Beijing, China: Satellite images have shown a three-mile-long runway in a remote patch of Chinese desert possibly undergoing an expansion, hinting at China's increasing activities to rival the United States.
Satellite imagery from the commercial company Maxar supplied exclusively to the National Public Radio (NPR) showed around a dozen large concrete buildings under construction near the landing strip. The buildings mark a significant change at the airfield, which used to lack any permanent accommodation until now. "I think we're observing what appears to be a pretty important facility for China's military space activities that appears to be growing," says Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Observers believed that China landed a highly classified "space plane" at the mysterious airfield, which lies close to China's former nuclear weapons test range at Lop Nur. Though it is unclear, some say it is similar to the space shuttles used to ferry US astronauts in orbit, but smaller.
America has a pair of similar space planes, says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer. Known as the X-37b, these spacecraft conduct classified missions for the Air Force.
The NPR reported that the runway has been quiet and there are what look like some modular trailers at one end, perhaps temporary housing for those rare times ground crew needs to be at the site.
However, the new facilities now under construction indicate the runway's role may be expanding. "This seems to be something that is more than just, 'We're coming here for the weekend,'" said McDowell.
Meanwhile, Panda said the buildings resemble those seen at other Chinese military facilities. But it's unclear what they'll be used for. "This may be offices for officers, if this indeed a site that will be a permanent military installation of some sort," he says.
He also drew parallels with US' Area 51, saying that the Chinese airfield can be used for atmospheric aircraft, high-altitude aircraft, high-altitude drones, potential bombers, other experimental aircraft.
Panda further said he will be keeping an eye out for new technology on display in upcoming military parades. That might provide clues about what the Chinese government is working on at its new desert facility, according to NPR.
Earlier, commercial satellite images revealed that China has been constructing more than 100 new missile silos in a desert area located in the western part of the country, in what experts say signals plans to significantly expand its nuclear capabilities.
According to Washington Post, commercial satellite images obtained by researchers at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies in California have shown that work is underway at scores of sites across a grid covering hundreds of square miles of arid terrain in China's Gansu province.
The 119 nearly identical construction sites contain features that mirror those seen at existing launch facilities for China's arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
If the acquisition of over 100 new missile silos is completed, it would represent a historic shift for China, which is believed to possess a relatively modest stockpile of 250 to 350 nuclear weapons.
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed in a statement that the Biden administration would "pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China's modern and growing nuclear arsenal".