In late June 2021, The New York Times broke a very important story about Chinese construction of large numbers of ICBM silos for its new large DF-41 ICBM stating, “Researchers in the United States have identified the construction of 119 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos in a desert in northwestern China …” The analysis was conducted by Mr. Jeffery Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. According to Mr. Lewis, “If the silos under construction at other sites across China are added to the count, the total comes to about 145 silos under construction.” The U.S. Department of State voiced concern about China’s actions.
The Chinese DF-41 ICBM is not a small Minuteman-class missile but rather a large Peacekeeper–class missile and is generally reported as capable of carrying ten warheads. Peter Huessy of the Mitchell Institute has pointed out, “Just this deployment alone will provide China over one thousand new on-alert warheads—1,450—almost double the day-to-day U.S.A. on-alert force and by itself a nuclear force roughly equal to the entire current U.S. nuclear-deployed force of 1,490 sea- and land-based missile warheads.” Chinese media have talked about a DF-41 leveling New York City, but that is not its real function. The threat posed by such a large DF-41 silo deployment (and all we know at this point is the 145 launchers is what they are now building rather than the maximum number they plan to deploy) is its ability to destroy large numbers of U.S. military targets. Deployment of 1,450 warheads is about 75% of the U.S. Cold War ICBM force, and this does not count the other Chinese ICBMs and SLBMs, including the mobile DF-41. In light of the massive reduction in the number of U.S. ICBMs and military bases since the end of the Cold War, the silos-based DF-41 force could probably launch a coordinated attack against about all major U.S. military facilities. This is an extremely serious development.
Mr. Lewis deserves praise for bringing the large-scale Chinese silo construction to the attention of the world. Prior to his announcement, all we heard from official Washington were generalities such as “…Beijing has accelerated its nuclear expansion and is on track to exceed our previous projection.” However, Mr. Lewis’s suggestion that this silo construction may be part of a Chinese multiple aim-point system with only one out of ten silos containing missiles is not credible. This is not any normal nuclear threat assessment or arms control analysis. Under the original START Treaty, each launcher for ICBMs or SLBMs was assumed, for counting purposes, to contain a missile. There is apparently no evidence for any Chinese interest in a multiple aim-point system for ICBM basing. It is reasonable to assume that if Mr. Lewis had any evidence for this, he would have cited it. He did not do so either in his interview with The New York Times or in his article on the subject which appeared in Foreign Policy. However, there is ample evidence of Chinese interest in nuclear force expansion.
According to the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Scott D. Berrier, “The Fifth Plenum [of the Chinese Communist Party] communique in October 2020, specifically called for strengthening strategic forces and creating high-level strategic deterrence.” In April 2020, the Editor in Chief of China’s main English language mouthpiece Global Times said that “China needs to expand the number of its nuclear warheads to 1,000 in a relatively short time. It needs to have at least 100 Dongfeng-41 strategic missiles.” In November 2020, Global Times characterized the DF-41 as one of “the breakthroughs across all [the] services.” It is interesting that Global Times did not really deny The New York Times story but launched a vicious personal attack on Mr. Lewis, characterizing him as “an amateur,” and saying that, “Lewis may not understand the basic features of [the] DF-41 before shooting off his mouth at the media.” The argument that Global Times made (i.e., that the DF-41 could not be a silo-based ICBM because it is a mobile ICBM) is nonsense. Global Times continued, “China should neither confirm nor deny such [a] ‘revelation’ and let the Western media imagine it. This is what a nuclear deterrent means. By doing so, China will smash any U.S. attempt to suppress China’s nuclear capacity building.” It seems clear that China did not want such a disclosure just before the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.
China has a major nuclear buildup underway that goes well beyond the DF-41 silos. In February 2021, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General John Hyten stated China was building nuclear weapons “faster than anybody on the planet,” including new ICBMs, cruise missiles, and nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles “that we have no defenses for.” In April 2021, Admiral Charles Richard, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, revealed new and important information concerning the scope of the Chinese nuclear weapons buildup in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He stated that “The CSS-20 (DF-41) became operational last year, and China has stood up at least two brigades.” In April 2021, Major General Michael J. Lutton, Commander, Twentieth Air Force, Air Force Global Strike Command, stated that: