STRATCOM Says China Has More ICBM Launchers Than The United States – We Have Questions
In early-February 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) had informed Congress that China now has more launchers for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) than the United States. The report is the latest in a serious of revelations over the past four years about China’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal and the deepening strategic competition between the world’s nuclear weapon states. It is important to monitor China’s developments to understand what it means for Chinese nuclear strategy and intensions, but it is also important to avoid overreactions and exaggerations.
First, a reminder about what the STRATCOM letter says and does not say. It does not say that China has more ICBMs or warheads on them than the United States, or that the United States is at an overall disadvantage. The letter has three findings (in that order):
- The number of ICBMs in the active inventory of China has not exceeded the number of ICBMs in the active inventory of the United States.
- The number of nuclear warheads equipped on such missiles of China has not exceeded the number of nuclear warheads equipped on such missiles of the United States.
- The number of land-based fixed and mobile ICBM launchers in China exceeds the number of ICBM launchers in the United States.
It is already well-known that China is building several hundred new missile silos. We documented many of them (see here, here and here), as did other analysts (here and here). It was expected that sooner or later some of them would be completed and bring China’s total number of ICBM launchers (silo and road-mobile) above the number of US ICBM launchers. That is what STRATCOM says has now happened.
STRATCOM ICBM Counting
The number of Chinese ICBM launchers included in the STRATCOM report to Congress was counted at a cut-off date of October 2022. It is unclear precisely how STRATCOM counts the Chinese silos, but the number appears to include hundreds of silos that were not yet operational with missiles at the time. So, at what point in its construction process did STRATCOM include a silo as part of the count? Does it have to be completely finished with everything ready except a loaded missile?
We have examined satellite photos of every single silo under construction in the three new large missile silo fields (Hami, Julin, and Yumen). It is impossible to determine with certainty from a satellite photo if a silo is completely finished, much less whether it is loaded with a missile. However, the available images indicate it is possible that most of the silos at Hami might have been complete by October 2022, that many of the silos at the Yumen field were still under construction, and that none of the silos at the Julin (Ordos) fields had been completed at the time of STRATCOM’s cutoff date (see image below).
The number of Chinese ICBM launchers reported by the Pentagon over the past three years has increased significantly from 100 launchers at the end of 2020, to 300 launchers at the end of 2021, to now more than 450 launchers as of October 2022. That is an increase of 350 launchers in only three years.
To exceed the number of US ICBM launchers as most recently reported by STRATCOM, China would have to have more than 450 launchers (mobile and silo) – the US Air Force has 400 silos with missiles and another 50 empty silos that could be loaded as well if necessary. Without counting the new silos under construction, we estimate that China has approximately 140 operational ICBM launchers with as many missiles. To get to 300 launchers with as many missiles, as the 2022 China Military Power Report (CMPR) estimated, the Pentagon would have to include about 160 launchers from the new silo fields – half of all the silos – as not only finished but with missiles loaded in them. We have not yet seen a missile loading – training or otherwise – on any of the satellite photos. To reach 450 launchers as of October 2022, STRATCOM would have to count nearly all the silos in the three new missile silo fields (see graph below).
The point at which a silo is loaded with a missile depends not only on the silo itself but also on the operational status of support facilities, command and control systems, and security perimeters. Construction of that infrastructure is still ongoing at all the three missile silo fields.
It is also possible that the number of launchers and missiles in the Pentagon estimate is less directly linked. The number could potentially refer to the number of missiles for operational launchers plus missiles produced for launchers that have been more or less completed but not yet loaded with missiles.
All of that to underscore that there is considerable uncertainty about the operational status of the Chinese ICBM force.
However – in time for the Congressional debate on the FY2024 defense budget – some appear to be using the STRATCOM letter to suggest the United States also needs to increase its nuclear arsenal.
Comparing The Full Arsenals
The rapid increase of the Chinese ICBM force is important and unprecedented. Yet, it is also crucial to keep things in perspective. In his response to the STRATCOM letter, Rep. Mike Rogers – the new conservative chairman of the House Armed Services Committee – claimed that China is “rapidly approaching parity with the United States” in nuclear forces. That is not accurate.
Even if China ends up with more ICBMs than the United States and increases its nuclear stockpile to 1,500 warheads by 2035, as projected by the Pentagon, that does not give China parity. The United States has 800 launchers for strategic nuclear weapons and a stockpile of 3,700 warheads (see graph below).
The worst-case projection about China’s nuclear expansion assumes that it will fill everything with missiles with multiple warheads. In reality, it is unknown how many of the new silos will be filled with missiles, how many warheads each missile will carry, and how many warheads China can actually produce over the next decade.
The nuclear arsenals do not exist in a vacuum but are linked to the overall military capabilities and the policies and strategies of the owners.
The Political Dimension
STRATCOM initially informed Congress about its assessment that the number of Chinese ICBM launchers exceeded that of the United States back in November 2022. But the letter was classified, so four conservative members of the Senate and House armed services committees reminded STRATCOM that it was required to also release an unclassified version. They then used the unclassified letter to argue for more nuclear weapons stating (see screen shot of Committee web page below):
“We have no time to waste in adjusting our nuclear force posture to deter both Russia and China. This will have to mean higher numbers and new capabilities.” (Emphasis added.)
Although defense contractors probably would be happy about that response, it is less clear why ‘higher numbers’ are necessary for US nuclear strategy. Increasing US nuclear weapons could in fact end up worsening the problem by causing China and Russia to increase their arsenals even further. And as we have already seen, that would likely cause a heightened demand for more US nuclear weapons.
We have seen this playbook before during the Cold War nuclear arms race. Only this time, it’s not just between the United States and the Soviet Union, but with Russia and a growing China.
Even before China will reach the force levels projected by the Pentagon, the last remaining arms control treaty with Russia – the New START Treaty – will expire in February 2026. Without a follow-on agreement, Russia could potentially double the number of warheads it deploys on its strategic launchers.
Even if the defense hawks in Congress have their way, the United States does not seem to be in a position to compete in a nuclear arms race with both Russia and China. The modernization program is already overwhelmed with little room for expansion, and the warhead production capacity will not be able to produce large numbers of additional nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.
What the Chinese nuclear buildup means for Chinese nuclear policy and how the United States should respond to it (as well as to Russia) is much more complicated and important to address than a rush to get more nuclear weapons. It would be more constructive for the United States to focus on engaging with Russia and China on nuclear risk reduction and arms control rather than engage in a build-up of its nuclear forces.
Status of World Nuclear Forces
This research was carried out with generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, the Future of Life Institute, Open Philanthropy, and individual donors.
The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review: Arms Control Subdued By Military Rivalry
On 27 October 2022, the Biden administration finally released an unclassified version of its long-delayed Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The classified NPR was released to Congress in March 2022, but its publication was substantially delayed––likely due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Compared with previous NPRs, the tone and content come closest to the Obama administration’s NPR from 2010. However, it contains significant adjustments because of the developments in Russia and China. (See also our global overview of nuclear arsenals)
Despite the challenges presented by Russia and China, the NPR correctly resists efforts by defense hawks and nuclear lobbyists to add nuclear weapons to the U.S. arsenal and delay the retirement of older types. Instead, the NPR seeks to respond with adjustments in the existing force posture and increase integration of conventional and nuclear planning.
Although Joe Biden during his presidential election campaign spoke strongly in favor of adopting no-first-use and sole-purpose policies, the NPR explicitly rejects both for now.
From an arms control and risk reduction perspective, the NPR is a disappointment. Previous efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals and the role that nuclear weapons play have been subdued by renewed strategic competition abroad and opposition from defense hawks at home.
Even so, the NPR concludes it may still be possible to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in scenarios where nuclear use may not be credible.
Unlike previous NPRs, the 2022 version is embedded into the National Defense Strategy document alongside the Missile Defense Review.
Below is our summary and analysis of the major portions of the NPR:
The Nuclear Adversaries
The NPR identifies four potential adversaries for U.S. nuclear weapons planning: Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. Of these, Russia and China are obviously the focus because of Russia’s large arsenal and aggressive behavior and because of China’s rapidly increasing arsenal. The NPR projects that “[b]y the 2030s the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries.” This echoes previous statements from high-ranking US military leaders, including the former and incoming Commanders of US Strategic Command although the NPR appears less “the sky is falling.”
China: Given that the National Defense Strategy is largely focused on China, it is unsurprising that the NPR declares China to be “the overall pacing challenge for U.S. defense planning and a growing factor in evaluating our nuclear deterrent.”
Echoing the findings of the previous year’s China Military Power Report, the NPR suggests that “[t]he PRC likely intends to possess at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the decade.” According to the NPR, China’s more diverse nuclear arsenal “could provide the PRC with new options before and during a crisis or conflict to leverage nuclear weapons for coercive purposes, including military provocations against U.S. Allies and partners in the region.”
See also our Nuclear Notebook on Chinese nuclear forces.
Russia: The NPR presents harsh language about Russia, in particular surrounding its behavior around the invasion of Ukraine. In contrast to the Trump administration’s NPR, the assumptions surrounding a potential low-yield “escalate-to-deescalate” policy have been toned down; instead the NPR simply states that Russia is diversifying its arsenal and that it views its nuclear weapons as “a shield behind which to wage unjustified aggression against [its] neighbors.”
The review’s estimate of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons –– “up to 2,000 –– matches those of previous military statements. In 2021, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Russia “probably possesses 1,000 to 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear warheads.” The State Department said in April 2022 that the estimate includes retired weapons awaiting dismantlement. The subtle language differences reflect a variance in estimates between the different US military departments and agencies.
The NPR also suggests that “Russia is pursuing several novel nuclear-capable systems designed to hold the U.S. homeland or Allies and partners at risk, some of which are also not accountable under New START.” Given that both sides appear to agree that Russia’s new Sarmat ICBM and Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle fit smoothly into the treaty, this statement is likely referring to Russia’s development of its Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, its Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, and its Status-6 Poseidon nuclear torpedo.
It appears that Russia and the United States are at odds over whether these three systems are treaty-accountable weapons. In 2019, then-Under Secretary Andrea Thompson noted during congressional testimony that all three “meet the US criteria for what constitutes a “new kind of strategic offensive arms’ for purposes of New START.” However, Russian officials had previously sent a notice to the United States stating that they “find it inappropriate to characterize new weapons being developed by Russia that do not use ballistic trajectories of flight moving to a target as ‘potential new kinds of Russian strategic offensive arms.’ The arms presented by the President of the Russian Federation on March 1, 2018, have nothing to do with the strategic offensive arms categories covered by the Treaty.”
See also our Nuclear Notebook on Russian nuclear forces.
North Korea: In recent years, North Korea has been overshadowed by China and Russia in the U.S. defense debate. Nonetheless this NPR describes North Korea as a target for U.S. nuclear weapons planning. The NPR bluntly states: “Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its Allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime. There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.”
See also our Nuclear Notebook on North Korean nuclear forces.
Iran: The NPR also describes Iran even though it does not have nuclear weapons. Interestingly, although Iran is not in compliance with its NPT obligations and therefore does not qualify for the U.S. negative security assurances, the NPR declares that the United States “relies on non-nuclear overmatch to deter regional aggression by Iran as long as Iran does not possess nuclear weapons.”
Nuclear Declaratory Policy
The NPR reaffirms long-standing U.S. policy about the role of nuclear weapons but with slightly modified language. The role is: 1) Deter strategic attacks, 2) Assure allies and partners, and 3) Achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails.
The NPR reiterates the language from the 2010 NPR that the “fundamental role” of U.S. nuclear weapons “is to deter nuclear attacks” and only in “extreme circumstances.” The strategy seeks to “maintain a very high bar for nuclear employment” and, if employment of nuclear weapons is necessary, “seek to end conflict at the lowest level of damage possible on the best achievable terms for the United States and its Allies and partners.”
Deterring “strategic” attacks is a different formulation than the “deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear attack” language in the 2018 NPR, but the new NPR makes it clear that “strategic” also accounts for existing and emerging non-nuclear attacks: “nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks.”
Indeed, the NPR makes clear that U.S. nuclear weapons can be used against the full spectrum of threats: “While the United States maintains a very high bar for the employment of nuclear weapons, our nuclear posture is intended to complicate an adversary’s entire decision calculus, including whether to instigate a crisis, initiate armed conflict, conduct strategic attacks using non-nuclear capabilities, or escalate to the use of nuclear weapons on any scale.”
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden spoke repeatedly in favor of a no-first-use and sole-purpose policy for U.S. nuclear weapons. But the NPR explicitly rejects both under current conditions. The public version of the NPR doesn’t explain why a no-first-use policy against nuclear attack is not possible, but it appears to trim somewhat the 2018 NPR language about an enhanced role of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear strategic attacks. And the stated goal is still “moving toward a sole purpose declaration” when possible in consultation with Allies and partners.
In that context the NPR reiterates previous “negative security assurances” that the United States “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”
“For all other states” the NPR warns, “there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring attacks that have strategic effect against the United States or its Allies and partners.” That potentially includes Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.
