A Google Earth image grab of Yumen city in Gansu province on the China map | Photo: Google Earth
A Google Earth image grab of Yumen city in Gansu province on the China map | Photo: Google Earth
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Researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey have discovered the construction of 119 missile silos in the Chinese province of Gansu. The facilities will likely be used to store China’s latest intercontinental ballistic missiles, DF-41, with a range of up to 15,000 kilometres. The construction of these silos is understood to be a part of China’s effort to counter US nuclear superiority through an investment in a greater number of survivable nuclear weapons. It is important for New Delhi to observe these developments closely for three reasons.

Outlining future utility of nuclear weapons

First, the competition between the US and China will carry important implications for the role of nuclear weapons in international politics. Nuclear weapons are said to be “the great equalizer”, because acquisition of even a small arsenal by inferior powers is supposed to deter their strong rivals. It is the acquisition of nuclear weapons that shields Pakistan from suffering heavy reprisals after sponsoring major sub-conventional attacks on Indian soil. The salience of nuclear weapons is lower in India-China disputes, but it has been almost unimaginable that Beijing could repeat its 1962 military success ever since New Delhi acquired nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons, though, do not rule out smaller-scale conquests.

Some experts now claim that certain technological developments, like the accuracy revolution in ballistic missiles, enhanced resolution of satellite imagery, and passive acoustic detection of submarines, have eroded the parity that inferior powers gained by acquiring nuclear weapons. Technologically advanced and wealthier powers like the US can now use their satellites to detect the location of nuclear forces of the rival, and use accurate missiles to destroy even hardened shelters. Moreover, the US can also use passive acoustic arrays to detect relatively noisier submarines of weaker powers, thus turning even the most survivable leg of the nuclear forces quite vulnerable. If the US is unable to destroy all the long-range missiles of the rival, then the hope is that the residual force will be small enough to be absorbed by sophisticated missile defences.

China’s vulnerability to American technological superiority is driving a number of its counter-measures, with the silo-building being just the latest effort. This US-China cat-and-mouse game, nuclear version, will determine the future utility of the nuclear weapons, including that of Pakistan’s against India and India’s against China. India is already believed to be tempted to do to Pakistan, using its technological superiority, what the US is doing to its rivals.


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China’s vulnerability is bad news for India 

Second, and counter-intuitively, the vulnerability of Chinese nuclear arsenal might not bode well for India. The most straightforward reason is that if China’s modest arsenal is not safe against the US, India’s even smaller arsenal might also be at a threat if China decides to invest in sophisticated counterforce platforms like missile defences and field nuclear attack submarines in the Indian Ocean on explicit missions to seek and eliminate Indian submarines when needed.

There is another reason why China’s vulnerability might be bad news for India. Experts are divided on whether China fields a survivable nuclear force. Nuclear weapons scholars Charles L. Glaser and Steve Fetter argue that investment in mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) has enabled China to build a survivable nuclear force, others like Keir A. Lieber and Daryl Press have their doubts. If the US is confident that it has the capability to wipe out China’s long-range missiles in one clean strike, it might be tempted to do so especially if its leadership believes that Beijing may use a city-flattening nuclear missile first.

In the event that the US decides to go for a massive counterforce strike and is reasonably successful, China could still be left with short- and medium-range missiles that can reach US allies and strategic partners like Japan, South Korea, and India. There is a well-known argument that acquisition of long-range missiles by America’s rivals tends to weaken the extended deterrence that Washington offers to its allies. The reason is that the rival can now hold US homeland hostage if Washington decides to intervene in favour of its ally. My argument here is exactly the mirror-opposite: as soon as the US perceives an opportunity to pull its own homeland out of this hostage situation, it could well take that chance even if that means putting its allies and partners in danger.


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Civilian vs military — nuclear weapons control 

Third, the method of seeking survivability should tell us something about the factors involved. While China is responding to the threat of US counterforce and missile defence capabilities, its choice of constructing silos is a little puzzling. Fixed silos can be monitored day and night by using radar satellites. Of course, China might plan to complicate the US attack options by moving around its ICBMs within all those silos or by using some of those silos as dummies or a combination of both. However, it is not guaranteed that any of these methods might retrieve the advantages of mobility.

Having said that, China is likely to move ahead with a combination of silos and mobile ICBMs. However, if it eventually chooses to store a large number of DF-41 missiles in these silos, that might be an indicator of command and control challenges with respect to nuclear weapons in China. The leadership might believe that silos offer better civilian control over use and non-use of nuclear weapons. Silo-based missiles are also considered more responsive: an order to launch can be communicated much faster to a fixed silo than a mobile platform.

China’s example points out the variables that determine how States respond to stronger rivals with potential counterforce capabilities. Pakistan, even if faced with Indian counterforce capabilities, might not resort to Beijing’s method of ensuring survivability because unlike China, its military enjoys much greater control over nuclear weapons. Besides, if the desire for responsiveness is driving silo-construction in China, it might mean that Beijing thinks a conflict with the US, with all its escalation potential, is closer than ever before. This itself has several implications for India and its foreign policy.

China has had silos before, but the scale of these constructions is much bigger. India needs to pay close attention to these developments, because these will have consequences for everything — from the future of nuclear weapons to the likelihood of a war in the Indo-Pacific region.

The author is pursuing a PhD at the Department of  Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He tweets @d_extrovert. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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