For several months now, American generals and admirals have been pushing hard on two big themes: the need to counter China’s growing military power and, separately, the need to “modernize” the U.S. nuclear arsenal—i.e., to build new missiles, bombers, and submarines as replacements and upgrades for the existing, aging models.
Now comes a development that seems to bolster both arguments: satellite imagery revealing that China has built 120 missile silos in the desert near the northwestern city of Yumen—with what seems to be a launch control center connecting each group of 10—a perfect fit for its DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, calls the move a “breathtaking expansion” of Chinese nuclear forces. Others have cited the silos as another rationale for Washington to move quickly on its own nuclear modernization plan—which some in Congress have opposed on strategic and economic grounds. (The price tag exceeds $1 trillion over the next 30 years.)
The silos—which, if they are filled with missiles, would roughly double the number of China’s ICBMs—amount to an impressive construction project, completed at rapid speed. However, it is not at all clear that they pose a new threat—or even a change in China’s nuclear strategy. More likely, the extra silos are responses to what Chinese officials see as a growing nuclear threat from the United States.
This may seem implausible. After all, the U.S. has been reducing its nuclear arsenal; the notion that an American president would launch a nuclear first strike against China is preposterous to most Americans. But it isn’t to many Chinese.
First, the United States has 14 Ohio-class submarines, each carrying 24 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each of those carrying about eight nuclear warheads. So that adds up to roughly 2,600 warheads.* In May, the Navy gave Lockheed Martin $500 million to build more Trident IIs, so they can be loaded onto new Columbia-class submarines, which are coming online. The key thing is that each of those warheads has the explosive power and accuracy to destroy a blast-hardened ICBM silo. In other words, it can reasonably be seen as a first-strike weapon.
Second, the United States has also been continuing to develop ballistic missile defenses. The defenses have performed poorly in tests, but military chiefs tend to be conservative about an adversary’s weapons, so Chinese (and Russian) chiefs would assume that our defenses would perform well. If they think they need 1,000 nuclear weapons to survive a U.S. first strike in order to deter the Americans from launching a first strike to begin with, and if they think our missile defenses will shoot down 500 of those weapons, then they might think they really need 1,500 weapons. (These numbers are purely illustrative; the point is that if you think the other side can shoot down some of your missiles, you can easily convince yourself to build more missiles to compensate.)
Third, even with 120 extra ICBMs, China’s nuclear arsenal is still dwarfed by America’s (and Russia’s). Adding up ICBMs, bombers, and submarines, China right now has about 300 nuclear weapons that could hit the United States. By comparison, the U.S. has more than 2,000 that could hit China. In other words, China’s extra 120 silos, even if they’re all stuffed with missiles, wouldn’t alter the military balance.
So why is China doing this? Again, the most likely answer is they’re doing it to maintain the ability to strike us with about 300 weapons if the U.S. strikes them first. Most nuclear experts, even those who are hawks, have long thought that China has a “minimum deterrence” strategy—i.e., a strategy of possessing just enough nuclear weapons to deter an adversary from attacking. It could be that the Chinese have simply recalculated how many weapons they need to possess in order to keep deterring the United States under changing circumstances.
But why are they planning to put their extra missiles in silos? The DF-41 was originally designed as a mobile missile. The advantage of mobile missiles is that the enemy doesn’t know where they are and, therefore, would have a hard time attacking them. The disadvantage of silo-based missiles is that their locations are fixed; the enemy knows exactly where they are and can attack them fairly easily, especially with Trident IIs.
However, mobile missiles also have drawbacks. They’re expensive to maintain, and they’re not as accurate as a fixed missile; they’d have a poorer chance of hitting the target.
It could be that the Chinese have taken their cue from the United States. Many years ago, silo-based missiles, such as our current Minuteman III, were the only U.S. nuclear weapons that had the explosive power, speed, and accuracy to destroy enemy missile silos. However, when the Trident IIs came along in the 1990s, submarine-launched missiles could do that just as well. In fact, at the moment, land-based ICBMs are no longer needed to hit any of the targets in the U.S. nuclear war plan. Their only rationale is to “complicate” an enemy first strike. Senior officers have openly referred to the “sponge theory” of enhancing our deterrent.
The argument goes as follows: Without land-based ICBMs, an enemy would only have to hit about six targets in the continental U.S. to score a pretty devastating blow against our nuclear infrastructure—two submarine ports, a few bomber bases, and the “national command authority” (euphemism for Washington). The damage would be so minor an American president might not retaliate—knowing that if he did, the Russians would fire back with more nukes still. By contrast, if we kept the 400 ICBMs, the enemy would have to attack those—probably with two warheads for each target (because the first warhead might be a dud). Firing 800 nuclear warheads at the U.S. homeland would clearly constitute a major attack; the American president would have to retaliate; therefore, the enemy president wouldn’t launch the first strike to begin with.
This is a bizarre argument. First, nuking those six targets would kill hundreds of thousands of American civilians—millions if Washington is one of the targets. It would be a crazy gamble for someone to assume the American president might not shoot back. Second, hitting those six targets would hardly be a knockout blow; the U.S. would still have a dozen or so submarines out at sea; together, they could fire back with thousands of warheads.
But let’s stipulate that there’s some logic to the idea of creating more targets, so that the enemy doesn’t think he can call nuclear checkmate by firing a handful of missiles. This may be what China is doing—imitating the American generals (again) by enacting its own sponge theory. If the Americans think some extra missile silos—some more targets on the homeland—would further deter the Russians or Chinese from launching a nuclear attack, then maybe 120 extra silos on Chinese soil would deter those same Americans from launching a nuclear attack as well.
None of this is to deny that China is engaging in some aggressive actions, especially across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea. But there’s nothing to suggest that they’re planning, or remotely capable of launching, a nuclear first strike against the United States—or that their nuclear expansion requires us to expand our arsenal. We already have more than enough nukes to deter any adversary from that sort of adventurism—and, if someone gets crazy anyway, we have more than enough to hit every target that any general thinks we need to hit.
Senior U.S. officials, who have access to the most highly classified intelligence data, should consider—and research—the possibility that China’s silo spree is a response to our own activities (as the Chinese interpret them). They should do that before both countries plunge into a spiraling new arms race.
Correction, July 14, 2021: This article originally stated that the name of the Trident II missile’s warhead is the D-5. In fact, D-5 is another name for the Trident II missile.