Satellite imagery appears to show that China is making significant progress in developing missile silos that could eventually fire nuclear weapons

Experts from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a non-partisan national security research and advocacy organization, found that China has made significant progress on suspected silo fields in the western part of the country.

“For China, this is an unprecedented nuclear build-up,” wrote Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen, authors of the FAS report released Tuesday.

The authors noted that “the missile silo fields are still many years away from becoming fully operational, and it remains to be seen how China will arm and operate them.”

Recent reports on Chinese activities, however, have added concerns from U.S. officials about China’s rapid military progress. The presumed development of a first missile silo field was reported in late June. Following another FAS report released in July on China’s alleged development of another silo field, the US Strategic Command tweeted, “This is the second time in two months that the public has discovered what we have been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it.”

Navy Adm. Charles A. Richard, head of the US Strategic Command, said in August that “we are witnessing a strategic outbreak from China.”

“The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking. And honestly, that word breathtaking may not be enough,” he said.

Various construction stages are underway by Chinese engineers on several silos on the possible Ordos missile silo field in August 2021. After clearing space for the project, they use inflatable domes to protect the active construction on the silos.

The commercial satellite images from Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs, which FAS has analyzed, provide some of the most detailed images to date of three presumed missile silo fields, where the Chinese appear to be building about 300 new missile silos.

“What is remarkable, of course, is the scale and speed of this, that this is so out of sync with what the Chinese have done on missile silos ever before,” Kristensen told CNN.

CNN has contacted the Chinese government for comment on the new report.

China’s ongoing development of the silos comes as the country significantly strengthens its military capabilities.

The United States has said China tested a hypersonic weapon over the summer, which Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley called “very worrying.” He also said that “Chinese military capabilities are much greater than that” a single test.

However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the August test was “a spacecraft, not a missile.”

China has long committed itself to a minimal deterrence policy, which means keeping its nuclear arsenal at the minimum level needed to deter an adversary from attacking. It is believed to have about a tenth of the nuclear weapons that Russia and the United States have, and has a policy that should not be used for the first time.

A change in China’s approach?

Some experts and officials say that recent developments raise questions about its commitment to this policy.

Nicholas Burns, the Biden administration’s nominee to be the US ambassador to China, said during his confirmation hearing last month that the Chinese “break past this definition (of a minimum of nuclear deterrence) and are quickly committed to building their nuclear arsenal, including the disturbing reports of hypersonic technology. “

Benjamin Friedman, the political director of Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank, said he believes China has not fundamentally changed policy, “but they seem to have decided that a little more is needed than usual. , “and” we should not necessarily take the development of more missiles as a different approach on the part of the Chinese, it may just be that they think the same approach requires more weapons than it used to. “

“The United States has long continued to pursue an initial offensive capability against all nuclear opponents – that is the ability to have enough weapons, and nuclear weapons are most important in destroying their entire arsenal at once,” Friedman said. adds that China probably feels “they may need a little more reassurance against the prospect of the United States disarming first attack for various reasons.”

Kristensen from FAS said that the construction of the silo fields “probably has to do with the fact that the Chinese leadership has just decided that China must be big militarily, and that the nuclear forces must match that.”

He also noted that it “reduces the vulnerability that anyone can turn them into a surprise attack.”

This graphic image shows the development of silos under construction.  Some of the silos have just begun to build progress, others in the midst of being developed under an inflatable dome and others have advanced so far that the dome has been cleared.

It is unclear whether the United States will be able to know for sure whether these silos are filled with missiles, creating a mystery for the United States when it comes to deciding how to counter or compete with China’s construction.

Some experts point out that this may be part of China’s strategy.

“China can fill these in eventually, but in the meantime, when they are not all filled, the United States would be able to distinguish with certainty which silos are filled and which are not, and we would have to commit to destroy all these no Just what? If so, then the United States has to commit perhaps double the number of warheads to all the silos, “said Vipin Narang, professor of political science with a focus on nuclear proliferation and strategy at Massachusetts. Institute of Technology.

“If you are the United States, this is forcing you to reconsider nuclear planning,” he said.

The pictures in the report also reveal that China seems to be building other types of support facilities around the silos, Kristensen said. The report says that they are almost the size of a football stadium – to protect the silo construction area from serious environmental factors. The experts who drafted the report also noted that the shelters may have been designed to “hide technical details from satellites.”

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