DN - Defence Notes

China’s ICBMs come to maturity

1st December 2017 - 01:12 GMT | by Wendell Minnick in Taipei

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Recent Chinese-language media reports indicate that China’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) will be deployed by the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) in early 2018.

The DF-41 (Dong Feng, or East Wind) ICBM is described in the Chinese press as a fourth-generation strategic missile capable of putting a nuclear warhead on target to a range of 12,000km with a 100m circular error probability (CEP). This would place it within range of Washington DC.

Press reports are comparing the DF-41 to sixth-generation missiles of the US silo-based LGM-30 Minuteman (200m CEP) and the Russian road-mobile RT-2PM2 (NATO name SS-27). Both the DF-41 and RT-2PM2 are carried on a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL), making it difficult for the enemy to locate and destroy.

If true, it could force the US to face some uncomfortable choices. A US expert in Washington DC, speaking on condition of anonymity, said ‘it will involve both force structure adjustments and significant changes to existing arms control regimes...'

He added, 'The potential deployment of a large number of MIRV [multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle] ICBMs, as well as other strategic systems, risks upsetting the strategic balance.’

What is unlikely are Chinese media reports stating that the DF-41 is capable of carrying 6-10 MIRV warheads. ‘I’m highly sceptical about the 6-10 MIRV rumour,’ said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

‘I know it’s popular among China hawks, but if the DF-41 is similar to the Russian SS-27 [RT-2PM2], then that would mean China somehow had developed some very small warheads based on a much more limited testing and warhead development programme than Russia,’ Kristensen said.

It is more likely that the DF-41 is designed to carry a few MIRVs (like the ageing silo-based DF-5), ‘but with a more advanced penetration package'. However, if true, 6-10 MIRV warheads would ‘signal a dramatic change in China’s nuclear posture'.

Kristensen has good reason to doubt Chinese press reports due to the capabilities of comparable ICBMs. The US Minuteman can carry only three MIRV 300-500-kiloton warheads, and the DF-41’s inspiration – the RT-2PM2 – carries only a single 800-kiloton warhead (200m CEP).

Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, believes the DF-41 represents an ‘incremental evolution’ of the PLARF's ICBM force. ‘The system probably integrates the MIRV bus and smart dispenser used on the DF-5B with a new large-diameter solid rocket motor…[and] the same solid motor may be the basis for a new mobile space launch vehicle.’

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) does appear to be in the latter stages of finalising the design of the DF-41, Stokes said. ‘A PLA Rocket Force operational test and evaluation unit was likely established a few years ago to facilitate introduction of the DF-41 system into the operational inventory upon its final certification.’ 

Stokes said there is debate on whether the DF-41 will outfit a new brigade or replace an older missile system in an existing brigade. Before Project 2049, Stokes served as senior country director for China and Taiwan in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Bush administration.

Kristensen said the objective of the Chinese nuclear weapons strategy and development programme does not seem to be to significantly build up its number of warheads, but to ensure that the ones they have can penetrate advanced US missile defences. 

‘So, if China is planning to deploy well over 100 warheads on its ICBMs in the future, up from 70-80 today, as the US intelligence community is projecting, then one might expect to see an ICBM force of 30-40 MIRVed ICBMs, up from 10+ MIRVed ICBMs today.’

Another factor that analysts should consider with development of the DF-41 in China’s ICBM force is that the DF-31A (pictured above) emerged after US deployment of the UGM-96 Trident I submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in the 1980s, Kristensen said. 

Then with the introduction of the UGM-133 Trident II SLBM in the 2000s, the Chinese silo-based ICBM force became even more vulnerable. The result was that China began to focus on increasing the survivability of its ICBMs with the improved DF-31AG (DF-31B) and the emerging DF-41, both mounted on TELs.

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