With new ICBM silos, China is expanding its strategic deterrence and prestige
Prasun K. Sengupta
China is building three separate intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silo-fields capable of housing about 350 DF-41 ICBMs, each capable of delivering ten independently targeted Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) warheads.
The first silo-field was discovered at Yumen in Gansu province, with the second being located 380km northwest of the Yumen field near the prefecture-level city of Hami in eastern Xinjiang, while the third is at Hanggin Banner in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. Each of the three sites is expected to host about 120 silos. Construction at the first two sites began in early March this year and work continues at a rapid pace. Since then, dome shelters have been erected over at least 14 silos and soil cleared in preparation for construction of another 19 silos at Yumen.
The grid-like outline of the entire complexes at the first two sites indicates that each of them may eventually include approximately 120 silos. The silos at Hami are positioned in an almost perfect grid pattern, roughly 3km apart, with adjacent support facilities. Construction and organisation of the Hami silos are very similar to the 120 silos at the Yumen site, and are also very similar to the approximately 12 silos constructed at the Jilantai training area in Inner Mongolia. These shelters are typically removed only after more sensitive construction underneath is completed.
Just like the Yumen site, the Hami site spans an area of approximately 800sqkm. China has for decades operated about 20 silos for liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs. With 120 silos now under construction at Yumen, plus another 120 silos at Hami, a dozen silos at Jilantai, and possibly more silos being added in existing DF-5 deployment areas, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) can be expected to have approximately 350 silos under construction—more than 10 times the number of ICBM silos in operation today.
The number of new PLARF 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. The PLARF missile silo programme thus constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the US and USSR missile silo construction during the Cold War. The new silos under construction are in addition to the force of approximately 100 road-mobile ICBM launchers (for its DF-31AG and DF-41 ICBMs) that the PLARF deploys at more than a dozen bases.
It is still unclear how China will operate the new silos—whether it will load all of them with ICBMs or if a portion will be used as empty decoys. If they are all loaded with single-warhead ICBMs, then the number of warheads on the PLARF’s ICBMs could potentially increase from about 185 warheads today to as many as 470 warheads. If the new silos are loaded with the new MIRVed DF-41 ICBMs, then such ICBMs could potentially carry more than 875 warheads (assuming three warheads per missile) when the Yumen and Hami missile silo fields are completed.
By mid-May this year, silo-field construction activities commenced in Hanggin Banner, Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. Unlike the Yumen ICBM silo site, there is no publicly known PLARF Brigade in the vicinity of Hanggin Banner. However, the similarities in construction footprint in terms of spacing, excavation patterns, and use of dome shelters, as well as the general trend of rapid growth in PLARF fixed ICBM launch-sites suggest that the construction site at Hanggin Banner is the PLARF’s third ICBM silo site.
Thus far, at least 29 possible silos have been seen to be under construction there. These 29 sites are divided across two areas—a northern and southern cluster. The northern cluster comprises at least 15 probable silo construction sites, while the southern cluster comprises at least 14 probable sites. Of the 29 identified sites, 13 have dome shelters. Although these dome shelters are slightly different than those found at the two other known PLARF ICBM silo construction sites, the general configuration of each construction site at Hanggin Banner matches known sites at other locations. The remaining sites have been cleared of excess material, with some having limited excavation activity similar to those found at the two other known silo construction sites.
Assuming that the PLARF will continue to deploy launchers in intervals of six or 12, the Hanggin Banner site will field a minimum of 36 silos. A typical PLARF ICBM Brigade comprises six Launch Battalions with typically one or two transport-erector-launchers (TEL) per Battalion for ICBMs. The Hanggin Banner site would afford the PLARF a few advantages when compared to the Yumen and Hami ICBM sites. It may provide improved resiliency when it comes to ground-based fibre-optics communications, given its proximity to multiple military fibre-optics nodes. It is also closer to the PLARF’s central warhead handling and storage facility located in Taibai County in Baoji prefecture, Shaanxi province, which likely makes it easier for the PLARF to maintain a high level of warhead availability readiness at the Hanggin Banner site.
