Hong Kong (CNN) – China is building an extensive network of what appear to be silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in its western desert that analysts say could change the equation for US military planners in Asia.
The likely missile field, made up of 120 silos that could house weapons capable of reaching the continental United States, was documented by researchers at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies using satellite imagery supplied by commercial satellite company Planet Labs. Inc.
The researchers compared satellite photos taken over the past four months with images captured last week, and found that the missile site spanned a grid of hundreds of square kilometers in China’s Gansu province, said researcher Jeffrey Lewis, an expert. In China, who reviewed the images with colleague Decker Eveleth, the first person to spot the silos.
The findings of both were first published in the The Washington Post newspaper.
Lewis told CNN on Friday that most of the silo construction work, which has yet to be completed, has likely occurred in the past six months.
“It’s really an amazing construction rate,” he said, adding that the scope of the work was as well.
“It’s a lot of silos,” Lewis said. “It is much bigger than we expected to see.”
Reports about the likely new missile field came just a day before China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said in a nationalist speech on the centenary of the Communist Party that the rise of China is a “historical inevitability” and that it will no longer be “intimidated, oppressed or subjugated” by foreign countries.
“Anyone who dares to try will find their heads bloody slammed against a great steel wall forged by more than 1.4 billion Chinese,” added Xi, in comments that later seemed to be tempered in the government’s own English translation. .
New protection for Chinese ICBMs
Although researchers have identified 120 likely silos, there is no indication that they are in use, or that they will be used in the future. However, analysts say the silos, arranged in a grid pattern, at 3-kilometer intervals, could be used to house China-made DF-41 ICBMs.
The DF-41, also known as CSS-X-20, is estimated to have a range of 12,000 to 15,000 kilometers and could be equipped with up to 10 nuclear warheads with independent targets, according to the Center for Strategic Studies Missile Threat Project. and International.
“It is expected to be able to reach the continental United States in 30 minutes,” says the project’s website.
China first showed the DF-41 on mobile launchers in 2019, but its actual deployment has not been confirmed.
“The relative advantages of mobile versus silo-based ICBMs after the end of the Cold War have been frequently debated; In short, mobile systems are easier to hide and disperse, but more vulnerable if found, while silos are increasingly difficult to conceal, but more difficult to deactivate or destroy, ”said Henry Boyd, a researcher at the Institute. International of Strategic Studies in London.
“If the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has decided to invest in a large number of new silos for its ICBM force, this could suggest a change in Beijing’s mindset,” Boyd said.
Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, a US-based nonprofit think tank, said the development shows that Beijing is serious about increasing its nuclear deterrence capabilities, it is that is, the idea that it could withstand a first nuclear strike from an adversary and still have nuclear weapons that could inflict unacceptable losses on the opponent.
“Prior to this discovery, the US military could consider using nuclear weapons in a war near China to destroy large numbers of PLA troops and equipment,” Heath said. “Building 120 or more silos makes such a preemptive strike much more difficult, as now the United States would have to target all silos as well as mobile launchers.”
“In short, China is trying to raise the risk of using nuclear weapons in a contingency near China to an intolerably high level,” he said.
China does not usually comment on sensitive military matters, however, a editorial published this Friday in the state newspaper Global Times acknowledged the Western reports regarding the construction of the silo, although it pointed out that it would not be in China’s strategic interest to comment on it.
The editorial, titled “China’s Rise in Nuclear Deterrence Cannot Be Stopped by the US,” also advocated that China increase its nuclear deterrence in light of what it called “US military pressure on China, “noting that the US has” at least 450 silos«.
“Once there is a military confrontation between China and the United States over the Taiwan issue, if China has sufficient nuclear capacity to deter the United States, that will serve as the foundation of China’s national will,” he said. editorial.
In January, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reiterated China’s commitment not to use nuclear weapons unless it is attacked first “at any time or under any circumstances,” while pledging “not to use nuclear weapons.” use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States. ‘
In response to a question about China’s position on the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which Beijing does not recognize, Hua maintained that China’s nuclear forces are always kept at what he described as the minimum level necessary to safeguard national security. “This is the grassroots policy of the Chinese government,” Hua said.
“At the same time, China’s view is that nuclear disarmament cannot lose sight of the reality of the international security landscape. Progress must be sought step by step under the principle of maintaining global strategic stability and comprehensive security for all, ”Hua added.
The report is an indication of China’s growing power, say US officials.
US officials said the satellite images reaffirm assessments made last year in the Defense Department’s China Military Power Report and repeated several times since.
“Numerous Defense Department leaders have testified and spoken publicly about China’s growing nuclear capabilities, which we anticipate will double or more in the next decade,” said Pentagon spokesman John Supple.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price described the apparent build-up as troubling, noting that it raised questions about China’s intentions. “For us, this reinforces the importance of taking practical measures to reduce nuclear risks, despite what appears to be a lack of clarity from the PRC,” Price said, referring to China by its formal acronym, the People’s Republic. from China.
“This rapid build-up has become more difficult to hide, and highlights how the PRC appears to be deviating from decades of nuclear strategy based on minimal deterrence,” he said during a State Department briefing on Thursday.
Analysts note that China is believed to have only a total of about 350 nuclear weapons, a fraction of the 5,550 warheads in the United States’ nuclear arsenal. China’s nuclear weapons are spread across mobile land launchers, a small fleet of ballistic missile submarines, and its nuclear-capable bombers.
So the 120 so-called new silos are unlikely to contain an ICBM with a warhead.
Rather, China could play a “shell game” with the missiles, analysts say, moving active missiles between silos at random.
Lewis, China’s nuclear weapons expert, said that since the silos are 3 kilometers apart, each would have to be targeted with an opponent’s weapon to ensure the destruction of the missile within it. But missile doctrine says that each silo would have to be hit twice to ensure its destruction, he said.
Heath of the RAND Corporation said the new missile field, which increases China’s ability to withstand a nuclear attack and retaliate, could have implications for US allies and partners in Asia, which have had the possibility of finding protection under the US nuclear umbrella.
“The possibility of an escalation now becomes much more dangerous,” he said.
“This raises additional questions about the US ‘willingness and ability to uphold its security commitments to its allies and partners in Asia. The United States will have to build missile defenses or develop other ways to mitigate this danger if it wants to maintain the credibility of its commitments to its allies in Asia, ”Heath said.