China’s Silos: New Intelligence, Old Problems

August 12, 2021
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In recent weeks, analysts have discovered over 200 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos in the deserts of western China. Surprisingly, those behind the breakthrough weren’t intelligence professionals from the CIA or National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Instead, they were researchers from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Federation of American Scientists with access to Google Earth and private satellite imagery. Nuclear analysts can now marshal open source intelligence methods to reveal secrets that were previously the preserve of government intelligence agencies.

While the disclosure of missile silos in China by non-governmental analysts suggests a revolution in open source intelligence, the response to the revelations indicates that the debates and politics surrounding arms control are not so different from those of the Cold War. Some argue that the missile silos indicate a significant change in Beijing’s nuclear posture, setting the stage for a more hawkish U.S. approach to China. Others believe that China is reinforcing the credibility of its established assured-retaliatory capability, meaning there is more room for engagement with Beijing on managing the nuclear competition. Moreover, information gaps on China’s nuclear doctrine and weapons systems combined with a broad spectrum of possible interpretations of the available data mean that analysts are likely to remain divided on Beijing’s intentions and capabilities.



Such analytical divisions on China’s nuclear strategy run the risk of fueling partisan polarization on U.S. policy toward Beijing. In order to mitigate this, analysts should be transparent regarding the gaps in their knowledge on China’s nuclear posture, the types of evidence that would make them revise their assessments, and the first-order assumptions that underpin their views. Just like in the Cold War, partisan politics will intrude on analytical debates surrounding nuclear developments in China and Russia. While analysts should be aware of the politics involved, they should strive to keep focused on sharing what they know and don’t know about global nuclear developments.

Unclear Intentions

Cold War history shows the difficulty of assessing an adversary’s nuclear intentions. This problem endures in the new age of open source intelligence.

Declassified U.S. national intelligence estimates indicate that Washington’s intelligence community labored under a paucity of information regarding Soviet intentions. U.S. intelligence analysts had limited insight into the Soviet leadership’s private views and had to rely on public statements for much of their information. While analysts were able to make educated guesses regarding the ultimate objective of developments in Soviet nuclear forces, they admitted that it remained “an elusive question.”

A similar lack of clarity bedevils analysts trying to decipher Chinese nuclear intentions today. Like the Soviet Union during the late Cold War, Beijing publicly adheres to a no-first-use policy, under which it pledges to employ nuclear weapons only in retaliation against a nuclear attack on China. Yet senior U.S. officials have cast doubt on the integrity of that policy, citing the general opacity of the Chinese leadership on this question and lack of detail regarding how Beijing interprets its no-first-use pledge.

In an adversarial relationship, trust in the benign intentions of the other is likely to be in short supply. As Austin Long argued in War on the Rocks, such suspicions will increase if there is a mismatch between the political leadership’s public statements and new military capabilities or exercises practicing nuclear first use. In the words of U.S. Strategic Command Commander Adm. Chas Richard, “the Soviet Union [also] had a no first use policy [and] I don’t think we took great comfort in that either.” 

Capability Gray Areas

Without definitive direct evidence regarding intentions, analysts often try to infer these from assessment of adversary capabilities. Yet, despite the vast improvement in open source intelligence in recent years, capability gray areas will remain a problem for the foreseeable future.

Problems with assessing adversary nuclear capabilities are not new. During the Cold War, debate raged over whether the large Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile force could conduct a successful first strike against America’s Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile fields. Possession of such a capability, it was argued, would constitute confirmation that the Soviet Union was developing a strategy to fight and win a nuclear war.

Yet assessments of the Soviet ability to mount such an attack hinged on measurements that were extremely hard for even the U.S. intelligence community to estimate accurately. One key metric was the accuracy of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile warheads. During the 1970s, based on their assessment of Soviet warhead accuracies, U.S. analysts concluded that the Soviet Union would possess a significant first-strike capability against America’s intercontinental ballistic missile force by the early 1980s.

Post-Cold War research based on declassified Soviet sources suggests that these estimates were overly pessimistic: Soviet forces did not reach accuracies necessary for a successful first strike against Minuteman missile fields until the end of the Cold War. However, at the time, there were plausible cases to make on both sides of a fundamental question regarding the capabilities of Soviet forces because warhead accuracy was impossible to measure with the necessary precision.

Similar gaps continue to bedevil open source intelligence analysis today. There are limits as to how much analysts can know about the new Chinese silo fields from available overhead imagery. Most importantly, they are currently unable to confirm that all of these silos will have intercontinental ballistic missiles deployed in them. This key piece of information would help clarify if China is aiming to significantly expand the number of nuclear warheads with which it could strike the United States in a way indicative of a major change in its nuclear posture.

Nuclear policy experts Jeffrey Lewis and James Acton argue that a large number of new silos does not necessarily signify a big increase in deliverable Chinese warheads and a change in Beijing’s basic nuclear strategy. They explain that China does not currently possess the number of warheads sufficient to arm all of the silos, while the silos’ arrangement suggests that Beijing may be constructing an elaborate “shell game” scheme to hide a smaller arsenal of missiles in a large number of holes. Since the United States would not know which silos contain missiles and which are empty, it would have to strike all of them simultaneously, using up warheads and increasing the chance that some of the Chinese missiles would survive. In this view, China is probably increasing the credibility of its existing ability to absorb a U.S. first strike and then retaliate.

