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China splurges on yet more missile silos

3rd August 2021 - 03:57 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Christchurch

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An overview of the new field of missile silos being built in eastern Xinjiang. (Federation of American Scientists)

Beijing likes to accuse the US of having a ‘Cold War mentality', but China’s current splurge of missile silo building is unprecedented since the Cold War.

On 9 July, Shephard reported that China was constructing a massive field of missile silos near Yumen in Gansu Province. Analysis of further satellite imagery has revealed that a second similarly sized missile silo facility is being built in eastern Xinjiang.

This desert site near the city of Hami, 380km northwest of the Yumen field, was discovered by Matt Korda, research associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), using commercially available satellite imagery from Planet.

With 120 missile silos under construction in the first site and an estimated 110 in the later site, this represents a massive and unprecedented investment in DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) for the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF).

The Hami site is not at such an advanced stage as that in Yumen, but site works have been proceeding rapidly since March. Dome shelters are erected over at least 14 silos, while another 19 have had soil cleared ready for silo construction to start. About 110 silos will be built 3km apart, laid out in an almost perfect grid pattern covering some 800km².

Existing DF-5 ICBM silos are within strike range of American cruise missiles, but the deep interior locations of the Yumen and Hami sites put them out of reach of conventional weapons. Yumen is 3,500km from the Indian Ocean, 2,500km from the Bay of Bengal and 3,500km from the Western Pacific, for example.

It is highly unlikely that China will place a DF-41 in each and every silo. As Korda and Hans Kristensen said in an article for the FAS: ‘It is unclear how China will operate the new silos, whether it will load all of them with missiles, or if a portion will be used as empty decoys. 

'If they are all loaded with single-warhead missiles, then the number of warheads on Chinese ICBMs could potentially increase from about 185 warheads today to as many as 415 warheads. If the new silos are loaded with the new MIRVed DF-41 ICBMs [its warhead could contain up to 5-6 multiple independent re-entry vehicles], then Chinese ICBMs could potentially carry more than 875 warheads (assuming three warheads per missile) when the Yumen and Hami missile silo fields are completed.’

Alternatively, all these silos could represent a ‘shell game’, the conman’s trick of shuffling hidden objects to fool an observer. Thus, China could randomly rotate a smaller number of ICBMs around these silos to keep an opponent guessing.

Climate-controlled domes can be seen erected over missile silos under construction in Xinjiang. (FAS)

When the New York Times broke the story about the Hami field, the US military’s Strategic Command (STRATCOM) endorsed the finding, saying, ‘The public has discovered what we have been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it.’

Indeed, Adm Charles Richard, head of STRATCOM, testified in April: ‘These capabilities bring into question China’s stated “No First Use” policy declaration and implied minimum deterrent strategy. Behind a complete lack of transparency, China is rapidly improving its strategic nuclear capability and capacity, with rapid growth in road-mobile production, doubling the numbers of launchers in some ICBM brigades, deployment of solid-fuel ICBM silos on a potentially large scale, an added air leg, and are well ahead of the pace necessary to double their nuclear stockpile by the end of the decade.’

The US DoD estimates the PLARF’s nuclear stockpile is in the low-200s. However, China’s nuclear arsenal is still eclipsed by the US’s and Russia’s combined total of 11,000 warheads.

China is also building at least 16 DF-41 missile silos in Jilantai in Inner Mongolia in a PLARF training area. Added together, along with potential new DF-5 silos, China has some 250 silos under construction, a figure ten times greater than the number of silos that already exist. Once these are completed, China will have more ICBM silos than Russia, and about half as many as the USA.

The discovery of two distinct missile silo fields is simply stunning, representing the greatest expansion of China’s nuclear weapon arsenal in its history.

China unveiled the DF-41 ICBM at a massive military parade in Beijing on 1 October 2019. (Xinhua)

China’s neighbours, regional countries and the US are already alarmed at Chairman Xi Jinping’s prioritisation of the military. China has been embroiled in numerous tensions or illegal territorial claims, whether along the Indian border or in the South and East China Seas.

Many are wondering why China suddenly needs so many missile silos.

Korda and Kristensen of the FAS pointed out, ‘Regardless of how many silos China ultimately intends to fill with ICBMs, this new missile complex represents a logical reaction to a dynamic arms competition in which multiple nuclear-armed players – including Russia, India and the USA – are improving both their nuclear and conventional forces as well as missile defence capabilities.’

They continued, ‘Although China formally remains committed to its posture of ‘minimum’ nuclear deterrence, it is also responding to the competitive relationship with country adversaries in order to keep its own force survivable and capable of holding adversarial targets at risk. Thus, while it is unlikely that China will renounce this policy anytime soon, the “minimum” threshold for deterrence will likely continue to shift as China expands its nuclear arsenal. The decision to build the large number of new silos has probably not been caused by a single issue but rather by a combination of factors.’

Amongst the reasons listed by the FAS members are China ensuring its nuclear retaliatory capability is survivable, improving its readiness and upping the chances of defeating US ballistic missile defences. One cannot discount nationalistic pride either.

Richard, the STRATCOM commander, pointed out: ‘While China keeps the majority of its forces in a peacetime status, increasing evidence suggests China has moved a portion of its nuclear force to a launch-on-warning posture and are adopting a limited “high alert duty” strategy.’

Korda and Kristensen warned: ‘China’s construction of nearly 250 new silos has serious implications for international relations and China’s role in the world… The silo construction will likely further deepen military tension, fuel fear of China’s intentions, embolden arguments that arms control and constraints are naive, and that US and Russian nuclear arsenals cannot be reduced further but instead must be adjusted to take into account the Chinese nuclear build-up.’

China, for all its protestations that it is not participating in an arms race, appears to be doing precisely that.

Consider, too, that in the past two years China has launched more than 400 ballistic missiles in tests or exercises. This is more than the rest of the world combined.

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