China Increasing Its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Silos By A Factor Of Ten: Report

A new ICBM silo field taking shape in the northwest of the country is the second to be identified in only a month.

byThomas Newdick|
China photo


Recent satellite imagery shows that China appears to be building another major intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, silo field, the second of its kind to have been identified by analysts in the space of a month. This is a major development, with the analysts responsible for locating it describing it as “the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever.” However, while Beijing now seems to be rapidly building up a previously neglected arm of its strategic missile forces, exactly why it is doing this now remains something of a mystery.

The new field of silos was identified as such by Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and it’s located near the city of Hami in the eastern end of Xinjiang province, in the northwest of China. The analysts’ findings were first published in the New York Times.

Kristensen/Korda/FAS 2021

The new missile silo field near Hami is around 240 miles northwest of the one that was revealed earlier this month, near Yumen, in Gansu province.

While imagery of the Yumen field seems to reveal that construction is underway on 120 missile silos, work that started in February, the one near Hami is less far advanced, with work reportedly having begun there only this past March. Since then, however, the telltale dome-like shelters that analysts have identified as being associated with the building of silos have appeared over at least 14 individual sites at Hami, with preparations noted at 19 others. In all, Korda and Kristensen expect that the Hami field could accommodate around 110 silos, arranged in a fairly dense, grid-like pattern, with the silos apparently less than two miles apart.

In the past, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has relied upon a small force of around 20 silos for its liquid-fueled DF-5 missiles, the only operational silo-based ICBMs in its inventory, with a handful of other silos used for training and test purposes.

Now, presuming that the FAS analysis is correct, and it’s hard to see another explanation for this construction activity, China is on its way to boost its silo-based ICBM force to around 250 silos in total.

As Korda and Kristensen point out, that would provide China with more silo-based ICBMs than Russia and more than half the number fielded by the United States. China, like Russia, also operates road-mobile ICBM launchers, with around 100 thought to be in the active PLARF inventory.

The road-mobile DF-41 ICBM., KYODO VIA AP IMAGES

Were all the silos at Hami to be filled with missiles, each carrying a single warhead, China would, at a stroke, increase its deployed ICBM warheads from around 185 warheads today to as many as 415 warheads, according to FAS projections.

The mathematics becomes even more worrisome should China deploy missiles with multiple independent reentry vehicles, or MIRVs, which could triple the number of warheads on each missile. That remains uncertain, however, as is whether China will actually fill each of the silos with a missile of any kind.

Nevertheless, the latest developments at Hami, especially taken together with those at Yumen, seem to confirm previous Pentagon assessments regarding increasing numbers of Chinese warheads and ICBM silos, as well as a different type of deterrence posture.

In total, FAS assesses China as having around 350 nuclear warheads of all types, today, although not all of these are fully operational. The Pentagon, meanwhile, puts the operational nuclear warhead figure in the “low-200s,” as stated in last year’s Annual Report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments.

The overall figure has, for some time now, been predicted to grow, with Admiral Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, stating earlier this year that he expected China’s nuclear weapons stockpile “to double (if not triple or quadruple) over the next decade.”

When the previous missile silo field was uncovered at Yumen, some analysts, including Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on missiles and nuclear weapons at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, suggested that it might indicate that China was about to introduce a “shell game” strategy, something that The War Zone

considered at the time. In this, potentially large numbers of silos are filled with perhaps only a few functional missiles, providing potential enemies with much more complicated targeting requirements, should they wish to wipe out all the silo-based ICBMs in a first strike.

Once again, it’s possible that the Hami missile silo field will be expected to work in the same way. Furthermore, the fairly close proximity of the two new large-scale silo fields might also point to this being the plan.

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As to the potential reasons why China has apparently chosen to pursue an ICBM silo-building program as the means to increase its strategic nuclear arsenal, there are many, with FAS suggesting that there are likely a number of complementary contributing factors that have driven this policy change.

All of these possibilities also have to be seen against the backdrop of wider strategic weapons developments — both offensive and defensive — currently being pursued by India, Russia, and the United States, all of which are strategic and/or regional rivals to China. At the same time, these countries are also pursuing new types of weapons that could have the ability to tip the strategic balance, such as hypersonic weapons, now under development in India, Russia, and the United States.

With this in mind, rapidly adding a significant number of new ICBM silos could be a simple statement of national ambition, helping signal that Beijing is narrowing the gap with its superpower rivals, although each of these countries still possesses far more nuclear weapons in total than China, which probably has less than a fifth of the stockpiles of either Russia or the United States. This theory has it that the new ICBMs are primarily about a demonstration of economic, technological, and military prowess.

