Chinese Rocket Force Saw Massive Expansion In 2022, Pentagon Says

(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ratcheted up its nuclear and conventional missile forces in 2022 as tumult worldwide forebodes a coming conflict, the Pentagon said.

China’s nuclear arsenal reached around 500 warheads by early 2023, putting it on track to reach its 1,500 warhead goal faster than initially projected, the Pentagon found in an annual report on China’s military power, released Thursday. On the conventional side, the PLA Rocket Force is exploring a new program to develop non-nuclear armed missiles long range capabilities — long enough to strike the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.

The new program “would give them conventional capability to strike the U.S. for the first time,” a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the report ahead of the release, said Wednesday. “This raises questions about risks to strategic stability.”

“If developed and fielded, such capabilities would allow the PRC to threaten conventional strikes against targets in the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska,” the report stated.

On top of expanding its nuclear warhead stockpiles, China’s PLA is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that “will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile force” and could create impetus for further expanding warhead production, the report said. That’s because the new missile will be able to carry more than one nuclear warhead.

That is consistent with the 2022 report on Chinese Military Power, which covered developments through 2021. However, the most recent version bumps up the estimated nuclear arsenal to around 500 warheads as of May 2023, compared to just over 400 in 2021. (RELATED: US Is Racing To Achieve Atomic Supremacy Over Its Key Foes As ‘Second Nuclear Age’ Begins, Experts Say)

“What they are doing now far exceeds what they were doing a decade ago in scale and complexity,” the official said.

Progress in line with China’s goal to ensure nuclear modernization is “basically complete” by 2035, a “milestone on the road to Xi’s goal of a ‘world class’ military
by 2049,” the report said.

Ideological and strategic rivalry with the U.S. drives China’s military professionalization and expansion in all domains, the report said, citing comments Chinese President Xi Jinping made in March of 2023. Xi said the U.S. has enacted a “comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”

Xi directed the military to prepare for increasing global instability, the report said.

China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

China’s DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

The Pentagon releases an unclassified report on Chinese military power each year to justify the framing of China as the U.S. greatest military and strategic challenge, the official said.

Nevertheless, the PLA acknowledges several areas where it falls short of the goals it has set, the official said.

“They have a long way to go before they have the military capability they think they need to achieve their global objectives,” the official said.

Meanwhile, the PLA has increased the frequency and intensity of so-called “coercive” behaviors against other countries operating in the Pacific region, the report found. Beijing also seeks to expand its regional and global military footprint.

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