Jeffrey LewisChinese ICBM Silos

Jeffrey Lewis and Decker Eveleth

Well, look what Decker found.

Satellite images taken by Planet and analyzed by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (CNS/MIIS) indicate that China is significantly expanding the number of silos for its arsenal of intercontinental range-ballistic missiles.

120 silos under construction have been identified by Decker Eveleth, a former nonproliferation fellow at CNS/MIIS and incoming student.  This research builds on his previous work with Jeffrey Lewis and David La Boon preparing an order of battle of China’s PLA Rocket Force.

The Department of Defense in 2020 estimated that China is currently assessed to have an arsenal of around 100 ICBMs.  The addition of 120 silos under construction near Yumen represents a significant expansion of China’s nuclear forces. If the silos under construction at other sites across China are added to the count, the total comes to 144 silos under construction. We believe China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a US first strike and retaliate in sufficient numbers to defeat US missile defenses.

The silos under construction were identified by the distinctive environmental shelters placed over the construction sites. These shelters were previously identified at China’s Jilantai Missile Training Area where construction components of the silo were visible outside the shelter.  Images of some of the sites show circular excavation for a silo prior to being covered by an environmental shelter.

The more than 100 shelters are spread across approximately 700 square miles near Yumen, in Gansu province. Each shelter is spaced approximately 3 km from its nearest neighbor.  Construction began in March 2020, although the vast majority of construction occurred after February 2021, suggesting an extremely rapid pace of construction over the past few months.  (In earlier conversations we stated that construction began after February 2021, although a closer examination of historical imagery shows that we simply overlooked some earlier construction.)

There are also a number of cut-and-cover facilities under construction that may be launch control facilities.  Each possible launch control facility is connected by trenches, presumably for communications cables, to ten different silos under construction.

The silos are likely for China’s DF-41 ICBM, which is believed to be capable of carrying multiple warheads. (Although some reports suggest the DF-41 could carry as many as ten warheads, the real number is likely to be significantly lower. Previous DF-41 tests have reportedly only carried two warheads.) The Department of Defense identified in its 2018, 2019, and 2020 China Military Power reports that China “appeared to be considering… silo basing” options for the DF-41. See Note 1.

Silo-based ICBMs are extremely easy to identify with satellites and vulnerable to attack with very accurate modern missiles.  One possibility is that China is building a larger number of silos than missiles to complicate the ability of the United States to target China’s ICBM force. One of, Jeffrey Lewis, leans strongly toward this intepretation. The other, Decker Eveleth, is neutral on the question.  This would mirror the approach called the “shell game” pursued by the United States in the late 1970s for basing the MX missile. China is reported to have studied the multiple protective shelter concept in the 1980s before choosing instead to construct decoy missile silos. See note 2.

In that scheme, the United States planned to build 23 launch shelters for each MX missile – in all, 4600 launch shelters for just 200 missiles. (The United States also considered a variant with “vertical shelters” or silos.) The US goal was to make it impossible for the Soviet Union to be confident that it could conduct a disarming first strike against US land-based ICBMs, as the MX missile would be regularly transported and moved between shelters.  China likely has similar concerns about the survivability of silo-based ICBMs, and may rotate a smaller number of ICBMs among a larger number of operational silos. 

The layout of the facility much more closely resembles the layout under the “shell game” approach than it does the layout of other Chinese ICBM facilities. The silos near Yumen are packed in patters with 3 km separating each shelter from its nearest neighbors. The three images below show the silos at Yumen, a schematic showing an MPS layout, and a declassified diagram of an ICBM deployment area in China.

Detection of the facility was made using wide-area, moderate resolution satellite images taken by Planet.  Given the relatively small footprint of high-resolution satellite images (30 square miles), it would have been impossible to detect and characterize this facility without high-cadence, wide-area imagery of the kind provided by Planet’s constellation of Dove satellites. The near-daily imaging at 3 m provided enough coverage to characterize the entire 700 square mile site at a resolution sufficient to identify the construction shelters. We are now working with Planet to prioritize areas for daily imaging with high-resolution Skysat satellites.

For more information you can read the original Washington Post story, Jeffrey’s column in Foreign Policy or the Global Times’s condemnation of the whole thing.

Note 1: The 2020 China Military Power report does indicate there “may be” silos under construction for the older DF-5 ICBM system. This probably refers to silos that appear to be under construction at two brigades located elsewhere — 662 in Sundian, Henan and 634 in Tongdao, Hunan.

Note 2: “That still left the DF-5s in their ‘tombs,’ and to make them more survivable, the Chinese, who had studied the then-current American schemes for deceptive basing (multiple protective shelters), decided to build a large number of bogus silos. All the fake silos were shallow holes disguised to look like the real thing. The Chinese were playing a traditional shell-game without a U.S.-type ‘racetrack’ system to shuttle the missiles from shelters to silos and from silo to silo.” John W. Lewis and Hua Di, “China’s Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals,” International Security 17:2 (Fall 1992) p.25.

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