Why U.S. Antimissile System in South Korea Worries China
BEIJING — Mao Zedong famously dismissed the atomic bomb as a “paper tiger,” able to kill and terrify, but not decisive in war. Even so, China built a nuclear arsenal of its own, and now concerns about the effectiveness of that arsenal as a deterrent are driving it into confrontation with the United States over an antimissile system being built in South Korea. Here’s an explanation of why.
How big is China’s nuclear arsenal?
China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, and has developed a stable of nuclear missiles. But it is not a big stable, compared with the thousands of warheads held by the United States and Russia.
China does not reveal the size of its nuclear forces. It has about 260 nuclear warheads that could be put on missiles, and by the Pentagon’s latest estimate, China has between 75 and 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Some estimates are lower, and one recent assessment said 40 to 50 of China’s ballistic missiles could reach the continental United States.
The United States has deployed about 1,370 nuclear warheads and has stockpiled more than 6,500, and has submarines and aircraft able to launch nuclear weapons.
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China has also built several submarines that can launch nuclear missiles. But even its latest-model submarine “is noisy and quite vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare,” and therefore is not a very potent addition to its nuclear deterrent, M. Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Fiona S. Cunningham, a graduate student there, who recently published an assessment of China’s nuclear modernization, said by email.
China has also been upgrading some of its missiles so that several nuclear warheads can be placed on a single missile that then unleashes them on different targets.