Though the exact size of Chinas nuclear arsenal is unknown, current best estimates are that China has about 280 strategic weapons, and a smaller number about 120 of tactical weapons. The weapons are based on ICBMs and strategic bombers, with a naval component under research.
China's nuclear arsenal is in the midst of a rapid modernization program begun in the mid-1980s. By increasing the size, accuracy, range, and survivability of the nuclear arsenal, Chinese leaders aim to strengthen Beijing's deterrent. China hopes to mimic the United States and Russia by deploying its nuclear weapons in a sea-, air-, and land-based triad.
In the next decade, China will likely make its most striking headway in the development of ballistic missiles. Development efforts are targeted towards increasing the number of mobile, solid-fuel, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in order to maximize deterrence. Currently China has a host of nuclear missiles at its disposal. These include 20 liquid-fueled intermediate range Dong Feng-4s (DF-4s), 48 medium range solid-fuel DF-21s, which are mobile, and 20 silo-based intercontinental DF-5s and DF-5As, which can respectively reach Hawaii and the continental United States. The DF-3 has become outdated and is being retired. Other solid-fueled short-range missiles, the DF-11 and DF-15 (they are called the M-11 and M-9 when exported), may have nuclear capability. Currently, a new mobile solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile is under development, the DF-31, with an 8,000 km range. A modified long-range version, the DF-31A, is projected to have an approximate range of 12,000 km. It replaces the defunct DF-41 missile program.
U.S. intelligence believes that China has long had the ability to develop multiple reentry vehicles (MRVs) for its missiles, but has chosen not to do so. Should China choose to develop these systems, ICBMs could be so-outfitted within only a few years. U.S. deployment of a missile defense system could precipitate such action, or could lead to a general acceleration in single warhead-design construction.
The weakness of the Chinese air force previously required Beijing to depend on Russian aid. Today, China relies primarily on two types of aircraft for its nuclear force: about 100 Hong-6 medium-range bombers, based on the Soviet Tu-16 Badger, and 30 shorter-range Qian-5 fighters. A supersonic fighter-bomber, the JH-7, has been in production for more than a decade, but is not currently outfitted as a nuclear platform. Owing to technical problems, few have been deployed. China has also purchased around 80 Su-30 multi-role aircraft from the Russians. Additionally, Russia have sold China 58 Su-27 air superiority fighters, along with production rights and engineering assistance, which should allow China to produce another 200 Su-27s by 2015. While both the Su-30s and Su-27s could theoretically be modified to fulfill a nuclear mission, there is little indication that the Chinese plan to do so.
Efforts to upgrade China's ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet continue, but technical hurdles have limited progress. China is believed to have 12 Julang I submarine-launched ballistic missiles stored at Jianggezhuang Submarine Base where its one nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the Xia, is housed. It is not clear whether this sub is operational. China has a long-term plan to build four to six new SSBNs, which will carry 16 Julang II missiles. These may have intercontinental range. The new subs are not likely to be deployed for many years.
Strategic Nuclear Weapons: 280
Non-strategic Nuclear Weapons: 120
Total Nuclear Weapons: ~400