China Speeds ICBM Plans
To Debut Missiles With Longer Reach in 2007
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
China plans to deploy by year’s end the first of 60 Dong Feng 31-series intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which will be the first Chinese nuclear-tipped weapons that can target all of Europe or the entire continental United States.
This new capability raises a question among China-watchers: Will Beijing change its stated policy to use nuclear weapons only in retaliation for an atomic strike?
Due to begin deployment this year is the standard Dong Feng-31, or CSS-9, whose limited range of 4,500 miles allows it to reach Alaska or Hawaii. But the more advanced and road-mobile Dong Feng-31A, due to begin deployment in 2007, will have a range of 7,000 miles, making it the first Chinese ICBM that could hit Washington, D.C., Paris or Madrid.
Also in development is the Julang-2 (JL-2), a submarine-launched version of the DF-31 that would be deployed in 2007-10. Beijing plans to build five to seven Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered subs, each of which will carry up to 16 JL-2s.
Experts say the DF-31A family represents a quantum leap in Chinese ICBM capability. The missiles will replace 20 two-stage liquid-fueled Dong Feng-5, or CSS-4, rockets that entered service some 25 years ago. The silo-based DF-5s, with a range of 5,200 miles, can hit most of Europe and Australia, and the western United States. Moreover, their fixed locations makes them vulnerable to a pre-emptive U.S. strike.
“Moving to a mobile system like the DF-31 makes an already deadly missile threat harder to target and overwhelm,” said Larry Wortzel, the chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “China’s retaliatory force is more resilient with the DF-31 in the inventory.”
Wortzel said the new weapons arrive as a debate kindles in China among a few civilian scholars and PLA nuclear weapons experts about whether to continue the avowed no-first-use doctrine.
Wortzel said the Bush administration’s doctrine of pre-emptive strikes on perceived threats “has seriously shaken” China’s confidence in its deterrent capability and “energized the intra-PLA debate on doctrine.”
He said that while he still believed the Chinese missile units were a strategic retaliatory force, “the ‘no-first-use policy’ could shift, however, if that retaliatory capability was threatened with conventional strikes.”
A former Taiwan deputy defense minister predicted the new missile would change Chinese foreign policy and U.S. decision-making.
“China’s heightened nuclear status, as perceived by the world, will serve as the backbone of what Beijing has announced to be its ‘independent foreign policy’: increasingly assertive in an emerging, multipolar world,” said Chong-pin Lin, who now serves as president of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies here. Moreover, “the DF-31A will throw a monkey wrench into Washington’s decision-making process when there is a crisis in the Pacific.”
Clarity to Ambiguity
Officially, Beijing’s “no first use” policy remains unchanged, but Andrei Chang, founder and editor of the Kanwa Defense Review, believes that China’s nuclear strategy has shifted from “clarity to ambiguity.”
“After 1996, China has a number of times attempted to impose nuclear deterrence against the U.S. and Taiwan, both strategically and tactically,” Chang said.
For example, senior PLA officials have said that the United States would never trade Taiwan for Los Angeles, leaving the impression that China’s policy may still be evolving.
In July 2005, Maj. Gen. Zhu Chengdu of the PLA’s National Defense University told the press that “if the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition” on China, “I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.”
China quickly disavowed Zhu’s remarks, but the statement reveals a different view in the PLA officer corps.
“Because of the vulnerability of their main retaliatory forces, including the threat of their destruction by conventional cruise missiles and air-delivered, precision-guided munitions, PLA generals have long debated the validity of the no-first-use doctrine,” said John Lewis, a China expert with the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation. “Nevertheless, the debate continues as the CMC watches the parallel debates in the U.S. about preemption, new missiles and warheads, and new doctrines that could affect China.”
Still, Lewis sees statements like Zhu’s as little more than hyperbole.
“I would pay little attention to the random statements; the key is to pay attention to the mainstream policies, plans and statements,” he said.
Wade Boese, research director of the Arms Control Association and a contributor to Arms Control Today magazine, agreed.
“Notwithstanding General Zhu’s comments from last year, there is no evidence to suggest that China is considering revoking its ‘no first use’ policy,” Boese said. “If the United States were that concerned about China’s ‘no first use’ policy, the United States itself should adopt a ‘no first use’ policy to lessen the pressure that China might feel to pull the trigger first, considering the lopsided size of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals.”
The United States has thousands of nuclear-missile warheads mounted atop 500 silo-based Minuteman III ICBMs and aboard 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
“Originally, the PLA planned for the DF-31A/JL-2 to deliver the same payload as the DF-21/JL-1: a 600-kilogram payload or 400-kiloton yield,” enough to cause catastrophic damage to a city, said Lewis, who along with Stanford’s Xue Litai, co-authored the upcoming book, “Imagined Enemies: China Prepares for Uncertain War.”
“The weaponeers worked hard on both a much higher yield-to-weight ratio and much better miniaturization but with only marginal success.” It is unclear what the ratio now is, but sources said it is equal to or more powerful than a 400-kiloton yield. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki had a yield of only 21 kilotons.
Some analysts worry that Beijing lacks the political maturity to keep a security crisis with either Japan or the United States from escalating. They point to the 2001 Sino-American crisis over the forced landing of a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane on Hainan Island.
U.S. officials contend a Chinese fighter collided with the American spy plane over international waters, while Beijing claims the EP-3 was overflying its territory. The crew was detained and the plane stripped to bare metal before being returned to the United States.
After the EP-3 incident, “PRC analysts and officials said they studied how to improve crisis management, but I’m not sure that the system has really improved, especially since the new Communist leader, Hu Jintao’s, power over the country is not yet fully consolidated,” said Shirley Kan, a PLA specialist at the Congressional Research Service.
“So, yes, I am very concerned about how the PRC would handle the next crisis, particularly involving Japan — rather than Taiwan — in terms of misperceptions, miscalculations and hypernationalism.”
Taiwanese analysts worry that China’s growing missile and nuclear weapons program will result in an unexpected conflict.
“The DF-31 is a new PLA toy to be used against the U.S. This new rocket is a major pillar for China’s deterrence strategy. Another is the Type 094 nuclear submarine,” said Su Tzu-yun, Taipei-based military specialist on China and a former researcher and adviser to Taiwan’s National Security Council.
“These two will work to influence decision-making within the White House. With these new tools, the PLA is like a teenager eager to show off and potentially drag China into a military misadventure with the U.S.”