Alfredo Cuadros Posted On March 2, 2021
China appears to be moving faster toward a capability to launch its newer nuclear missiles from underground silos, possibly to improve its ability to respond promptly to a nuclear attack, according to an American expert who analyzed satellite images of recent construction at a missile training area.
He said the imagery suggests that China is seeking to counter what it may view as a growing threat from the United States. The U.S. in recent years has pointed to China’s nuclear modernization as a key justification for investing hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming two decades to build an all-new U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Hans Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, and is a longtime watcher of U.S., Russian and Chinese nuclear forces.
“Suddenly we see a lot of new silos going up in this training area,” Kristensen said. “So far, I’ve been able to count 16, so we’re talking about a significant investment.”
China’s nuclear arsenal, estimated by the U.S. government to number in the low 200s, is dwarfed by those of the United States and Russia, which have thousands. The Pentagon predicts that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces will at least double the size of its nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years, still leaving it with far fewer than the United States.
There’s no indication the United States and China are headed toward armed conflict, let alone a nuclear one. But the Kristensen report comes at a time of heightened U.S.-China tensions across a broad spectrum, from trade to national security. A stronger Chinese nuclear force could factor into U.S. calculations for a military response to aggressive Chinese actions, such as in Taiwan or the South China Sea.
China does not publicly discuss the size or preparedness of its nuclear force beyond saying it would be used only in response to an attack. The United States, by contrast, does not rule out striking first, although President Joe Biden in the past has embraced removing that ambiguity by adopting a “no first use” policy.
“All nuclear weapons states say they only have nuclear weapons for defensive purposes, no matter what their role is,” Kristensen said. “(China is) trying to make sure that this force can function and survive against really capable forces that the United States and Russia have… They’ve decided that their current ICBMs are not survivable enough. They wouldn’t be able to survive an early attack, a first strike. And so they’re trying to expand the number and types of silos they will have in the future.”
Nearly all of the new silos detected by Kristensen appear designed to accommodate China’s newer-generation DF-41 ICBM, which is built with a solid-fuel component that allows the operator to more quickly prepare the missile for launch, compared to the DF-5′s more time-consuming liquid-fuel system. The DF-41 can target Alaska and much of the continental United States.
China already has a rail- and road-mobile version of the DF-41 missile.
“Nuclear weapons are a threat to everyone, no matter who has them. And the international community has been fighting for decades to try to limit the numbers and reduce the role. Now, unfortunately, we’re an up tick where where things are becoming a little more dire again. Countries with nuclear weapons are rattling their swords at each other again, increasing their investments and their their arsenals,” Kristensen said. “So the bottom line is for people who are concerned about this is to become more active in trying to influence their politicians about where we should go. What kind of sane policy we should have in the future.”