Chinese official media recently refuted a claim by a U.S. think tank that a large number of nuclear weapons silos have been built in Gansu Province based on satellite photos, pointing out that they are actually wind power plants. Experts interviewed by the Voice of America have analyzed the truth of the news from different angles.
The Washington Post recently quoted a U.S. think tank as saying that a large number of densely distributed bases were found in Gansu Province, presumably nuclear weapons launch facilities. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (JMCNS), a U.S. think tank, has determined from commercial satellite imagery that China is building a large number of intercontinental ballistic missile silos in Yumen, Gansu province. Jeffrey Lewis, the center’s director, has suggested that the silos may be designed for the Dongfeng-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, and speculated that China is significantly expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Chinese official media, Reference News, issued an article on July 6 to dispel the rumors, stating that the so-called “silos” were overly densely arranged as seen in the satellite images, and that one of the photos also stated “Yumen Gansu Wind Farm” (Gansu Wind (Yumen Gansu Wind Farm), but was ignored by experts and the U.S. media.
Whether this is a miscalculation by the United States, a deliberate attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to deceive its enemies, or a deeper calculation by the United States and China has led to speculation in military and strategic circles.
Geographic Suitability for Nuclear Silos
In an interview with the Voice of America, Wen-Ti Sung, a researcher at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), said that the nuclear silo theory cannot be completely ruled out because geography is an important piece of information.
He said, “The media has focused on ‘Yumen, Gansu,’ which is actually part of Jiuquan, Gansu Province, and a few hours away is the famous ‘Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center,’ also known as the ‘PLA 20th Test and Training Base. The PLA 20th Experimental Training Base’, which is part of the PLA Strategic Support Unit. The site is a major satellite launch site for the Chinese Communist Party. Considering the economies of scale and the similarity of technology and expertise required for satellites and missiles, it seems logical to have a wide range of facilities related to the launch of missiles near the satellite base.”
Shen Minglu, a researcher at Taiwan’s Institute of Defense and Security Studies’ Institute of Chinese Communist Politics and Military and Operational Concepts, agrees with this reasoning. He told VOA that every country’s intelligence gathering and strategic weapons facilities are carefully and prudently planned.
He said, “Although the photo says ‘Gansu Yumen Wind Power Plant,’ we can’t rule out that U.S. think tank scholars have information about the power plant on the surface, but in fact there are some weapons systems or ICBM-related activities inside or underground. And because satellites will shine around in the air, the ministry of weapons facilities is bound to be hidden.”
Senior military expert Wu Mingjie explained to the Voice of America, to the United States mainland as the target range considerations, China’s past nuclear bomb silos are mostly deployed in Henan or Shaanxi area, the southern most to Hunan, concentrated in central and northern China, and even Inner Mongolia is reasonable. But Gansu in the center of China, unless the range of about 13,000 kilometers or more of the East Wind 41 intercontinental missile range has been improved successfully, for the attack on the U.S. mainland is not meaningful.
He makes another geographical point: “The deployment of nuclear silos in Gansu cannot be ruled out, not necessarily as a factor against the United States. Because the East Wind 31 intercontinental missile has been able to point the sword at India. China has deployed missiles in Tianshui in Gansu in the past, and it is the East Wind 31 intercontinental missile that is supposed to deter not the United States, but India. So it is not true that all nuclear weapons are aimed at the United States.
The purpose of nuclear weapons is to defend, not attack
The U.S. think tank pointed out that there are 119 similar construction sites in Gansu province, according to satellite imagery, with features similar to China’s ballistic missile launch facilities that can carry nuclear warheads.
In terms of military strategy, China does not have the need to build a large number of nuclear weapons, Song Wendi said. In the ‘balance of attack and defense’ study, nuclear weapons are generally positioned as defensive weapons, not offensive weapons,” he said. If a nuclear weapon is actively used to launch a ‘first strike’ against countervalue targets, the enemy will suffer unimaginable losses and will often be able to strike back with a nuclear weapon (second strike), resulting in The result would be that both sides would lose and be close to annihilation, so nuclear weapons would not be considered as a tool for active attack.”
Song said that since neither side has the incentive to launch a first strike, a nuclear weapon would not be used as a strategic attack tool between two nuclear-armed countries; the purpose of having nuclear weapons is to deter the enemy from attacking, that is, for defense and prevention purposes. The goal, then, should be to maintain a “minimum credible deterrence” by constructing a “sufficient” number of nuclear warheads. Building too many nuclear weapons will only increase unhelpful expenditures and the risk of maintaining equipment and storage.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2020 Pentagon report on China’s military strength, China has about 200 nuclear warheads; according to a report by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute in Sweden in 2020, it was estimated that China had 290 warheads, but suddenly 30 more were added in the previous year, making a total of 320 warheads. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the PLA currently has 350 nuclear warheads, so it falls roughly in the range of 200 to 300.
