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.
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.
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.