China’s nuclear arsenal was strikingly modest, but that is changing

China seems to be coming out of its nuclear shell. For one thing, it is making its weapons more nimble. At a parade to mark 70 years of Communist rule on October 1st, the star of the show was the DF-41 missile. It is thought to be China’s first road-mobile (ie, easy to hide) and solid-fuelled (ie, quick to launch) missile that is capable of hitting any part of America.

Chinese missiles are also being stuffed with more warheads, which makes it easier to overwhelm and bamboozle missile defences. And China is steadily working towards longer-range nuclear missiles for its submarines. That allows it to strike America from the safety of its own waters.

Because new weapons require warheads, nuclear modernisation is also driving nuclear expansion. China’s armed forces “doubled their nuclear arsenal in about the last decade, and they’re on track to double it again in the next decade”, noted Rear Admiral Michael Brooke, director of intelligence for America’s Strategic Command, in August. Though 600 warheads would still be just a tenth of the American or Russian total, it would increase pressure on China to join arms-control talks with those countries.

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