Interestingly, the NPR states that “hedging against an uncertain future” is no longer a stated (formal) role of nuclear weapons. Hedging has been part of a strategy to be able to react to changes in the threat environment, for example by deploying more weapons or modifying capabilities. The change does not mean that the United States is no longer hedging, but that hedging is part of managing the arsenal, rather than acting as a role for nuclear weapons within US military strategy writ large.
The NPR reaffirms, consistent with the 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy, that U.S. use of nuclear weapons must comply with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and that it is U.S. policy “not to purposely threaten civilian populations or objects, and the United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or objects in violation of LOAC.” That means that U.S. nuclear forces cannot attack cities per se (unless they contain military targets).
Nuclear Force Structure
The NPR reaffirms a commitment to the modernization of its nuclear forces, nuclear command and control and communication systems (NC3), and production and support infrastructure. This is essentially the same nuclear modernization program that has been supported by the previous two administrations.
But there are some differences. The NPR also identifies “current and planned nuclear capabilities that are no longer required to meet our deterrence needs.” This includes retiring the B83-1 megaton gravity bomb and cancelling the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). These decisions were expected and survived opposition from defense hawks and nuclear lobbyists.
Although the NPR has decided to move forward with retirement of the B83-1 bomb due to increasing limitations on its capabilities and rising maintenance costs, the NPR appears to hint at a replacement weapon “for improved defeat” of hard and deeply buried targets. The new weapon is not identified.
The NPR concludes that “SLCM-N was no longer necessary given the deterrence contribution of the W76-2, uncertainty regarding whether SLCM-N on its own would provide leverage to negotiate arms control limits on Russia’s NSNW, and the estimated cost of SLCM-N in light of other nuclear modernization programs and defense priorities.” This language is more subtle than the administration’s recent statement rebutting Congress’ attempt to fund the SLCM-N, which states:
“The Administration strongly opposes continued funding for the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N) and its associated warhead. The President’s Nuclear PostureReview concluded that the SLCM-N, which would not be delivered before the 2030s, is unnecessary and potentially detrimental to other priorities. […] Further investment in developing SLCM-N would divert resources and focus from higher modernization priorities for the U.S. nuclear enterprise and infrastructure, which is already stretched to capacity after decades of deferred investments. It would also impose operational challenges on the Navy.
In justifying the cancelation of the SLCM-N, the NPR spells out the existing and future capabilities that adequately enable regional deterrence of Russia and China. This includes the W76-2 (the low-yield warhead for the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile proposed and deployed under the Trump administration), globally-deployed strategic bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, and dual-capable fighter aircraft such as as the F-35A equipped with the new B61-12 nuclear bomb.
The NPR concludes that the W76-2 “currently provides an important means to deter limited nuclear use.” However, the review leaves the door open for its possible removal from the force structure in the future: “Its deterrence value will be re-evaluated as the F-35A and LRSO are fielded, and in light of the security environment and plausible deterrence scenarios we could face in the future.”
The review also notes that “[t]he United States will work with Allies concerned to ensure that the transition to modern DCA [dual-capable aircraft] and the B61-12 bomb is executed efficiently and with minimal disruption to readiness.” The release of the NPR coincides with the surprise revelation that the United States has sped up the deployment of the B61-12 in Europe. Previously scheduled for spring 2023, the first B61-12 gravity bombs will now be delivered in December 2022, likely due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s nuclear belligerency. Given that the Biden administration has previously taken care to emphasize that its modernization program and nuclear exercises are scheduled years in advance and are not responses to Russia’s actions, it is odd that the administration would choose to rush the new bombs into Europe at this time.
The NPR appears to link the non-strategic nuclear posture in Europe more explicitly to recent Russian aggression. “Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has taken steps to ensure a modern, ready, and credible NATO nuclear deterrent.” While that is true, some of those steps were already underway before 2014 and would have happened even if Russia had not invaded Ukraine. This includes extensive modernizations at the bases and of the weapons and adding the United Kingdom to the nuclear storage upgrades. But the NPR also states that “Further steps are needed to fully adapt these forces to current and emerging security conditions,” including to “enhance the readiness, survivability and effectiveness of the DCA mission across the conflict spectrum, including through enhanced exercises…”
In the Pacific region, the NPR continues and enhances extended deterrence with U.S. capabilities and deepened consultation with Allies and partners. The role of Australia appears to be increasing. An overall goal is to “better synchronize the nuclear and non-nuclear elements of deterrence” and to “leverage Ally and partner non-nuclear capabilities that can support the nuclear nuclear deterrence mission.” The last part sounds similar to the so-called SNOWCAT mission in NATO where Allies support the nuclear strike mission with non-nuclear capabilities.
Although the integration of nuclear and conventional capabilities into strategic deterrence planning has been underway for years, the NPR seeks to deepen it further. It “underscores the linkage between the conventional and nuclear elements of collective deterrence and defense” and adopts “an integrated deterrence approach that works to leverage nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities to tailor deterrence under specific circumstances.”
This is not only intended to make deterrence more flexible and less nuclear focused when possible, but it also continues the strategy outlined in the 2010 NPR and 2013 Nuclear Employment Guidance to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons by relying more on new conventional capabilities.
According to the NPR, “Non-nuclear capabilities may be able to complement nuclear forces in strategic deterrence plans and operations in ways that are suited to their attributes and consistent with policy on how they are employed.” Although further integration will take time, the NPR describes “how the Joint Force can combine nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities in complementary ways that leverage the unique attributes of a multi-domain set of forces to enable a range of deterrence options backstopped by a credible nuclear deterrent.” An important part of this integration is to “better synchronize nuclear and non-nuclear planning, exercises, and operations.”
Beyond force structure issues, this effort also appears to be a way to “raise the nuclear threshold” by reducing reliance on nuclear weapons but still endure in regional scenarios where an adversary escalates to limited nuclear use. In contrast, the 2018 NPR sought low-yield non-strategic “nuclear supplements” for such a scenario, and specifically named a Russian so-called “escalate-to-deescalate” scenario as a potentially possibility for nuclear use.
Moreover, conventional integration can also serve to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear strategic attacks, and could therefore pave the way for a sole-purpose policy in the future (see also An Integrated Approach to Deterrence Posture by Adam Mount and Pranay Vaddi).
Finally, increasing conventional capabilities in deterrence planning also allows for deeper and better integration of Allies and partners without having to rely on more controversial nuclear arrangements.
A significant challenge of deeper nuclear-conventional integration in strategic deterrence is to ensure that it doesn’t blur the line between nuclear and conventional war and inadvertently increase nuclear signaling during conventional operations.
Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
The NPR correctly concludes that deterrence alone will not reduce nuclear dangers and reaffirms the U.S. commitment to arms control, risk reduction, and nonproliferation. It does so by stating that the United States will pursue “a comprehensive and balanced approach” that places “renewed emphasis on arms control, non-proliferation, and risk reduction to strengthen stability, head off costly arms races, and signal our desire to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons globally.”
The Biden administration’s review contains significantly more positive language on arms control than can be found in the Trump administration’s NPR. The NPR concludes that “mutual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to achieving a key goal: reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy.”
In that vein, the review states a willingness to “expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START,” as well as an expansive recommitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty” (CTBT), and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). However, the authors take a negative view of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), stating that the United States does not “consider the TPNW to be an effective tool to resolve the underlying security conflicts that lead states to retain or seek nuclear weapons.”
Although the NPR states that “major changes” in the role of U.S. nuclear weapons against Russia and China will require verifiable reductions and constraints on their nuclear forces, it also concludes that there “is some opportunity to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategies for [China] and Russia in circumstances where the threat of a nuclear response may not be credible and where suitable non-nuclear options may exist or may be developed.” The NPR does not identify what those scenarios are.
Many of the activities described in the NPR are already well underway. Now that the NPR has been completed and published, the Pentagon will produce an NPR implementation plan that identifies specific decisions to be carried out.
Flowing from the reviews that were done in preparation of the NPR, the White House will move forward with an update to the nuclear weapons employment guidance. This guidance will potentially include changes to the strike plans and the assumptions and the assumptions and requirements that underpin them.
The Biden administration must use this opportunity to scrutinize more closely the simulations and analysis that U.S. Strategic Command is using to set nuclear force structure requirements.
Additional analysis can be found on our FAS Nuclear Posture Review Resource Page.
For an overview of global modernization programs, see our annual contribution to the SIPRI Yearbook and our Status of World Nuclear Forces webpage. Individual country profiles are available in various editions of the FAS Nuclear Notebook, which is published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and is freely available to the public.
This research was carried out with generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, the Future of Life Institute, Open Philanthropy, and individual donors.
A Closer Look at China’s Missile Silo Construction
[Update: Some images have temporarily been taker down because Maxar does not allow their satellite images to be overlaid on a competitor’s image.] After the discovery during the summer of what appears to be at least three vast missile silo fields under construction near Yumen, Hami, and Ordos in north-central China, new commercial satellite images show significant progress at the three sites as well as at the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF)’s training site near Jilantai.
The images provide a vivid and rare public look into what is otherwise a top-secret and highly sensitive construction program. The Chinese government has still not officially confirmed or denied that the facilities under construction are silos intended for missiles and there are many uncertainties and unknowns about the nature and role of the facilities. In this article we use words like suspected, apparent, and probable to remind the reader of that fact.
Yet our analysis of hundreds of satellite images over the past three years of the suspected missile silo fields and the different facilities that are under construction at each of them have increased our confidence that they are indeed related to the PLARF’s modernization program. In recent analysis of new satellite images obtained from Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies, we have observed almost weekly progress in construction of suspected silos as well as discovered unique facilities that appear intended to support missile operations once the silo fields become operational.
In this article we describe the progress we have observed. We first describe the shelters, then what we see under the shelters, unique support facilities, and end with overall observations.
Shelter Features and Activities
Some of the most visible features at each of China’s newly-discovered probable missile silo fields are the environmental shelters that cover each suspected silo headworks. It was these structures, first seen at Jilantai, that led to the discovery of the three large suspected missile silo fields. Shelters are not new phenomena in Chinese missile construction; declassified reports from the US National Photographic Interpretation Center suggest that in the 1970s and 1980s China used a mixture of “large rectangular covers,” “camouflage nets,” and other types of shelters to protect its silos from the elements, as well as from spy satellites above.
The construction progression typically goes like this: a space for each silo headworks is cleared, then the shelter is erected before large-scale excavation begins. Occasionally the silo hole – or part of it – is excavated first and the shelter is erected over it before the silo components are installed. Several satellite images show semi-circle structural forms that may be lowered into the hole and assembled to form the silo walls during this phase. Several months later, the shelter is removed, and construction continues in the open-air with less sensitive auxiliary structures.
Apart from hiding silo details from satellites, these environmental shelters play an important role in the construction process: winter temperatures in areas like the Jilantai training area can reach below -25 degrees Celsius and pouring concrete in cold temperatures can cause it to freeze and crack. Additionally, many of China’s suspected silo sites are located in desert areas with periodic sandstorms. Spring floods are another challenge, so many silo sites and roads are elevated above the ground level and often with barriers or tunnels to prevent water damage. Environmental shelters, therefore, help keep construction running smoothly and on schedule year round, and they can be erected and dismantled in just a couple of days.
Interestingly, China appears to be experimenting with several different types of shelters for each of its suspected silo fields. The reason for this may have to do with practical construction issues rather than what is being constructed under them.
- Short Rectangular Shelters
The most common shelter visible at China’s suspected silo complexes is a rectangular dome-like structure very similar to those used at indoor tennis courts or soccer pitches. Each structure appears to be air-inflated with an estimated area of 4,125 square meters, and must be accessed through a series of airlocks––one for pedestrians and an extended one for vehicles. The external ventilation system provides climate control and a slight continuous overpressure inside the dome, allowing it to retain its rounded shape. See example of inflatable shelter.
Identical rectangular air domes are visible at the Jilantai missile training area, the suspected Yumen silo site, and the suspected Hami silo site. While this does not necessarily prove that identical construction is taking place underneath each dome, it does imply a connection of the activities at the three sites.
In July 2021, Capella Space––a satellite company specializing in synthetic aperture radar––imaged one of the domes at the Yumen site. The SAR image allowed analysts to see the outlines of some structures underneath the dome, although it is difficult to discern much from the image except the clearly-visible framework of the external airlock. There appears to be significant activity directly in the center of the dome, which is where the suspected silo hole appears to be located.
- Long Rectangular Shelters
At the suspected Hami silo field, we see deployment of a slightly longer variant of the regular dome shelter. The Hami site is at a later stage of development than its counterpart at Yumen. The structures measure approximately 20 meters longer than the aforementioned domes erected at Yumen and Jilantai, but otherwise appear to be very similar. One discernible difference between the two is that the vehicle airlock is not extended outside of the dome’s main structure but appears to be embedded within the dome itself (see image below).
