US Strategic Command informed Congress in January 2023 that China has officially surpassed the US in the total number of land-based nuclear missile launchers owned by the country.
On January 26, the US Strategic Command’s commander of nuclear forces sent a letter to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees outlining the state of China’s ICBM operations as of October 2022.
Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of the US Strategic Command, wrote, “The number of land-based fixed and mobile ICBM launchers in China exceeds the number of ICBM launchers in the United States.”
However, he omitted to mention the precise number of launchers China possesses. The command, control, and communications for nuclear operations are under the purview of US Strategic Command, or STRATCOM.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report on the letter’s contents.
According to the Strategic Command’s report to Congress, the US has more land-based intercontinental-range missiles and nuclear warheads deployed on those missiles than China.
The US officials said that long-range bombers and submarine-launched missiles, where the US has a clear superiority, are also not included in the command’s notifications.
Nevertheless, China’s advantage in land-based fixed and mobile launchers brings the country closer to deploying a more robust ICBM capability.
The Department of Defense stated in a 2022 document outlining China’s military capabilities and activities that China launched approximately 135 ballistic missiles for testing and training purposes in 2021.
The figure was higher than that of all other countries combined, with the exception of launches in conflict zones. The report added that China was constructing three ICBM silo fields in 2021 that could have at least 300 missile silos to store the country’s more modern solid-fueled missiles, such as the DF-41.
The report suggested that China would keep building up its nuclear arsenal. It was anticipated that China had at least 400 nuclear warheads in service and was on track to increase that number to 1,500 by 2035.
The US is also developing a costly new missile to replace its current ICBMs to tackle the nuclear threat presented by China and Russia. However, it would take years for it to become operational.
Despite the US having a larger nuclear arsenal than China, US military commanders and lawmakers are concerned about Beijing’s efforts to upgrade and expand its nuclear weapons.
The letter’s disclosure comes when tensions between the US and China have risen over a purported Chinese surveillance balloon shot down by US forces over the Atlantic Ocean on February 4.
In response, Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his planned trip to Beijing, citing the balloon’s existence as a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law.”
Chinese officials have maintained that the balloon’s entry into the US was entirely an accident, and they stated on February 5 that they reserve “the right to make a further necessary reaction.”
The US nuclear triad, which consists of land-based, aerial, and maritime nuclear delivery systems, includes ICBMs as a mainstay. The US Defense Department states that they are dispersed across 400 “hardened, underground silos” and an additional 50 silos that are “kept in warm status.”
According to the Federation of American Scientists, the US has a much larger arsenal of nuclear weapons than China. In 2022, the US had more than 5,000 nuclear warheads, with 1,644 deployed.
However, Republican lawmakers have mentioned the ICBM launchers as a sign of China’s longer-range ambitions. They have urged the US to broaden its nuclear forces to counter Russian and Chinese forces.
“China is rapidly approaching parity with the United States,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Alabama Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.
According to Rogers, restrictions on long-range nuclear warheads imposed by the New START deal between the US and Russia prevent the US from bolstering its arsenal to deter Russia and China.
That agreement, to which China is not a party, is scheduled to expire in 2026. The USA’s immediate challenge is to keep the New START deal in place. The Biden administration said last week that Moscow’s refusal to permit on-site inspections represents a breach of the agreement.
That being said, China’s nuclear development has sparked worries that it could use the threat of nuclear conflict to deter Washington from coming to Taiwan’s aid in a crisis.