Assessing China’s Nuclear Trajectory: Assured Retaliation or Nuclear Warfighting?

Strategic Insight 005/2022

Ian O’ Connor

09 November 2022


China’s modernisation of its military force including its nuclear capabilities raises questions over whether this will be coupled with a change in its nuclear defence posture. Despite these concerns, a doctrinal shift away from assured retaliation remains unlikely for the foreseeable future.


China’s nuclear forces have traditionally adhered to an assured retaliation posture. This posture requires the possession of second-strike forces which guarantee devastating retaliation in the aftermath of nuclear attack. Assured retaliation focuses solely on strategic deterrence, forgoing the notion of nuclear warfighting – the idea that one can fight and win a nuclear war.

Despite this traditional posture, steady stockpile growth and force modernisation has increased concerns surrounding China’s nuclear ambitions. The Chinese arsenal has almost doubled in size over the past decade. Current estimates place the stockpile at roughly 350 warheads. Advanced delivery systems are replacing their outdated counterparts. In some cases, brand new capabilities are being developed.

A particular cause for alarm came in the late summer of 2021. Satellite imagery documented the construction of at least 246 new missile silos spread across three sites in Hami, Xinjiang and Ordos. U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) reports note that silo field construction could be part of a potential effort to expand the Chinese nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads by 2030. Some commentators now argue that China may shift to a warfighting posture and even seek nuclear superiority vis-à-vis the U.S..

At its core, a warfighting posture places an emphasis on developing and deploying assets which are necessary for waging limited nuclear war against an enemy. It is an essential precursor for pursuing nuclear superiority. In and of itself, nuclear superiority aims to gain escalation dominance via a numerical and technological edge.

While recent Chinese nuclear modernisation could signal an eventual shift towards nuclear warfighting, analysis should remain level-headed. Hyperbole, for instance, only helped fuel the security dilemma and ensuing arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the 20th Century. Indeed, close examination of Chinese capabilities leaves ample reason to doubt sudden and fundamental changes in the nation’s overall nuclear strategy.

Stockpile Growth & Force Modernisation 

Although China’s nuclear capabilities are undergoing continual numerical growth, current information suggests that it does not possess enough fissile material to reach high range U.S. DoD stockpile projections. In particular, production of military-grade plutonium is thought to have halted in the 1980s. Any attempt to increase supply for a weapons programme would require harnessing China’s civilian nuclear reactors and would thus be more susceptible to detection.

Moreover, it is important to note that previous U.S. intelligence projections on Chinese stockpile growth have a poor track record. For instance, the Defence Intelligence Agency   previously predicted that China would build 800 or more warheads throughout the 1984-1994 period. While significant stockpile growth is to be expected, current headline estimates of 1,000 warheads are backed by little in terms of definite public evidence. Notably, officials from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Arms Control Department also claim that China will not attempt to compete with other nuclear powers on the basis of overall force quantity or scale.

Nevertheless, technological and basing modernisation of China’s nuclear forces is moving forward at a rapid pace. This is not necessarily reflective of a shift towards nuclear warfighting. Up to now, qualitative modernisation has focused on securing China’s assured retaliation posture. Adversary precision-strike, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capabilities progressively threaten this posture. For example, advances in precision-strike technology have significantly undermined the viability of China’s hardened nuclear sites. Due to increased accuracy, average silo kill rates for U.S. Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) improved from 54 percent in 1985 to 74 percent in 2017.

Improvements in ISR have also weakened China’s usage of concealment tactics. Synthetic-aperture radar imagery satellites, unmanned underwater vehicles and other advanced radars are but a selection of systems capable of accurately locating Chinese nuclear forces across land, sea and air. Location data derived from these platforms can be used for real-time targeting in tandem with precision-strike missiles.

Meanwhile, BMD technology has made significant strides in recent years. While still somewhat limited in capacity, over time it may become a greater challenge for Chinese nuclear planners. Theoretically, BMD can serve as a stop-gap and blunt any potential retaliation from China’s surviving forces following a first-strike. In addition to pre-existing mid-course ICBM interceptors, the U.S. is now developing high-energy lasers, aircraft-launched interceptors and space-based interceptors capable of targeting ICBMs during their boost phase.

