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Increase in Sino Silos - Its Effects on the Global Order

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Recently, satellite images have been captured of China making missile Silos in 3 locations, namely, Yumen in Gansu province, near Hami in Xinjiang province, and at Hanggin Banner, Ordos City in Inner Mongolia. The combined estimate of Silos in all the locations is over 250, although not yet verified by the Chinese officials. All the sites are located in the North-western region of China.

China has not changed its nuclear weapon policy since the 1960s and has operated about 20 silos for liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs, but the recent developments show, according to the experts, potential change in its minimum deterrence policy. Given the modern nuclear capabilities of the USA and the rapid shift in geopolitics, it was obvious that China would strengthen its nuclear capabilities.

So why is it a matter of concern? America and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons and even more missile silos. Then why does China making just a few hundred silos matter to us?

Chinese stance

None of the Chinese ministries have yet officially given any statement referring to this development. The Chinese media is quoting it as a concocted story made by American journalists to diminish China’s reputation. The Global Times, a Chinese government’s mouthpiece, has published several articles about why China should expand its nuclear capabilities and exhorting about its “no-first-use” policy.

Why is China doing so?

There may be several reasons for increasing the number of silos. The first being the use of Silos as a decoy to prevent actual damage in case of a first strike by the USA. It is called the Shell Game where one or more silos can have a missile, forcing the adversary to target all of them and wasting several guided missiles. It is a cheap and clever technique to deter or survive the first strike by an adversary. Second, this can also be interpreted as a deterrence to the USA who has around 3,800 nuclear warheads, whereas China possesses only about 250-300 nuclear warheads according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as well as the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

The third could be its attempt to adopt the Launch On Warning (LOW) strategy, where the missile is launched on detection of an incoming missile launched by the adversary.

Other motivations include the transition to solid-fuel silo missiles. China has old liquid-fuel missiles that take more time to launch, thus, making them more vulnerable to attack. In contrast, solid fuel silos provide better operability and safety with an increase in the reaction time of the ICBM force.

Interestingly, the new sites of Yumen and Hami, unlike other DF-5 silos, are located outside of the reach of US conventional missiles, thus, protecting the ICBMs against a non-nuclear attack. It also implicates the transitioning from a limited number of strike options to an extensive range of strike options.

Strategic Disarmament

The growing number of Chinese missile silos would hamper the strategic disarmament exercise between the USA and Russia. Former US President Donald Trump has repeatedly shown his resolve of including China in the START and Open skies treaty, but China has categorically denied any intent to join it. Experts fear that if China is not included, it will negatively affect the disarmament exercise. According to the recent reports, China has already increased its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) capabilities with missiles such as Dongfeng-41 (DF-41) and the DF-26, cementing its land-based missile systems.

The Biden administration has begun preparing its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) which will lay out the US nuclear strategy for the next decade. But this time the dilemma is bigger and more complex. It remains to be seen how the US sticks to the guidelines of the new START treaty and, at the same time, deals with the new China conundrum.

China’s constant actions and its refusal to not join the nuclear arms limitation talks are also in contravention of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Although the treaty does not explicitly prohibit any nuclear state to modernize or increase its nuclear capabilities, it contradicts Article VI which asserts, “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and nuclear disarmament,”.

Impact on India

Even though the primary objective of China is increasing its nuclear silos is to deter the USA, but in the long run, India must be mindful because it may affect it, given the ambiguity of China’s ambitions and an increasing number of the land-based missile system in the Western Xinjiang province near the Indo-China border.

The Future of Geopolitics

Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “The world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and dangerous for all of us.” If we take her words of wisdom to be true, then world peace will usher in the coming future. And if not, which looks more apparent, then the destiny is not very disneyful for the West. The East has begun to rise and now it remains to be seen how the US and its allies will tackle the China problem.


Nayan Chandra Mishra


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