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China’s nuclear missile silo expansion: From minimum deterrence to medium deterrence

China’s nuclear missile silo expansion: From minimum deterrence to medium deterrence, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists , By Hans M. KristensenMatt Korda | September 1, 2021  US defense officials have claimed for several years that China is planning to at least double its nuclear warhead stockpile over the next decade, but without providing the public any details to back up their claim. That changed this summer, when two nongovernmental organizations—our own included—disclosed construction of what appears to be hundreds of new missile silos in central China.

Not surprisingly, reactions from defense hawks and arms controllers to this development span a wide range. Some claim that China is becoming an even greater nuclear threat that requires the United States and its allies to beef up their militaries even more. Others claim that China is responding to US provocations, and that arms control is the only way forward.

Most will probably use the disclosure to reaffirm existing beliefs. But that would be a mistake. The development requires all sides to think hard about what it means for Chinese nuclear policy, how it plans to operate its nuclear forces, how other nuclear-armed states will or should respond, and what the international nuclear nonproliferation and arms control community can and should do to reduce nuclear risks.

How many silos are under construction? The Chinese government has made no official public announcement about what it is building, and the nature, scale, and role of the suspected missile silos remains uncertain. (Some have even suggested they are not silos, but windmills.) But the satellite imagery that we have analyzed, combined with US government officials issuing apparent confirmations (herehere, and here), indicate that the construction involves hundreds of missile silos.

The first missile silo field near Yumen was disclosed by the Middlebury Institute in late-June. The second field near Hami was disclosed by the Federation of American Scientists in late-July. The third field near Ordos (Hanggin Banner) was disclosed by a military research unit at Air University in mid-August.

The three sites are in different stages of construction. The Yumen field began construction in March 2020 and appears to include 120 silos. Construction of the Hami field began in February 2021 and might eventually include 110 silos. The Ordos field, which began construction in April or May 2021, has a different layout and so far only appears to include about 40 silos (it could potentially grow later). Each missile silo field appears to include a number of other facilities that might be launch-control centers, bases, and support facilities.

Construction of the Yumen, Hami, and Ordos missile silo fields follow shortly after construction began of half a dozen silos that we discovered at the PLARF training site near Jilantai in Inner Mongolia, initially described in September 2019 and reported expanding further in February 2021.

In addition to these four projects, open-source researchers noted in 2020 that China might also be building a small number of silos near its traditional missile silo area near Checunzhen (Sundian) in the Henan Province.

All told, these discoveries indicate that China might be constructing nearly 300 new missile silos.

Why is China building so many silos? Missile silos are nothing new for China, which has deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in silos since the early 1980s. It is estimated that China currently has about 20 silos for the old (but modified) liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBM. However, building nearly 300 silos is certainly new. The decision to do so has probably not been caused by a single issue but by a combination of factors. In all these cases, it is important to remember that Chinese planning is not solely occupied with the United States, but also what Russia and increasingly India are doing:

Reducing the vulnerability of China’s ICBMs to a first strike: China is concerned that its nuclear deterrent is too vulnerable to a US (or Russian) surprise attack. The previous small number of fixed silos have long been seen as particularly vulnerable. According to the US Central Intelligence Agency, China’s decision to develop the modern road-mobile ICBMs we see today was a reaction to the US Navy’s deployment of Ohio-class Trident ballistic missile submarines in the Pacific. Road-mobile launchers are less vulnerable, but they’re not invulnerable. By increasing the number of silos, more ICBMs could potentially survive a surprise attack and be able to launch their missiles in retaliation. This action-reaction dynamic is most likely a factor in China’s current modernization.

Overcoming potential effects of missile defenses: Chinese planners are likely concerned that increasingly capable missile defenses could undermine China’s retaliatory capability. The US Sentinel (and particularly the Safeguard) missile defense systems in the 1960s and 1970s were partly intended to defend against Chinese ICBMs. Chinese officials reacted to the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 by saying that they would compensate as necessary. Part of that reaction might have been the decision to equip the DF-5B ICBM with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The new DF-41 ICBM is also MIRV-capable and the future JL-3 SLBM will be capable of carrying multiple warheads. By increasing the number of silo-based, solid-fuel missiles and the number of warheads that they can carry, Chinese planners might be seeking to ensure that a sufficient number of warheads will be able to penetrate missile defense systems…………….

Increasing China’s nuclear strike capability: China’s “minimum deterrence” posture has historically kept the number of nuclear launchers at a relatively low level. But the Chinese leadership might have decided that it needs more missiles with more warheads to hold more adversary facilities at risk. This is not just about targeting the United States and its facilities in the Pacific. Russia is also increasing its military forces, and India is developing several types of longer-range missiles that appear to be explicitly intended to target China. All of these adversaries influence China’s decision on how many and what types of nuclear weapons it needs…………..

China now appears to be moving from a “minimum deterrent” to a “medium deterrent” that will position China between the smaller nuclear-armed states (France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea) and the two big ones (Russia and the United States)…………….

The Biden administration is now preparing its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that will outline the role and structure of the US nuclear posture for the next decade. When he was vice president and again during his presidential election campaign, Joe Biden spoke in favor of reducing the numbers and role of nuclear weapons. But Admiral Richard has publicly been making it quite clear that he opposes US significant changes: …………. https://thebulletin.org/2021/09/chinas-nuclear-missile-silo-expansion-from-minimum-deterrence-to-medium-deterrence/

September 2, 2021 - Posted by | China, weapons and war

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