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May 16, 2011 

Chinese Nuclear Weapons Capability Lags Far Behind U.S.; Will Remain That Way for Foreseeable Future, Report Finds

Chinese General to Meet With Pentagon Officials This Week to Discuss U.S.-China Military Relationship

WASHINGTON (May 16, 2011) -- The Chinese government is not trying to reach numerical parity with the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal and does not have the nuclear material to do so, according to a briefing paper released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The paper also found that China’s recent changes to its nuclear forces are intended to ensure they will survive an attack, preserve its ability to retaliate, and are not focused on increasing its offensive capability.

UCS released the paper, “China’s Nuclear Arsenal: Status and Evolution,” the same day a top Chinese military official, General Chen Bingde, was scheduled to arrive in Washington to meet with Pentagon officials. As the former director general of the Chinese military’s General Armaments Department, Chen played a major role in the development of China’s strategic weapons programs.

“Some members of Congress and the intelligence community overstate China’s nuclear capabilities and the scope of changes it is making to them,” said UCS China Project Manager Gregory Kulacki, the author of the briefing paper. “Claims that China is rapidly modernizing its nuclear arsenal and seeks numerical parity with the United States are contradicted by the facts we can nail down about China’s nuclear arsenal.”

Kulacki, who spends roughly a third of his time in China, based the briefing paper on information collected from U.S. government and non-government sources, Chinese-language books and articles, and interviews with Chinese nuclear weapons scientists and defense analysts.
China currently possesses a small nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 155 nuclear warheads ready to be deployed on six types of land-based missiles. Approximately 50 of its 155 missiles can reach the continental United States. The United States, by comparison, currently has more than 1,700 deployed nuclear warheads that can reach China.

The briefing paper pointed out that China, unlike the United States, does not deploy its warheads on its missiles. Instead, it stores the warheads separately until missiles are prepared for launch. For this reason, under the counting rules agreed to in the recently ratified New START treaty between the United States and Russia, the total number of Chinese nuclear weapons would be counted as zero.

Kulacki’s key findings include:

•Limited stocks of plutonium significantly constrain China’s ability to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal.

•China’s focus is on improving its delivery systems to increase their survivability, and not on designing or developing new nuclear warheads.

•The evolution of China’s nuclear weapon systems has occurred much more slowly and on a smaller scale than that of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia.

•China’s lack of nuclear testing since it signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996 restricts its ability to develop and deploy new, smaller warhead designs. China is reported to be waiting to ratify the treaty until after the United States ratifies to see whether the U.S. Senate adds conditions as part of the ratification process.

“As the United States and Russia continue to pursue nuclear reductions, the future of China’s nuclear forces will play a larger role in U.S. and Russian negotiators’ calculations,” said Kulacki. “The Obama administration says it would like to talk with China about the current status and evolution of its nuclear forces. General Chen’s visit presents an important opportunity to begin those talks. We hope our report will help Congress, the intelligence community, and the press better understand these issues.”



The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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