The Washington Post reported Wednesday (June 30) that China has begun building what independent experts say are more than 100 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in the desert region near Yumen in northwestern Gansu province, a massive build that could signal that Beijing is significantly expanding its nuclear capabilities.
The Washington Post reports that commercial satellite images obtained by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, show that work is underway at dozens of sites in an arid area covering hundreds of square miles in China’s Gansu province. The 119 nearly identical construction sites have features similar to those seen at existing nuclear-tipped ballistic missile launch facilities in China.
The more than 100 new missile silos, when completed, will represent a historic shift in China’s nuclear arsenal. China is believed to possess a much smaller number of nuclear weapons relative to the U.S. and Russia, believed to be between two hundred and three hundred or so. The actual number of the new missiles is not known, but could be much smaller, the report noted. China has deployed decoy silos in the past.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that such large-scale construction suggests a major effort by China to bolster the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. The center is part of the Middlebury Institute, a school of international studies at the University of Minden. Lewis and his colleague Decker Eveleth discovered the construction sites after weeks of studying the commercial satellite images. He described the scale of the project as “unbelievable.
The reported silo construction project could provide China with another means of hiding its most powerful weapon.
The Washington Post said Lewis believes the silos could be designed for the Dongfeng-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which can carry multiple warheads and is capable of reaching targets as far as 9,300 miles away, potentially putting the continental United States within its range. Major excavation work on the site began earlier this year, Lewis said, although preparations may have been underway for months.
The Washington Post said it sent e-mails and faxes seeking comment to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Embassy in Washington, but received no response. White House and Defense Department officials also did not respond to inquiries about the reported silo construction project.
A Pentagon assessment of China’s military power last September concluded that China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads is expected to at least double over the next decade as it expands and modernizes its nuclear forces.
That Pentagon report said the number of Chinese nuclear warheads was then estimated to be slightly more than 200, including those that could be mounted on ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. The current estimate by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a civil society organization, is that China has a total of 320 nuclear warheads.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal is estimated to have 3,800 warheads in active service, far exceeding China’s nuclear arsenal. The United States has a “trinity” of nuclear strike capabilities, with submarines and aircraft capable of conducting nuclear strikes, as well as land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
China lacks the ability to deliver nuclear weapons from the air, but a Pentagon report last year said the People’s Liberation Army publicly disclosed in late 2019 that the Bo-6N was China’s first nuclear warfare bomber with aerial refueling capability.
According to the Pentagon report, the Chinese Navy has built 12 nuclear submarines over the past 15 years, six of which provide China with a “credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. By mid-2020, China is likely to build a new nuclear attack missile submarine that, if equipped with a ground cruise missile, could potentially provide the Chinese military with a covert ground attack capability option.
Earlier this month, Republican leaders of the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees sent a letter to President Biden urging him to develop a “comprehensive cross-sector strategy” to stop China’s nuclear expansion. They warned that failure to act on the matter could lead to China achieving “a degree of nuclear parity” with the United States by 2030. The Republican lawmakers called on the Biden administration to bring China into meaningful bilateral or trilateral U.S.-Russia-China arms control talks.
The Trump administration has urged China to join the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control talks, but the Chinese government has refused to participate. After President Biden took office, the United States and Russia agreed to a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the two countries.