New Chinese Missiles at Delingha?
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
Why is China improving its ballistic missile facility at central-north Delingha, and how important is the move?
Satellite photos displayed by Google Earth appear to indicate that launch pads for older Dong Feng-4 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are undergoing upgrades to fit them for new 10-meter DF-21 medium-range missiles, according to a July 12 report by the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists.
This means the DF-21s “would be able to hold at risk all of northern India, including New Delhi,” project director Hans Kristensen said. “Moreover, and this is perhaps the most interesting implication of the discovery, DF-21s would be within range of three main Russian ICBM fields on the other side of Mongolia: the SS-25 fields near Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, the SS-18 field near Uzhur and a Backfire bomber base in Belaya.”
But Kristensen said that any Delingha-based DF-21s would not likely be meant as a counterforce against Russian silos, “which are both too many and too hard.”
U.S. and Russian analysts agree.
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va., argues the DF-21 is more likely aimed at population centers such as New Delhi, not semi-hardened targets such as Backfire bomber sites.
“The uncertainty of being able to disarm Russia or India in a surprise attack would tend to drive Chinese military planners toward targeting population centers and economic assets, since the inability to protect those targets will make potential adversaries avoid provocative actions,” he said.
Vassily Kashin, research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Moscow, agreed.
“China simply cannot afford that because they would need more missiles for that,” he said. “It’s likely that DF-21’s main targets are Indian cities and secondary targets are the administrative cities of the Russian southern Siberia and U.S. bases in Afghanistan.”
Baker Spring, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said China’s overall strategic nuclear and missile strategy is counterforce, but the DF-21 may be too inaccurate and China unable to precisely locate targets for it.
Thomas Kane, author of “Chinese Grand Strategy and Maritime Power,” points to weak and strong points raised in the report.
“Kristensen himself notes that China may not actually have relocated the missiles at all,” he said. “Even if it has, we can only guess about China’s reasons for doing so. I agree that India is the most likely target. Nobody needs to be surprised that China wants to increase its strategic options against India. Given the fact that, as far as I know, Sino-Russian relations continue to thrive, I doubt that the Chinese view Russia’s bases as a likely target.”
Kane said China may simply be interested in adding options in Central Asia.
John Lewis of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, downplayed the importance of the deployment of the DF-21.
“I don’t think that the deployment of DF-21 missiles will produce considerable policy implications for Russia and India,” he said. “India has developed land- and air-based missiles more powerful than DF-21 to include Beijing and Shanghai as their targets, and Russia’s deterrent is far more powerful than India’s. As you undoubtedly know, China says it is no longer actively targeting either Russia or India, which, given the state of relations, rings true.”
Missile Debate: DF-21, 25 or 31?
Kristensen believes the photos show a dozen of the DF-21’s 13-meter, six-axle transport erector launchers (TEL), which would put about one-third of China’s estimated inventory of DF-21 launchers at Delingha. But others say the missile is a DF-31 ICBM.
“I’m not a satellite photo analyst,” Kashin said. “However, I should note that the DF-21 TEL vehicle looks very much like the TEL vehicle of the DF-31 solid-fuel mobile ICBM with effective range of about 8,000 kilometers. The DF-31 TEL vehicle is some three meters longer, but can we be sure that Mr. Kristensen’s measurement of the length is accurate? Besides, if we are talking about a former DF-4 base, it should be noted that DF-31 and not DF-21 is the replacement to the liquid-fueled DF-4.”
Much remains unknown, Kashin said. “For example, just last week photos of a completely new Chinese ballistic missile on a new TEL vehicle emerged on the Internet, and it’s still unclear what it is.”
Kashin said the mystery missile might also be the DF-25, whose 10-year development was thought to have been discontinued in 1996, but whose picture may have been recently displayed on the Sinodefense Web site.
“The DF-25 is a possible improved version of DF-21; rumors about it emerged in the mid-’90s, but there is no reliable confirmation so far,” Kashin said. “There were also rumors that the program was abandoned. This could be a DF-25, or a new DF-15 version with improved range/accuracy, or the photos are just another Chinese fake. Sometimes they are obviously leaking photos of their new equipment to the Internet with some purpose.”
Kane said the Chinese are enjoying Western debate over its strategic missile capability.
“As for the missiles, I half suspect that someone in the 2nd Artillery is laughing at all the different ways Westerners are finding to interpret the situation,” he said.