Commercial satellite imagery obtained by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies suggest that China is building over 100 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in a desert close to the northwestern city of Yumen, which - if true, could signal a 'major expansion of Beijing's nuclear capabilities,' according to the Washington Post.
The Monterey, California-based James Martin Center says the images reveal that work is now underway at 'scores of sites across a grid covering hundreds of square miles' of arid terrain in the country's Gansu province. At least 119 nearly identical construction sites which contain features seen at existing launch facilities for China's nuclear arsenal have been observed.
The sites are spaced approximately two miles apart, and many are concealed by large, dome-like coverings - a practice WaPo says has been observed during construction at known missile silos. Where the dome is not in place, crews can be seen excavating a circular-shaped pit in the desert floor.
The acquisition of more than 100 new missile silos, if completed, would represent a historic shift for China, a country that is believed to possess a relatively modest stockpile of 250 to 350 nuclear weapons. The actual number of new missiles intended for those silos is unknown but could be much smaller. China has deployed decoy silos in the past.
During the Cold War, the United States developed a plan to move its ICBMs across a matrix of silos in a kind of nuclear shell game, to ensure that Soviet war planners could never know exactly where the missiles were at any given time.
The construction boom suggests a major effort to bolster the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent, said researcher Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on China’s nuclear arsenal and part of a team that analyzed the suspicious sites, first spotted by colleague Decker Eveleth as he scoured photos taken by commercial satellites over northwestern China. Lewis described the scale of the building spree as “incredible.” -WaPo
"If the silos under construction at other sites across China are added to the count, the total comes to about 145 silos under construction," said Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. "We believe China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a U.S. first strike in sufficient numbers to defeat U.S. missile defenses."
Lewis believes the silos will likely house a Chinese ICBM known as the DF-41, which is capable of carrying multiple warheads and has a reach of at least 9,300 miles, close enough to reach US mainland.
Is a cold war on the menu?
WaPo's logical conclusion from this - which, as they dutifully note 'follows recent warnings by Pentagon officials about rapid advances in China's nuclear capability,' is that a cold war is on the horizon - if not already here.
According to Lewis, the silo construction is part of an effort by Beijing to expand their deterrence strategy, as they continue to grow their arsenal in what appears to be an abandonment of their "limited deterrence" doctrine which prioritizes a robust, lean nuclear arsenal that maximizes China's ability to retaliate against adversaries if attacked.
In recent years, however, Chinese officials have complained that their country’s nuclear deterrent is losing credibility because of nuclear modernization programs proposed or already underway in Russia and the United States. Beijing has resisted calls to join new arms-control talks because of fears that new limits would forever enshrine its status as a second-rate nuclear power compared with Washington and Moscow.
The discovery follows recent warnings by Pentagon officials about rapid advances in China’s nuclear capability. Adm. Charles Richard, who commands U.S. nuclear forces, said at a congressional hearing in April that a “breathtaking expansion” was underway in China, including an expanding arsenal of ICBMs and new mobile missile launchers that can be easily hidden from satellites. In addition, the Chinese navy has introduced new nuclear-weapons-capable submarines to its growing fleet. -WaPo
Neither China's Foreign Ministry nor the US Department of Defense commented on the satellite images, however Pentagon spokesman John Supple noted that previous Pentagon reports and analysts have raised concerns over China's silos.
"Defense Department leaders have testified and publicly spoken about China’s growing nuclear capabilities, which we expect to double or more over the next decade," he said.
According to Lewis, "We’re stumbling into an arms race that is largely driven by U.S. investments and missile defense."