However, the additional ICBMs may also reveal that China is moving away from its previous “minimum deterrence” posture, in which relatively small numbers of missiles are kept on alert. Should all the new silos be filled with ICBMs, that would clearly mark a move away from that posture and toward a much-expanded nuclear strike capability that can hold more targets at risk.

Among the other, more specific possible reasons for the development are China’s need to improve the survivability of its ICBM silos to ensure it can launch them against an aggressor if required. The more ICBM silos that are available, the higher the chances that at least some of these might survive a first strike. While the missiles at both the new silo fields might be grouped closely together, which would apparently make them more vulnerable, it may also be significant that the two new installations are located deeper within China’s boundaries, putting them out of reach of attack by conventional missiles, like the stealthy AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM.

Here again, the “shell game” strategy could potentially come into play, making it yet more complicated for a potential aggressor to wipe out China’s ICBMs pre-emptively. Adding dummy missiles into the mix could further enhance this. As nuclear policy expert Ankit Panda has observed, the “shell game” could also be a good starting point in the short term, while China continues to build up its ICBM forces, filling all of the silos over the longer term.

The move may also be linked to developments in U.S. missile defenses, as part of a wider initiative to add more Chinese ICBMs, of all kinds, to increase the chances that these will defeat the Ground-based Midcourse Defense missile defense system, or GMD, for example. However, it should be noted that this system is primarily meant to help protect the United States against limited ICBM strikes, such as those that could be launched from North Korea or Iran.

FAS also points to the possibility that Beijing might be about to change the way it puts its ICBMs on alert. While FAS assesses that China’s silo-based missiles are likely fielded without their warheads fitted, at least during peacetime, the new silo fields could suggest that this might in the future be switched to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture, in keeping with those fielded by Russia and the United States and offering a significantly faster response time.

Launch-on-warning would provide the option for a “retaliatory” nuclear strike by launching missiles when an incoming nuclear missile attack was detected, but before any of the incoming warheads had actually detonated. It would, however, potentially demand a more robust and reliable early warning system.

As the 2020 Annual Report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments stated: “New developments in 2019 […] suggest that China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.”

There are also factors of modernization at play, above all the continued move away from liquid-fueled ICBMs like the DF-5 toward solid-fueled missiles. These are not only more reliable but can be deployed much more rapidly, without the need to fuel them in advance, in turn making them more survivable.

MIRVed DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles during a parade in Beijing in 2015., AP/Voice of America

Lastly, FAS raises the possibility that the apparent expansion of China’s silo-based ICBM force should be seen as a means of balancing the overall nuclear deterrent force, which has previously been weighted in favor of road-mobile launchers, although these would, at first glance, seem to offer a number of significant advantages over their silo-based counterparts, not least in terms of survivability.

Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that China is fast moving away from its “minimum deterrence” posture, with significant developments also underway in its road-mobile ICBM arsenal, as well as continued modernization of its ballistic missile submarine fleet and, it’s presumed, a new manned bomber also imminent.

“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 US and Russian nuclear arsenals cannot be reduced further but instead must be adjusted to take into account the Chinese nuclear build-up,” the FAS report concludes.

Korda and Kristensen also make the case for arms controls as the most realistic way of slowing the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal from this point on, although they note that efforts in this direction have been fraught with difficulty in the past. This includes an unsuccessful attempt by President Donald Trump to bring China within the New START treaty, which puts upper limits on Russian and U.S. intercontinental-range nuclear weapons. China, for its part, is already well below the limits outlined by New START.

“Bringing China and other nuclear-armed states into a sustained arms control dialogue will require a good-faith effort that will require the United States to clearly articulate what it is willing to trade in return for limits on Chinese forces,” FAS suggests. Moreover, even with significant increases in China’s ICBM force and nuclear stockpile, these are both likely to remain smaller than those of Russia and the United States, which implicitly presents challenges for arms control dealing in terms of flat reductions, parity, etc. 

One potential tradeoff for China could involve a limit imposed on U.S. missile defenses, a topic that is already controversial, not least because of the enormous cost involved in fielding missile interceptors, the utility of which can be simply eroded by an enemy building more missiles to overwhelm them — by adding another ICBM silo field, for example. At the same time, China would still have significant room to grow its nuclear arsenal and still be within New START limits.

The move could, however, reflect that China is increasingly aware that, sooner or later, it too will become involved within international arms control negotiations, in which case the additional silo capacity could be a useful trading card. Relatively simple and less expensive to deploy than mobile-, submarine- or air-launched strategic nuclear weapons, Beijing could be willing to sacrifice these new silos at a later date, if it felt it was advantageous and that Russia and/or the United States was compelled to respond in kind.

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