China has begun construction on more than 100 missile silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in a desert near the northwestern city of Yumen, experts have said.
Researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California have obtained commercial satellite images that they say show the construction of the silos underway.
The images show 119 nearly identical construction sites that the analysts say mirror features seen at existing launch facilities for China’s arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, according to The Washington Post.
A satellite image shows one of the construction sites, where the site appears to be hidden under a 230-foot dome cover – something used at other known Chinese silo sites
China is believed to possess a relatively small stockpile of nuclear weapons (when compared to the U.S. and Russia), of between 250 to 350. Therefore, the new silos could represent a significant up-scale in warheads.
However, China has been known to build decoy silos in the past.
Such a tactic was used by the U.S. in the Cold War, moving its ICBMs between silos to ensure the Soviets would never know their exact location.
The construction suggests China is aiming to bolster the credibility of its nuclear deterrent, researcher Jeffrey Lewis told The Post.
‘If the silos under construction at other sites across China are added to the count, the total comes to about 145 silos under construction,’ Lewis said in a summary of his findings to the newspaper.
The director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies said ‘We believe China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a U.S. first strike in sufficient numbers to defeat U.S. missile defenses’.
He added that the silos are likely intended to hold the Chinese ICBM known as the DF-41, which can carry multiple warheads as far as 9,300 miles. This potentially puts the U.S. mainland in its reach.
Pictured: Satellite imagery showing the locations of where experts believe China is constructing the more than 100 silos
Pictured: A satellite image believed to show a possible launch control facility among the silos
The apparent silo construction sites spotted in the satellite images are grouped in two huge swathes, covering parts of a desert basin west and south-west of Yumen.
Each site is separated from its neighbours by about two miles, with many of the construction sites concealed by large, dome-like coverings.
This is a practice that is also carried out at other known sites for missile silos in other parts of China, according to The Washington Post.
Satellite images from the sites with no cover show construction crews excavating a characteristically circular-shaped hole being excavated in the desert floor.
Another site appears to show a partially built control centre.
Commercial satellite image shows one of the suspected silo sites in China, near the northwestern city of Yumen. The one in this image doesn’t appear to have a cover
U.S. intelligence officials at the Pentagon have recently warned about rapid advances in China’s nuclear capability.
Speaking at a congressional hearing in April, Admiral Charles Richards – who commands U.S. nuclear forces – said that a ‘breathtaking expansion’ to its nuclear capabilities was underway in China.
This includes expanding its arsenal of ICBMs and new mobile missile launches that can easily be hidden from satellites, he warned.
The Chinese navy has also introduced a new nuclear-weapons-capable submarine to its growing fleet.
When asked for comment by The Post, a defence department spokesman declined to comment on the images, but noted that U.S. intelligence reports have raised concerns about the expansion of China’s nuclear capabilities.
‘Defense Department leaders have testified and publicly spoken about China’s growing nuclear capabilities, which we expect to double or more over the next decade,’ John Supple told the newspaper.
Each site is separate from its neighbours by about two miles (pictured left), with many of the construction site concealed by large, dome-like covering (bottom-right)
Missile silos are easily found by trained satellite imagery analysts, and are therefore vulnerable to destruction by precise missile strikes in the early hours of nuclear war.
For this reason, Lewis said he believes the project to be part of an expanded deterrent project from China, whose nuclear arsenal pales in comparison to those possessed by the United States and Russia.
The two superpowers collectively own more than 11,000 nuclear warheads.
Instead of trying to match their rivals’ number of nuclear warheads, China has typically employed a ‘limited deterrence’ approach with a smaller but robust arsenal that would ensure Beijing could retaliate if attacked.
But in recent years, Chinese officials have voiced their concerns about the country’s nuclear deterrent losing its credibility, falling behind modernisation programmes already being undertaken by Washington and Moscow.
Beijing has resisted calls to join new arms-control talks between US and Russian officials, fearing new limits would hamstring them further.