There are several probable reasons why China is building the three new-generation silo-fields. Regardless of how many silos China ultimately intends to fill with ICBMs, the new silo-fields represent a logical reaction to a dynamic arms competition in which multiple nuclear weapons of mass destruction-armed players—including Russia, India, and the United States—are improving both their nuclear and conventional forces as well as ballistic missile defence (BMD) capabilities.
Although China formally remains committed to its posture of ‘minimum’ nuclear deterrence, it is also responding to the competitive relationship with adversarial countries in order to keep its own strategic deterrence force survivable and capable of holding adversarial targets at risk. Thus, while it is unlikely that China will renounce this policy anytime soon, the ‘minimum’ threshold for deterrence will likely continue to shift as China expands its nuclear WMD arsenal. In addition, the decision to build the large number of new silo-fields has probably not been caused by a single issue but rather by a combination of factors:
Enhancing National Prestige: China is getting richer and more powerful. Big powers like the US and Russia have more ICBMs and SLBMs, and so China needs to have more missiles too, in order to underpin its status as a great power.
Ensuring Assured Strategic Deterrence: China is concerned that its current DF-5 ICBM silos are too vulnerable to US (or Russian) attack. Consequently, by increasing the number of silos, more ICBMs could potentially survive a pre-emptive strike and the PLARF will be able to launch its ICBMs in retaliation. China’s development of its current road-mobile solid-fuel ICBM force was fuelled by the US Navy’s deployment of Trident-IID5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) in the Western Pacific. This action-reaction dynamic is most likely a factor in China’s current modernisation.
Increasing ICBM Launch Readiness Levels: Transitioning from liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs to solid-fuelled DF-41 ICBMs in silos will greatly reduce the reaction-time of the ICBM force.
Protecting ICBMs Against Non-Nuclear First-Strike: All existing DF-5 silos are within range of US conventional cruise missiles. In contrast, the Yumen, Hami and Hanggin Banner silo-fields are located deeper inside China than any other PLARF ICBM base and out of reach of US conventional land-attack missiles.
Overcoming Potential Effects of US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD): Concerns that BMD might undermine China’s retaliatory capability have always been prominent. China has already decided to equip its DF-5B ICBMs with MIRVs and each such missile can carry up to five. The new DF-41 ICBM is also capable of hosting MIRVs and the future JL-3 SLBM will also be capable of carrying MIRVs. By increasing the number of silo-based solid-fuelled ICBMs and the number of warheads they carry, China would seek to ensure that its ICBMs can continue to penetrate BMD networks.
Transitioning to Solid-Fuelled Silo-Based ICBMs: China’s old liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs take too long to be fuelled before they can launch, making them more vulnerable to attack. Handling liquid fuel is also cumbersome and dangerous. By transitioning to solid-fuelled ICBM silos, survivability, operational procedures, and safety of the PLARF’s ICBM force will be greatly improved.
Transitioning to a Peacetime Alert Posture: China’s ICBMs and SLBMs are presently deployed without installed nuclear warheads (recessed mode) under normal circumstances. On the other hand, the US and Russian ICBMs and SLBMs are deployed fully ready and capable of launching on short notice (launch-on-warning). Because military competition with the US is increasing, China can no longer be certain it would have time to arm its ICBMs that will need to be on alert to improve the credibility of China’s strategic deterrent.
Balancing the ICBM Force: Eighty per cent of China’s roughly 110 existing ICBMs are mobile and are increasing in numbers. The US projects that this number will reach 150 with about 200 warheads by 2025. Adding more than 200 silos would better balance China’s ICBM force between mobile and fixed launchers.
Increasing China’s Nuclear Strike Capability: China’s ‘minimum deterrence’ posture has historically kept its ICBM launchers at a relatively low level. But the country’s political leadership might well have decided that it needs more ICBMs with more warheads to hold more adversarial facilities at risk. Adding nearly 250 new silos therefore appears to move China out of the ‘minimum deterrence’ category.