October 23, 2021

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China building new missile silo site, say US defence experts

Chinese military updates

US defence experts say China has probably started building a new missile silo site, suggesting that Beijing is pursuing an even more rapid nuclear build-up than previously assumed.

The findings are set to stoke US fears that Beijing could be abandoning its “minimum deterrence” strategy of only keeping an atomic arsenal large enough to retaliate against a nuclear attack.

“By mid-May 2021, the People’s Liberation Army likely began construction of a potential intercontinental ballistic missile silo site in Hanggin Banner, Ordos City, Inner Mongolia,” Roderick Lee, research director at the China Aerospace Studies Institute, an organisation backed by the US Air and Space Force, wrote in a note published on Thursday.

The discovery came after nuclear weapons experts identified two other large missile silo fields since late June that could accommodate more than 200 ICBMs, vehicles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

Satellite images taken as recently as this week by the European Space Agency showed construction on at least 29 silos that matched the other two fields.

Lee said the combination of the number of ICBM launchers the new fields could accommodate and Beijing’s submarine and bomber capabilities meant “China’s future inventory of strategic nuclear delivery systems seems on track to approaching parity with those of the United States and Russia”.

Bar chart of As of January 2021 ('000) showing World nuclear forces

Admiral Charles Richard, commander of the US Strategic Command, called China’s accelerating expansion of its nuclear capabilities a “strategic breakout”.

“The explosive growth in their nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I described as breathtaking. Frankly, that word, ‘breathtaking’, may not be enough,” he told a missile defence conference.

Information about China’s nuclear forces and strategy remains unclear despite these concerns. Even experts on the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, the unit that oversees China’s arsenal, and people who have engaged in semi-official dialogue with the country’s nuclear experts and officials have cautioned that a lack of transparency made it extremely hard to gauge what the new construction means.

Some defence analysts argued that Beijing could be engaged in a “shell game”, whereby the PLARF would move a small number of ICBMs between empty missile silos.

This would make it harder to pre-emptively destroy China’s second-strike capacity because an adversary would not be sure where the missiles were located.

But most experts believed that construction of the missile silo fields reflected an increase in China’s nuclear capability, particularly since the PLA has begun to rapidly modernise its missile force and Beijing increasingly views nuclear weapons as a lever in great power competition.

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