at the time, at least.

Cordero: And so the point is to have enough then so if something were to happen with Russia, we have about as many nuclear weapons as they have so that we could compete with them.

Geller: Yes, exactly. So if Russia were to strike the United States with nuclear weapons, we would be able to strike them back. That's the goal of nuclear deterrents. We need to be able to communicate with our adversaries and show them based on the capabilities that we have, that a nuclear attack on the US would be a bad idea because they would face the same consequences from us.

Cordero: Okay, so then the whole reason we have you here today, what has changed globally when it comes to nuclear forces?

Geller: So much has changed. The threat has just dramatically worsened since 2010, the time we were talking about when we signed the new START Treaty. Starting with Russia, we've seen the nuclear saber rattling that Putin has been doing over Ukraine, just dozens of nuclear threats over the last several months. And in addition to making nuclear threats, Russia has been expanding its nuclear arsenal, which is a reversal from what we thought would happen 10, 15 years ago. Russia actually has thousands more nuclear weapons than the US does now and they're developing totally novel technologies that we haven't used before.

Geller: But that's not the biggest problem. The bigger problem is China. Historically, China has maintained what's called a minimum deterrence posture of just about 100 nuclear weapons. Before I mentioned that we deploy-

Cordero: Oh wow.

Geller: Yeah, about 1500. But China has been undergoing what's called a strategic breakout of its nuclear force, where it's very rapidly building hundreds and hundreds of more nuclear weapons with actually no stopping point in sight. The DOD projects China to become about roughly on par with the US and Russia in the next handful of years. That doesn't mean they want to stop there. They could eventually have a superior nuclear force to the US.

Cordero: What's amazing to me is, and I'm smiling when you say this, not because it's funny, it's not funny at all. It's scary. But what's crazy is that this is the first I'm hearing of this.

Geller: Yep. I know. I wish I could explain it. The best I can do is I think the American public has kind of gotten used to assuming that nuclear war wasn't an issue anymore. During the Cold War, we were always talking about it. We had the Cuban Missile Crisis, we were ducking and covering and then since then, we've just been kind of assuming that nuclear deterrents would hold. And these threats have been creeping up on us along with a whole bunch of other geopolitical problems. We're fighting in Ukraine, China's nuclear expansion is just one thing they're doing out of a number of threatening things to the United States. But this administration in particular has not been talking about the nuclear threats enough, especially to the public and they certainly haven't been responding to it well. And I think the public needs to realize what's happening because this is going to take a national undertaking to address this problem.

Cordero: So looking back, you said that these decisions were made in 2010 driven by the assumption that our adversaries were not going to be building up their arsenals. There were some other decisions that were made because of that that you've mentioned that have set us back even farther. Can you talk about some of those other decisions that were made? I think one had to do with submarines and the amount of nuclear weapons submarines could carry and other...

Geller: Yeah, for sure.

Cordero: Ramifications.

Geller: So, what the United States is doing right now is we're actually modernizing all of our nuclear systems because they were all... every nuclear weapon or missile we have was developed during the Cold War. We have 1960s era missiles that we're relying on. So what we have started doing since 2010 is just trying to replace all of those weapons with 21st century technology. So for example, the example you mentioned, we are developing new nuclear submarines to replace the ones that... the old ones from the Cold War that we've had. However, because in 2010 we thought that the threats were going to lessen over time, we've decided to build nuclear submarines that can carry fewer nuclear weapons than the ones we have now. So even though we're facing a future threat environments with adversaries that have more nuclear weapons, we're going to be able to fit fewer of them on our nuclear submarines.

Geller: So that's one decision we made that would actually reduce our capacity, our ability, against our adversaries. And then there's another huge one that I'd like to mention. In order to build a nuclear weapon, you have to have these things called Plutonian pits. It's just the very core of a nuclear weapon. That's the nuclear material. After the Cold War, we decided to stop being able to make those Plutonian pits, which means that the US is now the only nuclear weapon state that does not have the ability to make a new nuclear weapon, which is a significant-

Cordero: The audience can't see it, but my eyes just got very big.

Geller: Yeah. Even North Korea has that capability to make plutonium and build new nuclear weapons. And we can't do that. And we're trying to start that up again now, but it's going to take time.

Cordero: Wow. We're facing this threat because our current force is sized to deter only Russia as the primary threat and that we wouldn't be able to deter China as well. But you've written that this is not just a numbers game, that our adversaries value different things and that the situation that they might resort to using a nuclear weapon differs. Can you explain this a little bit more?

Geller: Sure. So I've been talking about focusing on the numbers of nuclear weapons. We have 1550, Russia has about the same and now China is developing a lot more nuclear weapons. So part of it is that, yeah we need more nuclear weapons just to be able to deter that bigger threat because the United States, if we were to launch a nuclear weapon, we launch them at our adversaries' nuclear weapons because we want to be able to take out their forces so they can't do any more damage. And part of that is also a moral thing. We're not going to go striking huge population centers in cities. So part of it is we need more nuclear weapons to cover more adversary nuclear weapons.

