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Satellite Imagery Shows China Building an Additional 110 Nuclear Missile Silos

Published: July 28, 2021
The Chinese military showcases its DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles at a parade at Tiananmen Square on October 1, 2019 in Beijing. DF-41 missiles might also be deployed at the Jilantai complex and other sites in northern China where China seems to be rapidly catching up on the international nuclear arms race. (Image: KEVIN FRAYER/Getty Images)

Nuclear analysts, studying commercial satellite imagery, have uncovered facilities in an area northwest of China’s Yumen, Gansu Province, that appears to be the location of the construction of upwards of 110 nuclear missile silos. Experts have described the activity as the “most extensive” construction effort since the Cold War. 

The discovery, which comes mere weeks after 100 other missile silos were found under construction in Yumen, was documented by members of the Federation of American Scientists Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen who published a report on July 26, 2021, detailing China’s expansion.  

The site is being referred to as the Hami missile silo field and is said to be in an early stage of development. Construction on the site is purported to have begun in March of 2021 and is progressing at a rapid pace.

Currently, there is evidence of at least 33 silos laid out in a grid-like manner, with indications that the complex could house upwards of 110 silos when completed. 

The site was discovered by Matt Korda, a Research Associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). 

The discovery is similar to other nuclear missile sites in China. One hundred twenty silos are known to exist, or to be under construction, at a site dubbed the “Yumen site” and the newly discovered site (Hami) is also very similar to a site located in Inner Mongolia — known as the Jilantai training area — which is suspected of containing one-dozen additional nuclear missile silos. 

The newly discovered Hami site spans an area of approximately 800 square kilometers. 

The Chinese nuclear arsenal

“The silo construction at Yumen and Hami constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever,” the report reads.

For decades China only operated an estimated 20 silos that are believed to house liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs. 

The report asserts that “the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) appears to have approximately 250 silos under construction – more than 10 times the number of ICBM silos in operation today.”

The expansion would give China a number of silos that exceed the number operated by Russia but would only represent half the size of the entire U.S. ICBM force. 

The silos already completed, and currently under construction, are in addition to approximately 100 road-mobile ICBMs under PLARF’s control. 

The report states that “it is unclear how China will operate the new silos, whether it will load all of them with missiles or if a portion will be used as empty decoys.”

If all the silos are utilized to house single missile warheads it would indicate that China could have as many as 415 nuclear warheads in their arsenal. If the silos are loaded with China’s new MIRVed DF-41 ICBMs then they could potentially carry in access of 875 warheads assuming three warheads per missile. 

The report asserts that “it should be emphasized that it is unknown how China will operate the new silos and how many warheads each missile will carry.” It is known that the silo fields are so deep in China’s interior that they are out of reach of U.S. conventional missiles. 

Although China’s expansion is deemed “significant” once completed their arsenal will pale in comparison to the combined warhead stockpiles of Russia and the United States that have close to 4,000 warheads. 

Korda asserts that “China is concerned that its current ICBM silos are too vulnerable to US (or Russian) attack. By increasing the number of silos, more ICBMs could potentially survive a preemptive strike and be able to launch their missiles in retaliation.”

National prestige could be another motivation for the expansion. Korda explains that “China is getting richer and more powerful. Big powers have more missiles, so China needs to have more missiles too, in order to underpin its status as a great power.”

The discovery of the Hami missile silo site was first featured in a New York Times article on July 26, 2021.