The United States-based researchers made the discovery after analysing commercial satellite images, and said on Monday that the field – located near the city of Hami in Xinjiang province – may eventually include about 110 silos.
Altogether, researchers Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen wrote, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force appears to have 250 silos under construction at Hami, Yumen, as well as at a training ground near the city of Jilantai in Inner Mongolia.
The number marks a significant increase, they said, given that China has for decades operated only 20 silos for its liquid fuel Df-5 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM).
“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,” they wrote. “The Chinese missile silo program constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the US and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War.”
However, they stressed that it was unclear how China would operate the new silos, whether it would load all of them with missiles or use a portion as empty decoys. They also noted it was not known how many warheads each missile would carry.
Still, Korda and Kristensen said, the new silos could allow China to double or triple its nuclear warhead stockpile, which most experts say numbers between 250 and 350 warheads under Beijing’s “minimum deterrent” policy.
Korda and Kristensen noted, however, that even if China were to double or triple its nuclear stockpile it would still be a long way from near-parity with the stockpiles of Russia and the US, each of which have nuclear warhead stockpiles of close to 4,000 weapons.
“Regardless of how many silos China ultimately intends to fill with ICBMs, this new missile complex represents a logical reaction to a dynamic arms competition in which multiple nuclear-armed players – including Russia, India, and the United States – are improving both their nuclear and conventional forces as well as missile defense capabilities,” the report said.
There was no response from the Chinese government on the report.
But the state-owned tabloid Global Times said some people in China have suggested those silos claimed by the US might be foundations of wind power plants. It added that US media and relevant institutes hype China’s silos to increase pressure on Beijing to change its behaviour and to provide “more reason for the US to upgrade its nuclear arsenal”.
It added: “However, Washington needs to be clear that in an era when China’s economic and technological capabilities are abundant, the US’ implementation of a policy with strong pressure and the resulting increased risk of a China-US strategic collision will inevitably bring a sense of urgency for China to intensify the building of its nuclear deterrent.”
In the US capital, the Pentagon appeared to agree with Korda and Kristensen’s assessment that the Hami and Yumen developments were missile silos with the US Strategic Command saying in a tweet: “This is the second time in two months 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”.
Mike Turner, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, described China’s nuclear build-up as “unprecedented” and said the development “makes clear they are deploying nuclear weapons to threaten the United States and our allies”.
China’s refusal to discuss its nuclear arsenal “should be a cause for concern and condemned by all responsible nations”, he added.
Another Republican, Congressman Mike Rodgers, said China’s crash nuclear buildup was not “the actions of a country with a ‘no first use’ policy and seeking only a ‘minimum credible deterrent’”.
“We need to have a serious discussion about what it truly means to have to deter two near-peer nuclear adversaries at the same time,” he said, adding: “It is abundantly clear that we must also rapidly modernise our nuclear infrastructure and bring our deterrent into the 21st century.”
The US has repeatedly called on China to join it and Russia on a new arms control treaty.