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China Could ‘Rapidly Expand’ Its Nuclear Warhead Stockpile, UK Peers Are Told

Nuclear weapons are “becoming more important” than they have been since the height of the Cold War, the House of Lords’ International Relations and Defence Committee has been told.

Andrew Futter, a professor of international politics at the University of Leicester, told peers on May 17: “China’s stockpile is probably around 300 or 400, that’s the best we can guess. But there is a fear that that could be quite rapidly expanded so it would come close to U.S. or Russian stockpiles. U.S. and Russian stockpiles are around about 5,000, although of those only a much smaller amount are deployed.”

He said there was news last year that China was building nuclear missile fields in Gansu province and he said there was a “belief” they would build the warheads to go with it.

Futter said there were also “proliferation” fears surrounding India and North Korea.

“It does feel as if we are in a global environment where nuclear weapons are becoming more important for some of these countries, not just in terms of numbers but in terms of the role they play and you can see that with Russia. In the past three or four years there have been the unveiling of many different exotic nuclear delivery systems, whether it’s the underwater torpedo, or nuclear-powered cruise missiles,” he added.

Last year Britain reversed a long-running policy to reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons and said it would be increasing the cap on the number of warheads it has to 260, up from 180 in the previous review.

Futter said: “If it wants to retain a submarine-based nuclear deterrent with four submarines then it’s questionable how many more warheads it could reduce to, to make that safe and sustainable, especially during the transition.”

Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and newly elected U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the U.S. embassy in Berlin on Jan. 29, 2021. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

In August the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s 10th review conference is due to take place—having been postponed since 2020 because of the pandemic—and Futter and Dr. Susan Martin, a senior lecturer at the war studies department at King’s College in London, agreed Britain would likely be criticised at that event for the decision to increase its warheads.

But Futter said he suspected the negativity towards Britain would be overshadowed by the criticism which would be aimed at Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has threatened to use nuclear weapons against those countries which seek to intervene in the Ukraine conflict.

‘Certainty Of Destruction’

Martin said no weapons compared to nuclear when it came to the “certainty of destruction” but she said there was no doubt there was a growing threat from cyber warfare.

The pair were asked by Labour peer Lord Wood, a former adviser to Gordon Brown: “Is your sense that strategic ambiguity over use is still the hallmark of our nuclear posture?”

Strategic ambiguity is a military term that relates to keeping the enemy guessing about a country’s nuclear capabilities.

Futter said: “There’s nothing to be lost by strategic ambiguity and it probably has been a hallmark of UK policy for a long time and there’s nothing particular to be gained about being much more open, transparent, and specific.”

Later Martin was asked by Wood whether Britain should switch from an “ambiguous” posture to a No First Use stance.

Martin said: “I don’t think that it is necessarily destabilising but there’s a risk that it could be destabilising because you’re potentially saying that you would not consider nuclear use in a situation where you may very well consider them. If a non-nuclear attack was significant enough it’s possible that the UK may decide that its only option was a nuclear retaliatory strike and that possibility should be clear to our adversaries.”

Martin and Futter were giving evidence about state and non-state threats to national security as part of an inquiry called Defence Concepts and Capabilities: From Aspiration to Reality.

Chris Summers

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Chris Summers is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in crime, policing and the law.

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