A few months after the Pentagon warned that China intended to expand its nuclear weapons program by “at least doubling” its stockpile, there is now photographic evidence of this buildup taking place.
While browsing satellite imagery, an American researcher has discovered a massive construction project taking place in a desert in China’s northwestern Gansu province. It appears to consist of a series of missile silos identical to those at a known nuclear weapons site in Jilantai in the province of Inner Mongolia.
Concerningly, there are around 120 silos under construction at the moment, compared to only 16 at Jilantai.
The site is absolutely gigantic — over 700 square miles, or roughly the size of 30 Manhattans. The silos are separated from one another by around two miles of empty desert each, a standard precaution against preemptive nuclear strikes. There is also reportedly a lot of auxiliary infrastructure: bunkers, trenches, roads, and a small military base.
Whether 120 silos translates into 120 additional missiles is unknown and probably unlikely. Writing in Foreign Policy, nuclear nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis posits that China may be imitating a decoy silo strategy pioneered by the United States during the Cold War. The strategy, dubbed the “shell game,” consisted of the U.S. constantly moving small quantities of missiles between a lot of mostly empty silos, thereby presenting a lot of dud targets that the Soviets would have to attack in a preemptive strike. Additional missiles are expensive — and often politically troublesome — to manufacture, whereas silos are cheap.
Lewis speculates that the site could very well have an intended missile to silo ratio of 1:10, noting that the U.S. planned a 1:23 ratio in its own strategy. The former ratio would mean only that only 12 missiles would be stored at the site. The latter would allow for only five missiles.
Regardless of the precise number of new weapons, the new site is clearly intended to communicate nuclear readiness to China’s adversaries, especially the United States. Open-air silos are not the only way to store nuclear weapons; indeed, they are generally considered vulnerable to surveillance, and therefore attack, by hostile forces. China’s decision to expand its nuclear capabilities in such a conspicuous manner may well be an intentional attempt to play up its strength to foreign observers.
The country’s leadership likely sees bolstering its nuclear credibility as a priority. With around 300 warheads, China has long found itself in the second tier of nuclear-capable states alongside France and the UK, well behind Russia and the U.S., which have more than 6,000 warheads each. With American missile interception capability constantly improving, China is likely betting on maintaining its retaliatory power by building an arsenal large enough to overwhelm defenses.
Lewis argues that the only way out of this escalation is for the U.S. to intentionally discard some or all of its defensive infrastructure, thereby allowing the equilibrium of Mutually Assured Destruction to be established with fewer missiles. Unfortunately, such a concession would embolden the Chinese leadership and, needless to say, would be political suicide for whichever party proposed it. It’s therefore a safe bet that the buildup will continue.