Although the suspected silo site at Hami contains both types of inflatable domes, there are now more of the longer variant than the shorter version. Given that Hami is a newer site than both Yumen and Jilantai, it is possible that construction has now switched entirely to the longer version and will continue to use this structure for future sites. While Yumen does not appear to have any longer domes on-site, it is notable that some crude extensions to its shorter domes were erected there. This adds approximately 20 meters and expands the short dome to the size of the new longer dome (see image below).
This reason for building longer dome shelters could indicate that silo excavation and construction activities required more space than the PLARF originally thought, and that they are now having to adjust for their newer sites. The estimated area of the longer domes is 4,925 square meters, excluding the approximately 300 square meters needed for the embedded vehicle airlock; this makes the total area slightly less than that of an NFL football field, which has an area of approximately 5,350 square meters.
- Round Shelters
At a third suspected missile silo field near Ordos is deploying a different type of inflatable air dome. Instead of the shorter and longer rectangular domes, the PLARF has opted to use round domes with circular bases. Interestingly, these circular domes appear to have several different types of patterns (see image below).
Other than the differences in shape and pattern, the domes appear to function the same way as the other sites. Similar to the longer rectangular air domes, the vehicle airlock appears to be embedded within the dome itself.
There are some potential advantages to these circular domes, compared to the rectangular domes used at Yumen, Hami, and Jilantai. A rounder shape is stronger than a rectangular one, and offers the maximum amount of internal space with the least amount of surface area. This means that less fabric is needed to create the structure, thus creating a potential cost savings. The estimated area of the round domes is approximately 4,725 square meters, excluding the 300 square meters needed for the embedded vehicle airlock.
- Solid Shelters
The PLARF has also constructed solid, rectangular structures to temporarily cover some of its suspected missile silo sites. In 2018, Catherine Dill noted that a solid 32m x 66m gable-roofed structure had covered a silo at Wuzhai before it was removed in December 2017. In 2019, Hans Kristensen’s discovery of the Jilantai missile training area included a solid structure with similar measurements covering a newly-constructed silo; in total, the first four apparent silos at Jilantai were built under solid shelters. In 2020, Scott LaFoy and Decker Eveleth also noted the presence of four high-bay structures with similar measurements covering previously-identified DF-4 ICBM launch sites at Sundian.
In addition to these sites, 11 identical solid structures have been erected at the suspected Yumen missile silo site (see image below). These structures––which were among the very first structures erected at Yumen between March and October 2020––are outliers for the entire complex, which is subsequently has filled entirely with shorter dome shelters that were deployed later in the complex’s construction period (see image below).
What Is Underneath The Shelters?
Several shelters over suspected silo construction sites have now been removed, which allows us to better determine the possible function of the sites. The new satellite images show features that reaffirm that the sites appear to be silos in various stages of construction. A few satellite images taken at sites before the shelters were built already showed features strongly suggesting the sites were missile silos, and the first four sites at Jilantai are clearly silos. But with the growing number of shelters being removed, so far over 40, the evidence pointing to silo construction is in our assessment getting stronger.
Because silo construction at the PLARF training site near Jilantai began before construction at the three large missile silo fields, developments at Jilantai are likely precursors for events that will appear later at the other sites. One of the first four silos (39.76470°N, 105.53952°E) appears to show silo operations. Preparation of this site began in July 2019, and by early-August, satellite images showed excavation of a six-meter-wide deep hole inside a shallower 14–15-meter hole. The following month a shelter was built over the silo apparently to hide technical details from satellites. This was a solid shelter similar to the first 11 later constructed at Yumen. Once silo construction had been completed the shelter was dismantled while construction of access roads and command and control facilities continued. This summer, a Maxar satellite photo showed what appeared to be a missile loading operation at the site, and on October 29, a Planet Labs satellite photographed additional crane operations over the open silo (see below). The silo is probably not yet operational.
The first four silos at Jilantai were covered by garage-like shelters. But in early 2021, dome-like shelters were erected over an additional 10 possible missile silos. These domes, or inflatable shelters, are identical or similar to the shelters over the vast majority of suspected silo sites at Hami, Yumi, and Ordos. In late-October, the dome shelters at Jilantai began to come down. A satellite image of one of these (39.72593°N, 105.52898°E) shows clear signs of a possible silo, first during the early stages immediately before the shelter was erected, and finally immediately after shelter was dismantled. Visible features include what appear to be a silo hatch, small auxiliary buildings, and ground markings from possible buried command and control cables or power lines (see image below). The other sites at Jilantai have the same features and dimensions.
The silo features are also clearly visible at Yumen, which began construction earlier than Hami and Ordos. So far, the shelters have been removed from at least 29 suspected silos at Yumen. The structures are very similar: an apparent silo hatch on an elevated dirt mound, with small auxiliary structures, a wide-turn access road presumably for use by missile transport and maintenance trucks. One of the apparent silo sites under construction at Yumen is shown below. Over the next several months, the remaining surface features will be completed.
Operation of large missile silo fields requires extensive support infrastructure. This includes main base headquarters, technical support bases, missile and warhead support facilities, command and control infrastructure, electrical power supply, and roads. Many of the facilities under construction at the three suspected missile silo fields at Hami, Yumen and Ordos, as well as at the training site near Jilantai, appear intended to support such functions.
One of the most unique facilities under construction is a large complex that includes what appear to be three large parallel tubes embedded in trenches and connected to buildings via smaller tubes. Underground tunnels connect the three tubes, which might eventually be covered with soil. So far, this type of facility has been found at the Hami and Ordos missile silo fields (see image below), but not yet at Yumen. The function of these two facilities is unknown but could potentially be related to climate-controlled storage or handling of fragile missile and/or warhead components, or command bunker function. (Note: there is no evidence this is the case.)
Another unique facility so far seen only at Hami (42.2343°N, 92.897°E) includes a growing central complex in the mountains surrounded by what appear to be four tunnels into underground facilities. The tunnels are still under construction and show large amounts of excavation soil dumped nearby (see image below). The function of the facility is unknown but could potentially involve missile and/or warhead storage and management. Again, there is no evidence this is the case and is speculation at this point. The base-tunnel complex appears to be connected to the main missile silo grid via an underground cable. Sixty kilometers (37 miles) to the west (42.32163° N, 92.16282° E), at the other far side of the suspected missile field, is a similar facility with tunnels under construction.
There are also many other structures under construction that may be technical service facilities and launch control centers. Especially at Hami, we see construction of long lines of what may be powerlines intended to provide electrical power to the sprawling facilities. Finally, a number of larger and smaller construction camps and soil extraction sites are visible at all the suspected missile fields.
In order to help monitor and illustrate the construction of China’s suspected missile silo fields, the Federation of American Scientists has created an interactive map for each of the suspected missile silo fields at Yumen, Hami and Ordos (see example of Yumen below). Each map has a slider that allows the viewer to see how the construction of major facilities has progressed over time. These maps will be updated as construction continues. To access the maps, use these links:
The 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 all show what appear to be a clear connection to the PLARF’s missile program. Early on, this connection was most visible at Jilantai, where commercial satellite imagery captured telltale semi-circle silo wall structures, silo hatches, and even a potential missile loading operation. With construction progressing at the larger missile fields at Yumen, Hami and Ordos as described in this article, we see strong indications in the satellite images of what appear to be construction of missile silos and support facilities.
It is notable that at this time, no other inflatable air dome complexes on this scale have been spotted at other sites in China. Some sites (for example: 40.18064° N, 107.53670° E) appear to have similar (but much shorter) spacing patterns to those seen at the suspected silo fields; however, at higher imagery resolutions it becomes clear that those structures are not dome shelters or silos, but are in fact much smaller and very different structures for windmills. It is potentially possible that some windmills will be constructed in between the apparent silos; there is some evidence of that at Yumen. We note that some US ICBM silos are also in close proximity of windmills (for example: 40.8222, -104.0505); this does not appear to interfere with silo operations but can effect helicopter operations in the area.
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. The Chinese government has not yet officially confirmed or denied that the facilities are missile silos. But U.S. military officials appear to have confirmed that the reported missile silo fields are part of China’s nuclear modernization program. And based on the features we can examine on the new satellite images, we are increasingly confident that the facilities are indeed missile silos and support facilities under construction.
For China, this is an unprecedented nuclear buildup. We and others have remarked that it raises questions and uncertainty about China’s minimum nuclear deterrent and policies. On the other hand, even construction of large number of silos may not necessarily reflect a change in the basic role the Chinese leadership attributes to its nuclear forces. For example, China could potentially still retain its no-first-use policy. The apparent missile silo fields are still many years away from becoming fully operational and it remains to be seen how China will arm and operate them.
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. These developments will feature prominently in the Biden administration’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review and we urge the administration not to overreact but pursue conversations with the Chinese government to develop measures to reduce tension and increase transparency.
The reason is obvious: Although China has so far rejected limits on its nuclear forces by arguing that “Countries with the largest nuclear arsenals [Russia and the United States] have special and primary responsibilities in nuclear disarmament,” the size of the Chinese missile silo program – combined with the other elements of China’s nuclear modernization – could bring China into that category in the not too distant future. With approximately 300 apparent silos under construction – a number that exceeds the number of 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.
This worrisome development may ironically also create new opportunities for arms control discussions and potential agreements. That is, if there is the political will to pursue them. With the review conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty approaching early next year, this would seem to be a good time for the large nuclear powers to demonstrate that will.
- China’s nuclear missile silo expansion: From minimum deterrence to medium deterrence (2021)
- China Is Building A Second Nuclear Missile Silo Field (2021)
- SIPRI Yearbook World Nuclear Forces (with China section), 2021
- China’s Expanding Missile Training Area: More Silos, Tunnels, and Support Facilities (2020)
- New Missile Silo And DF-41 Launchers Seen In Chinese Nuclear Missile Training (2019)
- Status of world nuclear forces
This publication was made possible by generous support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
US Army Views Chinese Military Tactics
How would China fight a war against the US?
A new US Army publication sets out to answer that question, offering a detailed account of the military tactics China could employ. See Chinese Tactics, Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 7-100.3, August 9, 2021.
The 250-page document is mainly intended to help provide a realistic basis for training of US forces. But in doing so it sheds some new light on China’s military forces, at least as they are perceived by US military observers. It is based primarily on open sources.
“This publication presents PLA [People’s Liberation Army] military theory largely as written and prescribed by the PLAA [PLA Army],” the manual says. “Real world practices of PLA units are . . . generally not included as part of the analysis underpinning this document.”
The description of Chinese military tactics is necessarily speculative to some extent. “The PLA has not participated in an active conflict in nearly half a century, so real-world applications are minimal. [But] available information on Chinese military training exercises and the few recent examples of conflict seem to indicate that PLA practices — including those of the PLAA — conform closely to its military theory.”
As for the command structure of the Chinese military, it “is complex and opaque to outsiders. . . . There are no fewer than ten different national-level command organizations in China, organized across at least three different levels of a complex hierarchy.”
“Deception plays a critical role in every part of the Chinese approach to conflict,” according to the document. “Rather than focusing on defeating the opponent in direct conflict — as most Western militaries do — [Chinese military] stratagems consider deception, trickery, and other indirect, perception-based efforts to be the most important elements of an operation.”
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The current volume on China is the second in a new Army series on foreign military tactics. A previous volume on North Korean Tactics (ATP 7-100.2) was published last year. Two more volumes on Russian Tactics (ATP 7-100.1) and Iranian Tactics (ATP 7-100.4) are expected to appear later this year.
While unclassified, “these assessments are based on the most up-to-date information available,” wrote Army intelligence specialist Jennifer Dunn (“Training Today’s Army for Tomorrow’s Threats,” Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, Oct-Dec 2020). “Subject matter experts within the Department of Defense and intelligence communities have vetted them, ensuring their veracity and applicability to the greater Army training and intelligence community.”
“It is also essential for the Army, especially for the regionally aligned elements, to thoroughly understand the adversary they are most likely to encounter in future conflicts,” she wrote, in an unwitting paraphrase of Sun Tzu’s famous dictum about knowing the enemy.
* * *
The US government can and should do far more to produce such open source materials on national security and foreign policy, say some members of Congress. A bill (HR 4747) sponsored by Rep. Joaquin Castro and several bipartisan colleagues, would create a new “Open Translation and Analysis Center (OTAC).”
“OTAC would be charged with translating into English important open source foreign-language material from the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and other countries of strategic interest,” according to a July 28 news release. “The translated material would be available on a public website, serving as a key resource for the U.S. and allied governments, media outlets, and academics and analysts around the world.”
“Along with translations, OTAC would provide information to help readers understand the meaning and significance of the published material. It would also produce key analyses of translated material to enhance the understanding of the governments and political systems it covers.”
For decades the US intelligence community provided open source materials to the public through the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS). But that mission has been abandoned by US intelligence and the Open Source Enterprise, the successor to FBIS, has gone completely dark as far as the public is concerned.
China’s Expanding Missile Training Area: More Silos, Tunnels, and Support Facilities
The Chinese military appears to be significantly expanding the number of ballistic missiles silos under construction in a new sprawling training area in the northern part of central China.
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.
