Satellite images analyzed by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), an organization engaged in national security research and advocacy, point towards China building three missile silo fields in the north-Central region, CNN reported. According to the analysis, the construction on these fields is progressing rapidly and with 300 silos under construction, it is regarded as an 'unprecedented buildup' in China's history.
A missile silo or launch facility is a vertical underground structure built to store long-range missiles such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and are protected with a blast door. The silos are connected to a missile launch center through auxiliary infrastructure. While the U.S., Russia, and China all have soli-based weapons, over the years the focus has been on developing ICBMs that can be deployed from mobile platforms such as nuclear-powered submarines or even a train.
CNN reported that the first suspicion that China was building up missile silos surfaced in June this year. A FAS report in July then drew attention to a second silo field that China was allegedly building. The recent report suspects that three such sites exist, namely in Yumen, Hami, and Ordos regions in North-Central China.
FAS analysis is based on satellite images captured by commercial operators Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies. FAS claims that these images have blown the lid on what would have been a 'top-secret and highly sensitive construction program'. The report goes on to say that China has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations about the missile silos, that once operational could possibly fire nuclear weapons as well.
The analysts at FAS have tracked the progress of construction at these sites and identified various stages of construction at these sites. Interestingly, China has also been experimenting with different airlock shelters at these sites that are prone to extreme weather such as sandstorms or temperatures dipping below zero degrees Celsius.
FAS reports that China is using short and long rectangular structures at some sites but has preferred to use round ones at other sites. After a typical period of construction, the shelters are taken out and permanent auxiliary structures are built around the space. In the images analyzed so far, FAS has been able to identify silo hatches as well as cranes being deployed at sites that have also seen wide-turn access roads that are likely to be used for missile transport in the future, the report says.
CNN reports that, unlike the U.S., China follows a minimum deterrence policy, which means that its nuclear arsenal is kept at a minimum to deter attacks from its adversaries. Currently, the arsenal size is expected to be one-tenth of what the U.S. and Russia have. Experts are split whether this 'unprecedented build-up' is a change in China's policy or if it needs more capacity to reach a new minimum.
As FAS concludes in its report, a review conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is due early next year and with no confirmation, if these silos actually have missiles in them, this might be a way to get nuclear powers to a discussion about arms control.