Beijing is said to be stepping up its war capabilities, with the Pentagon previously stating that the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of threatening the US will likely grow to 200 in the next five years. But perhaps even more concerning is that Xi Jinping’s nation appears to be spearheading towards a capability to launch its newest nuclear missiles from underground. Satellite images near the city of Jilantai appear to show a military site expanding, with more underground silos appearing across the base’s 800 square miles of desert and mountains.
The apparent changes were first spotted in satellite images by Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Washington DC Federation of American Scientists.
Mr Kristensen wrote: “Recent satellite images indicate that at least 16 silos are under construction, a significant expansion in just a few years since a silo was first described in the area.
“The satellite images also reveal unique tunnels potentially constructed to conceal missile launch units or loading operations.”
According to the expert, the Jilantai training area stretches for 87 miles over an area of nearly 800 square miles of desert and mountain range.
The training area is said to be “very active” and is “currently expanding in several regions, especially to the north and south as well as in the centre”.
The Pentagon previously noted Jilantai “is probably being used to at least develop a concept of operations for silo basing”.
It also said that Beijing intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by putting more of them in underground silos and operating on a higher level of alert in which it could launch missiles upon warning of being under attack.
And while it may be a routine modernisation of the infrastructure, Mr Kristensen warned it could also be a sign that China is heading underground to better survive a nuclear attack.
He added: “For China, given its nuclear policy of ‘minimum deterrence’, the construction of a relatively large number of silos at Jilantai is important.
“Once the operational concept is developed, one could potentially see construction of a couple of new silo clusters at a couple of brigade bases elsewhere in China.
“Since the construction so far is not about achieving parity with the US, why is China doing this and what is driving the development?
“There are several potential explanations.”
One of these, in Mr Kristensen’s eyes, is “increased protection of retaliatory capability”.
He explained: “China is concerned that its current ICBM silos are too vulnerable to US or Russia attack.
“By increasing the number of silos, more ICBMs could potentially survive a preemptive strike and be able to launch their missiles in retaliation.
“China’s development of its current road-mobile solid-fuel ICBM force was, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency, fuelled by the US Navy’s deployment of Trident 2 D5 missiles in the Pacific.
“This action-reaction dynamic is most likely a factor in China’s current modernisation.”