Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mo.) speaks during a meeting of the House Committee
on Rules at the US Capitol in Washington on July 12, 2022. (Oliver
Contreras/AFP via Getty Images)
China’s communist regime now fields more long-range, nuclear-capable missile launchers than the United States, according to the testimony of the House Armed Services Committee.
Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) acknowledged that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a single-party state, had leapfrogged the United States in the number of its active intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers, during a hearing on the threat posed by the CCP to U.S. defense.
“The CCP is rapidly expanding its nuclear capability,” Rogers said. “They have doubled their number of warheads in two years. We estimated it would take them a decade to do that.”
“We also were just informed by the DoD [Department of Defense] that the CCP now has more ICBM launchers than the United States.”
The question of how quickly the CCP’s nuclear expansion and modernization is proceeding has beleaguered experts and lawmakers since a 2021 Pentagon report estimated that the regime could expand its arsenal to as many as 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2030.
That timeline was further truncated in December, when Adm. Charles Richard, then-commander of U.S. Strategic Command, issued a classified memo to Congress under the auspices of Section 1648 of Public Law 117-81.
That law requires that U.S. Strategic Command inform Congress if and when China surpasses the United States in the number of its active intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the number of its ICBM launchers, or the number of nuclear warheads equipped to its ICBMs.
At the time, the unclassified version of the memo did not specify which of these three categories China had surpassed the United States in.
In a new memo, dated Jan. 26, 2023, current U.S. Strategic Command leader Gen. Anthony Cotton, clarified that the CCP had surpassed the United States in the number of its ICBM launchers, but not in the number of its actual ICBMs nor the number of nuclear warheads equipped to them.
“The number of land-based fixed and mobile ICBM launchers in China exceeds the number of ICBM launchers in the United States,” Cotton said in the memo (pdf).
China on Track to Overtake US Nuclear Arsenal
It is difficult to estimate the scale of China’s nuclear expansion, as the regime co-locates its nuclear and conventional missiles together, making their silos virtually indistinguishable from one another.
Previously, the Pentagon’s 2022 China Military Power Report stated that the regime’s arsenal included approximately 300 ICBMs and launchers. It also estimated that China had surpassed 400 operational nuclear warheads.
The United States, meanwhile, can deploy up to 1,550 nuclear warheads under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty but only maintains 400 Minuteman III ICBMs, each of which can carry just one nuclear warhead.
As such, Cotton’s memo appears to suggest that the CCP currently has more than 400 ICBM launchers, but fewer than 400 ICBMs and fewer than 400 nuclear warheads equipped to its ICBMs.
Still, counting the regime’s equipped warheads can be a tricky endeavor unto itself, because the CCP uses multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on many of its missiles.
Unlike the United States Minuteman III ICBMs, which each carry one nuclear warhead, the CCP’s MIRVs allow its missiles to carry multiple warheads, with some reports suggesting that the regime’s medium-range DF-17 missile could carry anywhere from three to 10 warheads.
Relatedly, a 2021 report (pdf) by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) found that the rapid expansion of the regime’s MIRVs had increased the number of nuclear warheads capable of striking the U.S. homeland.
“Due to increases in China’s arsenal of ICBM missiles, launchers assigned to its ICBM brigades, and MIRV technology, the number of warheads that can be mounted on ICBMs threatening the United States is expanding,” the report stated.
To that end, Rogers led his Republican colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee by calling on the Biden administration to begin its own nuclear expansion and modernization program.
“The head of U.S. Strategic Command has informed us that China has surpassed the U.S. in the number of ICBM launchers—this should serve as a wake-up call for the United States,” he said in a Feb. 7 press release. t
“It is not an understatement to say that the Chinese nuclear modernization program is advancing faster than most believed possible. We have no time to waste in adjusting our nuclear force posture to deter both Russia and China. This will have to mean higher numbers and new capabilities.”
During his testimony, Rogers noted that the CCP had nearly tripled its military spending over the last decade, and said that the United States would need to act swiftly to counter the threat, or else risk losing the opportunity altogether.
“China is the most challenging national security threat America has faced in 30 years,” Rogers said. “If we fail to acknowledge that and take immediate action to deter it, the next 30 years could be devastating to our nation.”
“We have to stop being naive about the threat we face from China. We no longer have the luxury of time.”