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China is building a sprawling network of missile silos, satellite imagery appears to show

The likely missile field, comprising 120 silos that could potentially house weapons capable of reaching the Americas, was documented by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies using satellite images provided by the commercial company of satellites Planet Labs Inc.

Researchers compared satellite photos taken in the past four months with images captured over the past week, finding the missile site covering a grid of hundreds of square kilometers in China’s Gansu province, researcher Jeffrey said. Lewis, a Chinese nuclear weapons expert who reviewed the footage. with his colleague Decker Eveleth, the first person to spot the silos.

Lewis told CNN on Friday that most of the construction of the elevator, which is not yet complete, has likely occurred in the past six months.

“It’s really a surprising building rate,” he said, adding that the scale of the build-up was also surprising.

“It’s a lot of silos,” Lewis said. “It’s much bigger than anything we expected to see.”

Reports of a possible new missile field came just a day before Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in a nationalist speech on the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party that the rise of China is a ” historical inevitability ”and that it will no longer be“ intimidated, oppressed or subjugated ”by foreign countries.

“Anyone who dares to try will have their head banged against a great wall of steel forged by more than 1.4 billion Chinese,” Xi added, in comments that later seemed softened in the government’s own English translation. .

Satellite images appear to show four Chinese missile silos in different stages of construction.

New protection for Chinese ICBMs

Although researchers have identified 120 likely silos, there is no indication that they are in use or will be in the future. However, analysts said the silos, placed in a grid, at 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) intervals, could be used to house Chinese-made DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The DF-41, also known as CSS-X-20, is estimated to have a range of 12,000 to 15,000 kilometers (7,400 to 9,300 miles) and could be equipped with up to 10 targeted nuclear warheads. independently, according to the Missile Threat. Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It is expected to be able to hit the continental United States within 30 minutes,” the project’s website says.

China first introduced the DF-41 on mobile launchers in 2019, but its actual deployment has not been confirmed.

“The relative merits of mobile ICBMs versus silo-based ICBMs after the end of the Cold War have been frequently debated; Simplistically mobile systems are easier to hide and disperse, but more vulnerable if found, while silos are increasingly difficult to conceal, but harder to conceal. disable or destroy, ”said Henry Boyd, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“If the PLA (People’s Liberation Army of China) has decided to invest in a lot of new silos for its ICBM force, this could suggest a change in Beijing’s thinking on the issue,” Boyd said.

Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, an American nonprofit think tank, said the development shows Beijing is serious about increasing its nuclear deterrence – the idea that it could withstand an opponent’s nuclear first strike and still have nuclear weapons that could inflict unacceptable losses to the opponent.

“Prior to this development, the US military could possibly consider using nuclear weapons in a war near China to destroy large numbers of PLA troops and equipment,” Heath said. “Building 120 or more silos makes such a preemptive strike much more difficult as the United States should now target all silos as well as mobile launchers.”

“In short, China is trying to increase the risk of nuclear weapons use in an eventuality close to China to an intolerably high level,” he said.

China does not generally comment on sensitive military issues, however, an editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper on Friday acknowledged Western reports relating to the silo’s construction, while noting that it would not be in the best interest. China’s strategic decision to rule on their validity.
The editorial, titled “Strengthening China’s nuclear deterrence cannot be tied by the United States,” also called for China to increase its nuclear deterrence in light of what it called “the US military pressure on China, “pointing out that the United States has” at least 450 silos. “

“Once a military confrontation between China and the United States over the Taiwan issue erupts, if China has enough nuclear capacity to deter the United States, it will serve as a foundation for China’s national will.” , we read in the editorial.

In January, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reiterated China’s commitment not to use nuclear weapons unless first attacked “at all times or under no circumstances. “, While pledging” not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States. ” “

Speaking in response to a question about China’s position on the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which Beijing does not recognize, Hua argued that China’s nuclear forces are still maintained. described as the minimum level required to safeguard national security. “This is the consistent basic policy of the Chinese government,” Hua said.

At the same time, China believes that nuclear disarmament cannot lose sight of the reality of the international security landscape. Progress should be sought step by step on the principle of maintaining global strategic stability and undiminished security for all, ”Hua added.

A unique Chinese missile silo with a construction dome on top.

U.S. officials say report revealing China’s rise to power

U.S. officials said the satellite images reaffirmed assessments made last year in the Defense Ministry’s report on Chinese military might and repeated often since.

“Many Defense Department heads have testified and spoken publicly about China’s growing nuclear capabilities, which we expect to double or more in the next decade,” Pentagon spokesman John Supple said.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price called the apparent build-up worrying, noting that it raised questions about China’s intentions. “For us, this reinforces the importance of pursuing practical measures to reduce nuclear risks, despite what appears to be an obscuration of the PRC,” said Price, referring to China by its official acronym, the People’s Republic of. China.

“This rapid build-up has become harder to hide, and it shows how the PRC once again appears to be deviating from decades of nuclear strategy based on minimal deterrence,” he said during a briefing from the Department of State Thursday.

Japanese Deputy Defense Minister Says Taiwan Must Be Protected
Analysts note that China would only have a total of around 350 nuclear weapons, a fraction of the 5,550 warheads in the US nuclear arsenal. China’s nuclear weapons are distributed among mobile land launchers, a small fleet of ballistic missile submarines, and its nuclear-capable bombers.

It is therefore unlikely that all 120 so-called new silos will receive an ICBM with a nuclear warhead.

Rather, China could play a “shell game” with the missiles, analysts said, randomly moving active missiles between silos.

Lewis, the Chinese nuclear weapons expert, said with the silos being two miles apart, each should be targeted with an opponent’s weapon to ensure destruction of the missile it contains. But missile doctrine says each silo should be targeted twice to ensure its destruction, he said.

Heath, of the RAND Corporation, said the new missile field, which increases China’s ability to withstand a nuclear strike and retaliate, could have implications for U.S. allies and partners in Asia, who were able to find a blanket under the American nuclear umbrella.

“The possibility of escalation is becoming much more dangerous now,” he said.

“This raises additional questions about the willingness and ability of the United States to maintain its security commitments to its allies and partners in Asia. The United States will have to build missile defenses or develop other means of mitigation. this danger if they are to maintain the credibility of its alliance commitments in Asia, ”said Heath.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Christian Sierra, Oren Liebermann and Yong Xiong contributed to this report.

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