China is building another 110 nuclear missile silos in its western desert in what experts have described as the “most extensive” construction effort since the Cold War, according to new research published on Tuesday.
Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen, who study the global arms buildup for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, D.C., said the newly discovered missile field in Hami, Xinjiang, is spread across an area of about 308 square miles.
It is located 240 miles northwest of Yumen, Gansu province, where around 120 under-construction missile bases were found just a month earlier by researchers at the Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in California. Together, they constitute “the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever,” as well as the deepest inland of China’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) installations, the report said.
In their findings, Korda and Kristensen estimate that construction of the Hami sites began in March, about a month after work is believed to have started at the Yumen bases. Environmental domes have been placed over at least 14 silos, while preparations are underway at another 19 bases, they said.
“Construction and organization of the Hami silos are very similar to the 120 silos at the Yumen site, and are also very similar to the approximately one-dozen silos constructed at the Jilantai training area in Inner Mongolia,” said Tuesday’s report, noting that the total number of potential launch facilities now stands at about 250.
The ICBM launch sites in Inner Mongolia were also used as a guide by CNS experts with the East Asia Nonproliferation Program (EANP), according to program director Jeffrey Lewis, whose colleague Decker Eveleth discovered the Yumen missile field while combing through images supplied by the commercial satellite company Planet.
Like the sites in Yumen, Korda and Kristensen’s analysis found each nuclear silo to be spaced apart by 1.8 miles of land—another similarity in the grid pattern.
“It is unknown at this point whether all silos will be filled,” said Kristensen, who is project director at FAS. “Some analysts favor the ‘shell game’ hypothesis while others, including officials we have talked to, assume that the silos will eventually be filled,” he told Newsweek.
The “shell game” refers to a strategy deployed by the United States during the Cold War, when its nuclear arsenal would be constantly shuttled between a larger number of silos, obscuring the true location and quality of the country’s nuclear strike capabilities.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force has for decades maintained about 20 silos for nuclear-capable DF-5 ICBMs, the FAS research notes. The military also has around 100 truck-mounted ICBM launchers.
When complete, the addition of 250 bases will give China a larger number of silo-based ICBMs than Russia, and bring its total to about half the size of the U.S. ICBM capacity, the report said.
FAS estimates China’s current stockpile at roughly 350 nuclear warheads, while a September 2020 Pentagon report put the figure in the “low 200s” and likely to double in the next decade.
“Although significant, even such an expansion would still not give China near-parity with the nuclear stockpiles of Russia and the United States,” Korda and Kristensen wrote.
While it remains unclear how China plans to operate its hundreds of new nuclear missile silos, Kristensen noted in a written response: “[T]he motivation behind this massive undertaking is probably influenced by a combination of factors, of which improving the survivability of the ICBM portion of the arsenal is one, and increasing the arsenal to enhance China’s global status is another.”
Despite Beijing’s stated commitment to a minimum deterrent and a no first use policy, the report describes a security dilemma as China responds to arms competition with the U.S., Russia and India.
“The silo construction will likely further deepen military tension, fuel fear of China’s intentions, embolden arguments that arms control and constraints are naïve, and that U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals cannot be reduced further but instead must be adjusted to take into account the Chinese nuclear build-up,” the researchers said.
Convincing China to join arms control dialogue is the most ideal solution, they added while also noting obvious challenges to this endeavor. One such obstacle appears to be China’s reluctance to reduce its already outmatched arsenal—among the likely requirement of joining agreements like New START.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, addressing the UN-backed Conference on Disarmament on June 11, said China planned to keep its nuclear arsenal at a “minimum level” and “does not compete with any other country in size or scale.”