The training area, located east of the city of Jilantai in the Inner Mongolia province, is used by the People’s Republic of China Rocket Force (PLARF) to train missile crews and fine-tune procedures for operating road-mobile missile launchers and their support vehicles.
The Jilantai PLARF Training Area
The Jilantai training area stretches for 140 kilometers (87 miles) over an area of nearly 2,090 square-kilometers (800 square miles) of desert and mountain ranges. It is a relatively new training area with most facilities added after 2013 and has since expanded to well over 140 missiles launch pads used by launch units to practice launch and loading procedures, more than two dozen campgrounds where launch units stay for a short period before moving on, five high-bay garages servicing launchers and support vehicles operating in the area, and a large supply base with adjacent support facilities (see image).
The training area is very active and is currently expanding in several regions, especially to the north and south as well as in the center. The expansion includes new high-bay facilities that handle launchers and missiles, a vast number of pads used by launchers and their support vehicles, missile silos, camping areas used by launch units, and underground facilities to hide and protect launchers.
Mapping the area took quite a lot of work spread out over the past two years. Unfortunately, Google Earth only has very limited and outdated image coverage of the area. Only the north-eastern sector has fairly recent images (2019). The vast majority of the imagery is still from 2013 and 2014. This is a surprise, given how much interest there is in this area. Instead, thanks to funding support from my funders listed at the bottom of this article, I used a subscription to Maxar’s Secure Watch service to get access to updated high-resolution imagery. The service is too expensive to use to search large areas and Planet Labs has a hefty price to even get access to low-resolution imagery. Fortunately, the European Sentinel Hub Playground offers free low-resolution imagery that served as a useful tool to detect new structures (the imagery is updated every five days) that could then be examined more closely with Maxar images.
Monitoring this area provides a wealth of information about how PLARF operates its mobile missiles units, the vehicles that are involved in the operations, and what structures and features to look for in the actual base deployment areas throughout China. It also provides important clues about China’s current and future nuclear modernization and helps assessing claims made by US defense officials about China’s capabilities.
One of the most important new developments in the Jilantai training area is the construction of a significant number of facilities that appear to be silos intended for ballistic missiles. In the future we might see missile test launches from these silos.
Nearly all of the silos appear to be smaller than the type used for the large DF-5 ICBM in the base areas. The Department of Defense says that Jilantai “is probably being used to at least develop a concept of operations for silo basing” the DF-41.
At least 16 silos appear to be under construction (see image below). They vary in dimensions and construction has so far happened in three phases: the first silo facility started construction in 2016, four “Russia-type” silos followed in 2018-2020, and construction of an additional 11 silos began in late-2020. All of the silos are located in the center of the training area within a 10×20-kilometer (12×7-mile) area. The silos are spaced 2.2-4.4 kilometers (1.4-2.7 miles) apart, enough to ensure, presumably, that no two of them can be destroyed in a single one nuclear attack.
The first silo began construction in 2016 with what appears to include a silo and several underground facilities (39.7000, 105.4164). The outline and features are similar, but not the same, as the new silo constructed at the Wuzhai Test Launch Complex (38.888, 111.5975). It has not been confirmed that the Jilantai facility is a silo and construction was covered by a large building for several years. But equipment visible on satellite photos in 2019 appear to show semi-circle structures potentially used to build the silo walls. If so, it might be intended for a DF-5 size missile.
The second phase of silo construction began in June 2018 and now seems nearly complete. This includes four silos along the western side of the central training area. During construction, the silos were covered by a building similar to the first silo. These four silos look very similar to Russian silos with little surface infrastructure, a turn-road for trucks bringing in a missile, a 30-meter missile loading pad, and a silo lid with a diameter of about 6 meters (20 feet).
This second phase began shortly before the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military developments in 2018 reported that “China appears to be considering additional DF-41 launch options, including rail-mobile and silo basing.”
It was this second phase I described in an article in September 2019, a discovery that was later credited in the Defense Department’s 2020 report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments. According to the report, the size of these silos “precludes use by the DF-5 and may support concept development for a silo-based DF-41 or one of China’s smaller ICBMs,” such as the DF-31A.
The third and so far biggest silo construction phase began in late-2020 and has expanded quickly to a total of 11 silos during the first two months of 2021. Construction is still early but satellite images indicate the silos are similar in size to the four constructed in the second phase. However, the construction sites look different. Whereas the previous silos were covered by solid buildings, construction of the new silos appears to involve a climate tent or possibly an inflated bubble structure.
The silo construction at Jilantai coincides with possible construction of silos near Sundian in the Henan province.
Some of the most interesting new facilities found in the training area include two drive-through tunnels that might be intended for use by mobile launchers. The precise function is unknown, but the physical dimensions and locations suggest the tunnels may serve as field hideouts for launchers or missile reload facilities. Mobile launchers are highly vulnerable when operating in the open.
The two tunnels discovered so far are located at each end of the training area that are under expansion with new facilities and additional launch pads (see image below).
The tunnels are approximately 350 meters (1,148 feet) long and could hypothetically hold a dozen DF-41 launchers. More likely it would hold a smaller number plus their support vehicles. The entrances are about six meters wide and tall, more than sufficient for a large launcher.
Each tunnel has two entrances, and one end has a 75-meter section that is wider than the rest of the tunnel (20 meters vs. 13 meters). The wide section could potentially serve as a missile reload area or personnel quarters. Adjacent to the wide section is a square building with three taller structures that might be for surface access or house a climate control system.
These types of tunnels might also potentially be under construction in the operational brigade base area, although I haven’t fund any yet.
Summary and Implications
The PLARF training near Jilantai provides a unique window into China’s nuclear posture. China currently operates 18-20 silos, a number that could nearly double with the construction of the silos in the Jilantai training area. Whereas as the existing silos are large to accommodate the old liquid-fueled DF-5 ICBM, all but one of the new silos at Jilantai are smaller and appear designed to accommodate the newer and slimmer solid-fuel ICBMs, such as the DF-41 (and potentially DF-31A).
The construction of so many silos (16 have been found so far) in a training area is curious (there are only two training silos at the Wuzhai Test Launch Complex). One would imagine that a couple of silos would provide sufficient training. One potential explanation might be that China is experimenting with several different types of silos designs to determine which type(s) eventually will be constructed in the various brigade base areas. The Pentagon asserted in 2020 that Jilantai “is probably being used to at least develop a concept of operations for silo basing” the DF-41. To that end, the silos could potentially even achieve some actual operational capability.
It should be pointed out that even if China doubles or triples the number of ICBM silos, it would only constitute a fraction of the number of ICBM silos operated by the United States and Russia. The US Air Force has 450 silos, of which 400 are loaded. Russia has about 130 operational silos. In comparison, the 16 new silos under construction at Jilantai correspond to less than one-third of a single squadrons in a single US ICBM wing.
Yet 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 United States (or even near-parity), why is China doing this and what is driving the development? There are several potential explanations (or possibly a combination of them; listed in no particular order):
Increased protection of retaliatory capability: 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. China’s development of its current road-mobile solid-fuel ICBM force was, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency, fueled by the US Navy’s deployment of Trident II D5 missiles in the Pacific. This action-reaction dynamic is most likely a factor in China’s current modernization.
Overcoming potential effects of US missile defenses: Concerns that missile defenses might undermine China’s retaliatory capability have always been prominent. China has already decided to equip its DF-5B ICBM with multiple warheads (MIRV); each missile can carry up to five. The new DF-41 ICBM is also capable of MIRV and the future JL-3 SLBM will also be capable of carrying multiple warheads. By increasing the number of silos-based solid-fuel missiles and the number of warheads they carry, China would seek to ensure that they can continue to penetrate missile defense systems.
Transition to solid-fuel silo missiles: China’s old liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs take too long to fuel before they can launch, making them more vulnerable to attack. Handling liquid fuel is also cumbersome and dangerous. By transitioning to solid-fuel missile silos, survivability, operational procedures, and safety of the ICBM force would be improved.
Transitioning to a peacetime missile alert posture: China’s missiles are thought to be deployed without nuclear warheads installed under normal circumstances. US and Russian ICBMs are deployed fully ready and capable of launching on short notice. Because military competition with the United States is increasing, China can no longer be certain it would have time to arm the missiles that will need to be on alert to improve the credibility of China deterrent. The Pentagon in 2020 asserted that the silos at Jilantai “provide further evidence China is moving to a LOW posture.”
Balancing the ICBM force: Eighty percent of China’s ICBMs are mobile and increasing in numbers. Since China is increasing its overall ICBM force, the silo-based portion also has to be increased to serve a credible role.
Increasing China’s nuclear strike capability: China’s “minimum deterrence” posture has historically kept nuclear launchers at a relatively low level. But the Chinese leadership might have decided that it needs more missiles with more warheads to hold more adversarial facilities at risk. The United States, India, and Russia are all modernizing their nuclear arsenal and improving or increasing their weapons.
Improving quick-strike conventional capability: Although the silos at Jilantai are thought to be intended for nuclear missiles, one option could potentially also be (I am not suggesting it is) to begin to deploy conventional ballistic missiles in silos. Doing so would provide a very quick strike capability, not at strategic range but for targets at medium- or intermediate-range.
National prestige: China is getting richer and more powerful. Big powers have more missiles, so China needs to have more missiles too to underpin its status as a great power.
The construction of more than a dozen silos for modern solid-fuel missiles at Jilantai indicates that China may be seeking to increase reliance on silo-based missiles in its nuclear posture. Whether that is the result of the overall increase of its arsenal, a sense of increased vulnerability, or a different thinking about the role that quick-strike ICBMs will serve in the future remains to be seen. But it is a clear reminder about the dynamic of deterrence that continues to fuel nuclear modernization, and the Jilantai training area provides a unique window into China’s efforts.
• Chinese nuclear forces, 2020
• China’s New DF-26 Missile Shows Up At Base In Eastern China
• New Missile Silo And DF-41 Launchers Seen In Chinese Nuclear Missile Training Area
• Chinese DF-26 Missile Launchers Deploy To New Missile Training Area
This publication was made possible by generous support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
New NASIC Report Appears Watered Down And Out Of Date
The US Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) has published a new version of its widely referenced Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report.
The agency normally puts out an updated version of the report every four years. The previous version dates from 2017.
The 2021 report (dated 2020) provides information on developments in many countries but is clearly focused on China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Especially the North Korean data is updated because of the significant developments since 2017.
The most interesting new information in the updated report is probably that the new Chinese JL-3 sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is capable of carrying multiple warheads.
Overall, however, the new report may be equally interesting because of what it does not include. There are a number of cases where the report is scaled back compared with previous versions. And throughout the report, much of the data clearly hasn’t been updated since 2018. In some places it is even inconsistent and self-contradicting.
The most significant data reduction is in the cruise missile section where the report no longer lists countries other than Russia, China, and Iran. This is a significant change from previous reports that listed a wide range of other countries, including India and Pakistan and many others that have important cruise missile programs in development. The omission is curious because the report in all ballistic missile categories includes other countries.
Other examples of reduced data include the overview of ballistic missile launches, which for some reason does not show data for 2019 and 2020. Nor is it clear from the table which countries are included.
Also, in some descriptions of missile program developments the report appears to be out of date and not update on recent developments. This includes the Russian SS-X-28 (RS-26 Rubezh) shorter-range ICBM, which the report portrays as an active program but only presents data for 2018. Likewise, the report does not mention the two additional boats being added to the Chinese SSBN fleet. Moreover, the new section with air-launched ballistic missiles only includes Russia but leaves out Chinese developments and only appears to include data up through early 2018.
Whether these omissions reflect changes in classification rules, chaos is the Intelligence Community under the Trump administration, or simply oversight is unknown.
Below follows highlights of some of the main nuclear issues in the new report.
Russian Nuclear Forces
Information about Russian ballistic and cruise missile programs dominate the report, but less so than in previous versions. NASIC says Russia currently has approximately 1,400 nuclear warheads deployed on ICBMs and SLBMs, a reduction from the “over 1,500” reported in 2017. The new number is well known from the release of New START data and is very close to the 1,420 warheads we estimated in our Russian Nuclear Notebook last year.
NASIC repeats the projection from 2017, that “the number of missiles in the Russian ICBM force will continue to decrease because of arms control agreements, aging missiles, and resource constraints….”
The statement that “Russia retains over 1,000 nuclear warheads on ICBMs” is curious, however, because would imply the SLBM force is loaded with fewer warheads than normally assumed. The warhead loading attributed to the SS-N-32 (Bulava) is 6, the number declared by Russia under the START treaty, and less than the 10 warheads that is often claimed by unofficial sources.
The new version describes continued development of the SS-28 (RS-26 (Rubezh) shorter-range ICBM suspected by some to actually be an IRBM. But the report only lists development activities up through 2018 and nothing since. The system is widely thought to have been mothballed due to budget constraints.
