The commander in charge of the U.S. military’s nuclear arsenal has warned that increasing China’s nuclear stockpile is “next” on Beijing’s “to-do list.”
Speaking Monday to reporters at the Pentagon, U.S. Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard said that while the United States has “no margin” of error left to start recapitalizing its nuclear force, China has a proven record of steadily building its military. He cited the example of how Beijing has built more than 250 ships for the country’s newly established coast guard in just the past seven years.
“When China sets its mind to something, they are very impressive in their ability to go accomplish it,” Richard said. “Their strategic forces are next on their to do list, right, and I'm trying to posture us for the threat that we're going to face, not the one that we have today.”
The U.S. can deliver a nuclear strike by sea, air and land through submarines, aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles, a capability often referred to as the nuclear triad.
Earlier this month, a Pentagon report raised concern about China’s pursuit of a nuclear triad while predicting that Beijing will “at least double” the size of its nuclear warhead stockpile over the next decade. There was no response from the Chinese government.
According to the Pentagon’s annual “China Military Power” report to Congress, which was released September 1, in the past 15 years the Chinese navy has constructed 12 nuclear submarines, six of which provide China’s first “credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent.” By the mid-2020s it will likely build a new, guided-missile nuclear attack submarine that could provide a secret land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles.
“I get apprehensive that we are not fully conscious as a nation of the threats that we face. China now has the capability … to directly threaten our homeland from a ballistic missile submarine. That's a pretty watershed moment,” Richard said Monday.
China lacks the ability to launch nuclear weapons from the air, but the Pentagon report said the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publicly revealed the H-6N bomber as its first nuclear capable air-to-air refueling bomber late last year.
The report disclosed that the number of Chinese nuclear warheads is currently estimated to be slightly more than 200 and includes those that can be fitted to ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. It was the first time the Pentagon has stated a specific number of Chinese warheads.
The Federation of American Scientists says an estimated 3,800 warheads are in active status in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The number would still dwarf the Chinese arsenal.