China is building a third missile field that will hold more than 100 new DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, The Washington Times has learned.
Construction of a silo array for DF-41s was identified from satellite imagery by U.S. intelligence agencies in the past several weeks and appears equal in size to two other new Chinese missile fields recently identified, according to Pentagon officials familiar with intelligence reports on the strategic development.
Adm. Charles Richard, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said Thursday that the first two missile fields being built are part of China‘s “explosive” expansion of nuclear forces.
“We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China,” Adm. Richard told a missile defense conference in Alabama. “The explosive growth in their nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I described as breathtaking,” he said, adding that “frankly, that word ‘breathtaking’ may not be enough.”
Adm. Richard said the two new missile fields recently disclosed in published reports will include silos for more than 100 nuclear land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. He suggested that additional missile bases are under construction.
“Commercial satellite imagery has discovered what is assessed as two nuclear missile fields in western China,” he said. “Each has nearly 120 ICBM silos.”
The missile silos add to existing ICBMs that the Chinese military has deployed in silos, and scores of road-mobile, long-range missiles and new submarine-launched nuclear missiles.
“If you enjoy looking at commercial satellite imagery or stuff in China, can I suggest you keep looking?” the admiral said Thursday.
The Pentagon officials said China will use the missile field for the DF-41, its newest ICBM, which is believed to accommodate up to 10 warheads carried on multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs.
The officials provided no details on the location of the new site.
The Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, however, reported Thursday that the third new site is located near Hanggin Banner, Ordos City, in Inner Mongolia.
Satellite photos posted by the Air University center reveal the early stages of construction at the third missile base.
Together, the three new missile bases will house 350 to 400 new long-range nuclear missiles, U.S. officials said. If 10 warheads are deployed on the DF-41s, China‘s warhead level will increase to more than 4,000 warheads on its DF-41s alone.
By contrast, the United States has an estimated 3,800 warheads, with 1,357 deployed for use and the rest in storage.
Adm. Richard noted that the United States has a larger warhead stockpile than China but said two-thirds of those weapons are “operationally unavailable” because of treaty constraints, such as provisions of the New START treaty with Russia.
The Pentagon estimated in its annual report on the Chinese military last year that the number of warheads stockpiled by China is in the “low 200s” and will increase by around 200 in the coming years. Adm. Richard told Congress in April that intelligence estimates of Chinese nuclear buildup needed to be updated weekly because of the fast pace of Beijing’s strategic arms development.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned separately last week that the United States is watching China‘s rapid nuclear missile buildup with alarm.
Concern and coercion
Mr. Blinken noted there was “deep concern with the rapid growth of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal, which highlights how Beijing has sharply deviated from its decades-old nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence,” according to a State Department readout of an address to a virtual meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum. PRC is the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.
As to why the Chinese are engaged in the rapidly expanding nuclear force, Adm. Richard said they will use the expansion of missiles and warheads for coercion against the United States.
“It really doesn’t matter why China continues to modernize. What matters is they are building the capability to execute any plausible nuclear employment strategy — the last brick in the wall of a military capable of coercion,” he said.
To deter China from using its nuclear and conventional forces for coercion, Adm. Richard said, new concepts of deterrence are needed, along with modernized U.S. nuclear forces. “Business as usual will not work,” he said.
Adm. Richard said nuclear breakout is not easily defined but emphasized that it represents a significant threat. The buildup includes nuclear missiles armed with multiple warheads and precision-strike weapons, as well as six new nuclear submarines equipped with JL-3 missiles, hypersonic missiles capable of evading U.S. missile defenses. H-6 nuclear bombers also are being deployed.
China also is deploying significant numbers of DF-26 intermediate-range missiles, which can fire both nuclear and conventional warheads, he said.
Operationally, Beijing is moving its strategic forces to a higher readiness status and no longer appears to be following a strategy of “minimum deterrence” — fielding a limited number of nuclear arms as a defensive measure to deter attackers.
“China has correctly figured out that you can’t coerce a peer [nation] — in other words, us — from a minimum deterrent posture,” Adm. Richard said. He added that the muscular nuclear buildup is allowing Beijing to change its strategy.
The Chinese have denied a shift in their strategic forces, but “you have to look at what they do, not what they say,” Adm. Richard said.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the existence of the third missile base in China but noted comments Monday about the nuclear buildup by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby that Beijing’s construction of the ICBM sites was worrisome.
“We have maintained since the beginning of the administration our concerns about the kinds of military capabilities that China is procuring and putting into the field and into the fleet, and the way in which they’re using some of these capabilities to coerce their neighbors,” Mr. Kirby said.
The Pentagon is working with allies and partners in developing “integrated deterrence” of nuclear threats like those posed by China, he said. The objective of the new deterrence is “to provide a credible, viable deterrent capability for any adversary in that part of the world,” Mr. Kirby said.
Adm. Richard said integrated deterrence has not been defined clearly but will be outlined in a forthcoming nuclear posture review. The review will include concepts such as using economic and information operations as part of strategic deterrence.
China‘s buildup is raising anew the prospect that the United States is facing a strategic “missile gap” not seen since the earliest days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Pentagon officials say.
The missile gap of the 1950s and 1960s involved growing views in the United States that Moscow was rapidly developing ICBM capabilities earlier, in greater numbers and with far more capability than those of the United States.
Analysts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, first told The Washington Post in June that commercial satellite photos had revealed the construction of scores of silos near Yumen in China‘s Gansu province for the new missiles. Some missile sites were placed underneath a 230-foot cover in an attempt to conceal the silos from the prying eyes of satellite spies.
Last month, the Federation of American Scientists discovered the second DF-41 field some 240 miles northwest of Yumen near the city of Hami in Xinjiang Province. Xinjiang is also the location of China‘s active nuclear testing site, which the Pentagon said recently had begun increased operations after years of limited, irregular activity.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear policymaker, said the discovery of a new missile field is significant and indicates that Beijing’s ICBM force will soon be more powerful than U.S. nuclear forces were at the height of the Cold War.
“It is now beyond any reasonable doubt that China is going for large-scale strategic nuclear superiority over the U.S.,” said Mr. Schneider, now with the National Institute for Public Policy. “The new silos will give China the ability to deploy thousands of strategic nuclear warheads on DF-41 ICBMs.”
Mr. Schneider said he believes the main motivation for the large buildup is that Beijing is planning some type of military action in the next few years and hopes to deter a U.S. military response to action against one of China‘s neighbors, such as Taiwan.
“The buildup will give China massive nuclear war-fighting capability, which they will use if they have to,” he said.
Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda, analysts at the Federation of American Scientists, who reported the second missile field construction at Hami, said the silos are being built in “an almost perfect grid pattern, roughly three kilometers apart, with adjacent support facilities.”
“Construction and organization of the Hami silos are very similar to the 120 silos at the Yumen site, and are also very similar to the approximately one-dozen silos constructed at the Jilantai training area in Inner Mongolia,” the researchers said. They called it “the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever.”
Until the discovery of the DF-41 silos, China‘s land-based, silo-deployed ICBM force consisted of around 20 DF-5 ICBMs.
China‘s military also operates a force of about 100 road-mobile ICBM launchers. Road-mobile ICBMs are considered especially lethal because they are difficult to track.
“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 U.S. ICBM force,” Mr. Kristensen and Mr. Korda stated.