Satellites have spotted China building more than 100 new nuclear missile silos deep in the desert – and it changes the calculations of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Researchers from the US Middlebury Institute of International Studies have pinpointed construction work on 119 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos near the remote city of Yumen in China's northwestern Gansu province.
"The site itself is enormous — more than 1100 square kilometres," says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies.
"There are the silos. There are also underground bunkers being built that may function as launch centres, with trenches carrying cables to 10 different silo launchers. There are roads and a small military base. The scale of construction is startling, and China broke ground on the site only a few months ago, in February."
Professor Stephan Fruhling of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre told news.com.au this brings to 145 the total number of missile silos known to be under construction.
"It's a significant change," he says. "It would certainly make it a lot harder for the US to use nuclear weapons against China."
Beijing is believed to have some 300 nuclear weapons scattered across various land, sea and air launchers.
"Given that China has a force of only about 100 ICBMs, seeing another 100 or so silos under construction was jaw-dropping," Lewis states.
It may be Beijing is planning a "shell game", hiding a few missiles among a large number of silos.
"So while it might seem that 120 silos mean 120 missiles, it could very easily be 12. We just don't know," he says. "And even if China were to deploy only a handful of missiles, its forces could over time grow into the silos."
The find, however, is not unexpected.
The Pentagon warned of a "breathtaking expansion" of Beijing's nuclear force in April. And projections of China's arsenal growth suddenly shifted from "doubling" to "quadrupling".
The cause could be the 145 new silos (an additional construction project was spotted in February near Jilantai in Inner Mongolia), and China's new DF-41 ICBM.
The missile is believed to carry up to 10 warheads, travel at 25 times the speed of sound, and reach as far as 15,000km.
Beijing has for decades refused to participate in nuclear arms limitation and reduction talks with Washington and Moscow. And that has prompted the US to upgrade the capability – though not the number – of its arsenal.
This, in turn, may be behind Beijing's drive to build more silos.
"China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a US first strike in sufficient numbers to defeat US missile defences," Lewis told the Washington Post on Thursday.
Building more ballistic missile silos is a significant step towards a new Cold War.
"I think its significance lies in two areas," says Fruhling. "One is that it indicates the Chinese are interested in significantly increasing the number of intercontinental range missiles – despite both the US and Russia either maintaining or reducing the size of their own forces. The second may indicate a change in Chinese perception of how their arsenal relates to the US."
Ballistic missile silos seem outmoded.
In a world of intelligent guided warheads, such large and immobile facilities are immensely vulnerable.
But Fruhling says that the silos are part of a brutal numbers game. For every one silo you have, your opponent needs at least two warheads to be confident in knocking it out.
"So the more silos you have, the more you soak up the adversary's arsenal," he says. "And that's the change insofar as the Chinese until now largely relied on hiding their small nuclear force for survivability."
Even if many silos are empty, any opponent cannot risk not targeting them. And that means the US has fewer options. And fewer missiles for other targets.
"If they're now going into building missile silos, it may well indicate that they are trying to negate the strategic effect of the still much larger US arsenal by presenting just too many targets for the US to overcome," the professor says. "It's another indication the Chinese may be entering into quantitative competition in the size of their nuclear forces with the US in a way that they have not done in the past."
"The lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a counterintuitive and initially unpopular idea: arms control," says Lewis. "We didn't like the Soviets, and we certainly didn't trust them. But we also shared one very important interest: We did not want to die in a nuclear war and needed each other's help to avoid that."
But there is no "red phone" crisis hotline between Washington and Beijing as there is with Moscow.
"Beijing appears very convinced that the risk of nuclear escalation can be controlled," says Fruhling. "But the US is quite concerned that nuclear escalation may happen inadvertently."
And that's why Washington has adopted a nuclear posture and structure to manage such risk.
Beijing, however, has not.
"The Chinese generally seemed to be quite convinced that nuclear weapons are "Paper Tigers" – they call them that," the professor says. "They believed they're ineffectual at influencing behaviour."
Beijing assumes Washington would never really consider using nuclear weapons.
And that undermines its deterrent effect.
"It would take a serious crisis in which the Chinese are faced with the serious possibility of nuclear use to shake some of those assumptions," Fruhling believes. "And that presents the US with a very different risk scenario to that of the Cold War USSR.
"The need for crisis hotlines between the US and China is not limited to the nuclear space. The need for this is there well before nuclear weapons would come into play".