China is claiming its first-ever hypersonic missile test was actually the test of a space vehicle, but its recent activity provides a different story. In June of 2021, commercial satellite images obtained by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California show that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is developing more than 250 silos in multiple locations. The construction of these silos indicates China is serious about bolstering its nuclear arsenal, and that its attention is being spent on becoming a nuclear threat. The discovery of these silos follows recent warnings by Pentagon officials about the rapid advances in China’s nuclear capabilities. Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists write (abridged):
Satellite images reveal that China is building a second nuclear missile silo field. The discovery follows the report earlier this month that China appears to be constructing 120 missile silos near Yumen in Gansu province. The second missile silo field is located 380 kilometers (240 miles) northwest of the Yumen field near the prefecture-level city of Hami in Eastern Xinjiang.
The Hami missile silo field is in a much earlier stage of development than the Yumen site. Construction began at the start of March 2021 in the southeastern corner of the complex and continues at a rapid pace. Since then, dome shelters have been erected over at least 14 silos and soil cleared in preparation for construction of another 19 silos. The grid-like outline of the entire complex indicates that it may eventually include approximately 110 silos.
Breaking news: China’s building 100+ nuclear missile silos in its desert. In 2020 it was 100+ potential Uighur detention camps, now this.
— Will Marshall (@Will4Planet) June 30, 2021
The Hami site was first spotted by Matt Korda, Research Associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, using commercial satellite imagery. Higher resolution images of the site were subsequently provided by Planet.
The silos at Hami are positioned in an almost perfect grid pattern, roughly three kilometers apart, with adjacent support facilities. Construction and organization of the Hami silos are very similar to the 120 silos at the Yumen site, and are also very similar to the approximately one-dozen silos constructed at the Jilantai training area in Inner Mongolia. These shelters are typically removed only after more sensitive construction underneath is completed. Just like the Yumen site, the Hami site spans an area of approximately 800 square kilometers.
Impact on the Chinese nuclear arsenal
The silo construction at Yumen and Hami constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever. China has for decades operated about 20 silos for liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs. With 120 silos under construction at Yumen, another 110 silos at Hami, a dozen silos at Jilantai, and possibly more silos being added in existing DF-5 deployment areas, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) appears to have approximately 250 silos under construction – more than ten times the number of ICBM silos in operation today.
The number of new Chinese silos under construction exceeds the number of silo-based ICBMs operated by Russia, and constitutes more than half of the size of the entire US ICBM force. The Chinese missile silo program constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the US and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War.
The 250 new silos under construction are in addition to the force of approximately 100 road-mobile ICBM launchers that PLARF deploys at more than a dozen bases. It is unclear how China will operate the new silos, whether it will load all of them with missiles or if a portion will be used as empty decoys. If they are all loaded with single-warhead missiles, then the number of warheads on Chinese ICBMs could potentially increase from about 185 warheads today to as many as 415 warheads. If the new silos are loaded with the new MIRVed DF-41 ICBMs, then Chinese ICBMs could potentially carry more than 875 warheads (assuming 3 warheads per missile) when the Yumen and Hami missile silo fields are completed.
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