Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

China’s Misunderstood Nuclear Expansion: How U.S. Strategy Is Fueling Beijing’s Growing Arsenal

  • M. Taylor Fravel
  • Henrik Stålhane Hiim
  • Magnus Langset Trøan
| Nov. 10, 2023

Among the many issues surrounding China’s ongoing military modernization, perhaps none has been more dramatic than its nuclear weapons program. For decades, the Chinese government was content to maintain a comparatively small nuclear force. As recently as 2020, China’s arsenal was little changed from previous decades and amounted to some 220 weapons, around five to six percent of either the U.S. or Russian stockpiles of deployed and reserve warheads. 

Since then, however, China has been rapidly expanding and modernizing its arsenal. In 2020, it began constructing three silo fields to house more than 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). A year later, it successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle that traveled 21,600 miles, a test that likely demonstrated China’s ability to field weapons that can orbit the earth before striking targets, known as a “fractional orbital bombardment system.” Simultaneously, the Chinese government has accelerated its pursuit of a complete nuclear triad—encompassing land-, sea-, and air-launched nuclear weapons—including by developing new submarine- and air-launched ballistic missiles. By 2030, according to U.S. Defense Department estimates, China will probably have more than 1,000 operational nuclear warheads—a more than fourfold increase from just a decade earlier.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

M. Taylor Fravel, Henrik Stålhane Hiim, and Magnus Langset Trøan, "China’s Misunderstood Nuclear Expansion: How U.S. Strategy Is Fueling Beijing’s Growing Arsenal," Foreign Affairs, November 10, 2023,

The Authors