PLARF goes on missile silo-building spree

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Hong Kong: One of the most groundbreaking revelations regarding China’s nuclear missile arsenal was revealed last week, indicating a pending sharp rise in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in the arsenal of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF).

The discovery of 120 under-construction underground silos presumably for DF-41 ICBMs in landlocked northwest Gansu Province was made by Decker Eveleth, an amateur satellite intelligence analyst. He used commercially available satellite imagery from Planet to pinpoint massive amounts of military construction, and his findings on behalf of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in Monterey, California were published by the Washington Post.

The site of interest covers hundreds of square miles of desert to the west and southwest of Yumen town in northwest China. The missile launch facilities echo those already known to belong to the PLARF. The site is still under construction, and its scope was described by analysts as “incredible”.

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With major construction kicking off earlier this year, many of the sites are hidden under 70m-wide dome-shaped inflatable covers, which is typical of Chinese missile sites under construction as they conceal activities and construction details from prying satellite eyes. For those sites without such a cover, workers can be seen excavating circular-shaped pits. There is also evidence of a command-and-control center.

The sites are located in two giant swathes, and each site is separated from the other by an average of 3km. Having them in such close proximity with centralized command-and-control facilities and access to maintenance will greatly reduce personnel and maintenance costs. Such silo clusters are different to anything previously seen in China.

Previously, for example, the PLA has had entire companies manning liquid-fueled DF-5 ICBM silos in Hunan Province’s countryside. With such a distributed deployment pattern far from maintenance centers, the PLA required a large transport fleet to move fuel, missiles and other equipment backwards and forwards. Having solid-fueled DF-41 ICBMs in close proximity should allow missiles to be deployed at a lower overall cost.

The Pentagon estimates that the PLA’s nuclear stockpile is in the low-200s, of which 100 warheads are on land-based ICBMs. Last year’s Pentagon report predicted that these ICBM warheads would reach 200 by 2025. If each new silo near Yumen is to eventually host a missile, this would obviously represent an enormous and historic change in China’s nuclear posture.

However, there is debate over whether each silo would actually host a missile, since some could be decoys. Alternatively, they could represent a “shell game”, the conman’s trick of shuffling hidden objects to fool an observer. Thus, China could randomly rotate a smaller number of ICBMs around these silos to keep an opponent guessing. If the shell game hypothesis is correct, it is still impossible to predict the exact ratio of how many silos would receive missiles; various guesses include one missile per eight silos, or even 1:16.

The USA planned such a shell game during the Cold War in order to deceive the USSR, but it does come with attendant problems such as how to move and sustain large missiles without being detected. The Carter administration planned to build a staggering 4,600 silos to protect around 200 MX/Peacekeeper ICBMs.

The James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said there was “a very good chance that China is planning a shell game”.

Eveleth himself mused, “I’m conflicted about the possibility of shell game. There are two big pieces of evidence that I think lend credibility to the theory, but my bottom line is that we should wait and see.”

With fewer support vehicles required for the latest DF-31AG and DF-41 TELs, it would be cheaper to deploy decoys too. Eveleth tweeted, “Would not surprise me if they used decoys combined with disguising the real TELs to improve survivability.”

The PLARF is known to be building at least 16 DF-41 missile silos in Jilantai in Inner Mongolia, likely a PLARF training area. Another 18 silos for the DF-5 ICBM exist, with eight more possibly under construction. Adding them all together would give just over 160, a far cry from the 18 that had existed for so many years.

Of course, a silo’s disadvantage is that its position is fixed and known, so it could more easily be targeted by enemy precision-guided munitions during a conflict. This is why China has shown a recent preference for deploying truck-based launchers. Known as transporter-erector-launchers (TEL), these large wheeled vehicles can rapidly move to new locations to launch missiles. This makes them far harder to track and destroy, as they can hide from satellites and operate from multiple potential launch sites.

What is the DF-41, the missile likely to be stationed in Gansu? It appeared officially in 2019, and 644 Brigade in Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province was the first unit issued with the ICBM for operational testing and evaluation. American officials note that China may be pursuing railway-mounted DF-41s too.

The DF-41 has an estimated range of 12,000-15,000km, and its warhead is unlikely to contain more than five or six multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV). As well as MIRVs, the DF-41 could alternatively carry a single hypersonic glider vehicle, which uses speed to evade US missile defenses. Incidentally, the silo-based DF-5B contains five MIRVs, according to the Pentagon.

There were actually strong indications from the Pentagon that such a development of silo-based ICBMs was occurring. In its September 2020 assessment, the US Department of Defense (DoD) reported a doubling in ICBM numbers over the coming decade. The Pentagon also noted, “New developments in 2019 further suggest that China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning posture with an expanded silo-based force.”