The cruise missile section attributes nuclear capability – or possible nuclear capability – to most of the Russian missiles listed. Six systems are positively identified as nuclear, including the Kh-102, which was not listed in the 2017 report. Two of the nuclear systems are dual-capable, including the 9M729 (SSC-8) missile the US said violated the now-abandoned INF treaty, while 3 missiles are listed as “Conventional, Nuclear Possible.” That includes the 9M728 (R-500) cruise missile (SSC-7) launched by the Iskander system, the 3M-14 (Kalibr) cruise missile (SS-N-30), and the 3M-55 (Yakhont, P-800) cruise missile (SS-N-26).
The designation of “nuclear possible” for the SS-N-30 (3M-14, often called the Kalibr even though Kalibr is strictly speaking the name of the launcher system) is curious because the Russian government has clearly stated that the missile is nuclear-capable.
Chinese Nuclear Forces
The biggest news in the China section of the NASIC report is that the new JL-3 SLBM that will arm the next-generation Type 096 SSBN will be capable of delivering “multiple” warheads and have a range of more than 10,000 kilometers. That is a significant increase in capability compared with the JL-2 SLBM currently deployed on the Jin-class SSBNs and is likely part of the reason for the projection that China’s nuclear stockpile might double over the next decade.
Despite this increased range, however, a Type 096 operating from the current SSBN base in the South China Sea would not be able to strike targets in the continental United States. To be able to reach targets in the continental United States, an SSBN would have to launch its missile from the Bohai Sea. That would bring almost one-third of the continental United States within range. To target Washington, DC, however, a Type 096 SSBN would still have to deploy deep into the Pacific.
The new DF-41 (CSS-20) has lost its “-X-“ designation (CSS-X-20), which indicates that NASIC considers the missile has finished development is now being deployed. A total of 16+ launchers are listed, probably based on the number attending the 2019 parade in Beijing and the number seen operating in the Jilantai training area.
The number of DF-31A and DF-31AG launchers is very low, 15+ and 16+ respectively, which is strange given the number of bases observed with the launchers. Of course, “+” can mean anything and we estimate the number of launchers is probably twice that number. Also interesting is that the DF-31AG is listed as “UNK” (unknown) for warheads per missile. The DF-31A is listed with one warhead, which suggests that the AG version potentially could have a different payload. Nowhere else is the AG payload listed as different or even multiple warheads.
The NASIC report projection for the increase in Chinese nuclear ICBM warheads that can reach the United States is inconsistent and self-contradicting. In one section (p. 3) the report predicts “the number of Chinese ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States potentially expanding to well over 200 within the next 5 years.” But in another section (p. 27), the report states that the “number of warheads on Chinese ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to well over 100 in the next 5 years.” The projection of “well over 100” was also listed in the 2017 report, and the “well over 200” projection matches the projection made in the DOD annual report on Chinese military developments. So the authors of the NASIC might simply have forgotten to update the text.
On Chinese shorter-range ballistic missiles, the NASIC report only mentions DF-21A (CSS-5 Mod 2) as nuclear, but not the CSS-5 Mod 6 version. The Mod 6 version (potentially called DF-21E) was first mentioned in the 2016 DOD report on Chinese military developments and has been included since.
Newer missiles finally get designations: The dual-capable DF-26 is called the CSS-18, and the conventional (possibly) DF-17 is called the CSS-22. NASIC continues to list the DF-26 range as less (3,000+ km) than the annual DOD China report (4,000 km).
An in case anyone was tempted, no, none of China’s cruise missiles are listed as nuclear-capable.
Pakistani Nuclear Forces
The report provides no new information about Pakistani nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. As with several other sections in the report, the information does not appear to have been updated much beyond 2018, if at all. As such, status information should be read with caution.
The Shaheen-III MRBM is still not deployed, nor is the Ababeel MRBM that NASIC describes as a “MIRV version.” It has only been flight-tested once.
The tactical nuclear-capable NASR is listed with a range of 60 km, the same as in 2017, even though the Pakistani government has since claimed the range has been extended to 70 km.
Because the new NASIC report no longer includes data on Pakistan’s cruise missiles, neither the Babur nor the RAAD programs are described. Nor is any information provided about the efforts by the Pakistani navy to develop a submarine-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile.
Indian Nuclear Forces
Similar to other sections of the report, the data on Indian programs are tainted by the fact that some information does not appear to have been updated since 2018, and that the cruise missile section does not include India at all.
According to the report, Agni II and Agni III MRBMs are still deployed in very low numbers, fewer than 10 launchers, the same number reported in 2017. That number implies only a single brigade of each missile. But, again, it is not clear this information has actually been updated.
Nor are the Agni IV or the Agni V listed as deployed yet.
North Korean Forces
The North Korean sections are main interesting because of the inclusion of data on several systems test-launched since the previous report in 2017. This contrasts several other data set in the report, which do not appear to have been updated past 2018. But since the North Korean long-range tests occurred in 2017, this may explain why they are included.
NASIC provides official (unclassified) range estimates for these missiles:
The Hwasong-12 IRBM range has been increased from 3,000+ km in 2017 to 4,500+ km in the new report.
On the ICBMs, the Taepo Dong 2 no longer has a range estimate. The Hwasong-13 and Hwasong-14 range estimates have been raised from the generic 5,500+ km in the 2017 report to 12,000 km and 10,000+ km, respectively, in the new report, and the new Hwasong-15 has been added with a range estimate of 12,000+ km. The warhead loading estimates for the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 are “unknown” and none of the ICBMs are listed as deployed.
On submarine-launched missiles, the NASIC report lists two: the Puguksong-1 and Pukguksong-3. Both have range estimates of 1,000+ km and the warhead estimate for the Pukguksong-3 is unknown (“UNK”). Neither is deployed. The new Pukguksong-4 paraded in October 2020 is not listed, not is the newest Pukguksong-5 displayed in early 2021 mentioned.
Additional background information:
• Russian nuclear forces, 2020
• Chinese nuclear forces, 2020
(The Other) Red Storm Rising: INDO-PACOM China Military Projection
Some Missile Numbers Do Not Match Recent DOD China Report
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command recently gave a briefing about the challenges the command sees in the region. The briefing says China is the “Greatest Threat to Global Order and Stability” and presents a set of maps that portray a massive Chinese military buildup and very little U.S. capability (and no Allied capability at all) to counter it. With its weapons icons and a red haze spreading across much of the Pacific, the maps resemble a new version of the Cold War classic Red Storm Rising.
Unfortunately, the maps are highly misleading. They show all of China’s forces but only a fraction of U.S. forces operating or assigned missions in the Pacific.
There is no denying China is in the middle of a very significant military modernization that is increasing its forces and their capabilities. This is and will continue to challenge the military and political climate in the region. For decades, the United States enjoyed an almost unopposed – certainly unmatched – military superiority in the region and was able to project that capability against China as it saw fit. The Chinese leadership appears to have concluded that that is no longer acceptable and that the country needs to be able to defend itself.
In describing this development, however, the INDO-PACOM briefing slides make the usual mistake of overselling the threat and under-characterizing the defenses. Moreover, some of the Chinese missile forces listed in the briefing differ significantly from those listed in the recent DOD report on Chinese military developments. As military competition and defense posturing intensify, expect to see more of these maps in the future.
Apples, Oranges, and Cherry-Picking
The INDO-PACOM maps suffer from the same lopsided comparison and cherry-picking that handicapped the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: it overplays the Chinese capabilities and downplays the U.S. capabilities (see image below). While he briefing maps includes all of China’s military forces, whether they are postured toward India or Russia, it only shows a small portion of U.S. forces. INDO-PACOM mapmakers may argue that it’s only intended to show the force level in the Western Pacific theater, but INDO-PACOM spans all of the Pacific and the maps ignore other significant U.S. forces that are operating in the region to oppose China.
The INDO-PACOM map gives the impression that the United States only has 175 fighter-jets, 12 bombers, 50 maritime patrol aircraft, 1 aircraft carrier, four amphibious assault ships, 12 modern multi-warfare warships, 10 submarines, and 2 THAAD missile defense batteries in the region to deter China. In reality, the U.S. military forces based or assigned missions in the INDO-PACOM area of responsibility are significantly greater. The map excludes everything based in Hawaii, in Alaska, on the U.S. west coast, and elsewhere in the continental United States with missions in the Pacific or forces rotating through bases in the Indo-Pacific region. Examples of mischaracterizations of U.S. forces include:
Fighter aircraft: The map lists only lists 175 fighter-jets, but Pacific Air Forces says it has “Approximately 320 fighter and attack aircraft are assigned to the command with approximately 100 additional deployed aircraft rotating on Guam.”
Bombers: The map lists only 12 bombers, but the United States has more than 150 bombers, many of which would be used to counter Chinese forces in a war. Moreover, those bombers are considerably more capable than Chinese bombers and are supported by tankers to provide unconstrained range in the Pacific, something Chinese bombers cannot do.
Submarines: The map lists only 10 U.S. submarines, but according to the U.S. Naval Vessel Register the U.S. Navy has more than three times that many (35) in the Pacific, including 25 attack submarines, 2 guide missile submarines, and 8 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) homeported in Pacific ports. The omission of the 8 Pacific-based SSBNs is particularly problematic given their important role of targeting China – and that they are assigned up to eight times more nuclear warheads than China has in its entire nuclear weapons stockpile.
Aircraft carriers: The map lists only one U.S. aircraft carrier, but according to the U.S. Naval Vessel Register the U.S. Navy has six aircraft carriers based in the Pacific (two of them in shipyard). Moreover, unlike China’s single aircraft carrier (a second is fitting out), U.S. carriers are large flat-tops with more aircraft.
Amphibious assault ships: The map shows four U.S. amphibious assault ships, but the U.S. Pacific Fleet says it operates six (although one was recently damaged by fire). Moreover, the amphibious assault ships are being upgraded to carry the F-35B VSTOL aircraft, significantly improving their strike capability.
Missile defense: The map shows only two THAAD batteries but does not mention the Ground Based Midcourse missile defense system in Alaska. Nor are missile defense interceptors deployed on cruisers and destroyers listed.
ICBMs: One of the most glaring omissions is that the maps do not show the United States has any ICBMs (the map also does not list U.S. SLBMs but nor does it list Chinese SLBMs). Although U.S. ICBMs are thought to be mainly assigned to targeting Russia and would have to overfly Russia to reach targets in China, that does not rule out they could be used to target China (Chinese ICBMs would also have to overfly Russia to target the continental United States). U.S. ICBMs carry more nuclear warheads than China has in its entire nuclear stockpile.
A modified map, apparently made available by U.S. Pacific Air Forces, is a little better because it includes Australian, Japanese, and South Korean forces. But it still significantly mischaracterizes the forces the United States has in the Pacific or are assigned missions in the region. Moreover, the new map does not include the yellow highlights showing “hypersonics” missiles and portion of aircraft, ships, and submarines that are modern (see modified map below).
Inconsistent Missile Numbers
The INDO-PACOM maps are also interesting because the numbers for Chinese IRBMs and MRBMs are different than those presented in the 2020 DOD report on Chinese military developments. INDO-PACOM lists 250 IRBMs/MRBMs, more than 100 missiles fewer than the DOD estimate. China has fielded one IRBM (DF-26), a dual-capable missile that exists in two versions: one for land-attack (most DF-26s are of this version) and one for anti-ship attack. China operates four versions of the DF-21 MRBM: the nuclear DF-21A and DF-21E, the conventional land-attack DF-21C, and the conventional anti-ship DF-21D.
There is also a difference in the number of SRBMs, which INDO-PACOM sets at 1,000, while the DOD report lists 600+. The 600+ could hypothetically be 1,000, but the INDO-PACOM number shows that the high-end of the 750-1,500 range reported by the 2019 DOD China report probably was too high.
A comparison (see table below) is complicated by the fact that the two reports appear to use slightly different terminology, some of which seems inconsistent. For example, INDO-PACOM lists “missiles” but the low IRBM/MRBM estimate suggests it refers to launchers. However, the high number of SRBMs listed suggest it refers to missiles.
The projection made by INDO-PACOM for 2025 shows significant additional increases of Chinese forces, except in the number of SRBMs.
The ICBM force is expected to increase to 150 missiles from 100 today. That projection implies China will field an average of 10 new ICBMs each year for the next five years, or about twice the rate China has been fielding new ICBMs over the past two decades. Fifty ICBMs corresponds to about four new brigades. About 20 of the 50 new ICBMs are probably the DF-41s that have already been displayed in PLARF training areas, military parades, and factories. The remaining 30 ICBMs would have to include more DF-41s, DF-31AGs, and/or the rumored DF-5C, but it seems unlikely that China can add enough new ICBM brigade bases and silos in just five years to meet that projection.
The briefing also projects that 50 of the 150 ICBMs by 2025 will be equipped with “hypersonics.” The reference to “hypersonics” as something new is misleading because existing ICBMs already carry warheads that achieve hypersonic speed during reentry. Instead, the term “hypersonics” probably refers to a new hypersonic glide vehicle. It is unclear from the briefing if INDO-PACOM anticipates the new payload will be nuclear or conventional, but a conventional ICBM payload obviously would be a significant development with serious implications for crisis stability. Even if this expansion comes true, the entire Chinese ICBM force would only be one-third of the size of the U.S. ICBM force. Nonetheless, a Chinese ICBM force of 100-150 is still a considerable increase compared with the 40 or so ICBMs it operated two decades ago (see graph below).
