By Peter Huessy and James Howe

Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies

James Howe is Vice President of Vision Centric an aerospace company

In February 2021 an ICBM field of 120 silos was discovered near Yumen, China. One month later, in March 2021 a second ICBM field was identified near Hami with 110 silo. And in Mid-May 2021 a third site with 29 silos was identified. 

According to the STRATCOM Commander, China’s major ICBM silo building was a “strategic breakout” and “breath-taking”, giving China the ability to “execute any plausible nuclear strategy it wishes to pursue”.

China’s decision to build these new silos fields coincided with increased nuclear testing at the Lop Nur nuclear test site in 2019 for the DF-41 warhead, after Chinese President Xi Jinping called for accelerating the Peoples Liberation Army Rocket Force strategic deterrence capability.

China's Silo Construction & ICBM Deployment 

The key question is how quickly China can build these new silos and deploy ICBMs in them. For reference, the history of US silo construction and Minuteman missile (MM) deployments can give analysts some important reference data.

In March 1961 construction started and the first MM went on alert the day President Kennedy announced the Soviets had placed nuclear armed missiles in Cuba. By October 1983, 300 silos and missiles were completed. And in roughly 4 years, the US constructed and deployed in silos some 800 MM missiles and by April 1967 one thousand MM missiles were on alert.

American construction crews worked 24/7, 3 shift/day and were capable of digging five silo emplacements simultaneously, with each taking 4-10 days. At peak construction operations 1.8 silos/day were being built.

The MM missile itself was authorized for production on 26 March 1960, with the first successful launch on 17 November 1961 and first deployed MM on alert in October 1962. Average MM production rate was 130-160 missiles/year, filling the silos as they were completed.

Six decades ago, the US built 800 silos and fielded 800 ICBMs in 4 years. Given China’s advanced construction techniques, China can at least match the historical US construction pace. The US built 300 silos in 2 years—and the Chinese have more than 300 silos under construction.

China Nuclear Silos

ICMB Silos Under Construction, 

China's Nuclear ICBM Silos - Shell Game?

The ICBM silo fields that China is building is not a shell game with lots of silos and just a few missiles. Modern intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance prevents that. 

Furthermore, such a shell game as contemplated by the US some 50 years ago was jettisoned as it is prohibitively expensive and not workable. And if as some analysts have alleged, China is building up to parity with the US and Russia in order to join a three-way future arms agreement, a shell game is hugely disadvantageous. Each silos under the START arms deals counts as a missile, irrespective of whether a missile is a decoy or real.

The Chinese silos will most likely be filled with the real DF-41 missile, each which carries anywhere from 3-10 warheads.


DF-41 Missile

It is claimed that silos are “sitting ducks” and can easily be killed. However, with a combination of active and passive defenses, ICBMs are very difficult and costly to target as they can require a large number of enemy warheads to kill them. 

For example, Russia which is cooperating with China on many military activities, is deploying a layered defense of their fixed ICBM silos and road mobile ICBMs against ballistic and cruise missiles with the Pantsir, SA-300/400 air defense and the soon to be deployed S-500 anti-ballistic missile system. 

Russia also has silo terminal defenses which can throw-up a mass of shrapnel to shred an incoming warhead as well as electronic warfare systems to cause the fuze in an enemy RV to detonate early, above the lethal range.

In addition, passive defenses can include not only camouflage and concealment for mobile ICBM’s and fixed silos but for silos the use of ultra-hard concrete. The US Dense Pack sub-scale prototype silo system was tested at 50,000 psi and survived.

China also has the necessary command and control to enable ICBM launch policies/strategies if they choose to use these new ICBMs in a: 

(1) first strike, 2) pre-empt an enemy first strike, or 3) launch on warning or under attack. 


Now what is the answer to the “why” of the China breakout? 

One obvious reason is that China is indeed “breaking out”—they intend to be a peer nuclear competitor in order to coerce the US to stand-down in the face of Chinese aggression. 

China’s 2019 NWDP or “China’s National Defense in a New Era” called for establishing a “Community of common destiny” guaranteeing China’s “emergence as a great power with global influence” with the objective of transforming “the system of global governance and create a new security architecture.” 

And to achieve this, the document underscores that a “powerful military [is] essential” with the Belt and Road initiative and the Digital Silk Road being the economic and political means for China “…establishing itself as the preponderant power in Eurasia and a global power second to none.”

Why Now?

The next question is “Why now?”

Three reasons stand out.

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(1) Prevent the US from using its extended deterrent as a foundation for the creation of an allied coalition to contain China’s hegemonic goal to dominate Eurasia and threaten the current world order;

(2) Act now before unfavorable demographics kick in—a declining and rapidly aging population and a gender mis-match due to China’s one-child policy ;

(3) Resolve the Taiwan and South China Sea issues on terms favorable to China before the US and its allies fully modernize their current military forces.

China's Silos, Warheads & Missiles

China currently has 259 DF-41 silos under construction with a potential capability of deploying near 2600 warheads, of which 99% could be on alert at any one time, around 266% of currently on alert deployed US warheads, calculated on a day-to-day basis. 

