China has begun what could be a significant expansion of its nuclear force, but analysts say the motives behind the construction spree remain murky.
After discovering a site for missile silos under construction near Yumen in Gansu province in June, nuclear experts from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) used satellite imagery to locate a second field near Hami in the north-western region of Xinjiang.
“The silo construction at Yumen and Hami constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever,” the nuclear experts wrote in their report published on Tuesday.
Work on the second site in Hami, some 380 kilometres north-west of the first site in Yumen, began in March and has not yet progressed as far, they said.
Dome halls cover the view of 14 construction sites for the time being, as can be seen in the photos.
Based on the preparatory work on the complex, scientists estimate that it will be a grid of about 110 silos. The first field is estimated to have 120 silos.
It is not known, however, whether all the silos will also be fitted with missiles or how many will be for decoy purposes – meaning the actual number of new missiles intended for the silos could be smaller.
According to FAS estimates, China now possesses around 350 nuclear warheads. In 2020, the Pentagon spoke of a number in the low 200s, but already expected a doubling in the next 10 years. China’s arsenal is thus much smaller than that of the US or Russia, which each have 4,000 nuclear warheads.
According to experts, there could be various motives behind the construction of the missile silos on the part of the leadership of state and party leader Xi Jinping.
Among other things, it could be a reaction to the modernization of the nuclear forces of the US, Russia and India, the experts said.
China could also be concerned that its existing silos are easily attackable. They are within range of conventional US cruise missiles, while Yumen and Hami are further inland, they said. By increasing the number of silos, the ability to strike back would also improve.
The scientists also spoke of a switch in newer missiles from liquid to solid propellant, which would shorten response time by eliminating the need for refuelling.
Beijing is also concerned about US missile defence, which undermines the ability to launch a threatened retaliatory strike – and thus China’s deterrent potential.
The FAS said the silos could also be used as “empty decoys” intended to make Beijing’s arsenal appear bigger than it actually is.
So far, China operates a small nuclear arsenal that is said to be sufficient for “minimal deterrence.” However, Beijing may have come to the conclusion that it needs to expand its threat potential.
Officially, China has always maintained that it would not launch a first strike of nuclear weapons.
Since the late 1990s, the US has been trying in vain to persuade China to join international arms control negotiations.