New reports prove that the Chinese nuclear arsenal has been constructed with the aid of American technology.

The fast growth of Beijing’s nuclear forces has been enabled by American nuclear and missile technology acquired by Chinese spies and US space and nuclear cooperation in the 1990s, according to an overview of Chinese technology records and internal US government documents. 

The Pentagon reported last month that by 2035, China’s arsenal of strategic nuclear warheads would reach a minimum of 1,500, up from 200 only a few years ago and 400 warheads presently. Adm. Charles Richard, the former commander of the US nuclear forces, highlighted the Chinese nuclear development last month by informing Congress that the size of Chinese nuclear forces for the first time surpasses that of the United States in one of three particular areas – warheads, long-range missiles or launchers

Adm. Richard told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that China had achieved a “strategic breakout.” Meanwhile, Peter Huessy, president of Geostrategic Analysis, who has examined China’s nuclear buildup, said the enlargement of China’s nuclear stockpile is both alarming and mainly based on American know-how obtained by Beijing legitimately illicitly over the decades

“A strategic breakout denotes the rapid qualitative and quantitative expansion of military capabilities that enables a shift in strategy and requires the DoD to make immediate and significant planning and/or capability shifts,” Adm. Richard said. 

Mark 17 Nuclear Bomb
Mark 17 Nuclear Bomb (Source: Kelly Michals/Flickr)

Under the Biden administration, no significant changes in nuclear modernization plans have been made, apart from a multi-billion-dollar endeavor to field new missiles, bombers, and submarines. However, Adm. Richard and other military and defense officials were alarmed by construction of three big bases in western China where up to 360 multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are being deployed. 

“The spectacular growth in Chinese nuclear forces as described recently by Adm. Richard highlights two things: First, the Chinese ambition to become a world military hegemon, and two, the unfortunate role of the often reckless transfer of nuclear applicable technology from the United States to China that facilitated this extraordinary growth,” Huessy said.

By contrast, three decades ago, China’s long-range missile force included merely seven relatively imprecise single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to an internal White House document. Two Chinese coups targeting advanced American technology significantly escalated the pace of nuclear buildup during the 1990s. The first was a vast espionage program to steal nuclear warhead secrets. The CIA concluded in a public assessment that China, through espionage, obtained info on every deployed US warhead, specifically the space-saving W-88 warhead that can be utilized on multiple-warhead missiles. The second coup involved information gained from US-China space cooperation during the Clinton administration, the outcome of a new policy that eased national security export controls to allow for more joint efforts with Beijing in space. 

The upper stage of the newly upgraded DF-5B Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile, as seen after the military parade held in Beijing (Source: IceUnshattered/Wikimedia Commons)

As the nation accumulates wealth and technological expertise, China is shifting away from single-warhead missiles, according to the Pentagon. The most recent annual report says the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will place multiple warheads on its 20 DF-5s and add at least three warheads to the DF-31AG and DF-41 land-based missiles of the new JL-3 submarine-launched missile. China’s nuclear warhead technology was primarily assisted by espionage targeting US nuclear weapons laboratories and another Clinton administration program promoting exchanges between US nuclear scientists and their Chinese counterparts. 

A US intelligence report on Chinese intelligence targeting US nuclear weapons stated that from 1984 to 1988, Chinese spies could steal the design information for the W-88. 

“To obtain this information the United States conducted tens of nuclear tests,” the report said. “Once obtained, the Chinese were able to speed up their research and progress their nuclear weapons program well beyond indigenous capabilities.” 

CIA damage assessment concluded in 1999 that the stolen information “allowed China to concentrate successfully down critical paths and avoid less promising approaches to nuclear weapon designs.” Beijing’s quest for crucial nuclear technology was comprehensive and tapped multiple sources, as per US agencies. China’s ICBM force today is backstopped by over 900 theater-range intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles that, equipped with nuclear warheads, “are capable of doing catastrophic damage to United States, allied and partner forces in the area,” Adm. Richard said. To give missile warning, China in the last year deployed large phased-array radars, the admiral added – yet another key technological advance where sensitive US technology played a role.