Geller: But it's not just about having more, we need to have the right types of missiles. So most of our nuclear force right now is composed of what we call strategic missiles, those that might be based in our homelands that can hit our adversaries homeland, like an Intercontinental range missile that can go from out in Wyoming over to Russia or China. But something that China has a lot of are shorter range nuclear weapons that can be based in China, but fired to a shorter range like at Taiwan or at Guam or at Japan in the region. We have no nuclear weapons deployed in the Indo-Pacific with that kind of shorter range. And that's really worrisome because we don't want China to think that they can get away with using a small nuclear weapon and then would we really use one of our long range, big ICBMs to respond? And we might need some of those smaller, lower in range weapons like China has too.

Cordero: So coming from the other side of things, might someone say from Russia or China's point of view, the US has plenty of nuclear capabilities to threaten them individually. Might someone say that you and I are overreacting right now?

Geller: Someone might certainly say that, but I would say, no, we can't go based off of those arguments because sure, from China's or Russia's perspective, like you said, it looks like the US might have enough nuclear weapons to deter them, but the problem is that the United States does not have the luxury of deterring just one nuclear adversary at a time. We have to be able to deter both of them and that means if Russia over to strike the United States first, we need to be able to strike Russia back with our nuclear weapons, but then still be able to deter China because we don't want China to step in and say, "Oh, the US is involved with Russia. Here's my chance to go invade Taiwan and threaten nuclear weapons and not have the US respond."

Cordero: Absolutely. Okay. So in layman's terms, because I know this is very complicated, can you tell us what the current administration needs to start doing to correct the course?

Geller: Yeah, great question. This administration has not been up to the challenge of improving our nuclear deterrence against two nuclear peers. At the beginning of 2022, the Biden administration actually stated it would be his goal to reduce the role of US nuclear weapons in our strategy, which doesn't make sense to me when our adversaries are doing the complete opposite. In his budget this year and his nuclear policy guidelines, he also decided to cancel the development of a nuclear weapon that we need to increase our deterrents against Russia and China.

Geller: So the first thing the administration needs to do is reverse those decisions and take nuclear deterrents more seriously. Beyond that, this administration, and really the country as a whole, needs to start thinking about what more do we need to deter two nuclear peers? Do we need 2000 more nuclear weapons? Do we just need to deploy a few hundred more? Do we have to develop a different kind of missile? For example, do we need more of those lower range, lower yield missiles that we can bring out to the Indo-Pacific or that we can put out in Europe to deter Russia and China directly? So yeah, two parts there, stop trying to cut back on our nuclear weapons when the threat is worsening and then figure out what more we need to do to ensure nuclear deterrence holds.

Cordero: All right. In conclusion, since this is not something that everyday Americans hear about, as we've said, what should we be listening for to know that somebody's actually going to do something about this? I guess you may have already just answered that question. Should it be a headline that talks about Biden prioritizing nuclear defense? Is that what... the White House talking about it more? What should we be listening for?

Geller: Yeah, I think a couple things. First, we definitely need to be hearing about this more from the White House and from Congress. These are serious threats and we're worried about-

Cordero: Great point.

Geller: Yeah, we're worried about nuclear conflict in Ukraine. Russia has been talking about using nuclear weapons and we're worried about China invading Taiwan. And I think that's not to say China would go nuke Taiwan, but I think the concern is that if China invades Taiwan, they might make nuclear threats in the same way that Putin is doing in Ukraine and try to tell the US or Taiwan to back down. So yeah, we need to be listening for the White House talking about these threats and how we need to go do something about it.

Geller: And then I think the other thing is when we need to start looking where the money's going. Do future budgets prioritize the modernization of our nuclear weapons programs and maybe even the development of future capabilities? I know that we're doing a lot of spending in this country right now and we need to roll back in so many areas, but nuclear deterrence is the number one priority for our national security, actually the last five confirmed Secretary of Defenses across the last few administrations have agreed to that point. So we need to act like this is the priority when we go spend money into our military.

Cordero: Well thank you so much, Patty-Jane. I have to say this is the first time I've... I've seen two young women sit down and have a discussion about nuclear deterrence. It's a scary topic, but it also has been a lot of fun talking about it with you and hopefully you'll join us again.

Cordero: And that's it for this week's episode. Thank you so much for listening and I wanted to thank you especially for bearing with me as I have a little bit of a head cold that's affected my voice. If you liked this episode, we would love it if you would share it with a friend or on social media. That's the best way to get the word out about Heritage Explains. It really does make a difference. That's all for today. See you next week.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Michelle Cordero and Tim Doescher with editing by John Popp.