China is adding more intercontinental nuclear missiles (ICBM) to the meager 200+ nuclear weapons it currently deploys:
China has begun construction of what independent experts say are more than 100 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in a desert near the northwestern city of Yumen, a building spree that could signal a major expansion of Beijing’s nuclear capabilities.
The acquisition of more than 100 new missile silos, if completed, would represent a historic shift for China, a country that is believed to possess a relatively modest stockpile of 250 to 350 nuclear weapons. The actual number of new missiles intended for those silos is unknown but could be much smaller. China has deployed decoy silos in the past.
The minimum distance between the silos in the picture is about two 2 miles.
In the 1970s the U.S. developed an idea called the ICBM shell game and made a helpful video to explain that concept. To protect missiles from a decapitating first strike a lot of the silos would be kept empty and a few missiles would be shuffled between them. To attack that new 119 holes missile field in China the U.S. would have to fire at least 119 nuclear war heads at them to be sure that no missile is left to fire back at it. If China would add some missile defense to the field the U.S. would have to fire about three times as many war heads to be sure that every silo gets destroyed. All this for probably just a handful of weapons. That number game adds up to soon become very expensive.
[Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on China’s nuclear arsenal and part of a team that analyzed the suspicious sites,] said the silos are probably intended for a Chinese ICBM known as the DF-41, which can carry multiple warheads and reach targets as far away as 9,300 miles, potentially putting the U.S. mainland within its reach. Major excavation work on the sites began early this year, although preparations were probably underway for months, Lewis said.
The editors of the Chinese Global Times take issue with the Lewis’ statement on the DF-41 and show that they do not know the technical side of the strategic nuclear weapon field. It’s editor in chief Hu Xijin writes:
It’s unknown if the construction sites mentioned by the Washington Post are really silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles. But I must say that Lewis is an amateur. In reality, DF-41 is solid-fueled road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile and one of its biggest advantages is its mobility and vitality. There is no point to put it inside a silo. Lewis may not understand the basic features of DF-41 before shooting off his mouth at the media.
That is so wrong that it hurts.
For one Dr. Jeffrey Lewis is THE Arms Control Wonk and director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He has likely forgotten more about missiles than Hu Xijin will ever know.
The difference between solid fueled and liquid fueled missiles is the reaction time. The U.S. has some 450 silo based ICBMs. Those missiles were named ‘Minuteman’ because they are solid fueled and can therefore be fired at a minutes notice. Liquid fueled missiles take time to prepare as the fuel is filled up only shortly before a launch. They are quite dangerous for their crews as the liquid fuels tend to be quite corrosive and explosive. That does not matter much for space operations but is very inconvenient for any military application.
A second strike force must be ready to launch the moment an incoming hostile first strike is detected. There might otherwise be no one left to launch it.
Lewis sees sound reasons for China to expand its arsenal:
“We believe China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a U.S. first strike in sufficient numbers to defeat U.S. missile defenses.”
A Global Times editorial agrees with that reasoning:
The US wants China to stick to the line based around minimal deterrence. It’s true that China has said it keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. But the minimum level would change as China’s security situation changes. China has been defined as the top strategic competitor by the US and the US military pressure on China has continued to increase. Therefore, China must quicken the increase of its nuclear deterrence to curb the US strategic impulse. We must build credible nuclear second-strike capability, which needs to be guaranteed by enough nuclear warheads.
It then adds a remark that points to potential real life scenario:
China’s security situation is changing rapidly. The US has the strategic ambition to subdue China. Once a military confrontation between China and the US over the Taiwan question breaks out, if China has enough nuclear capacity to deter the US, that will serve as the foundation of China’s national will. We are facing different environments and risks from the past. The calculation methods for the minimum level must also be different. Regardless of what the US says, China must be sober and firm about what it should do.
If the U.S. sends ships to prevent China from reintegrating Taiwan it might try to stop China from attacking them by threatening a nuclear attack. If China has a credible second strike capability that U.S. threat would be empty. No U.S. president will risk New York over Taipei City.
The construction of the new missile silo field was launched only at the beginning of this year and has been continued at a fast pace. China seems to feel that there is no time to lose before the U.S. takes the next steps to push for Taiwan’s independence. That would immediately become a military problem. The new missile field may help to alter U.S. plans.