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China has more ICBM nuke launchers than the US, general warns

Vehicles carry DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles during a Chinese military parade. (Voice of America/Released)
February 15, 2023

The Chinese military has more intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers than the U.S., according to a new assessment by the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM). That assessment comes as the U.S. has been watchful of China’s nuclear buildup.

In letters to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, U.S. Air Force Gen Anthony J. Cotton, the STRATCOM commander, said that the U.S. has more ICBMs and nuclear warheads than the Chinese military. But Cotton assessed that China has more systems capable of launching ICBMs than the U.S.

“The number of land-based fixed and mobile ICBM launchers in China exceeds the number of ICBM launchers in the United States,” Cotton wrote.

Cotton did not specify exactly how many launchers either country has at this moment.

In the summer of 2021, satellite images identified hundreds of missile silos being installed in the deserts of western China.

Having more launchers means China could potentially achieve a greater volume of ICBM launches than the U.S. However, many of China’s fixed land-based ICBM launchers still only consist of empty missile silos, according to U.S. officials and outside experts who recently spoke with the Wall Street Journal. If China were to produce ICBMs to go with each of its launchers, the Chinese military could theoretically overmatch the U.S. in an initial nuclear exchange.

China is also catching up to the U.S. in terms of nuclear warhead and ICBM production.

According to a November report to Congress, the Department of Defense determined China has about 400 nuclear warheads and is on track to have about 1,500 by 2035. The U.S. has more than 5,000 warheads currently. Russia also has more than 5,000 warheads.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the New START treaty is currently preventing the U.S. from producing enough nuclear weapons to deter both Russia and China.

Russia and the U.S. are both parties to the New START treaty, which states that either country will limit itself to 700 ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and deployed nuclear bombers. Each country will also have only 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads (either on ICBMs, SLBMs or nuclear bombers). Each country can only have 800 deployed or nondeployed ICBMs, SLBMs or bombers capable of deploying nuclear weapons.

China is not currently bound by the New START treaty, which is set to expire in 2026.

“China is rapidly approaching parity with the United States. We cannot allow that to happen,” Rogers said. “The time for us to adjust our force posture and increase capabilities to meet this threat is now.”

Proponents of arms control treaties, by contrast, argue that the U.S. should work to preserve the limits set in arms control treaties and work to convince China to join such agreements. Without the arms control restraints, the U.S., China and Russia could enter a nuclear arms race similar to that seen during the Cold War.

“It’s in our national interest to keep the Russians under the New START limits. We need to complete our nuclear modernization according to plan, not pile on new requirements,” Rose Gottemoeller, who negotiated the New START treaty for the U.S., told the Wall Street Journal.