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China appears to be ramping up construction of missile silos in the desert. But could it be a 'shell game'?

By Lucia Stein and Rebecca Armitage

Posted updated 
A satellite image of a silver missile silo
Analysts say some of the sites show silo excavations covered from view by an above-ground shelter.(

Supplied: Planet Labs/Centre for Nonproliferation Studies

Deep in the desert somewhere in western China, work is underway on dozens of mysterious structures.

Spaced approximately 3 kilometres apart over 1,800 square kilometres near Yumen, experts say these appear to be silos, which could be used to house the country's arsenal of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Satellite images, taken by Planet and analysed by the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (CNS/MIIS), revealed the likely missile field contained about 120 new silos.

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert in nuclear nonproliferation and geopolitics, said in a blog post that the silos under construction were identified by the "distinctive environmental shelters" placed over the construction sites.

The findings were first reported by the Washington Post, which said the 119 nearly identical construction sites contained features mirroring those seen at existing launch facilities for China's arsenal of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Dr Lewis and Decker Eveleth, who made the discovery, said it was a signal that Beijing may be looking at a major expansion of its nuclear capabilities, which are much smaller than those of Russia and the United States.

A composite of satellite imagery showing silos being built in the desert
The silos are identifiable by the distinctive environmental shelters placed over the sites. (

Supplied: Planet Labs/Centre for Nonproliferation Studies


The US Department of Defense estimates China's nuclear warhead stockpile to be in the low 200s. In comparison, the US is considered to have a military stockpile of approximately 3,800 nuclear warheads.

"The US Department of Defense, in testimony to Congress late last year, talked about China's determination to double or even quadruple its nuclear deterrent capability over the next 10 years," said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst on defence strategy and capability with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

"And I think this development builds into that."

Dr Lewis said the silos were likely for a Chinese ICBM known as the DF-41, which is projected to be able to strike the continental US "within 30 minutes," according to the Missile Threat Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The silos could signal that China is ready to join the world's nuclear superpowers.

But they could also be part of a broader strategy to confuse potential enemies and dissuade the world from intervening in Beijing's military actions.

A 'shell' game of strategy? 

One theory among analysts is that not all of these facilities will be put to use housing missiles.

"The way it works is this: by building large numbers of silos in that desert area, the US doesn't know which silos have missiles, and which don't," Dr Davis explained. 

A satellite image of a construction site in a desert
About 100 construction sites are spread across approximately 1,800 square kilometres near Yumen, in Gansu province(

Supplied: Planet Labs/Centre for Nonproliferation Studies


Either way, the US would have to operate on the assumption that every silo contained a missile.

"And so that would certainly make it more difficult for the US to achieve that, because it would certainly guarantee a retaliation by China."

This strategy, dubbed the shell game, was originally used by the US against the Soviet Union, with missiles regularly moved between shelters.

And according to Mr Eveleth and Dr Lewis, who both analysed the images, China might have picked this strategy up while studying US defence in the 1980s.

A satellite image of dozens of black dots in an arid environment
120 silos under construction have been identified by the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in the US. (

Supplied: Planet Labs/Centre for Nonproliferation Studies


Experts told CNN that before this development, the US military might have been considering using nuclear weapons in a war near China.

But the construction of 120 or more silos makes a preemptive strike much more complicated.

Each silo would have to be targeted twice to assure its destruction, they said.

The rise of China as a nuclear power?

ASPI's Malcolm Davis said he believed China might be attempting to beef up its nuclear weapons to achieve a level playing field with the US and Russia.

"Then they could be willing to sit down and do arms control. But a three-way triangle arms-control dynamic is incredibly unstable," he said.

"With the Chinese it becomes incredibly complex, with multiple centres of gravity."

But building up its nuclear arsenal — or at least appearing to — may also be part of a longer play on Beijing's part, according to Dr Davis.

"If the US is deterred from using nuclear weapons against China in a crisis, it makes it much easier for the Chinese then to use military force at a level lower than nuclear weapons to achieve their aims," Dr Davis said.

Those aims could include defending claimed territory in the South China Sea, or launching a military operation in Taiwan.

A group of Taiwanese protesters holding up signs, with one reading 'Taiwan yes, China no'
Beijing says Taiwan is a rebellious province of the People's Republic of China, but there is a strong pro-independence movement within the self-governing island. (

AP: Wally Santana 


"I think they're actively planning for the use of military force against Taiwan in the next few years. I think we shouldn't kid ourselves that they somehow are not contemplating war. They are."

The missile silos in the desert could be something of an insurance policy against the US intervening in any action against Taiwan.

"They want to achieve it in a manner that deters US intervention on Taiwan's part, and allows them a fait accompli to have seized Taiwan and control Taiwan, whilst raising the cost of US intervention to politically unacceptable levels," Dr Davis said.

China's 'strong military dream' or a simple wind farm? 

Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in the ANU Taiwan Studies Programme, said there was no question that China would want to significantly expand and modernise its military force.

He said a "strong military dream" was a core part of China's aspirations.

"Xi Jinping has always said the China dream is a rich nation dream, is a strong army dream – that's the formula," he said.

But Mr Sung noted that a day after the Washington Post report, Chinese media raised an alternative explanation for the structures shown in the satellite images, saying they were wind farm turbines.

Meanwhile, the editor in chief of the Global Times newspaper, widely considered a mouthpiece for Beijing, described the researchers behind the report as "amateur".

 "China must continue to strengthen its nuclear deterrence. How this is accomplished is a decision made within China's sovereign rights as a nuclear power," Hu Xijin wrote.

Two soldiers hold their hands up in a salute while they ride in an open truck pulling a giant missile
China was thought to have only about 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles. (

Reuters: David Gray


What did give the report credibility, Mr Sung said, was that Yumen was part of the greater metropolitan area of Jiuquan, which is the People's Liberation Army's primary rocket and satellite launch centre.

"So if they view ICBMs near the centre of their 'Rocket Force', or their military satellite facility, that seems to make a lot of sense," he said.

Ultimately, Mr Sung said China's development of greater power projection capabilities is troubling.

"It should be concerning to us that the Chinese navy especially has been moving towards introducing more nuclear-powered submarines, as well as other longer-range ocean-going [vessels]," he said.

"The bigger-picture point is that we should be concerned about China's development of greater power-projection capabilities, and that there should be more need for, I think, intelligence-sharing and unity among like-minded democracies."

Posted updated 


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