China can also back-fit the six Jin Type 094 SSBN missies, for the new JL-3 SLBM with 6 warheads each or 360 warheads. While additional submarines and associated missiles are slow to produce and expensive, an additional six type 096 SSBNs with 24 missiles each are expected to start construction in early 2020’s, could thus around 2030 provide an additional 864 warheads.

094A SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic submarine)

The newest type 094A SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic submarine) in fleet review for 70th anniversary of PLA Navy, in April 2020. (Picture source Pinterest)

In China’s concept of “Integrated Strategic Deterrence” strategic nuclear forces would be integrated with cyberwar, psyops/influence operations, strategic conventional, space and other elements of national power to achieve a dominant “Comprehensive National Power” position. 

And this conclusion may in turn be driven by the Chinese Korean war experience where US nuclear power brought an end to the war favorable to the US, which China’s “minimum nuclear deterrent strategy” can not reverse if faced with US power again.

Now while China may have strategic nuclear forces that could carry upwards of roughly 4100 warheads in 2-4 years, some analysts doubt China’s capacity to produce the required fissile material. Most analysts however do acknowledge there is great uncertainty over past production and current and future production capability for plutonium, weapons grade uranium and tritium stocks. 

There is also the issue of unknown production facilities given Chinese historic capability to construct massive underground facilities, the most recent (known) being the 5,000 km of lighted, ventilated tunnels. Also, little is known about China’s nuclear warhead technology level and the degree to which they have been able to apply reportedly stolen US nuclear warhead designs.

According to Cochran & Paine (NRDC, 1995) a country with advanced technical capabilities only needs 3 kg of Pu 9 (plutonium) or 5 kg of HEU (highly enriched uranium) for a 20 kt WH—which can then be boosted to ~60-200 kt with a few grams of tritium.

It is highly unlikely that China would embark on a massive strategic nuclear force breakout without sufficient stocks of fissile material to produce the needed warheads with the required yields to meet mission requirements.

US Options

So, if China does match (or exceed) the US MM rate of deployment and deploys nuclear forces comparable in size to the US, what options does the US have? Right now, five options could be on the table:

1) For the current nuclear modernization program, maintain the course—and accelerate programs where feasible.

2) Upload existing strategic nuclear forces, but to what force level? The US is currently treaty limited to 1550. The US can upload an additional 800 RVs from the active hedge on the 400 deployed MM III as well as deploy an additional 50 MM III in 50 silos for a total of 1350 warheads, but the upload time will take about 4 years.

The D-5 SLBM’s can be uploaded from the current 4-5 to 8 which is the limit that the existing bulkhead can hold providing 1920 warheads in roughly 6-8 months as the SSBN’s return from patrol. The extra W-76 WH are stored at the SSBN bases in Washington and Georgia. There are 3,030 W-76 warheads of which 2000 were recently received life extensions and 1,000 placed in the inactive hedge. The US bomber force has 850 nuclear warheads-- 528 ALCM and 322 bombs and can be uploaded relatively soon..

Trident-D5 Submarine ICBM

Navy test of a Trident Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

3) Taken together, the complete upload completed over 4 years provides roughly 4120 total nuclear warheads, or roughly an additional 2000 from today’s treaty limited deployment.

4) Deploy defenses (terrestrial and space based) for an integrated offense/defense superior to Russia and China’s. Candidates are land-based SM-3s, additional GBIs and a space-based system (likely most cost-effective with advanced satellite technology and dramatic drop in cost of access to space. All could be deployed in 3-5 years.

5) Develop intercontinental conventional strike and cyber-attack capabilities that will enable the US to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.

And the US upload potential does have some barriers. US tritium stocks (with a 12-year half-life) will have to be accelerated as the current plans were based on maintaining the existing stockpile. Bringing back inactive warheads will deplete tritium reserves and current tritium production plans will not be sufficient. Construction of a new reactor based on advanced technology that produces tritium gas far cheaper than existing sources may be necessary.

China & Russia: US Nuclear Adversaries

In summary, the US is potentially facing two nuclear-capable peer adversaries. According to the STRATCOM Commander, the US has been “challenged to revise its 21st-century strategic deterrence theory that considers U.S. adversaries' decision calculus and behaviors and identifies threat indicators or conditions that could indicate potential actions.”

It appears China has embarked upon a massive strategic nuclear breakout and will deploy a strategic nuclear force of sufficient size and capabilities in order to coerce the US and be prepared to use nuclear weapons to achieve their national objectives.

China probably has no interest in arms control and certainly does not accept US notions of strategic stability. Not only the US and the West but China’s breakout also may place Russia at risk. Russia may have to rethink its collaboration with China, or risk losing Siberia and the Far East to China in the future—the largest storehouse of resources in the world next door to the largest resources consumer in the world.

Connecting the nuclear “dots” tells us the Chinese nuclear build is huge, can be finished quickly, and is required by their hegemonic objectives.

The current US deterrent strategy needs thus to be examined in that light.

Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies

James Howe is Vice President of Vision Centric an aerospace company