A 2nd New Nuclear Missile Base for China, and Many Questions About Strategy

A 2nd New Nuclear Missile Base for China, and Many Questions About Strategy
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A 2nd New Nuclear Missile Base for China, and Many Questions About Strategy

A 2nd New Nuclear Missile Base for China, and Many Questions About Strategy

In the arid desert 1,200 miles west of Beijing, the Chinese government is digging a new field of what appears to be 110 silos for launching nuclear missiles. This is the second such field discovered by analysts studying commercial satellite imagery in recent weeks.

It may mean a vast expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal – the desires of an economic and technological superpower to show that after decades of restraint, it is ready to wield an arsenal the size of Washington or Moscow.

Or, it may just be a creative, albeit costly, bargaining ploy.

The new silos are clearly built to be discovered. The most recent silo field, construction of which began in March, is in the eastern part of the Xinjiang region, not far from one of the notorious Chinese “re-education” camps in Hami town. It was identified late last week by nuclear experts from the Federation of American Scientists, using images from a fleet of Planet Labs satellites, and shared with The New York Times.

For decades, since its first successful nuclear test in the 1960s, China has maintained “minimal deterrence,” which most outside experts believe to be around 300 nuclear weapons. (The Chinese won’t say it, and the U.S. government’s ratings are ranked.) If that’s correct, that’s less than a fifth of the number deployed by the U.S. and Russia, and in the nuclear world, the China has always presented itself as occupying something. of high morality, avoiding expensive and dangerous arms races.

But that seems to be changing under President Xi Jinping. As China clamps down on dissent at home, asserting new control over Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, and making much more aggressive use of cyber weapons, it is also heading into new territory with nuclear weapons.

“The construction of silos at Yumen and Hami is the largest expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal ever,” wrote Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen in a study of the new silo field. For decades, they noted, China has operated around 20 silos for large liquid-fueled missiles, called DF-5s. But the newly discovered field, combined with hundreds of miles in Yumen, northeast China, which was discovered by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., Will give the country about 230 new silos. The existence of this first field, of approximately 120 silos, was reported earlier by the Washington Post.

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The mystery is why China’s strategy has changed.

There are several theories. The simplest thing is that China now sees itself as a full-spectrum economic, technological and military superpower – and wants an arsenal to live up to that status. Another possibility is that China is worried about America’s missile defenses, which are increasingly effective, and India’s nuclear surge, which has been rapid. Then there is the announcement of new hypersonic and autonomous weapons by Russia, and the possibility that Beijing wants more effective deterrence.

A third is that China fears its few ground missiles are vulnerable to attack – and by building more than 200 silos, spread over two locations, they can play a game of shells, move 20 or more missiles, and do so. so the United States States will guess where they are. This technique is as old as the nuclear arms race.

“Just because you build the silos doesn’t mean you have to fill them all with missiles,” said Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology specializing in nuclear strategy. “They can move them. “

And, of course, they can trade them. China may believe that sooner or later it will be drawn into arms control negotiations with the United States and Russia – something President Donald J. Trump attempted to force in his last year in office, when ‘He said he would not renew the new START treaty with Russia unless China, which has never been involved in nuclear weapons control, is included in it. The Chinese government rejected the idea, saying if Americans were so worried they would have to cut their arsenal by four-fifths to Chinese level.

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The result was a dead end. At the very end of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea wrote that “we asked Beijing for transparency and to join the United States and Russia to develop a new arms control agreement covering all categories of nuclear weapons.

“It’s time for China to stop asking and start behaving responsibly,” they wrote.

But the Biden administration had concluded that it would be unwise to let the new START with Russia expire simply because China refused to join. Once in office, President Biden moved quickly to renew the treaty with Russia, but his administration said at one point it wanted China to make some sort of deal.

These conversations have not yet started. Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is in China this week for the first visit by a senior US diplomat since Mr. Biden took office, although it is not clear nuclear weapons are within the agenda. It is heading next to nuclear talks with Russia.

In the White House, the National Security Council declined to comment on the evidence for the expansion of the Chinese arsenal.

It is likely that US spy satellites took over the new construction months ago. But it all became public after Mr. Korda, a research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a private Washington group, used civilian satellite imagery to examine the arid hinterland of Xinjiang, a rugged mountainous area. and deserts in northwest China. He was looking for visual clues of building silos that matched what the researchers had already discovered.

In February, the Federation of American Scientists reported the expansion of missile silos at a military training site near Jilantai, a city in Inner Mongolia. The group found 14 new silos under construction. Then came the discovery in Yumen.

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Scanning the wilds of Xinjiang, Mr. Korda was specifically looking for inflatable domes, much like those that house tennis courts. Chinese engineers erect them above underground missile silo construction sites to hide the work below. Suddenly, about 250 miles northwest of the newly discovered base, he found a series of inflatable domes almost identical to those in Yumen, on what turned out to be another sprawling military site.

The new construction site is in a remote area that Chinese authorities have cut off from most visitors. It is about 100 km southwest of Hami town, known as the site of a re-education camp where the Chinese government detains Uyghurs and members of other minority groups. And it’s about 260 miles east of an orderly complex of buildings with tall roofs that can open up to the sky. Recently, analysts identified the site as one of five military bases where Chinese forces have built lasers capable of firing focused beams of light at reconnaissance satellites, mostly sent aloft by the United States. Lasers blind or deactivate fragile optical sensors.

Together with his colleague, Mr Kristensen, a weapons expert who heads the group’s nuclear information project, Mr Korda used satellite photos to explore the site.

The new elevators are just under three kilometers from each other, according to their report. Overall, he added, the sprawling construction site covers around 300 square miles – a size similar to the Yumen base, also in the desert.

Mr Narang said the two new silo fields offered the Chinese government “many options”.

“It’s not crazy,” he said. “They are forcing the United States to target a lot of silos that may be empty. They can fill these silos slowly if they need to increase their strength. And they have a leverage effect on gun control.

“I’m surprised they didn’t do it ten years ago,” he said.

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