DOD Annual Report on China: Developing US-Style ‘Nuclear Triad’

The Department of Defense on Tuesday released it’s annual report on China, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” at a time when the world is witnessing the aggressive behavior of China in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

The report says that China continues to run amok, advancing their own interests and undermining the international rules-based order based on their strategy of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049.

The Chinese are determined to develop a “nuclear-triad” deterrence strategy, mirroring the United States. It’s also expected that over the next 10 years, China will increase the number of nuclear warheads in their arsenal.

“The report does contend that there are currently an estimated low-200s in terms of warhead stockpiles, and it’s projected to at least double in size over the next decade as China expands and modernizes its nuclear forces,” said Chad L. Sbragia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China during his remarks at the American Enterprise Institute.

This Congressionally-mandated report serves as an authoritative assessment on military and security developments involving the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The introduction in the report outlines the U.S. – China Defense Contacts and Exchanges that occurred in 2019:  

  • U.S. defense contacts and exchanges conducted in 2019 supported overall U.S. policy and strategy toward China, were focused on reducing risk and preventing misunderstanding in times of crisis, and were conducted in accordance with the statutory limitations of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, as amended. 
  • Pursuit of a constructive results-oriented relationship with China is an important part of U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. The 2018 National Defense Strategy seeks areas of cooperation with China from positions of U.S. strength, with a long-term aim to set the military-to military relationship on a path of strategic transparency and non-aggression, and to encourage China to act in a manner consistent with the free and open international order.


In addition to obtaining more warheads, it is important to consider how they plan to deploy these warheads. China is modernizing their systems and looking for ways to deploy their nuclear capability.

Currently China intends to develop a “nuclear triad,” a three-pronged military force structure that consists of land-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear-missile-armed submarines and strategic aircraft with nuclear bombs and missiles. These components are land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers. The purpose is to reduce the possibility that an enemy could destroy all of a nation’s nuclear forces in a first-strike attack, in turn, ensuring a credible threat of a second strike, and thus increases a country’s ability to intimidate others from a nuclear attack.

“The report notes that China is expanding, modernizing and diversifying its nuclear forces across the board. Just looking at the number of warheads by itself is not the entire picture, or doesn’t paint a holistic understanding of where the Chinese are or where they want to go,” Sbragia said.

China is on the move to transform their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “world-class military” by around 2050. Their intent most likely is to build a military that is equal to or in some cases superior to the U.S. military or any other military or great power that China perceives as being a potential threat.

Power projection is important, as the Chinese want to have their military able to operate anywhere across the globe. In order to achieve this, they are working toward the establishment of a more robust overseas logistics network.

According to the report, China is “very likely already considering and planning for” the establishment of military logistics facilities outside China that can support naval, air and ground forces.

China is looking to establish military logistics facilities that can support naval, air and ground forces, beyond the military installation they already have in Djibouti. As they look to expand, they are eyeballing locations like Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan.

Sbragia noted, “The Chinese do have … an aspiration for great power status by virtually every measure of comprehensive or composite national power that you can measure. To achieve that, it means that they have to have … global convergence at the broadest scale possible. For the PLA, that means that they do have the intent to go out. I think that’s certainly one of the aspects of what ‘world-class military’ means … the capacity to have influence at distance, at a time and place of their choosing. They certainly aspire to do that.”

The U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) identifies the Indo-Pacific region as the department’s priority theater. Secretary Mark Esper is wrapping up his visit to Hawaii, Palau and Guam. This week Esper gave remarks at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. He talked about implementing the NDS, while modernizing our forces, strengthening connections and promoting security partnerships.

Esper also reaffirmed that the U.S. is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific.


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