The IRBM/MRBM force is projected to increase to 375, from 250 today. That projection assumes China will field 125 additional missiles over five years, or 25 missiles each year. That corresponds to a couple of new brigades per year, which seems high. Yet production is significant and IRBM launchers have been seen in several regions in recent years. The IRBM/MRBM force presumably would include the DF-17, DF-21, and the DF-26.
About 75-87 of the IRBM/MRBM force will be equipped with “hypersonics” by 2025, according to INDO-PACOM. That projection probably refers to the expected fielding of the DF-17 with a new glide-vehicle payload, although that would imply a lot of the new launcher (enough for 4-6 brigades). Another possibly is that a portion of other IRBMs/MRBMs (perhaps the DF-26) might also be equipped with the new payload or have their own version. China has presented the DF-17 as conventional but STRATCOM has characterized it as a “new strategic nuclear system.” Adding new hypersonics to IRBMs/MRBMs that are already mixing nuclear and conventional seems extraordinarily risky and likely to further exacerbate the danger of misunderstandings.
The status and projection for the surface fleet are also interesting. The INDO-PACOM briefing lists the total number of aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and modern multi-warfare combatant vessels at 54, of which 46 are modern multi-warfare combatant vessels. The briefing doesn’t specify what is excluded from this count, but it differs significantly from the count in the DOD China report.
One of the puzzling parts of the INDO-PACOM briefing is the projection that China by 2025 will be operating four aircraft carriers for fixed-wing jets. China is currently operating one carrier with a second undergoing sea-trials. How China would be able to add another three carriers in five years is a mystery, not least because the third and fourth hulls are of a new and more complex design. The projection also doesn’t fit with the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, which predicts the third carrier won’t be commissioned until 2024.
Bombers are projected to increase from 175 today to 225 in 2025, an increase of nearly 30 percent. Since 2025 is probably too early for the new H-20 to become operational, the increase appears to only involve modern version of the H-6 bomber. Although the bomber force has recently been reassigned a nuclear mission, the majority of the Chinese bomber force will likely continue to be earmarked for conventional missions.
Submarines and surface vessels will also increase and some of them are being equipped with long-range missiles. Combined with the growing reach of ground-based ballistic missiles and air-delivered cruise missiles, this results in the INDO-PACOM maps showing a Chinese “anti-access area denial” (A2AD) capability bleeding across half of the Pacific well beyond Guam toward Hawaii. But A2AD is not a bubble and weakens significantly in areas further from Chinese shores.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The INDO-PACOM maps project China’s military modernization will continue at a significant pace over the next five years with increases in delivery platforms and capabilities. This will reduce the military advantage the United States has enjoyed over China for decades and further stimulate modernization of U.S. and allied military forces in the region. As forces grow, operations increase, and rhetoric sharpens, insecurity and potential incidents will increase as well and demand new ways of reducing tension and risks.
The Trump administration is correct that China should be included in talks about limiting forces and reducing tension. So far, however, the administration has not presented concrete ideas for what that could look like. Like the United States, China will not accept limits on its forces and operations without something in return that Beijing sees as being in its national interest. Although China is modernizing its nuclear forces and appears intent on increasing it further over the next decade, the force will remain well below the level of the United States and Russia for the foreseeable future. Insisting that China should join U.S.-Russian nuclear talks seems premature and it is still unclear what the United States would trade in return for what. In the near-term, it seems more important to try to reach agreements on limiting the increase of conventional forces and operations.
Unfortunately, the INDO-PACOM briefing does a poor job in comparing Chinese and U.S. forces and suffers from the same flaw as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review by cherry-picking and mischaracterizing force levels. It is tempting to think that this was done with the intent to play up the Chinese threat while downplaying U.S. capabilities to assist public messaging and defense funding. But the Chinese military modernization is important – as is finding the right response. Neither the public nor the Congress are served by twisted comparisons.
It would also help if the Pentagon and regional commands would coordinate and streamline their public projections for Chinese modernizations. Doing so would help prevent misunderstandings and confusion and increase the credibility of these projections.
Finally, these kinds of projections raise a fundamental question: why does the Pentagon and regional military commands issue public threat projections at all? That should really be the role of the Director of National Intelligence, not least to avoid that U.S. public intelligence assessments suffer from inconsistencies, cherry-picking, and short-term institutional interests.
This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.
Over the Line: The Implications of China’s ADIZ Intrusions in Northeast Asia
When China established its first ADIZ in the East China Sea on November 23, 2013, the move was widely seen as a practice run before establishing one in the South China Sea to strengthen its controversial territorial claims. However, examining China’s use of its ADIZ the way its treatment of those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan has evolved over the past seven years reveals that China’s East China Sea ADIZ has effectively given China new latitude to extend its influence in Northeast Asia.
Since 2013, China has committed more than 4,400 intrusions into the ADIZs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Often, Chinese forces violate multiple countries’ ADIZs on their flights, flying routes that consecutively transgress South Korea’s and Japan’s ADIZs or Taiwan’s and Japan’s. While each country has so far managed the issue in its own way by scrambling jets, discussing the issue with China in bilateral meetings, and publicizing some information about the intrusions, the issue has become a regional one impacting all three countries.
This report uses data gathered from multilingual sources to explore China’s motivations behind these intrusions as well as the implications for Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, and U.S. forces operating in Northeast Asia.
The State Department’s Compliance Report Plays the Blame Game, Despite Offering Little Evidence
The State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance yesterday released its annual “Compliance Report,” which provides a detailed overview of US (and other countries’) adherence to various treaty and agreement commitments.
The report’s publication comes at a critical time, as the Trump administration has spent the past few years––and the past three months in particular––dismantling the last vestiges of US commitments to the international arms control regime. The administration has recently declared that it is unlikely to extend New START, has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty, has alluded to an intent to resume nuclear testing, and has announced that it will “reinterpret” the Missile Technology Control Regime in order to allow the United States to sell armed drones to previously-forbidden countries.
In addition to its intended purpose––providing the official public US assessment of how other countries adhere to arms control treaties and agreements––the administration clearly sees the Compliance Report as a tool to provide justification for shedding treaties. As such, other countries might question the report’s conclusion that the United States is in full compliance with all of its international obligations, but that other treaty parties are not.
Several sections of the Compliance Report are missing both critical context about how and why certain treaties met their eventual ends, as well as actual evidence for some of its claims about the actions of its arms control partners. To that end, we have tried to fill in some of the blanks below.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty
The report assesses that throughout 2019, the United States was in full compliance with the INF Treaty––the landmark Cold War-era treaty that eliminated and banned all US and Russian ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
Although this assertion appears to be technically correct and provides an extensive overview of Russian activities, it is missing some critical context. Both the United States and Russia suspended their respective obligations under the treaty in February 2019, and the treaty officially died in August 2019. Although it appeared that Russia had been violating the treaty for many years, we have argued that the Trump administration’s decision to finally kill the treaty was the wrong move, for several reasons.
Firstly, withdrawal established a false moral equivalency between the United States, who probably was not violating the treaty, and Russia, who probably was. It also put the United States in conflict with its own key policy documents like the Nuclear Posture Review and public statements made last year, which emphasized staying in the treaty while trying to bring Russia back into compliance through diplomatic, economic, and military measures. NATO preferred this approach until the Trump administration changed its mind and decided to withdraw, at which point NATO followed suit to avoid being seen to be in conflict with Washington.
The 2020 Compliance Report states that withdrawal from the INF Treaty was intended as a “remedy” for Russia’s material breach. But if the ultimate goal was to coax or coerce Russia back into compliance, then killing the treaty did the opposite. Instead, it legally freed Russia to deploy even more INF missiles on land, something the report explicitly warns that Russia might do by converting the SS-N-30a/Sagaris (Kalibr) sea-launched cruise missile into a land-based system. It also allowed the United States to explore developing INF-range missiles of its own. Only 16 days after the treaty’s collapse, the United States test launched a crudely-fashioned missile that would have certainly violated the INF treaty––if it had still existed.
The 2020 Compliance Report notes that both Russia and the United States are in full compliance with the New START treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles that each country is allowed to deploy. This is not newsworthy in itself; mutual compliance was confirmed by State and Defense Department officials during Senate testimony in 2018, after the February treaty deadline had passed.
It is bizarre that the Trump administration is using alleged Russian non-compliance with other treaties in order to undermine the one treaty with which Russia is actually complying. Moreover, unlike any other treaty mentioned in the Compliance Report, the strategic forces limited by the New START treaty are the only weapons of mass destruction that can threaten the very existence of the United States.
New START expires in less than a year, and while Russia has agreed to extend it unconditionally, the Trump administration has been dragging its feet. This should be a no-brainer: the treaty is a good deal for both parties, it offers a critical source of predictability and transparency into Russia’s nuclear forces, and extension is widely supported across the country, even among Trump voters; in fact, it’s one of the very few bipartisan issues still remaining in Congress. Senior military leaders, such as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, have declared their full support for the treaty, largely because it offers a critical source of transparency and stability in the US-Russia nuclear relationship.
Specifically, during the 2018 Senate hearing, then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs noted “The United States benefits from the Treaty’s 18 annual on-site inspections, notifications, and biannual data exchanges, which give us insight into the number of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty and where they are at any given time.” She further noted, “Should the Treaty expire, U.S. inspectors would lose their current access to Russian strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems, bases, and infrastructure, as well as the Treaty’s biannual exchange of data and associated updates on the location and status of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty.” However, this fact hasn’t stopped Trump’s new arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea––an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed US ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and supported US withdrawal in 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty––from inexplicably arguing the opposite point. In an interview with The Washington Times last month, he claimed that “The Obama administration negotiated a very weak verification regime […] which the Russians have been exploiting.” The basis for this claim has not been substantiated by other senior administration or military officials, and is not presented in the Compliance Report itself.
In his recent interview, Billingslea noted that a new or extended New START-style deal would necessarily have to include China. This makes no sense. The entire Chinese arsenal is thought to include about 320 warheads––a fraction of the 4,000-4,500 in the US and Russian arsenals––which is why China’s position has consistently been the same: it will not take part in trilateral arms control negotiations while this strategic imbalance remains.
Therefore, as we have previously argued in Forbes, killing New START because it doesn’t include China would do nothing to address the United States’ security concerns about Chinese nuclear forces. Instead, if limits on US and Russian strategic nuclear forces fell away and caused both countries to increase their nuclear forces, China might decide that it would need to increase its stockpile even further in order to adjust to the greater nuclear threat. This would further exacerbate a post-New START nuclear crisis.
Extension does not require Congressional approval; it simply requires a presidential stroke of a pen. Given that both countries benefit from the treaty, that both countries are in compliance, and that the United States’ NATO allies strongly favor an extension, this is a ripe piece of low-hanging fruit.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
The JCPOA (commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal), is not mentioned at all in the Compliance Report. This is not necessarily surprising, as the Trump administration officially withdrew from––and then violated––the deal in 2018. However, in recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued that the United States remains a party to the deal, and therefore could demand a reimposition of sanctions on Iran if an arms embargo is not extended past October. As Senator Elizabeth Warren correctly tweeted in response, “This makes no sense.” “To extend this arms embargo,” she noted, “the Trump admin is suddenly arguing that the US is a party to the same Iran Deal it abandoned.”
Pompeo’s unconvincing argument is undermined by his own former State Department top arms control official, who noted in her 2018 Senate testimony that the United States completed its “withdrawal from the arrangement on May 8.” Additionally, if the Secretary of State truly believed that the United States was still party to the treaty, why would it be excluded from his own department’s comprehensive annual assessment of US treaty obligations?
The absence of JCPOA is even more curious because Iran’s nuclear activities are covered extensively over seven full pages in the Compliance Report.
The Compliance Report does not assess any country’s compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) because the United States has not ratified it. The report repeats the Trump administration’s statement that it has no intentions to ratify the treaty, but nonetheless assesses that Russia and China may have conducted nuclear weapons tests that fail to meet the United States’ “zero-yield” standard. This assertion echoes the claims initially made by DIA Director Ashley during his remarks at the Hudson Institute in May 2019.
On Russia, the report states that the “United States assesses that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield.” But it adds in the next sentence that the “United States does not know how many, if any [emphasis added], supercritical or self-sustaining nuclear experiments Russia conducted in 2019.” A test that released nuclear energy from a canister would require Russian notification under the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTPT), which Russia has not provided. But the Compliance Report does not present any evidence but says additional information is included in a classified annex.
On China, the report is even more vague and circumstantial. It doesn’t explicitly accuse China of having conducted low-yield nuclear tests nor present evidence to that effect. Instead, the Compliance Report says a number of other activities “raise concern” about China’s adherence to the zero-yield standard of the United States and that “the United States cannot rule out the possibility that China could have conducted activities at its test site that are inconsistent with its moratorium commitment…” Details are hidden in a classified annex.
