China steps up nuclear options with new missile silos in desert
Researchers in the United States have identified the construction of 119 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos in a desert in northwest China, indicating that the country is implementing plans to bolster its strategic nuclear capability.
Researchers spotted the construction on commercial satellite images of remote areas west and southwest of Yumen City, on the edge of the Gobi Desert in Gansu Province.
The images show circular excavations, long trenches for communications and surface structures compatible with control centers and silos at other launch sites in China, according to Jeffrey Lewis, Chinese nuclear program expert at the James Martin Center. for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of international studies in Monterey, California.
“It was a recognizable design,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s hard to imagine it being anything else.”
The construction of the silo risks fueling the debate in Washington on the Pentagon’s plans to modernize the American nuclear arsenal. It could also boost the efforts of the Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, to bring China into strategic arms control negotiations that have so far only involved the United States, the Union. Soviet and Russia.
“This build-up – it’s concerning,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price, when asked about the construction, who was reported earlier in the Washington Post.
“We encourage Beijing to engage with us on practical measures to reduce the risks of destabilizing tensions,” he added.
China has refused to join arms control talks, arguing that its nuclear arsenal is much smaller than that of the world’s two major nuclear powers. At the same time, it pursued a broad modernization program which raised questions about its intentions.
China’s most recent defense strategy, released in 2019, said it would maintain “its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security.” He also pledged not to use nuclear weapons first or against a non-nuclear state. China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to questions on the site.
The silo’s construction is not unexpected, although its speed and scale surprised the researchers who studied them. In April, the Commander of United States Strategic Command, Admiral Charles A. Richard, appeared to hint at developments when he told a congressional committee that China was expanding its missile silos. “on a potentially large scale”.
that of the Pentagon last report on Chinese military forces, published last fall, estimated that the Chinese maintain “an operational stockpile of nuclear warheads in the order of 200”, comprising about 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The report said China intends to strengthen its “nuclear triad” of strategic weapons that would allow it to launch nuclear weapons from land, sea and air.
“These developments and China’s lack of transparency raise concerns that China is not only changing its demands for what constitutes minimal deterrence, but that it may move away from its long-standing minimalist posture of strength,” he said. the Pentagon report said.
Monterey researchers say China began construction on the site last year, shortly after launching its latest intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-41, during the 2019 military parade in Beijing celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Although the DF-41 is designed for mobile launchers, the Pentagon has indicated that China intends to base some of them in underground silos. Work on the site accelerated in February, Lewis said.
In February, the Federation of American Scientists reported the expansion of silos at a military training site near Jilantai, about 600 miles east of Inner Mongolia.
The design of the Yumen site does not necessarily mean that China intends to deploy another 100 missiles there. Instead, it might reflect a strategy envisioned by the United States in the 1970s in which a reduced number of missiles are moved among a larger array of silos like a “shell set”, making it more difficult. for an opponent to destroy them on a first strike.
“This is obviously potentially a very large increase,” said Mr Lewis, “and I think this is going to have a pretty big impact on the debates about replacing the US ICBM and missile defense and other programs. . “