The advent of nuclear weapons fundamentally transformed the nature of warfare and strategy. Changes in policy, posture, and the number of nuclear weapons in one country can have global ramifications. China is one of only nine countries that possess nuclear weapons. Although its nuclear arsenal is small relative to those of the United States and Russia, China is currently expanding and modernizing its nuclear forces. Beijing’s primarily defensive nuclear strategy may also be revised in the coming years. Understanding the changing nature of China’s nuclear posture is critical to maintaining international peace and security.
China detonated its first atomic device on October 16, 1964. In doing so, China became the fifth country – after the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France – to successfully develop a nuclear weapon.
Following its entrance into the atomic era, China prioritized the development of an increasingly capable arsenal composed of nuclear warheads delivered on land-based ballistic missiles. Most of China’s nuclear forces continue to be made up of land-based systems.
China also maintains a relatively small number of ballistic missiles housed on four ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), providing China a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.
Beijing currently possesses only a small contingent of air-based platforms capable of delivering nuclear weapons. In the coming years, China is expected to field a new strategic bomber and air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBMs).
Countries with a nuclear force structure that consists of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers are said to possess a nuclear “triad.” The ability to deliver nuclear attacks from ground, sea, and air increases the survivability of a country’s nuclear forces and enhances its ability to execute a retaliatory strike. Only the US and Russia possess full, credible nuclear triads. China and India, however, are close to attaining triad status.