Satellite images appear to show China is making significant progress in developing missile silos that could potentially launch nuclear weapons

Experts from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a non-partisan national security research and defense organization, have found that China has made significant progress on suspected silo fields in the western part of the country.

“For China, this is an unprecedented nuclear build-up,” wrote Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen, authors of the FAS report released on Tuesday.

The authors noted that “the missile silo fields are still a long way from becoming fully operational and it remains to be seen how China will arm and exploit them.”

However, recent reports of Chinese activities have added to concerns among US officials about China’s rapid military progress. The suspected development of a first field of missile silos was reported at the end of June. Following another FAS report released in July on China’s suspected development of a second silo field, the US Strategic Command tweeted, “This is the second time in two months that the public has discovered what we have been saying from the start about the growing threat facing the world and the veil of secrecy surrounding it.”

Navy Admiral Charles A. Richard, commander of US Strategic Command, said in August that “we are witnessing a strategic breakthrough from China.”

“The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I call mind-blowing. And frankly, that mind-blowing word may not be enough,” he said.

Commercial satellite images from Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs analyzed by FAS provide some of the most detailed images to date of three suspected missile silo fields, where the Chinese appear to be building around 300 new missile silos.

“What’s remarkable, of course, is the scale and speed of what is so out of step with what the Chinese have done on missile silos ever before,” Kristensen told CNN.

CNN has reached out to the Chinese government for comment on the new report.

China’s continued development of silos comes as the country dramatically strengthens its military capabilities.

The United States said China tested a hypersonic weapon over the summer, which Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley called “very concerning.” He also said that “China’s military capabilities are far superior to this” single test.

However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the August test was “a spacecraft, not a missile.”

China has long been committed to a policy of minimum deterrence, which means that it maintains its nuclear arsenal at the minimum level necessary to deter an adversary from attacking. It is believed to have about a tenth of the nuclear weapons that Russia and the United States possess and has a no-use-first policy.

A change in China’s approach?

Some experts and officials say recent developments raise questions about its commitment to this policy.

Nicholas Burns, the Biden administration’s candidate for US ambassador to China, said at his confirmation hearing last month that the Chinese “go beyond that definition (of minimal nuclear deterrence) and that they are quickly engaged in building their arsenal, including the disturbing reports of hypersonic technology. “

Benjamin Friedman, policy director of Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank, said he believes China has not fundamentally changed its policy, “but they seem to have decided that it takes a little more than that. ‘before’, and ‘we shouldn’t’ I don’t necessarily see the development of more missiles as a different approach on the part of the Chinese, they may just think that the same approach requires more weapons than ‘previously.”

“The United States has long continued to seek a first strike capability against all nuclear adversaries – that is, the ability to have sufficient weapons, and nuclear weapons are most important in this, for destroy their entire arsenal at once, “Friedman said, adding that China probably thinks” it might need a bit more insurance against the prospect of a US disarmament first strike for various reasons ” .

Kristensen of FAS said that the construction of the silo fields “is probably related to the fact that the Chinese leadership has just decided that China must be militarily great and that the nuclear forces must be up to it.”

He also noted that it “reduces the vulnerability that anyone can knock them out in a surprise attack.”

This graphic image shows the progress of silos under construction.  Some of the silos are just beginning to progress, others are being fitted out under an inflatable dome, and others have advanced so far that the dome has been cleared.

It’s unclear whether the United States will be able to know for sure if these silos are filled with missiles, creating a conundrum for the United States to figure out how to counter or compete with China’s build-up.

Some experts point out that this may be part of China’s strategy.

“China could possibly fill them, but in the meantime, when they’re not all full, would the United States be able to distinguish with certainty which silos is full and which are not and should we? commit ourselves to destroying all those no. If so, the United States needs to commit maybe twice as many warheads in all silos, ”said Vipin Narang, political science professor specializing in proliferation and strategy nuclear power at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“If you are the United States, it forces you to rethink nuclear planning,” he said.

Images in the report also reveal that China appears to be building other types of support facilities around the silos, Kristensen said. The report says they are almost the size of a football stadium – to protect the silo construction area from serious environmental factors. Experts who wrote the report also noted that the shelters may have been constructed to “hide technical details of the satellites.”

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