Furthermore, Admiral Charles Richard, head of the US military’s Strategic Command (STRATCOM), testified in April of a “breathtaking expansion” of Chinese nuclear forces. This includes a major increase in Type 094 ballistic missile submarines, with two commissioned last year and one this April.

After April 2021, the DoD and STRATCOM even started to talk about China’s missile arsenal quadrupling in size, instead of the previous doubling. Analysts struggled to reconcile the information with what they already knew from open sources. It is now clear that the DoD had known about this for some time, but did not divulge what was happening near Yumen.

An important question is why is China focusing so heavily on ICBMs? It seems to stem from an extended deterrence strategy. Beijing views the USA as its strongest threat, so having a 120 additional missile silos would grant a strong deterrent, as some would be able to survive a first strike in hostilities. It would ensure that China retains enough ICBMs to maintain a credible counterstrike against the USA.

China presumably does not want a nuclear arms race with the USA where it tries to match sheer weapon numbers, so multiplying silos is an alternative way of achieving a more robust level of deterrence. However, an unintended consequence is that the USA may accelerate its own nuclear modernization program. Washington DC had already announced an extensive upgrade for weapons, including a new air-launched cruise missile and at least two new types of warheads.

Ankit Panda, the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted, “I don’t find this worth losing sleep over in the slightest. This is precisely the sort of step one might expect the PRC to take to assure a retaliatory capability amid concerns about US conventional/nuclear counterforce.”

Indeed, China’s nuclear arsenal is still greatly eclipsed by the USA’s and Russia’s combined total of 11,000 nuclear warheads. The USA possesses around 3,800 warheads, of which around 1,750 are deployed.

While arms control with China would be recognised by most as a good thing, it is another question altogether how to achieve that. China was never going to join a New START extension alongside Russia and the USA, because it already feels a strong disadvantage in numbers to start with.

Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, commented: “I wonder if the idea is exactly to keep China’s enemies guessing. It would force its enemies to take all new silos seriously and bolster China’s image as a much stronger nuclear power than before.

Whether China will actually fill each silo with an ICBM is a different matter. China may believe it needs to be viewed as a stronger nuclear power today, because it is convinced the US has become much more hostile against China strategically. This perception has less to do with US nuclear policy than US policies on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, human rights, etc.”

Tong continued, “And China may believe a stronger nuclear force would help contain this US strategic hostility and make the United States give China more ‘respect’. A popular view is that a stronger nuclear force is necessary to deter and calm the more strategically hostile United States. China appears still very worried about US missile defense, nuclear/conventional counterforce capabilities, etc., but these are likely to be technical justifications of a nuclear growth that may be increasingly influenced by threat perceptions at the geopolitical level.”

He further noted, “From the Chinese perspective, Beijing sees a growing geopolitical problem, especially the systemic threats from the US; but the arms control talks that have been proposed are a solution at the technical level that may or may not address China’s geopolitical concerns. If China’s goal is indeed to project an image of a stronger nuclear power (and to keep its enemies guessing about specifics), then it would not bode well for confidence-building measures like transparency, a precondition for traditional arms control talks.”

Certainly, China would not be interested in limiting weapons if there are not also limitations on ballistic missile defences. If the USA put such a topic on the table in any future negotiations, Beijing would likely be more interested, but this seems unlikely.

However, it is not just ICBM numbers that are concerning. Eveleth warned, “By the way, my opinion that the DF-26’s dual-use nature and the threat of escalation during a conventional conflict is a bigger problem than the PLARF’s warhead total remains completely unchanged … Yes, the idea of the warhead count doubling was a pretty huge claim, but it does look like it was right on the money this time. Expansion of fixed and mobile brigades backs it up.”

China responded to the Washington Post report with a flurry of denials from so-called experts, arguing that such silos would be too vulnerable to attack. For example, commentator Song Zhongping said, “China has already used mobile launchers and discarded these fixed silos, which are time-consuming, labour-intensive, costly and vulnerable to be attacked and destroyed.”

Song added, “Having said that, I firmly support the expansion of China’s nuclear power, but the expansion of nuclear power should be prioritized on sea-based nuclear power and land-based nuclear power. And space-based nuclear power also needs to be further strengthened.” However, no Chinese commentator could offer an explanation for the construction occurring near Yumen.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “I think what is fair to say is that these reports and other developments suggest that the PRC’s nuclear arsenal will grow more quickly, and to a higher level, than perhaps previously anticipated. This build-up is concerning. It raises questions about the PRC’s intent. And for us, it reinforces the importance of pursuing practical measures to reduce nuclear risks. Despite what appears to be PRC obfuscation, this rapid build-up has become more difficult to hide. And it highlights how the PRC appears again to be deviating from decades of nuclear strategy based around minimum deterrence.”