Rather than signalling an intention to abandon assured retaliation, China’s silo-field construction may instead be part of a shell game strategy  meant to negate precision-strike, ISR and BMD capabilities. This describes an effort whereby a small number of warheads are hidden and shuffled amongst a much larger number of silos. Through a unique combination of hardening and concealment tactics, silo-field construction can help ensure China’s capacity for assured retaliation. U.S.-China force exchange calculations illustrate this quite well.

Even 25 Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle (MIRVed) warheads (crucial for overcoming BMD systems) spread across China’s 246 new silos would cause serious complications for U.S. nuclear planning. Using two W-78 350kt warheads to target each silo (totalling 492 warheads), a median of between eight and nine Chinese warheads would still survive a U.S. first-strike. With the usage of conventional warheads, increased hardening or additional filled silos, survivability only increases.

While China could decide to fill every silo and attempt to gain numerical nuclear parity or superiority, this remains unlikely over the short-to-medium term. Current fissile material stockpiles would not allow for such expansion. Moreover, added deterrence value would remain negligible in proportion to economic costs.

A similar focus on shoring up assured retaliation is evident in the sea and air legs of China’s nuclear triad. The PLA Navy is set to phase out the Type-094 ballistic missile submarine in favour of the Type-096. The latter is expected to be far quieter, thus making it easier to evade anti-submarine warfare chokepoints. It will also incorporate MIRVed warheads. The PLA Air Force’s eventual introduction of the H-20 stealth bomber will also bolster the retaliatory capacity of China’s nuclear forces. Its stealth features and possible usage of hypersonic cruise missiles could increase resistance against ISR and BMD capabilities.

Regional Nuclear Forces

To properly assess Chinese intentions regarding nuclear warfighting, one must also study China’s regional forces. In this regard, the PLA Rocket Forces’ deployment of dual-capable (conventional and nuclear) DF-26 and DF-21 intermediate and medium range ballistic missiles is concerning. Given enough fissile material, China could theoretically swap out conventional warheads and quickly build up its regional force to achieve numerical nuclear superiority. However, such a scenario is yet to occur. China currently has quite a limited regional arsenal consisting of an estimated 60 nuclear warheads. These warheads have a primary focus on strategic deterrence vis-à-vis India and Russia. For now, their potential warfighting role remains limited.

Examination of DF-26 and DF-21 warheads supports this view. Their yields are thought to lie somewhere between 200-300kt. Despite their formal categorisation as “non-strategic” weapons, the DF-26 and DF-21 cannot offer an effective standalone warfighting capability as their current warheads are too destructive. These warheads would need to be supplemented by a much wider set of non-strategic/low-yield warheads which together offer credible employment options for all rungs of the escalation ladder.

This discussion surrounding non-strategic/low-yield warheads has also engulfed China’s short range ballistic missile force. Some believe that China wishes to develop short range ballistic missile launched low-yield weapons to enable nuclear warfighting. A broad definition of low-yield weapons places them as warheads with a yield of 0.1-50kt. While the DF-15 may have a rudimentary nuclear warhead (between 50-350kt), no accounts suggest that it has been successfully weaponised or deployed. Current Chinese warhead designs are also likely to be too heavy for  short range ballistic missiles and too destructive for use adjacent to China.

Ultimately, a resumption of nuclear testing would be required to adequately equip the PLA with non-strategic/low-yield capabilities necessary for a warfighting posture.  This is yet to occur. Due to a comparative lack of nuclear test data, the development of new warheads with the aid of supercomputer simulations is also unlikely. Any attempt to use simulations would eventually require explosive testing to ensure warhead reliability.

Avoiding a Chinese shift towards nuclear warfighting 

China’s abandonment of assured retaliation is far from preordained. No plausible open-source evidence suggests that China aims to adopt a warfighting posture. However, China’s leadership may yet have a change of mind. To head-off this detrimental outcome to strategic stability, the U.S. as China’s chief nuclear rival should consider engaging in strategic stability negotiations, possibly placing limits on BMD deployment in return for a halt in Chinese stockpile growth and verification of China’s presumed shell-game strategy. Despite inevitable political hurdles at home, such an effort is required to lessen the security dilemma which both sides face.

Ian O’ Connor is the Azure Forum student fellow for the year 2021-2022. He recently completed an MA in Peace & Security Studies (Excellent) at the University of Hamburg. His research interests include strategy, non-proliferation and arms control.

The Azure Forum is a nonpartisan, independent research organisation. In all instances, the Azure Forum retains independence over its research and editorial discretion with respect to outputs, reports, and recommendations. The Azure Forum does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all author views should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).