Rapid construction at three suspected silo fields in China – which could eventually be capable of launching long-range nuclear missiles – appears to indicate that Beijing is putting substantial efforts and resources into the development of its nuclear capabilities, according to analysis of new commercial satellite images.
Experts from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a nonpartisan national security research and advocacy organization, found that China has made significant progress on suspected silo fields in the western part of the country.
“For China, this is an unprecedented nuclear buildup,” wrote Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen, the authors of the FAS report released Tuesday.
The authors noted that “the missile silo fields are still many years away from becoming fully operational and it remains to be seen how China will arm and operate them.”
However, recent reports of Chinese activities have added to concerns from US officials about China’s rapid military progress. The suspected development of a first missile silo field was reported in late June. Following another report from FAS released in July on China’s suspected development of a second silo field, US Strategic Command tweeted, “This is the second time in two months the public has discovered what we have been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it.”
Navy Adm. Charles A. Richard, the commander of US Strategic Command, said in August that “we are witnessing a strategic breakout by China.”
“The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking. And frankly, that word breathtaking may not be enough,” he said.
The commercial satellite images from Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs analyzed by FAS offer some of the most detailed pictures yet of three suspected missile silo fields, where the Chinese appear to be constructing roughly 300 new missile silos.
“What’s notable, of course, is the scale and the speed of this that this is so out of sync with what the Chinese have done on missile silos ever before,” Kristensen told CNN.
CNN has reached out to the Chinese government for comment on new report.
China’s ongoing development of the silos comes as the country is bolstering its military capabilities significantly.
The US has said that China tested a hypersonic weapon over the summer which Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley called “very concerning.” He also said that “Chinese military capabilities are much greater than that” single test.
However, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the August test was “a spacecraft, not a missile.”
China has long committed to a minimum deterrence policy, meaning it keeps its nuclear arsenal at the minimum level necessary to deter an adversary from attacking. It is believed to have about one-tenth the nuclear weapons that Russia and the US have and has a no-first-use policy.
A change in China’s approach?
Some experts and officials say recent developments raise questions about its commitment to that policy.
Nicholas Burns, the Biden administration’s nominee to be US Ambassador to China, said during his confirmation hearing last month that the Chinese “are blasting past that definition (of a minimum nuclear deterrent), and they’re rapidly engaged in the buildup of their nuclear arsenal, including the disturbing reports of the hypersonic technology.”
Benjamin Friedman, the policy director of Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank, said he believes China has not fundamentally changed policy, “but they seem to have decided that it takes a little more than it used to,” and “we shouldn’t take the development of more missiles necessarily as a different approach on the Chinese part, it might just be that they think the same approach takes more weapons than it used to.”
“The United States has long continued to pursue a first strike capability against all nuclear adversaries – that is the ability to have enough weapons, and nuclear weapons are most important in that, to destroy their entire arsenal in one go,” said Friedman, adding that China probably feels “they might need a little more insurance against the prospect of the US disarming first strike for various reasons.”
Kristensen of FAS said that the construction of the silo fields “likely has to do with the fact that the Chinese leadership has just decided that China has to be big militarily, and the nuclear forces have to match that.”
He also noted that it “reduces the vulnerability that anyone can knock them out in a surprise attack.”
It is unclear if the US will be able to know with certainty if these silos are filled with missiles, creating a conundrum for the US in determining how to counter or compete with China’s buildup.
Some experts point out that this may be part of China’s strategy.
“China may fill these out eventually but in the interim, when they are not all filled out, would the US be able to distinguish with certainty which silos are filled and which aren’t and would we have to commit to destroying all of these no matter what? If that is the case then the US has to commit maybe twice the number of warheads to all of the silos,” said Vipin Narang, a professor of political science focusing on nuclear proliferation and strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“If you are the US this forces you to re-think nuclear planning,” he said.
The images in the report also reveal that China appears to be constructing other types of support facilities around the silos, Kristensen said. The report says they are almost the size of a football stadium – to protect the silo construction area from severe environmental factors. The experts who compiled the report also noted that the shelters may have been constructed to “hide technical details from satellites.”