The U.S. has 450 fixed nuclear silos in the U.S. West, and the number of Chinese silos is nowhere near that of the U.S., but if the total is over 150, it may have surpassed Russia’s 130 if the data is publicly available, so it cannot be ruled out that China is currently accelerating its nuclear development, especially the number of nuclear warheads,” Wu said. “
Adm. Charles Richard, commander-in-chief of Strategic Command, which oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal, said in a congressional hearing last April that he had learned that China’s fast nuclear reactors had increased rapidly, reflecting the rapid modernization of China’s nuclear weapons, and that China was now engaged in an “unprecedented expansion” of its nuclear weapons program. .
Launch silos not well distributed
Wu’s analysis, in terms of deployment, suggests that the overly dense silo planning does not make sense.
He said, “The current aerial images, which do not have a clear resolution, show that the so-called ‘silos’ are so densely located that they would be heavily damaged if attacked by the United States, which would defeat the original purpose of the missile silo deployment.”
Wu Mingjie pointed out that from the images it seems that each circular hole is not only very close to each other, but also very similar, so it is easy to be discovered by artificial satellites, which should be what the silo construction wants to avoid.
Song said the military trend in recent years has not been to increase the number of nuclear warheads, but to increase their “survivability,” and that missiles must be widely distributed to spread the risk. The more mobile China’s nuclear deployments are, the more diverse and unpredictable they become, and of course the more difficult it is for the U.S. to catch them in a net (e.g., in silos, cave bases, mobile military vehicles, nuclear submarines, etc.).
He said, “Conversely, if the PLA were to build these many nuclear silos in large numbers and intensively, wouldn’t the more dense they are, the less work the U.S. military would have to do, the easier it would be for the U.S. military to catch them in a first strike, and the more passive China’s nuclear deterrent would be?”
Is it a successful deception? Or was it a deliberate test?
Shen believes that the so-called miscalculation may be the result of a deliberate message released by U.S. satellites to test the authenticity of these wind farms after they were discovered by the U.S. satellite, based on precautionary intent.
He said: “Inference is not considered intelligence, and will usually take the form of further verification. If the United States is to send reconnaissance aircraft into Chinese territory to Gansu to confirm, the degree of difficulty is very high, so it is possible to operate through the media. When you see something strange to do further reconnaissance, when you can not use long-range reconnaissance aircraft, moderate release of some information, so as to confirm the truth, there can be some kind of verification purposes.”
Shen Ming room pointed out that the Chinese official media response can alleviate the concerns of the United States, but also to avoid the United States to carry out more detailed reconnaissance operations in Gansu, to avoid raising the conflict between the two countries.
Shen said the U.S. may also use the media to create a propaganda effect. He said: “After the media reports will attract attention to highlight the military threat of China. In particular, many media and scholars are concerned that China is actively trying to expand its nuclear warheads because of the U.S.-China standoff. The U.S. may want to use the media to reinforce the threat of China’s nuclear weapons.”
He believes the U.S. is worried about China’s expansion to include the number of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, while the traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads are the primary and safest launch systems, directly within the country’s borders, to launch attacks on enemy strategic targets.
A senior member of Taiwan’s military, who asked not to be named, told the Voice of America that in terms of strategy, building camouflaged silos is possible because “deception” is a common tactic in traditional military tactics, and the cost is much cheaper than building nuclear weapons, especially for the Chinese Communist People’s Liberation Army. He pointed out that the Chinese Communist Party is to enhance mobility in exchange for survival rate instead of quantity, which is completely different from the U.S. thinking. Regardless of its strength, the West’s extensive discussion of this issue has actually helped the CCP create free propaganda and achieve the deterrent effect it wants. As long as it affects the decision-making circles in the White House, the effect is better than a thousand horses, inexpensive and effective.
Wu Mingjie said, “If we talk about the possibility of ‘deceiving the enemy,’ it is like the game of gopher, where some of the caves in the so-called ‘silos’ on the ground are empty, but to disguise that they already have the deterrent capability of a large number of nuclear warheads, this cannot be ruled out. capability, that can’t be ruled out either, and that’s really what’s possible with the limited information currently available on nuclear deployments.”
Strategic Thinking and Discourse to Face Challenges
Long-term trends are more important than individual bits and pieces of information, Song said. Similarly the authenticity of this Gansu Yumen intercontinental missile silo is actually a secondary issue, the focus being on the very obvious willingness of the Chinese Communist Party to expand its military power.
He said, “Militarily, this includes the increase in long-range conventional force projection capabilities brought about by the acquisition of overseas military bases, and the maturing Chiron-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile, which is expected to be integrated with the PLA’s next-generation submarines around 2025, with a range of more than 10,000 kilometers, posing a significant threat to the Indo-Pacific countries and the U.S. West Coast; politically, in this Politically, in this centennial year of the CCP’s founding, according to Xi Jinping’s official account of the CCP’s history, the so-called ‘stand up, get rich, get strong’ trilogy, Xi Jinping’s new era is the era of ‘getting strong’, which corresponds to the ‘strong military dream ‘ is especially evident as an important part of the ‘Chinese Dream’ after the CCP’s military reform.”
Song emphasized that since the U.S. and its Western democratic allies have set the strategic tone of “cooperation with China,” the priority should be to think about how to face the new variables and challenges at both the strategic level and the ideological discourse, rather than the authenticity of individual cases of nuclear weapons silos.