Satellite imagery is suggesting that China is building a second field of missile silos in its western deserts which, according to American researchers, signals a potential expansion of its nuclear arsenal and calls into question Beijing’s commitment to its “minimum deterrence” strategy.What looks like a new missile base in China’s Xinjiang region may eventually include 110 silos, said a report released by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
It is the second apparent silo field uncovered this month by researchers, adding to the 120 silos that appear to be under construction in the neighbouring province of Gansu, as inferred by the James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies.Together, the two sites signify “the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever,” the FAS report said.
For decades, China has operated about 20 silos for its liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) called the DF-5; now, it appears to be building 10 times more, possibly for housing its newest ICBM, the DF-41, according to the FAS report.
“The Chinese missile silo program constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the US and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War,” the report said. “The number of new Chinese silos under construction exceeds the number of silo-based ICBMs operated by Russia and constitutes more than half of the size of the entire US ICBM force.”
To these 250 silos one should add a force of circa 100 road-mobile ICBM launchers dispersed in a dozen bases; these systems use also the Dongfeng-41 (DF-41, CSS-20) solid-fuel, multiple independent re-entry vehicle missile.
It remains still to be determined if these silos will be all loaded or some of them will remain as empty decoys and it the missiles will have a single or a multiple warhead (usually three, supported by appropriate decoys), which means that the new silo-based force could amount to more than 875 warheads.
That said, if this increase is relevant, the whole nuclear Chinese arsenal is still far away from its Russian and US homologues, totalling more that 4.500 strategic warheads each.
Sinologist and Chief Analyst on Chinese Affairs at Nato Defense College Foundation. Foreign affairs writer for international magazines and publications.