Nuclear experts have unearthed what they believe to be another expansive missile silo field under construction in China – potentially offering another daunting glimpse into Beijing's plans to rapidly expand its defence capabilities.
Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientist's Nuclear Information Project have released satellite imagery from satellite data company Planet that appears to show a near 800km² missile silo field in China's Xinjiang province with the possibility for up to 120 missile silos.
It comes just weeks after a similar location was discovered in Gansu province, roughly 500km away.
“The silo construction at Yumen and Hami constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever,” Korda and Kristensen said in a study published on Monday (local time).
They say it is unclear how China will operate roughly 250 new silos and does not necessarily mean they will all be filled with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
However the construction at the two sites represents a "significant increase" of China's arsenal and could be further evidence Beijing is engaging in a nuclear arm's race despite insisting it is not.
After all, as Korda points out, Russia and the US's nuclear arsenals "dwarf China's by a significant margin".
The US last year stated it believed China's nuclear warhead stockpile to be in the low 200s, a fraction of the near 4,000-strong arsenals of the US and Russia.
Yet China has always stressed it has operated a "minimum deterrence" strategy.
Why is China building nuclear missile silos?
Analysts believe one possible reason for China's potential advancements is that if nuclear conflict with the US was to arise, it would complicate Washington's approach.
The US would not know which silos contain nuclear weapons and would therefore have to operate under the assumption they all contained missiles – a shell game tactic used by the US against the Soviet Union.
"In a full-on war, where the US needs to take out the Chinese strategic nuclear forces, they would need to use a much greater percentage of their nuclear forces to take out those silos," Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst on defence strategy and capability with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the ABC earlier this month.
A simpler explanation, which is supported by China's regular insistence on flexing its military muscles, is to boost "national prestige", Korda and Kristensen say.
"China is getting richer and more powerful," they explained.
"Big powers have more missiles, so China needs to have more missiles too, in order to underpin its status as a great power."
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