Seventy-six years after the first atomic bomb exploded against a city, Hiroshima in Japan, China has launched an ambitious program to expand its offensive capability with nuclear weapons.
A rising power, it is still far from rivaling the arsenals of Russia and the United States, the country which promoted the pioneering attack, recalled this Friday (6).
But two recent works by American researchers show that reality may be changing.
Until now, Beijing has operated around 20 silos for the launch of ICBM (acronym for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles), with models capable of hitting targets almost anywhere in the world – and, of course, their American and European opponents. .
On June 30, the Monterey Center for Non-Proliferation Studies published an analysis of satellite images showing that the Chinese are building a huge 800 km² complex with up to 119 silos for their new DF-41 missiles.
The location drew attention: in the desert area of China’s interior, in Yumen, far from current points in the country’s southeast, and far from the reach of conventional weapons such as rival cruise missiles. .
The discovery led to a frantic search by the nuclear community for more evidence. A month later, researcher Matt Korda, from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), published with his colleague Hans Kristensen that there was not just one, but two new silo fields.
The second is in Hami, 380 km from the initial site, and is the same size. “This is the largest expansion of nuclear capacity in Chinese history,” the researchers wrote, “and the largest [do mundo] since the construction of the American and Soviet silos during the Cold War “.
To date, 80% of the Chinese ICBM arsenal uses mobile launchers, which have the advantage of being less easy to identify – in the rules of nuclear war, one of the main targets is enemy silos. .
On the other hand, balancing launch options is part of nuclear doctrine, even if it means confusing opponents.
In any case, with the two new fields, the Jilantai test base and its 14 silos and other extensions already identified, China is more than tenfold in its static launch capacity.
“We believe that China is increasing its forces in part to maintain a deterrent force that can survive a first US attack in sufficient numbers to defeat US missile defenses,” wrote Jeffrey Lewis, author of the first study.
It is one thing, however, to have silos. Another is to equip them.
Today, the FAS estimates that China has 350 nuclear warheads, many of which are used multiple times in the new DF-41, which can carry either a megaton (66 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb) or possibly be 10 smaller mastodontic bombs per place. at 15 thousand km.
Today, the bulk of the missile force is still with the old DF-5, introduced in the 1980s. Rather obsolete, it uses liquid fuel, so it takes up to an hour to be supplied for firing.
In a nuclear war, it’s an eternity – American bombs would fall on Chinese soil, counting here only those dropped from American silos and not from much closer submarines, in about 30 minutes.
The DF-41 and other new Chinese weapons, such as the DF-17 hypersonic missile, use the most efficient solid propellant.
The remaining doubt relates to the expansion of the Chinese arsenal itself, historically limited in strategic thinking to avoid signs of clashes.
How that has changed under Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership since 2012, leading to Cold War 2.0 launched by Donald Trump in 2017, is the question. In the FAS accounts, if all silos are completed at the new sites, a conservative count of three warheads per missile will bring the Chinese arsenal to nearly 900 bombs.
The researchers’ work gives substance to the usual beating of the Pentagon’s war drums. In April, addressing Congress, the commander of the US nuclear forces warned of a “breathtaking expansion” in China.
Admiral Charles Richard’s words, however, were seen at the time as another of the usual calls for more money in American politics. The United States plans to spend up to $ 1.7 trillion over 30 years to modernize its so-called nuclear triad.
It consists of three delivery vectors of atomic bombs to enemies: intercontinental missiles, bombers and submarines. The high spending on ICBMs is increasingly criticized as they are easy targets, but for now, doctrine suggests they are essential.
China has acquired the triad in recent years, catching up with its ally Russia and the United States by operationalizing a nuclear attack version of the H-6K bomber.
All concerns, however, belies the fact that 86 percent of the world’s operational warheads are in the hands of former Cold War rivals.
Within the limits imposed by the Novo Start agreement, renewed by Joe Biden after Trump nearly dropped it, Russians and Americans must limit themselves to 1,600 ready-made strategic warheads, and a number of launchers, airplanes and submarines.
These are the most powerful weapons designed to annihilate the enemy, as opposed to tactics, which are aimed at targeted attacks and are not covered by the treaty.
Alarmed by the Chinese movements, Trump wanted to include Beijing in the agreement, but Moscow refused, even out of geopolitical pride: Vladimir Putin praises whenever he can the great nuclear capacities of his country, which faces serious political and economic difficulties. .
Nuclear proliferation scholars often wonder who can use a bomb more than the power they have to avoid being used. Another great source of fear is unstable opponents like India and Pakistan.
And the activity has been intense in Moscow in Washington. Putin has developed a new generation of nuclear missiles, including hypersonic missiles, and the United States has adopted smaller weapons and relaxed its doctrine for the tactical use of the bomb. Under Trump, the Americans left 2 out of 3 deals to try to avoid war.
Even for Western political reasons, however, the spotlight for 2021 appears to be on Xi’s China. They show a renewed desire to assert their importance in a 76-year-old field in the shadow of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud.