China has several thousand ballistic missiles, most of them known to be armed only with a variety of conventional (non-nuclear) warheads. It turns out China has a lot more of these than earlier believed. Another revelation is that China considers nuclear warheads much less important than previously believed.
A recent effort to calculate how many nuclear warheads China has concluded that they have not been producing enough plutonium for an expansion of their nuclear warhead inventory and apparently configure their longer range (ICBM and IRBM) missiles with several types of conventional warheads and keep a small number of nuclear warheads in a separate location. This means that even ICBMs are seen as primarily non-nuclear missiles. Recent reports of new missile silos being built inland are apparently not for nuclear missiles, but long-range missiles armed with conventional warheads. This strategy has long been suspected because for decades China openly threatened Taiwan with over a thousand short range ballistic missiles armed with several types of conventional warheads and standing by for a surprise attack that would be able to overwhelm any BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) capability Taiwan has, even if reinforced by American or Japanese Aegis BMD destroyers. The hundreds of new silos in central China would be more difficult to disable by airstrikes and provide longer range ballistic missiles with conventional warheads to assist attacks on Taiwan, as well as South Korea, Japan and American bases in the Pacific. This use of non-nuclear ballistic missiles is more in line with published Chinese strategy, which emphasizes avoiding the use of nukes at all costs while also using all ballistic missiles as artillery equipped with non-nuclear warheads.
To maintain this large force of ballistic missiles requires regularly using some of them to test new guidance systems and conventional warhead designs. This means China carries out far more test launches than anyone else. In 2019 China was noted to have carried out more missile launches, for testing and development, than the rest of the world combined. China is a nuclear power that is not particularly concerned about boasting of how many nukes and delivery systems it has. China is also better able to keep secret most of its missile tests. Rather than firing missiles out to sea, where they have to issue a warning to ships to avoid the area where the warheads will land, China conducts most of its missile tests at an inland test site near the Gobi Desert. Plenty of open space and far from prying eyes. The only nation with a good idea of how many Chinese missile tests there are each year is the United States, which has a worldwide network of early-warning satellites that can spot the heat generated from a ballistic missile launch anywhere on the planet. For a long time, the U.S. did not disclose how many Chinese missile launches they spotted each year but in a 2018 speech an American official commented that China launched more missiles each year than the rest of the world combined. Similar comments since then indicate that China is currently launching more than a hundred missiles a year, most of them at the remote inland test site in the northwest. The Americans also have a network of electronic monitoring satellites that can collect telemetry data. This is what the test warhead transmits back to earth about how the missile is performing. This data is encrypted and the U.S. says even less about how many of these signals it captures and decrypts.
A growing number of American analysts, including the more senior ones that specialize in ballistic missile and nuclear weapons trends, have maintained that the large Chinese missile force, including the ones the West classifies as “nuclear only” exist mainly to support surprise attacks by missiles carrying non-nuclear warheads. Chinese military journals describe over a dozen types of non-nuclear warheads, but little is said about any nuclear warheads except basic models.
The U.S. is very interested in finding out details of new Chinese missiles because some will have capabilities that the U.S. and Russia gave up for several decades because of the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) disarmament treaty signed near the end of the Cold War. The U.S. did admit that the main reason for not renewing the INF Treaty with Russia in 2019 was not just Russian cheating but also because China never signed the INF treaty and was free to develop ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers the INF prohibs. China has openly developed a lot of ballistic missiles that the INF forbids. Originally INF was created to reduce the proliferation of shorter-range missiles with nuclear warheads. The Chinese preference for non-nuclear missiles was ignored or played down for a long time.
China also insists it is unconcerned about who the target for nuclear armed missiles is. In 2009, China announced that its nuclear-armed ballistic missiles were not aimed at anyone and that was probably true. Like most countries, China has long refused to say who its nuclear-armed missiles are aimed at. Most of those missiles only have enough range to hit Russia, or India, or other nearby nations. For a long time, most were very definitely aimed at Russia, which had rocky relations with China from the 1960s to the 1990s. But after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the new, much smaller, Russia became much friendlier with the wealthier (more capitalist, but still run by communists) China. Relations between China and India also warmed up then went into a deep freeze as China claimed more and more Indian territory.
China is believed to have 300-400 nuclear warheads but only about 200 of them are ready for use and most of them are the new standard 400kt type, which is smaller and lighter than the megaton (1,000kt) warheads China originally produced. Fewer than a hundred of Chinese ballistic missiles could reach the United States. These include the older (and about to be retired) DF-5, plus the newer DF-31A and DF-41. Now it turns out that these missiles normally carry a non-nuclear warhead, which the nuclear warheads stored somewhere else. Some are stored near ICBMs but even those long-range missiles are kept ready to fire with non-nuclear warheads.
Few Chinese ballistic missiles lacking intercontinental range are armed with nuclear warheads or apparently even equipped to handle nuclear warheads. Chinese strategy has long been to use lots of ballistic missiles armed with various kinds of high-explosive warheads. China was long believed to have about 2,000 ballistic missiles, most of them short (under a thousand kilometers) range plus over 300 cruise missiles. It turns out that China actually had about 50 percent more ballistic missiles, assigned to theater (local) commands that have these missile brigades as a form of long-range artillery. China is also developing more cruise missiles concentrating, as is the United States, on stealth and additional capabilities. In recognition of all this China created a fourth branch of the military, the Rocket Force, in 2016. At the time this was assumed to signal a major expansion of nuclear armed ballistic missiles. That didn’t happen.
China is also developing and deploying many new missiles. In fact, China has more types of ballistic missiles, at least 40, than any other nation. What was long overlooked was how many of these shorter-range ballistic missiles China had built. China also invests heavily in its new missile technologies, like its hypersonic glide missile, the DF-ZF.
China’s current ballistic missile inventory apparently includes about twenty DF-41 (range of 14,000 kilometers), about eighty DF-31 - 50 (8,000 kilometers), thirty DF-5 - (14,000 kilometers), thirty DF-4 (5,500 kilometers), about a thousand DF-26 (4,000 kilometers), 600 DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (1,500 kilometers), 700 DF-21 (1,700 kilometers), 500 DF-16 (800 kilometers), 300 DF-15B (800 kilometers), 500 DF-15A (900 kilometers), at least 1,200 DF-11A (700 kilometers). The only cruise missile is the CJ-10A (1,500 kilometers). There are several hundred other short-range ballistic missiles as well, some of them still in development.
Since the 1990s China has always had a few active DF-5 ICBMs. For a long time, these were their only missiles that could reach the United States. The U.S. has since installed 18 ICBM interceptor missile systems in Alaska. There are to deal with North Korean missiles but could also destroy most Chinese missiles headed for the western United States. It makes sense for China to simply say that it is not aiming nuclear missiles at anyone. Modern guidance systems can be quickly (in minutes) programmed for a new target, so it doesn't really matter that, normally, the missiles have no target information in them. The DF-5s, moreover, are liquid-fueled, and the considerable activity required to ready them for launch can be detected by spy satellites.
The DF-5s have been largely replaced by solid fuel DF-41s. These missiles can be moved, erected and launched from a special truck. With a 15,000-kilometer range, they can reach all of the United States. The third stage contains multiple warheads, each with an explosive yield of about 400 KT.
India is of growing concern to China, but there are shorter range ballistic missiles, like the DF-21, to deal with that threat. The Chinese introduced the DF-21 in 1999 and now has nearly a thousand in service or on order. Most have non-nuclear warheads. This missile has a range of over 1,800 kilometers and was designed to use the new 400 kiloton nuclear warhead. It's a two-stage, 15 ton, solid-fuel rocket. Launched from Tibet, the DF-21 can reach most major targets in India.
Back in 2006 China put the larger DF-31 into service. Sort of. This was China's first solid-fuel ICBM (with a range of over 8,000 kilometers) and roughly equivalent to the U.S. Minuteman I of the 1960s. The DF-31 weighs about 46 tons and is 20 meters (62 feet) long and 2.25 meters (7 feet) in diameter. It was designed for use on submarines, land silos and mobile launchers (which would halt at those "parking lots in the middle of nowhere" visible in satellite pictures of Qinghai province). The DF-31 has been shown stored in a TEL (transporter, erector, launcher) vehicle. Driving these vehicles along special highways in remote areas provides more protection from counterattacks than using a reinforced silo. Later, the improved DF-13A appeared, with multiple warheads and more range (up to 12,000 kilometers, which could cover all the United States.)
The DF-31 was in development for over twenty years and only had its first successful launch in 1999. It's now believed to have a reliable and accurate guidance system, as well as a third stage that carries at least one 400 kiloton warhead. DF-31s are in service, along with DF-31As and most of these appear to be aimed at European Russia.
Then there is a submarine-launched missile the JL (Julang) 2 SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile). This missile has had a lot of problems as have the SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) that carry them. The 42-ton JL-2 has a range of 8,000 kilometers and would enable China to aim missiles at any target in the United States from a 094 class SSBN cruising off Hawaii or Alaska. Each 094 boat can carry twelve of these missiles, which are naval versions of the existing land based 42-ton DF-31 ICBM. The JL-2 was supposed to have entered service in 2015, but kept failing test launches. China decided that JL-2 was reliable enough and ordered it installed in four SLBMs. No Chinese SSBN has ever gone on a combat cruise, because these boats, as well as the SLBMs, have been very unreliable. It always seemed strange to foreigners that China was not putting more resources into making its SSBNs capable of regular service. Now we know; China does not value or fear nukes as much as other nations. This is not really novel, as China continues to use classic Chinese strategies and tactics. China does not try to hide this as most of their foreign foes do that for them.