In the barren desert 1,200 miles west of Beijing, the Chinese government is digging a new field of what appears to be 110 silos for launching nuclear missiles. It is the second such field discovered in the past few weeks by analysts studying commercial satellite imagery.
It could mean a huge expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal – the need for an economic and technological superpower to show that, after decades of reluctance, it is ready to deploy an arsenal the size of Washington or Moscow.
Or it can simply be a creative, albeit costly, negotiating trick.
The new silos are apparently built to be discovered. The latest silo field, which began in March, is located in the eastern part of the Xinjiang region, not far from one of the notorious Chinese “re-education” camps in the city of Hami. It was identified late last week by nuclear experts from the Federation of American Scientists from images of a fleet of Planet Labs satellites and shared with the New York Times.
For decades, since its first successful nuclear test in the 1960s, China has maintained a “minimal deterrent” that most outside experts estimate at around 300 nuclear weapons. (The Chinese won’t say so, and the US government’s assessments will be classified.) If that’s true, that’s less than a fifth of the number deployed by the United States and Russia, and in the nuclear world, China has always considered itself an occupier of moral height and avoids expensive and dangerous arms races.
But that seems to be changing under President Xi Jinping. While China is cracking down on dissent at home, claiming new control over Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan and using cyber weapons much more aggressively, it is breaking new ground with nuclear weapons.
“The silo construction at Yumen and Hami represents the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal of all time,” write Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen in a study on the new silo field. They found that China has operated about 20 silos for large liquid-fuel missiles called DF-5s for decades. But the newly discovered field, combined with one hundreds of miles away in Yumen, northeast China, discovered by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, will bring about 230 new silos to the country. The Washington Post previously reported the existence of this first field with around 120 silos.
The puzzle is why China’s strategy has changed.
There are several theories. The simplest is that China now sees itself as a comprehensive economic, technological and military superpower – and wants an arsenal to match that status. Another possibility is that China is concerned about the increasingly effective American missile defense and India’s nuclear build-up, which is advancing rapidly. Then there is Russia’s announcement of new hypersonic and autonomous weapons and the possibility that Beijing may want a more effective deterrent.
A third is that China is concerned that its few ground-based missiles are vulnerable to attack – and by building more than 200 silos spread across two locations, they can play a shell game, move 20 or more missiles, and unit make states guess where they are. This technique is as old as the nuclear arms race.
“Just because you build the silos doesn’t mean you have to fill them all with missiles,” says Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in nuclear strategy. “You can move them.”
July 26, 2021, 9:32 p.m. ET
And of course you can swap them. China may believe that sooner or later it will be drawn into arms control negotiations with the United States and Russia – something President Donald J. Trump tried to force in his final year in office when he said he would not renew the New START treaty on Russia unless China, which never participated in nuclear arms control, was included. The Chinese government rejected the idea, saying if Americans were so concerned they should cut their arsenal by four-fifths to Chinese levels.
The result was a standstill. At the very end of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his arms control officer Marshall Billingslea wrote: “We have asked Beijing for transparency and, together with the United States and Russia, to work out a new arms control agreement covering all categories of nuclear weapons.”
“It is time for China to stop posing and acting responsibly,” they wrote.
But the Biden government had come to the conclusion that it would be unwise to phase out New START with Russia just because China refused to join. After his term in office, President Biden acted quickly to renew the treaty with Russia, but his administration has said that at some point it would like China to make some kind of deal.
These conversations have yet to begin. Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is this week for the first visit by a senior American diplomat to China since Mr Biden took office, although it is not clear that nuclear weapons are on the agenda. In addition to leading nuclear talks with Russia.
At the White House, the National Security Council declined to comment on evidence of China’s growing arsenal.
It is likely that American spy satellites picked up the new build months ago. But it all came public after Mr. Korda, a research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, used civilian satellite imagery to survey the arid hinterland of Xinjiang, a rugged area of mountains and deserts in northwest China. He looked for visual clues about the silo construction that matched what the researchers had already discovered.
In February, the Federation of American Scientists reported the expansion of missile silos at a military training area near Jilantai, a city in Inner Mongolia. The group found 14 new silos under construction. Then came the discovery in Yumen.
While searching the Xinjiang wilderness, Mr. Korda specifically looked for inflatable domes – similar to those that house some tennis courts. Chinese engineers erect them over the construction sites of underground missile silos to hide the work underneath. Suddenly, about 250 miles northwest of the recently discovered base, he found a series of inflatable domes, almost identical to those in Yumen, on another sprawling military compound.
The new construction site is in a remote area that the Chinese authorities have cut off from most of the visitors. It is about 60 miles southwest of the city of Hami, known as the site of a re-education camp where the Chinese government detains Uyghurs and members of other minorities. And it’s about 260 miles east of a tidy complex of buildings with large roofs that can open to the sky. Recently, analysts identified the site as one of five military bases where the Chinese armed forces have built lasers that can fire concentrated beams of light at reconnaissance satellites, which are mainly sent into the air by the United States. The lasers blind or deactivate fragile optical sensors.
Working with his colleague, Mr. Kristensen, a weapons expert who leads the group’s nuclear information project, Mr. Korda used satellite photos to explore the site.
The new silos are a little less than two miles apart, according to their report. In total, the sprawling construction site covers around 300 square miles – similar in size to the Yumen base, also in the desert.
Mr. Narang said the two new silo fields gave the Chinese government “many options”.
“It’s not crazy,” he said. “You are making the United States target many silos that may be empty. They can slowly fill these silos when they need to build their strength. And they get influence in arms control. “
“I’m surprised they didn’t do that a decade ago,” he said.