that nuclear field in the Gansu desert

July 24, 2021

Last month, the Washington Post carried a major story about the discovery of a huge new field of missile silos in Gansu. It's important to note that this is not evidence that China is gearing up to, like, nuke the Free World or whatever.

I am not a nuclear weapons expert by any means, but the hypothesis that makes the most sense to me (and seems to be the one that Dr. Jeffrey Lewis and Decker Eveleth, who did the original research, consider most likely) is that the field is mostly decoys. An enemy would not know which silos are empty, however, and would still need to launch a nuclear weapon at each and every one if they wanted to eliminate the Chinese arsenal preemptively. It’s like a nuclear sponge (each silo is 3km apart, meaning a single warhead could not take out more than one).

Amusing sidenote: the Qiao Collective-type crowd, whose theoretically healthy skepticism of mainstread reporting on China has long since descended into complete idiocy, did not handle the news well. The other Bad China Takes and I even got in a little fight about it, see replies to the tweet below:

Anyways, I don't have much to add except for this episode of Arms Control Wonk, which explains the process of discovering the sites and the political and strategic implications very well.

I transcribed the last two minutes or so because I think Lewis hits the nail on the head. This line of reasoning is remarkably lucid and applies at least in spirit to many, many other domains besides nuclear policy. After Lewis' counterpart notes that the Chinese "just don’t seem to have any willingness to engage in arms control," he responds:

Well, we could ask why that is, right? My regular plea—I think the Chinese have been extremely clear for the past 30 years that they are not interested in discussing limits on their [nuclear] offense unless there are core limits on defenses [e.g. the United States’ ballistic missile defense systems]. Which, to me, makes perfect sense. In the 1990s the Chinese in the Conference on Disarmament said it all the time. They had a whole bunch of discussions about how there had to be some sort of limitations on defenses, it was the argument they gave for why they wouldn’t agree to a fissile material cutoff treaty: "Well, we don’t know how much fissile material we’re gonna need because we don’t know how big your defenses are gonna be." [...] I’m not saying that everyone in China would be delighted if we took these [arms reductions] proposals to be in good faith, but I think ultimately if we want to get a handle on this arms race the answer now is the same answer that stared us in the face in the late 1960s, which is: you have to limit defenses. I understand that it’s impossible, and that it’s dead on arrival in the Senate, and Republicans will never go for it, but if you really believe that, then this is like school shootings. We know what the answer is, we know what we’re supposed to do about the problem, we’ve just decided that it’s too hard and so some kids are gonna die. Except the difference is, the risk is not ‘some kids are gonna die,’ it’s ‘we’ll all die.’ … To me, the arms race that we are in the middle of is a predictable consequence of leaving the ABM treaty and refusing to discuss defenses. All of these unwelcome developments in Russia and China are a consequence of that and if we want to address that—and even if you don’t think they’re exactly consequences that — your capacity to talk to [China] about limits is zero if you’re not willing to talk about defenses. My read is [when you say] "the Chinese are not interested at a fundamental level [in arms control"… [it’s] because the thing they care about most of all is not on the table for them. So until that thing is on the table, they’re just gonna build their way to security. Which, y’know, I think is stupid, because I don’t think you can ever really build your way to security, but that’s an arms race for ya. […] Our numbers [of nuclear weapons] today are quite comparable to during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Russian numbers are bigger… But if the Cuban Missile Crisis was scary to you, there is plenty of reason to be worried today.