NEW DELHI—China is building 120 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) near its northwestern desert city of Yumen, indicating a significant expansion in its nuclear forces and sparking concerns of a Taiwan-related conflict between China and the United States.
Construction of these silos began in March 2020, with major assembly happening rapidly after February 2021, and is likely meant for China’s DF-41 ICBM, which is capable of carrying multiple warheads, according to a satellite imagery analysis by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (CNS/MIIS).
“If the silos under construction at other sites across China are added to the count, the total comes to 144 silos under construction,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the CNS/MIIS in a summary of the analysis on his blog, Arms Control Wonk. “We believe China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a US first strike and retaliate in sufficient numbers to defeat US missile defenses.”
Lewis said that he “leans strongly towards” the interpretation that China is possibly building a large number of silos to “complicate the ability of the United States” to target China’s ICBM force.
S. Chandrashekhar, a former scientist with the Indian Space Research Organization whose work covered satellites and rockets, application of space technology, and particularly remote sensing, told The Epoch Times that the silos might be needed to increase the survivability of China’s ICBMs and that the Chinese may want some of these missiles to have the protection of underground tunnels with silos for launching.
“They may also use rail or other [forms of transportation]—moving them around to increase survivability,” he said, adding that the United States and even the Soviets or the Russians had used such approaches during the cold war.
“All of these that are reported are a logical extension of a plan that China has been pushing for some time,” he said.
In addition to the new silos in Yumen, there were reports of 16 new silos east of the city of Jilantai, according to another satellite imagery analysis done over a period of two years by Hans Kristensen and published by the Federation of American Scientists in February.
The Epoch Times couldn’t independently verify if the 144 new silos under construction in China include the 16 identified by Kristensen.
Possibility of US-China Conflict
Kunal Singh, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies nuclear weapons, told The Epoch Times in an email that he views the increase in silos as an indication of the Chinese leadership becoming more serious about the possibility of a U.S.-China conflict in the coming years.
“Any such conflict can remain limited but can also escalate even if none of the parties want it to,” said Singh. “China does not have nuclear parity with the United States. Far from parity, China is believed to have just enough nuclear warheads so as to threaten some retaliation after the United States strikes first.”
Abhishek Darbey, a research associate with the New Delhi-based Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, told The Epoch Times over the phone that the United States has around 5,500 nuclear weapons and the Chinese have around 350.
“There is a huge gap,” said Darbey. “Also, in terms of the deployment, the United States has nearly 1,376 nuclear weapons at any one time, while the Chinese have 50-70 ICBMs.”
Singh said this parity indicates China doesn’t have a large number of backup forces and building silos is a way to make sure that the United States will have to squander many of its missiles on these silos if it ever decides to strike China first.
“These silos could absorb a large number of U.S. missiles and this, China hopes, will keep the mobile missiles safer,” said Singh. “Essentially, the move seems to be driven by a calculation that a U.S.-China conflict has become much more likely, and hence, Beijing cannot just rest easy with its wafer-thin second-strike survivability.”
According to the CIA, China’s present development of its road-mobile solid-fuel ICBM force was triggered by the deployment of Trident II D5 missiles by the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, said Kristensen.
“This action-reaction dynamic is most likely a factor in China’s current modernization,” he said.
Chandrashekhar said that by building more silos, China is sending a clear message to the world.
“The silos for the DF 31 and DF 41 may be just to make sure that China’s second-strike capability is improved and to state it clearly … make it known to all that they have the numbers and the mobility to survive and retaliate,” he said, adding that these missiles are all directed at the United States.
“Other missiles located all over China on mobile transporters, submarines, aircraft, and ships—along with several other platforms and weapons—address regional actors such as Japan, Guam, and Taiwan,” said Chandrashekhar.
Kristensen mentioned in his report that the U.S. Air Force has 450 silos, of which 400 are loaded.
Pressure on the Region
According to Singh, if the silo buildup is preparation for a possible conflict with the United States, that brings up questions for regional U.S. allies.
“Indirectly, if the silos are an indication that a conflict over Taiwan is coming sooner than we expected, that raises a number of questions for Indo-Pacific countries like India, Japan, and Australia,” said Singh. “Each will have to decide the kind of role it has to play in the run-up to such a conflict and during the conflict.”
Darbey said U.S. military activities have increased around the eastern coast of China, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea. Almost every day there’s an American aircraft or a ship near the Chinese coast.
Such activities are usually followed by some Chinese military response and other diplomatic reactions from the Chinese foreign ministry, he said.
“These activities from either side are escalating both in terms of frequency and severity, and it has really created pressure for the Chinese Communist Party,” said Darbey. “The silos are actually to create a deterrence against the U.S. for any possible intervention in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan, or China.”
The Biden administration also sent an unofficial delegation to Taiwan in April this year, which the Chinese regime objected to, saying that it’s against the bilateral agreement signed between the two sides. Darbey noted that the United States also supports Taiwan militarily, which has always irked the regime.
Chandrashekhar, however, said that the likely possibility of any tense situation escalating into a hot war is very low.
“Small conflicts, tit-for-tat responses, especially in the South and East China seas, saber-rattling, a lot of media hype—all will happen,” he said. “Direct war? Unlikely.”