Others disagree. They argue that the new silos indicate China is moving beyond this minimum retaliatory posture. The U.S. Department of State has described Beijing’s nuclear buildup as “rapid” and accused China of “sharply deviat[ing] from its decades-old strategy based on minimum deterrence.” An anonymous State Department spokesperson cast doubt on the shell game theory, alleging that Beijing is expanding its ability to produce fissile material, which could be used to build new warheads for a larger intercontinental ballistic missile force. The State Department has also said that China is improving its capability to launch nuclear weapons on the basis of evidence an attack is underway rather than wait for an adversary’s warheads to detonate on its territory before responding as in the past. Other commentators such as Georgetown University’s Matthew Kroenig have gone further still, arguing that Beijing is “engaging in a massive nuclear-arms buildup as part of its broader strategy to challenge the U.S.-led rules-based international system.”

Such a dispute is simply unresolvable on the basis of current publicly available evidence. As Lewis notes with admirable honesty, “We just don’t know” the truth. The answer to this question has significant implications for assessments of Chinese capabilities and intentions, but as with the Soviet warhead accuracy in the 1970s, there is insufficient evidence to prove either case definitively. 

Limiting the Danger of Polarization

The lack of clarity surrounding China’s nuclear intentions and capabilities, combined with the increased risks that Beijing’s arsenal will pose to the United States, could polarize the debate on China’s nuclear forces to the detriment of U.S. policy. Small differences in interpretations of Chinese nuclear doctrine or force posture, all plausible given the available evidence, could lead to radically different U.S. policy prescriptions. These could range from engagement with Beijing on arms control through to an unmitigated arms race.

This is exactly what happened during the Cold War. Big names in the nuclear-strategic community, such as former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze and Harvard Sovietologist Richard Pipes, believed the Soviet Union was preparing nuclear forces able to coerce the United States in peacetime or even fight and win a nuclear war.

Against them were ranged other senior figures, including Soviet expert Raymond L. Garthoff and Jimmy Carter’s Strategic Arms Limitation Talks chief negotiator Paul Warnke. They rejected Nitze and Pipes’ view of Soviet forces, seeing them as primarily an instrument of stable deterrence, or believed such a war-winning posture was simply impossible to achieve. Both sides based their arguments on plausible readings of the open Soviet literature and available evidence on Moscow’s capabilities but reached divergent conclusions regarding Soviet aims and how Washington should respond. Exchanges between these two groups were fierce, often helping to widen rather than bridge the differences between them.

A similar response to new developments in Chinese nuclear forces could be more dangerous today, especially if the debate becomes a partisan issue. Although views on the nuclear balance with the Soviet Union diverged, during the Cold War it was generally possible to find a middle ground on nuclear questions. However, foreign policy has become increasingly polarized along partisan lines since the end of the Cold War. Such polarization between Republicans and Democrats on China’s nuclear arsenal, with one party exclusively associated with a more hawkish or dovish position, could complicate U.S. policy in a number of ways. This dynamic might include big shifts in America’s position when the presidency changes hands or increased difficulty in concluding arms control treaties that require a two-thirds majority in the Senate to secure its advice and consent to ratification. While both parties have taken a tougher line on China recently, divergences in the analytical community indicate that the risk of future partisan polarization is real.

Analytical Best Practices

It is beyond the power of nuclear analysts to prevent the partisan polarization of U.S. views on China’s nuclear strategy. However, they can do their part to limit the risk that their assessments could fuel any such trend by sticking to best practices already exhibited by a number of analysts.

First, they should be transparent regarding the gaps in their knowledge on China’s nuclear posture and clear about where the dividing line between hard facts and conjecture lies. Analysts are fairly certain that Beijing is building more than 200 new silos in western China, but beyond that there is very little to go on. Shell game advocates have outlined the evidence that supports their theory but have also been open regarding the hypothetical nature of their claims. Both sides should do this in order to keep the debate as evidence-grounded as possible.

Second, analysts should be precise regarding the kinds of evidence that would lead them to modify their views. For example, Acton is clear that his assessment regarding the shell game is based in part on China’s limited supply of fissile material to fabricate new nuclear weapons that could fill all of those silos. Consequently, he has indicated that concrete evidence that China was increasing its production would lead him to reassess. This kind of transparency regarding standards of falsifiability of contending hypotheses will facilitate an open debate based on clear standards.

Finally, analysts should be open regarding their first-order assumptions. Cold War-era debates on Soviet nuclear forces were intense in part because participants diverged on basic issues regarding the utility of nuclear superiority and whether the Soviet Union was a revisionist power. Such differences are clear today. Kroenig has written extensively on the importance of nuclear superiority for U.S. strategy, while Lewis is on record as more skeptical. Analysts should be open about their views on such fundamental questions so that observers can understand the broader framework that informs their judgments.

None of these recommendations are a silver bullet that will overcome sincere differences of opinion over China’s nuclear policy. However, acknowledging the limits of one’s knowledge of Beijing’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, identifying the falsifiability criteria for one’s assertions, and clarifying the theoretical lenses through which one analyzes China’s nuclear policy would help diminish the chances that the debate becomes increasingly polarized in a way that would be detrimental to U.S. policy in the longer term.



James Cameron is a postdoctoral fellow with the Oslo Nuclear Project in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo. He is the author of The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is currently writing a long history of arms control from the late 19th century to the present day. Follow him on Twitter at @cameronjjj.

Image: Xinhua (Photo by Lan Hongguang)