January 30, 2024 | Policy Brief

China’s Nuclear Arsenal Could Grow to 1,500 Weapons by 2035

China’s nuclear weapon stockpile may grow to 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, according to a new estimate by a U.S. scientific group. The finding increases the urgency to address U.S. preparedness to deter two near-peer nuclear competitors — China and Russia — for the first time in American history.   

The report, released on January 15 by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), projected that China will likely field around 850 nuclear warheads by 2035. However, the study concluded that the figure could be as high as 1,500 warheads, depending on several factors. That worst-case scenario fits with a previous projection by the Department of Defense (DoD). “If China continues the pace of its nuclear expansion, it will likely field a stockpile of about 1,500 warheads by” 2035, the Pentagon wrote in a 2022 report to Congress.

Those differing projections aside, it is clear that Beijing is pursuing a rapid nuclear buildup. Whereas DoD estimated that China had around 200 nuclear weapons just a few years ago, both the FAS and DOD now believe that number is much higher. The FAS study estimates that China currently has around 438 deployed warheads, with 62 weapons in storage or on reserve. Likewise, a 2023 DoD report assessed that Beijing currently possesses 500 nuclear warheads. That report also predicted that China will likely seek to diversify its arsenal with lower-yield warheads, which Beijing may see as more useful in a regional conflict with the United States.

To fuel its new nuclear weapons, China is increasing production of fissile material. DoD’s 2022 and 2023 reports found that China “is establishing new nuclear materials production and reprocessing facilities very likely to support its nuclear force expansion.”

In addition, Beijing has been renovating and expanding its Lop Nur nuclear test site, potentially with an eye toward resuming nuclear testing at the facility. The United States already assesses that Beijing and Moscow are violating their commitment to carry out only zero-yield nuclear testing. America, the United Kingdom, and France — the other nuclear weapon states recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — informally adhere to that pledge.

Even as the Chinese Communist Party expands its nuclear arsenal, Beijing continues to refuse to engage in meaningful arms control negotiations with Washington.

Amid China’s nuclear expansion and Russia’s recent threats to use nuclear weapons, Washington must prepare to face two nuclear peer adversaries. As the bipartisan, congressionally mandated Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States noted in its October 2023 report, Washington should ensure its “nuclear force sizing and composition” are adequate to deter a combined nuclear attack by China and Russia.

The commission also recommended that “Congress fund an overhaul and expansion of the capacity of the U.S. nuclear weapons defense industrial base and the [Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration] nuclear security enterprise, including weapons science, design, and production infrastructure.” Congress should fund such critical modernization efforts.

In addition, Washington should work with allies and partners to close down any nuclear cooperation that supports the growth of Beijing’s and Moscow’s atomic arsenals. For example, the United States should pressure allies to curtail supply to China of fissile material precursors like raw uranium that could benefit or free up supplies for Beijing’s production of atomic warheads.

As the leader of the free world and linchpin of NATO, America must rise to meet this challenge and ensure Beijing and Moscow remain deterred from using nuclear weapons in future conflicts.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow and senior director of the program and served as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. For more analysis from the authors and FDD please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea and Anthony on X @StrickerNonpro and @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on X @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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