Open source analysists have not detected “any alarming activity” in this regard. Absent public evidence, both China and Russia have rejected the claims, with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister “[urging] the United States to abandon the growing practice of misinforming the global community about what is happening,” and the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson “[refusing] to dignify the groundless US allegation with a refutation.”
Claims about Chinese and Russian low-yield testing are not new, but are occasionally used by anti-arms control hawks working to hype the Russian or Chinese threat, in addition to pushing for the United States to resume nuclear weapons testing. It is unfortunate that this year’s Compliance Report echoed these claims without offering any public proof to back them up, and that would-be arms control killers are subsequently using them as “evidence” of cheating.
Presidential Nuclear Initiatives
A new addition to this year’s Compliance Report is a large section (three and a half pages) on the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs). This is an oddball because the PNIs were unilateral declaration, not treaties, without any verification. Apparently, including the PNIs is part of the administration effort to make the case that Russia is cheating and therefore can’t be trusted with other treaties such as the New START treaty.
Russia is cheating on one part of the PNIs, the report says, because Russia hasn’t eliminated all nuclear warheads for Ground Forces as it promised in 1991. The report explicitly identifies the SS-21 and SS-26 short-range ballistic missiles (the SS-26 is replacing the SS-21) as dual-capable. The report does not explicitly say Russian ground-forces have retained nuclear artillery, a frequent rumor on the Internet. Curiously, the SSC-8 GLCM is not mentioned in the PNI section, even though it is a ground-launched dual-capable weapon (it is addressed in the INF section of the report).
The big picture, of course, is that Russia has fulfilled most of the PNI promises and significantly reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons since the 1990s. The Compliance Report only mentions in passing that “Russia continues to abide by some PNI pledges, such as warhead consolidation and likely the declared reduction in stockpiles…” Although Russia retains more non-strategic nuclear weapons than the United States (up to 2,000 according to the Nuclear Posture Review), that has been the case for the past three decades. Statements by US government officials indicate that Russia reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons between 2009 and 2019 by more than one-third.
One thing completely missing from the Compliance Report’s assessment of the PNI issue is that US planned production of a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile––as recommended by the Nuclear Posture Review––would be in violation of the United States’ own PNI pledge.
The Role of the Compliance Report
Violations of treaties and agreements must be addressed and resolved, which requires a persistent and professional level of engagement with other countries. Because the Trump administration is focused on abandoning treaties and reinvigorating “Great Power Competition” with Russia and China, however, the Compliance Report may increasingly be seen as a means to provide a justification for that agenda.
Even if Russia is cheating on some agreements, that doesn’t mean they will cheat on all of them, or that it is no longer worth it to retain the ones that are working. Russia has a clear interest in limiting US nuclear forces just as the United States and its allies have an interest in limiting Russian forces.
And even though China is slowly increasing its nuclear arsenal, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily sprinting to parity. Even if the DIA’s projection that China will “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” over the next decade were to happen, that would still not bring the inventory anywhere near the size of the US or Russian stockpiles, which are currently estimated at 4,310 and 3,800 warheads, respectively.
There is also an expectation that if China increases its arsenal it will inevitably result in the abandonment of its no-first-use policy. In February, the head of US STRATCOM offered Senate testimony that he “could drive a truck through that no-first-use policy.” But others, such as Gregory Kulacki, have noted that China’s nuclear strategy is more restrained than what the public debate often assumes.
In sum, the annual Compliance Report should function as a way for the United States and its arms control partners to get on the same page about the status of their respective obligations and anticipate where future compliance issues might arise––not as a way to offer justifications for its own misdeeds. Otherwise, its publication may soon contribute to a breakdown in arms control altogether, rather than function as a mechanism to save it.
China’s New DF-26 Missile Shows Up At Base In Eastern China
Pictures taken recently by Maxar Technologies’ satellites show a large number of launchers for the DF-26 intermediate-range missile operating at a training site approximately 9 kilometers (5.7 miles) south of Qingzhou City in China’s Shandong Province.
This is the first time the DF-26 has been seen operating in the area and marks a new phase in the integration of the missile into the Chinese military. The DF-26 is dual-capable, which means it can deliver both nuclear and conventional warheads and is thought to have a range of approximately 4,000 kilometers (2,490 miles). The DF-26 was first fielded in 2016 and the Pentagon’s 2019 report on Chinese military developments estimated China has up to 80 DF-26 launchers with 80-160 missiles (each launcher may have one reload).
The DF-26 is an INF-weapons, which means its range puts it in the category of ground-launched missiles that Russia and the United States banned in their arsenals for 32 years until Russia violated the treaty and the United States withdrew in protest.
China’s first DF-26 brigade stood up in April 2018 approximately 630 kilometers (390 miles) southwest of Qingzhou outside Xinyang in Henan Province. Over the past two years, DF-26s have appeared at several locations across China and significant production is visible at a factory outside Beijing.
DF-26 Sightings At Qingzhou
The Qingzhou site has been active for many decades and appears to be part of a missile support base operated by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF). CIA initially identified the location as I-TU, a misspelling of its former name Yidu County, since changed to Qingzhou. The main base is located in the southwest district of the city [36.6774°, 118.4541°] and includes three large high-bay garages for servicing missile launchers. Over the years, several nuclear missile launchers have been seen operating there: DF-3A IRBM, DF-21 SRBM, DF-31/A ICBM, and now DF-26 IRBM.
The facility where the DF-26s recently appeared is about 9 kilometers (5.7 miles) of Qingzhou to the south near a location identified on Google Earth as Zhuanghanmiaocun. The DF-26 launchers first appeared there on satellite images in November 2019, when a dozen launchers were seen. In early January 2020, Google Earth loaded a Maxar image dated December 11, 2019 (note: image dates displayed on Google Earth are for some reason one day early compared to the actual date the image was taken), which was first described by Twitter user @DexReloaded. During December, several images taken by Maxar satellites show up to 18 DF-26 launchers, approximately the same number that was displayed at Xinyang in 2018 and at Jilantai in 2019.
The most recent image dated January 8, 2020, shows two groups of DF-26 launchers: one to the north (36.6026°, 118.4803°), between garages and on an old DF-3A circular launch pad; and a second group to the south (36.5999°, 118.4835°) on a cleared space where a former DF-31 launch pad is still visible. Also visible on the image are numerous support vehicles needed to support or repair the launchers when deployed. The DF-26 launchers are probably at the site as part of their integration into a new brigade.
DF-26 Sightings Elsewhere
As mentioned above, China stood up its first DF-26 unit in 2018. An image from the activation ceremony shows 24 trucks parked under a temporary cover: 18 DF-26 TELs and 4 support vehicles. If each brigade has 18 launchers, then the 80 launchers reported by the Pentagon would be sufficient for four brigades. Not all have become operational yet but DF-26s are beginning to appear at various sites across China: Xinyang (Henan), Qingzhou (Shandong), Dengshahe (Liaoning), Korla (Xinjiang), possibly Jinhua (Anhui), and the large training area at Jilantai (Inner Mongolia).
The standing up of the first DF-26 brigade at Xinyang in April 2018 was announced on Chinese news media with pictures and videos from the ceremony. But even before that, in January 2018, DF-26 launchers showed up at the field training site of the 651st Brigade near Dengshahe northeast of Dalian (Liaoning).
Then, in January 2019, Chinese media announced that DF-26s had carried out an exercise in the “Northwest China’s plateau and desert areas.” The operation was later geo-located to the large new training area west of Jilantai (Inner Mongolia), where they continued to train in April-May 2019 together with DF-41s, DF-31AGs, and DF-17s before being shipped to Beijing for the parade in September 2019.
DF-26 training at Jilantai has been a favorite propaganda tool for the Chinese government with several test-launches shown on various news media outlets (here and here). A propaganda documentary jointly produced by the Political Bureau of the Central Military Commission and the PLA News and Communication Center and broadcast by CCTV by the end of 2019 included a brief clip showing a DF-26 launch. The launch site is geolocated in the figure below:
During those months, DF-26 launchers were also seen operating at the 646 Brigade base in Korla (Ku’erle) in the Xinjiang province in western China. The first launcher was seen in April and two more in August 2019 (see image below).
DF-26 Production And Numbers
The Pentagon estimated in 2019 that China had fielded up to 80 DF-26 launchers. Not all of those are fully operationally deployed; some brigades are still being equipped. Noted China military expert Mark Stokes estimated maybe two or three DF-26 brigades a year ago, each with 6-12 launchers. So the display of 18 launchers at Xinyang and Qingzhou is obviously interesting: did it include 6-12 launchers from a second brigade or will DF-26 brigades have more launchers?
Eighteen launchers were also the number seen operating at Jilantai.
DF-26 launchers are produced at a factory near Fangshan in the outskirt of Beijing. The factory has been expanded significantly during the past decade with several large vehicle assembly halls added. The factory also appears to be involved in the production of DF-21 MRBM launchers as well as various air-defense systems. The main parking area for DF-26 launchers is in the middle of the southern end of the complex (see image below).
The first DF-26 launcher at Fangshan appeared on satellite images in March 2009 and four or five launchers were normally visible through 2016 when deployment began. The number of visible launchers increased in late-2017 and early-2018 to 15-25, and increased in late-2018 and early-2019 to 20-38 launcher, until reaching 51 visible launchers in early September 2019. Not all of the launchers seen were fully assembled; of the 51 launchers visible in September 2019, for example, only 38 appeared to be complete. The various stages of assembly are clearly visible on the images (see image below).
How does the Pentagon’s China report get to 80 DF-26 launchers? The report doesn’t explicitly say the 80 are fielded or deployed and the operational brigades and launchers seen at training areas do not add up to 80 – that number is less than 60. It seems likely the DOD estimate includes at least some of the launchers in production at Fangshan. As illustrated above, those launchers include some that are not finished but at various stages of assembly.
If one adds up all the Fangshan launchers that appear complete (those with missile canister installed), the number was about 40 in mid-2018, when DOD reported 16-30 launchers. By mid-2019, when DOD reported 80 launchers, the total number of completed launchers at Fangshan was about 50. Such a count does not accurately show how many launchers were complete because the available images were not evenly distributed over time; some were taken only a few days or weeks apart and there were month-long gaps between others. Nonetheless, it does indicate that the DOD estimate of 80 launchers likely included complete launchers at the Fangshan factory in addition to those deployed at the brigade bases and training areas.
The “new” about the DF-26 is not that it can target Guam (other missiles have been able to do so for decades); it is that it can do so with an accurate conventional warhead. But there are also other reasons why the deployment of additional new DF-26s at Qingzhou and other locations, as well as the considerable production that is underway, is important.
The first reason is the growing size and diversity of the Chinese nuclear arsenal. China officially maintains what it calls a minimum deterrent focused on ensuring it has a secure retaliatory capability to respond to a nuclear attack. Compared with Russia and the United States, the Chinese nuclear arsenal is small; but compared with France, Britain, and India, the Chinese arsenal is significant. And it is increasing further with China about to overtake France as the world’s third-largest nuclear-weapon state. China’s arsenal has nearly doubled over the past 15 years and is expected to increase further over the next decade, although perhaps not as much as some say. There is no indication China is seeking numerical parity (or near-parity) with Russia and the United States or changing its nuclear strategy. Yet the apparently open-ended growth of the Chinese nuclear arsenal is deepening uncertainty and anxiety in neighboring countries and other nuclear-armed states about China’s long-term intentions.
China’s rejection of such concerns is well-known but counterproductive because it will fuel the development and deployment of military capabilities that China will see as growing threats to its national security. The Chinese government could help alleviate concerns and worst-case response by issuing factual statements about the status and future plans for its nuclear arsenal. This would not require disclosing everything, but as a growing military power, the days are over when China can hide behind the larger nuclear powers.
A second reason the growing DF-26 deployment is important is that it is a dual-capable weapon that can deliver either a conventional or a nuclear warhead. The inability to clearly distinguish the two creates significant challenges for crisis stability and escalation scenarios. In a tense crisis or a war, Chinese readying of conventionally-armed DF-26 launchers could easily be misinterpreted as preparations to employ nuclear weapons and cause an adversary to ready its nuclear weapons unnecessarily and precipitately. If China launched a conventionally-armed DF-26, the target country might assume the worst and prematurely escalate to nuclear use. This dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that the conventional DF-26 is part of the PLARF’s conventional missile strike force intended to provide pre-nuclear strike options, a force that in a potential war with the United States would likely be subject to focused and intense conventional strikes. If the United States used conventional weapons to target what it perceived was conventional DF-26 launchers, China might conclude that the United States had attacked its nuclear forces and escalate accordingly.
A fourth reason the growing DF-26 deployment is important is that the payload section is guided and, according to DOD, is “capable of near-precision strike capability” against land targets. Retaliatory nuclear deterrence does not require near-precision, but warfighting could. As such, Chinese deployment of highly accurate, quick-strike, dual-capable weapons could further deepen uncertainty and speculations about Chinese nuclear strategy. It could potentially also influence Chinese considerations about sub-strategic uses of nuclear weapons in de-escalation scenarios.
