Scientists discover a massive field of nuclear silos in China, signaling a significant nuclear expansion in the country
China may be building up to 110 nuclear silos, The New York Times reported.
Researchers believe the new silos could raise China's nuclear capacity to more than 875 warheads.
China is the third-largest nuclear power, but its arsenal is dwarfed by those of the US and Russia.
China is constructing a network that could house up to 110 nuclear silos in a desert in the remote eastern part of the country's Xinjiang province, according to scientists from the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit global think tank.
As first reported by The New York Times on Monday, scientists said construction at the site, near the city of Hami, most likely began around March. Using satellite images from the geospatial-data company Planet, they have discovered at least 14 silos and grounds cleared to build another 19. Judging from the network grid, it could house as many as 110 silos.
These underground silos are typically used to house intercontinental ballistic missiles - long-range missiles designed to deliver nuclear payloads.
The latest revelation follows a separate discovery of 119 silos under construction near Yumen in the neighboring Gansu province last month, The Washington Post reported, using satellite images from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey.
"The silo construction at Yumen and Hami constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever," the FAS researchers Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen wrote in their study.
Chinese nuclear experts, however, dismissed The Washington Post's report on the discovery of a nuclear base under construction, with Song Zhongping, a former People's Liberation Army instructor, saying nuclear silos were outdated, according to the South China Morning Post.
Without dismissing the possibility that China is pursuing nuclear expansion, Song said: "China has already used mobile launchers and discarded these fixed silos, which are time-consuming, labor-intensive, costly and vulnerable to be attacked and destroyed."
Still, researchers wrote in the FAS study that if the new silos were all loaded with missiles, "Chinese ICBMs could potentially carry more than 875 warheads (assuming three warheads per missile) when the Yumen and Hami missile silo fields are completed," up from the approximately 185 warheads it has on ICBMs already.
Responding to Insider in an email, Kristensen, who is also the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the FAS, agreed that silos were vulnerable to attack because they were stationary but added that attacks could also be detected and a "solution" was to "build a missile that can react fast enough to get out of the silo before it is destroyed."
Asked whether silos were considered outdated, Kristensen said: "Today, some of the most modern missiles are actually deployed in silos, so it is by no means considered old."
It is unlikely that even with its latest expansion, China will compete with Russia and the US. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, China is thought to have about 350 nuclear weapons, lagging far behind Russia's 6,225 and the 5,550 built by the US.
And even "when the current modernization is complete," Kristensen told Insider, it's unlikely China will be able to catch up.
Kristensen also noted many unanswered questions, such as the number and type of missiles that might be deployed at the silos. And more fundamentally, "why the Chinese are building these silos" now.
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