China appears to be upping the ante on its nuclear shell game.
But rather than engage in an expensive arms race with Washington and Moscow, China has embraced a “limited deterrence” doctrine that prioritizes a lean but robust nuclear arsenal that ensures Beijing’s ability to retaliate if attacked.
According to a report in the Washington Post, China has begun construction of what independent experts say are more than 100 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in a desert near the northwestern city of Yumen.
Those same experts say it marks a building spree that could signal a major expansion of Beijing’s nuclear capabilities.
Commercial satellite images obtained by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, show work underway at scores of sites across a grid covering hundreds of square miles of arid terrain in China’s Gansu province, the Post reported.
The 119 nearly identical construction sites contain features that mirror those seen at existing launch facilities for China’s arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
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 Post reported.
China’s nuclear arsenal is dwarfed by those of the United States and Russia, which collectively possess more than 11,000 nuclear warheads.
During the Cold War, the US 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 Post reported.
China appears to be taking a page from that book, with the scale of the building spree being described as “incredible.”
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.
“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.
“We believe China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a US first strike in sufficient numbers to defeat US missile defenses.”
The discovery follows recent warnings by Pentagon officials about rapid advances in China’s nuclear capability.
Adm. Charles Richard, who commands US 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, the Post reported.
The construction sites spotted on satellite photos are arrayed in two huge swaths, covering parts of a desert basin stretching to the west and southwest of Yumen, a city of 170,000 people along China’s ancient Silk Road.
Each site is separated from its neighbors by about two miles, and many of the sites are concealed by a large, dome-like covering.
Lewis said the silos are probably intended for a Chinese ICBM known as the DF-41, which can carry multiple warheads and reach targets as far away as 9,300 miles, potentially putting the US mainland within its reach, the Post reported.
Based on his analysis, Lewis said, there was “a very good chance that China is planning a shell game” in which it hides a small number of warheads across a network of silos.
The matter also assumes significance for India, with India and China locked in a military standoff at the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh since last year.
Since a disengagement of troops from both sides at the contentious Pangong Tso area in March this year, there has been no further breakthrough in military and diplomatic talks.
Emails and faxes seeking comment from China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not receive a response.
Sources: The Washington Post, The Print, Planet/Center for Nonproliferation Studies, CIA World Factbook