China Expanding its Nuclear Potential by Building More Missile Silos

By Victor Westerkamp | November 4, 2021
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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)

China is accelerating the construction of its extensive missile silo compounds, which is raising international concerns that China is expanding its nuclear arsenal. 

The sites involved were discovered last summer at Yumen, Hami, and Ordos in Gansu province and at the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force’s (PLARF) training complex at Jilantai in Inner Mongolia. 

Researchers at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a non-profit nuclear weaponization watchdog, spotted the ongoing construction works after studying commercial satellite imagery of the region provided by Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies. 

Matt Korda, a Senior Research Associate at FAS and an influential nuclear observer, posted to Twitter: 

“Using some phenomenal new imagery from @planet and @Maxar, @nukestrat and I put together a big update on China’s suspected missile silos. We break down the different types of inflatable domes, as well as what’s underneath them.”

The sites are typically spotted due to their telltale environmental shelters, inflatable domes which are used to mask what’s going on underneath them.

According to the FAS report issued on Tuesday, researchers noted that there are strong “similarities of the structures and the construction activities at the Jilantai training area and the three suspected missile silo fields under construction near Yuman, Hami, and Ordos.” The study further said, that the activity at the sites “show what appears to be a clear connection to the PLARF’s missile program.” 

All the discovered sites have undergone considerable construction progress, almost on a weekly basis, and typically consist of several structures that appear to be silo hatches on dirt mounds, with small auxiliary facilities and ground markings from possible buried command and control cables or power lines. The silos are speculated to be a good fit for housing the newest addition to China’s arsenal, the DF-41 missile.

This DF-41 missile is believed to be able to accommodate upwards of 10 warheads carried on multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles or MIRVs. MIRVs are exoatmospheric ballistic missiles that can contain several warheads, each capable of hitting different targets.

For China, this is an unprecedented nuclear buildup, the report continues. “It is important that the buildup does not further increase nuclear competition and fuel worst-case planning in other nuclear-weapon states, although we fear those are likely outcomes.”

With approximately 300 apparent silos under construction – a number that exceeds the number of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos operated by Russia – and an additional 100-plus road-mobile ICBM launchers, China’s total ICBM force could potentially exceed that of either Russia and the United States in the foreseeable future.

“Although we are increasingly confident that the facilities we describe are related to the PLARF’s missile program, it is also important to exercise caution and avoid confirmation bias––particularly if there are additional relevant sites out there that have not yet been spotted on commercial satellite imagery. Nor do we know what China plans to load into the apparent missile silos or how many of them will eventually be armed.”

Todd Crawford contributed to this article