The Washington Post

An ominous sign in China

A new report identifyin­g another field of missile silos raises disturbing issues.

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ONE MONTH ago, a disturbing report based on satellite imagery showed that China was building about 120 silos for interconti­nental ballistic missiles near Yumen in Gansu province, some 1,300 miles west of Beijing. At the time, we raised questions about China’s intentions. Now, a new report has identified a second field taking shape, about 110 silos near Hami in eastern Xinjiang, 240 miles northwest of the first site. Considerin­g other locations where missile silos are under constructi­on, China seems to be aiming for a tenfold increase in interconti­nental ballistic missiles if each silo were filled. What is going on?

In earlier years, China insisted that its posture was “minimum deterrence.” It possessed about 200 nuclear warheads, far fewer than the thousands maintained by the United States and Russia. China eschewed keeping missiles on launch-ready alert like the United States and Russia. By all accounts, China poured resources into modernizin­g convention­al or nonnuclear forces. Before the latest disclosure­s, China had about 100 landbased ICBMS divided among 20 or so silos, with the rest on mobile launchers.

But China’s nuclear ambitions are rising. Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists discovered the new missile silo field with satellite imagery from Planet Labs. They found identical domed structures sitting atop silos under constructi­on as were evident at Yumen and at Jilantai, a training site in Inner Mongolia. All told, they say, China now has 250 silos under constructi­on, “the most significan­t expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever.” They add, “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.” China’s effort is “the most extensive” since U.S. and Soviet missile silo constructi­on during the Cold War, they note.

When the first new field appeared, speculatio­n arose that China might be playing a shell game, moving a few missiles among many silos. But the discovery of a second field throws this theory into doubt. The second field is unsettling evidence of a major Chinese nuclear weapons expansion, which Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, warned about in testimony to Congress in April.

China already is aiming at creating a land-sea-air triad like those of Russia and the United States, and soon it will have the capability of multiple, independen­tly targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVS. Adm. Richard said China has “moved a portion of its nuclear force to a Launch on Warning (LOW) posture and [is] adopting a limited ‘ high alert duty’ strategy.”

An unanswered question is what China thinks it will gain by vaulting to a nuclear posture closer to that of the United States and Russia. The response by the United States and the West is either more nuclear weapons — a new arms race — or nuclear arms control, in which China has not shown much interest. The new missile silos are an ominous sign of a growing challenge, made even more vexing by the other tensions between Washington and Beijing.

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