The US military says China now has more ICBM launchers than it does, but the US still has the nuclear edge

The US military says China now has more ICBM launchers than it does, but the US still has the nuclear edge
Military vehicles carry China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles in a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019.GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images
  • The US military says that China now has more ICBM launchers than Washington does.
  • US Strategic Command recently warned lawmakers of this development in a memo obtained by Insider.

The Chinese armed forces now have more intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers than the US does, the US military warned recently. But it noted that the US still has a nuclear edge over its great power rival.

Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of the US Strategic Command, sent memos to both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees in late January detailing the status of China's ICBM activities as of October 2022.

"The number of land-based fixed and mobile ICBM launchers in China exceeds the number of ICBM launchers in the United States," Cotton wrote in letters sent to the respective committees on January 26, letters obtained by Insider. US Strategic Command — or STRATCOM — is responsible for nuclear operations, command, control, and communications.

Cotton added that the number of ICBMs in China's active inventory "has not exceeded the number of ICBM in the active inventory of the United States." He also said that the "number of nuclear warheads equipped on such missiles of China has not exceeded the number of nuclear warheads equipped on such missiles of the United States."

This new information from STRATCOM comes two months after concerns were raised that China might have leaped past the US in terms of the number of nuclear warheads it has on its ICBMs. Former GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe, who was the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee until earlier this year, said at the time that the US has "only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to China's growing military might."


The Wall Street Journal first reported the unclassified information distributed by STRATCOM to Congress earlier on Tuesday. US officials and experts told the outlet many of China's launchers are just empty silos, and officials also noted that STRATCOM's warning about China's launcher advantage doesn't include two legs of the nuclear triad where the US has a distinct advantage — long-range bombers and submarines.

That said, China's edge in land-based fixed and mobile launchers does bring Beijing closer to fielding a more robust ICBM capacity.

In a 2022 report detailing China's military capabilities and activities, the Department of Defense said China launched around 135 ballistic missiles for testing and training purposes during the previous year — a figure greater than all other countries combined, launches in conflict zones being the exception. It added that during 2021, China was observed building three ICBM silo fields, together consisting of at least 300 new missile silos able to house China's newer solid-fueled missiles, such as the DF-41, for a more capable deterrent.

The report also predicted the continued expansion of Chinese nuclear arsenal. It estimated that China had at least 400 operational nuclear warheads in its stockpile and was on pace to beef that figure up to 1,500 by 2035. By contrast, the US has well over 5,000 warheads in its arsenal — second in the world only to Russia.

To counter the nuclear threat posed by China — and also Russia — the US is working on an expensive new missile to replace its current ICBMs, though it would take years before becoming operational. The US military also recently unveiled a new nuclear-capable stealth bomber, and work is underway on a new class of ballistic missile submarine.