China’s New Missile Silos: How Should the United States Respond?

October 6, 2021
Eric Bridiers, United States Mission Geneva/Flickr
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

China’s decision to build 200-300 new missile silos is a reminder that the danger of nuclear war did not end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. International nuclear arms negotiations stalled just eight years after the Cold War ended when the United States failed to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The United States subsequently withdrew from two important bilateral agreements with Russia: the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. 

China, with a nuclear force nowhere near the size of Russia or the US, was never a major player in the old nuclear arms race or diplomatic efforts to stop it. But its new silos run the risk of jump starting another one. That’s a danger the United States government can avoid. 

The most effective way to avoid it, while simultaneously limiting the improvement and expansion of China’s nuclear forces, is to revitalize international nuclear arms control. There are two clear negotiation outcomes that can verifiably limit China’s ability to improve the quality and increase the quantity of its nuclear weapons.

The first is the entry into force of the CTBT. The US Senate should immediately join the other 170 nations who already ratified it. China said it will ratify the treaty after the United States does. The Biden administration should then push the other six holdouts – Egypt, India, Israel, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan – to do the same. This is a diplomatic challenge that can be met and is worth the effort.

US defense officials are justifiably worried about renewed Chinese interest in explosive nuclear testing. A resumption of testing would allow China to develop new warheads that are lighter and more efficient than those in their current arsenal. Lighter warheads would allow China to fit more of them on a single missile, multiplying the potential impact of its new silos. Using less fissile material in each warhead would allow China to construct a larger number of warheads. Moreover, renewed testing could enable China to develop low-yield warheads it does not currently possess. The entry into force of the CTBT would verifiably inhibit China from making all three of these improvements to its nuclear forces.

The second desired outcome is negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). This international treaty would stop all production of weapons-grade nuclear material around the globe. China produced a limited amount of fissile material before agreeing to a voluntary moratorium it could end tomorrow. A treaty that verifiably cut-off China’s ability to produce more of this essential component of nuclear weapons would place a firm cap on the size of its nuclear arsenal. This is clearly in the interests of the United States and the best way to prevent a new nuclear arms race. The FMCT would place even stricter limits on the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal when combined with the entry into force of the CTBT, which would prevent China from conducting the tests that would be required to develop reliable new nuclear warheads that use less fissile material.

China is still willing to ratify the CTBT and negotiate an FMCT. The United States should seize the opportunity before it is too late. The only thing standing in the way is a lack of political will. US political leaders seem to lack faith in diplomacy. But greenlighting a new US nuclear build-up will never be able to solve the problem created by China’s new missile silos and protect the people of the United States from a Chinese nuclear attack. There is no indication that ballistic missile defense technology will ever be good enough to protect them either. 

Now is not the time for the United States to hit the brakes on efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security policy. It is the time to return to the international negotiating table where there is a chance to stop a new nuclear arms race before it gets started. President Biden should make this a priority as he puts together his Nuclear Posture Review.

Military minds always look for military solutions. But political leaders should know from experience that running a nuclear arms race is like playing tic-tac-toe. It is game no one can win. There is no military solution to the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. Diplomacy, for all its faults and difficulties, is our only hope. When it comes to responding to China’s new missile silos, the entry into force of the CTBT and the FMCT would place verifiable and enduring limits on the size and sophistication of China’s nuclear forces.