Finally, the DF-26 deployment is important because the missile is part of China’s growing inventory of INF-range weapons. Russia’s violation of the INF treaty was probably partially a response to China’s growing inventory of INF-range missiles, and the United States used China as part of its justification for withdrawing from the INF treaty and is developing several INF missiles that it plans to deploy within range of China. Russian and US deployment of INF missiles near China will likely further stimulate China’s production of INF-range weapons and potentially result in a destabilizing INF arms race in the Pacific.
For these reasons, it is important that China provides more information about its future plans for the development of its missile forces and engage in ongoing official discussions about the scope and role of its nuclear deterrent, including INF forces. And although China is unlikely to join US-Russian strategic agreements in the foreseeable future, Beijing should already now begin to develop options for what it could offer and what it would want in return if joining such agreements in the future. This could include articulating which US (and Indian) capabilities China is most concerned about and what Beijing would offer in return for limits on them. As a goodwill gesture, China could also offer unilateral limits on its INF capabilities in return for the US and Russia not deploying new INF systems in the region. Information and limits on the dual-capable DF-26 would be a good start.
This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.
Military Might Takes Center Stage at Chinese 70-Year Anniversary Parade
The Chinese leadership used the 70-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China to display a dizzying amount of military hardware during a parade in Beijing (see officially narrated video here; higher-quality video is here. Beijing is rapidly becoming the new Red Square when it comes to military displays. On the nuclear side, the display included three ICBMs, an IRBM, a SLBM, and bombers.
The parade for the first time included the long-awaited DF-41 road-mobile ICBM. A total of 16 TELs were displayed (18 have been seen), launchers that Xinhua said came from two brigades. The display of the DF-41 happens more than two decades after it was first reported in development by the Pentagon in 1997. The DF-41, which is China’s first road-mobile ICBM capable of carrying MIRV, was described by the official parade commentator as to “balancing the power and security victory.”
The DF-41 was seen operating at the Jilantai training area in April 2019 and is currently being integrated into the PLARF. With an estimated range similar to the 13,000 kilometers of the silo-based DF-5, the DF-41 will initially complement but eventually probably replace the older liquid-fuel missile. China is currently building what appears to be silos in the Jilantai area that may eventually be intended for the DF-41.
The DF-31AG ICBM also reappeared. Xinhua described it as a “second-generation” nuclear missile with “high mobility and precision.” The 16 TELs displayed were said to be from two brigades. The official parade speaker described it as a “modified DF-31A” rather than a new missile. US intelligence has consistently described the DF-31A as a single-warhead ICBM, which also seems to be the case for the DF-31AG. DF-31AGs were also seen operating in Jilantai in April. The new DF-31AG TEL will likely replace the less maneuverable DF-31A (and DF-31) TELs.
The DF-5B silo-based ICBM was also displayed, a repeat of the 2015 parade. Xinhua said the four-missile formation came from a single missile brigade established in the early 1960s that over the years has launched “dozens” of missiles. The official parade commentator reaffirmed the DF-5B is capable of carrying multiple warheads. The DF-5B was also seen operating in Jilantai in April. There are about 20 DF-5A/B ICBMs deployed. The much-rumored DF-5C did not appear.
The DF-26 dual-capable IRBM reappeared with 16 TELs described by Xinhua to come from “two missile troops.” First displayed in 2016, there are already 65-80 DF-26s deployed. The missile was seen operating in Jilantai in April.
The biggest surprise at the parade was probably the new DF-17 ballistic missile-launched hypersonic glide-vehicle, which made its first public appearance with 16 launchers. The DF-17 appears to use a modified DF-16 TEL and is possibly boosted by a DF-16 first stage. The US intelligence community has suggested the DF-17 might be dual-capable but the parade speaker described it as “conventional.”
The parade also included a unique display of JL-2 SLBMs, the first time the weapon has been publicly displayed. A total of 12 JL-2s were shown, corresponding to a full load of one of China’s six Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs. Each JL-2 can carry one warhead. China is developing a JL-3 for its next-generation Type 096).
The parade also saw the overflight of the H-6K and H-6N bombers, although they had to fly through a thick haze of air pollution that has plagued the Beijing area for years. Xinhua called them “long-range strategic bombers” and said they are “under the command of a division of the aviation forces of the People’s Liberation Army’s air force that has carried out many major missions, including air-dropping atomic and hydrogen bombs.” The official mentioning of a nuclear mission is interesting because of reports that Chinese bombers have recently been reassigned a nuclear strike mission. The H-6N is thought to be intended to carry an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM), a modification of the DF-21 MRBM.
The effect of US missile defenses on Chinese military planning was palpable at this year’s parade. This included the two MIRV-capable DF-5B and DF-41 ICBMs as well as the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle. Although there are many rumors that the DF-41 will carry 10 MIRV, that is probably exaggerated. The objective of Chinese nuclear strategy is to ensure a secure retaliatory deterrent and penetrate US missile defenses, not to maximize the number of warheads, so the number of MIRV will likely be lower, perhaps three per missile.
The challenge of using an overstocked military parade to demonstrate China’s peaceful intensions was evident in several commentators. The official parade commentator reminded that China’s missiles are “deployed in the mountains and the oceans in defense of national security and world peace.” And the Global Times front-page coverage was balanced by a selection of editorials, reviews, and comments that reminded of China’s “peaceful intent,” “world peace” and “stability,” and that there’s “no need to overreact.”
Additional background about Chinese nuclear forces:
- FAS Nuclear Notebook: Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2019
- FAS Blogs about Chinese nuclear forces
- Podcast with CSIS’ ChinaPower
- Podcast with Ploughshares Fund
- FAS Overview: Status of World Nuclear Forces
This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.
New Missile Silo And DF-41 Launchers Seen In Chinese Nuclear Missile Training Area
Newly acquired satellite photos acquired from Digital Globe (Maxar) show that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is building what appears to be a new type of missile silo in the missile training area near Jilantai, possibly for use by a new ICBM.
The photos also show that 18 road-mobile launchers of the long-awaited DF-41 ICBM were training in the area in April-May 2019 together with launchers for the DF-31AG ICBM, possibly the DF-5B ICBM, the DF-26 IRBM, and the DF-21 MRBM.
Altogether, more than 72 missile launchers can be seen operating together.
China is in the middle of a significant modernization of its nuclear weapons arsenal and the Jilantai training area, which has been constructed since 2014, appears to play an important part in that modernization effort.
A New Type of Missile Silo?
The most surprising new development in the training area is the construction of what may be a new type of missile silo. I want to emphasize that there is no official confirmation the structure is a silo, but it strongly resembles one. If so, it is potentially possible it could be part of a Chinese effort to develop the option to deploy some of its new solid-fuel road-mobile ICBMs – possible the DF-41 – in silos. According to the 2019 Pentagon report on Chinese military developments, “China appears to be considering additional DF-41 launch options, including rail-mobile and silo basing.”
Construction of the silo began in June 2018. Initially, a roof was built over it to conceal details, but in May 2019 the roof was removed exposing the silo to satellite photography (see image below).
The layout of the Jilantai silo is very different from the silos seen at Wuzhai. Those silos, which are thought to be similar to about 20 operational silos hidden in the mountains of the Henan and Hunan provinces for use by the liquid-fuel DF-5A/B ICBMs, consist of a rectangular retractable lid covering the silo on a concrete pad. And they have large exhaust vents to protect the DF-5’s liquid fuel from the launch heat.
Instead, the Jilantai silo looks more like Russian ICBM silos. It is not yet complete but so far consists of what appears to be a 180-meter line-up path and a 30-meter missile loader pad next to the silo. The precise silo diameter is difficult to measure given the image resolution but appears to be 5-6 meters, which is smaller than the 8-9 meter diameter silos at Wuzhai. Moreover, the absence of exhaust vents hints the Jilantai silo might be intended for solid-fuel missiles.
The new silo design would offer a more efficient (and safe) missile loading. At the DF-5 silos, missiles are loaded by a crane, which hoists each stage off its transporter and lowers it into the silo. It is a cumbersome and lengthy procedure. Moreover, the DF-5 is propelled by liquid fuel that is stored separately and must be loaded before the missile can be launched. With the Jilantai silo design, however, the solid-fuel missile presumably would be brought in on a loader that backs up to the edge of the silo, elevates the missile, and lowers it into the silo in one piece (warhead payload is probably added later).
If the structure seen at Jilantai indeed is a new silo, it presumably would only be used for training. If the design is successful, it would likely be followed in the future by the construction of similar silos in China’s ICBM basing areas for use by operational missiles.
Extensive Missile Training
The Jilantai missile training area, which has been constructed since 2014 and is located in the south-western part of the Inner Mongolia province approximately 930 kilometers (578 miles) west of Beijing, has undergone significant changes since I described it in January. The central technical facilities continue to expand, TEL drive-through facilities are being added, and road-mobile launchers for China’s newest nuclear-capable ballistic missiles are seen more or less constantly training in the area.
This includes the new DF-41 ICBM that may be in the final phase before starting to deploy to operational PLARF brigades. The new DF-31AG ICBM is also training at Jilantai, as is the new DF-26 IRBM and the DF-21 MRBM (see image below).
All these systems are solid-fuel missiles on road-mobile launchers. But it is also possible – although at this point unconfirmed – that missile systems seen training at Jilantai include transporters for the silo-based DF-5B ICBM. This is a large silo-based missile that would not be able to launch from mobile launchers, but the images show unique two-part, truck-pulled trailers that resemble the DF-5B transports that were displayed at the Beijing parade in 2015 (see image below).
It must be underscored that there is no confirmation the trailers are for the DF-5B. In one photo some of the trailers are longer and it is unclear why DF-5B transporters would be training at Jilantai given there are no DF-5B silos in the area. If the towed trailers are not DF-5Bs, they could potentially be transporters of reload missile for the road-mobile launchers seen on the satellite photos.
The DF-41 ICBM
The satellite images indicate that the DF-41 TELs started training at Jilantai in April 2019 shortly after a new TEL drive-through highbay facility was completed (a second is under construction further to the north). There appear to be 18 DF-41 launchers. In one photo from April 17, 2019, for example, a column of 15 DF-41s can be seen making its way from the new drive-through facility (two additional DF-41s can still be seen at the facility and the 18th is probably still inside) to a parade strip to join an assembly of 18 DF-31AGs, 18 DF-26s, and 5 (possibly) DF-5B transporters.
The DF-41 has been in development for a very long time. The Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military developments first mentioned the missile in 1997 and sensational news articles have claimed it has been operational for years. The DF-41 was widely expected to be displayed at the 2015 military parade in Beijing, but that didn’t happen. Nor was it displayed at the PLA’s anniversary parade in 2017.
The DF-41 training at Jilantai with the other launchers is probably part of the formal integration of the new missile into PLAFRF service, more than two decades after development began. It seems likely that the DF-41 will appear at the military parade in Beijing on October 1st. Indeed, two months after the training occurred at Jilantai, 18 DF-41 launchers (potentially the same 18) could be seen on a satellite photo of a military facility in Yangfang about 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of Beijing apparently getting ready for the October parade. The image first made its way onto the Internet on August 9th, when it was posted by the Twitter user @Oedosoldier. The image carried the user’s logo but it was a screenshot from a Digital Globe image on TerraServer dated July 4, 2019.
Chinese Nuclear Missile Outlook
The highly visible display and clustering of more than 72 missile launchers at Jilantai in April and May indicate the PLARF wants them to be seen and is keenly aware that satellites are watching overhead. This is Beijing’s way of telling the world that it has a capable and survivable nuclear deterrent.
Once they become operational, the 18 DF-41s seen on the satellite photos will probably form two or three brigades and join the existing force of 65-90 DF-5A/B, DF-31/A/AG, and DF-4 ICBMs.
Despite the visible display, there is considerable uncertainty about the future development of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, not least how many missiles China plans to deploy. It seems possible the DF-41 over time might replace one or more of the older ICBMs. It is potentially also possible that the DF-31AG will replace the older DF-31/A trailer launchers (the DF-31 is notably absent from the Jilantai images). And the old DF-4 seems likely to be retired in the near future.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) stated in May this year that, “Over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile…” Part of that projection hinges on the DF-41 adding MIRV capability to the solid-fuel road-mobile missiles for the first time (the DF-5B is already equipped with MIRV).
Whether DIA’s projection comes true remains to be seen; the agency has been notoriously bad about Chinese nuclear warhead projections in the past. At this point, the Chinese arsenal is estimated to include roughly 290 warheads, a fraction of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. To put things in perspective, all the launchers seen on the satellite photos make up less than half of the number of launchers in one of the three US ICBM wings.
Nonetheless, China is modernizing and increasing its nuclear arsenal. And the activities captured by commercial satellites at the PLARF’s training area west of Jilantai – operations of new DF-41 and DF-31AG ICBMs, the new dual-capable DF-26 IRBM, and the construction of what might be a new type of missile silo – are visual reminders of the important developments currently underway in China’s nuclear posture.
FAS Nuclear Notebook: Chinese nuclear forces, 2019
This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.