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Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: China’s Rocket Force Increased over 35 Percent in Three Years

A report titled, “Chinese nuclear forces, 2020” was published on December 10 as a result of the research of Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, and Matt Korda, a research associate with the project. The report examines China’s nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to have surpassed France’s as the world’s third largest.

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), formerly the Second Artillery Corps (SAC), is China’s strategic and tactical missile force. The PLARF is a component part of the People’s Liberation Army and controls the nation’s arsenal of land-based ballistic missiles—both nuclear and conventional.

According to the December 10 report, “the number of ballistic missile brigades has increased by over 35 percent in just three years. Some of those are still under construction.  … We estimate the PLA Rocket Force currently has up to 40 brigades with ballistic or cruise missile launchers. Of those brigades, approximately half operate ballistic missile launchers with nuclear capability, a number that is likely to grow further as bases currently under construction are completed.”

The report stated that 12 of the brigades belonged to the eastern and southern command theaters, which mainly deal with Taiwan and South China Sea affairs.

The Chinese government did not publish nuclear weaponry information such as the number of warheads. The report estimated that “China has produced a stockpile of approximately 350 nuclear warheads, of which roughly 272 are for delivery by more than 240 operational land-based ballistic missiles, 48 sea-based ballistic missiles, and 20 nuclear gravity bombs assigned to bombers. The remaining 78 warheads are intended to arm additional land- and sea-based missiles that are in the process of being fielded.”

As of 2019, the U.S. had an inventory of 3,800 nuclear warheads, while early this year, Russia had 4,500.

Although China only recently has begun to reassign a formal nuclear mission to the PLA Air Force units, it is developing a bomber with a longer range and improved capabilities to replace its current H-6 bombers. “US officials have stated for several years that the new bomber, known as H-20, will have a nuclear capability. In early 2020 the US Defense Department described the H-20 as a ‘stealth’ bomber whose production will begin within 10 years.”

Although the Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are still a very noisy design, “it seems likely that China will end production after its now-completed six boats and will turn its efforts to developing the quieter third-generation (Type 096) SSBN, which is scheduled to begin construction in the early 2020s. The completion of a new construction hall at Huludao, where the PLA Navy’s submarines are built, indicates that work may soon begin on the Type 096, which is expected to be larger and heavier than the Type 094.”

Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December 10, 2020