China Adds an ICBM Brigade
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI – China is boosting its ICBM capabilities, while Washington is reassuring Chinese officials that its ballistic missile defense systems are not deployed against them.
China has added a new road-mobile brigade whose Dong Feng 31A (DF-31A) missiles can reach any location in the continental United States, according to a paper released on Sept. 12 by the Project 2049 Institute.
Authors Mark Stokes and L.C. Russell Hsiao said the 805 Brigade, located in Shaoyang City, Hunan, is the second brigade in the Second Artillery Corps (SAC) to get the 11,200-kilometer DF-31A.
The first was the 812 Brigade in Tianshui, Gansu Province, which achieved initial operational capability in 2001.
In 2006, SAC’s 813 Brigade in Nanyang, Henan Province, received the basic DF-31, whose 7,200-kilometer range allows them to hit all of Asia, Russia and the western half of the Pacific, including Alaska and Guam.
SAC, which is responsible for China’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, has been slowly replacing older liquid-fueled silo-based DF-4s with solid-fueled road-mobile DF-31s. China now has around 30 DF-31s and DF-31As.
The paper arrives a week after Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, told a BMD conference in Copenhagen “that our missile defenses are not designed to threaten Chinese strategic forces.”
The U.S. is struggling to balance China’s concerns about U.S. BMD efforts in the region with protecting Japan and South Korea from North Korea’s growing ballistic and nuclear weapons arsenal.
“It is important, however, that China understand that the United States will work to ensure regional stability,” Rose said Sept. 5. “We are committed to a positive, cooperative relationship with China, while defending against regional ballistic missile threats regardless of their origins.”
A U.S. observer concurred that the Pentagon’s ballistic missile defense system is not officially directed against China, but said a system that can intercept a few North Korean or Iranian ballistic missiles obviously also has the potential to intercept a few Chinese ballistic missiles.
“The global scope of the Phased Adaptive Approach outlined by the Obama administration with mobile ICBM interceptors to be deployed in the future will almost certainly deepen Chinese concerns about the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent,” said Hans Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists.
Kristensen said the fact that China still has relatively few DF-31As appears to confirm, at least at present, that Beijing still adheres to a “minimum nuclear deterrent posture toward the United States.” But another analyst said the U.S. and Chinese efforts could evolve into a “slow-motion arms race as their strategic forces become increasingly entangled with each other.”
“The big question is whether all these new systems — road-mobile ballistic missiles, missile defenses and so on — will be crisis-stable,” said Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
What would happen if China decided to field the DF-31A as a signal during a crisis? How would the U.S. interpret the move? As a prelude to an attack? A bluff? “Given past U.S. and Chinese crisis management, I have no desire to see the results of that particular science experiment,” Lewis said.
China has showed little interest in participating in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) or joining the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and has a history of using ballistic missiles. During the 1996 missile crisis, China fired 10 DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles off the coast of Taiwan. The number of SRBMs aimed at Taiwan has mushroomed from 300 to 1,400 in the last decade.
China is fielding a new anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, which is said to be able to sink or disable a U.S. aircraft carrier. Chinese spies have been accused of stealing U.S. designs for the W-88 thermonuclear warhead.
At present, each DF-31A missile can carry only one nuclear warhead, limiting its effectiveness, but China has been researching multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) technology. The development of a Chinese MIRV would be a “real game changer” for the U.S., said Gary Li, an intelligence analyst with U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis.
However, Kristensen said, MIRV capabilities are so far “unnecessary for China’s minimum nuclear deterrent posture — and would significantly shorten the range of Chinese ICBMs — unless the United States or Russia deploy anti-ballistic missile defense systems that have a capability to intercept warheads from the Chinese ICBM force.”
Without a BMD system, Li said, the U.S. must rely on air strikes to take out China’s ICBMs, but the fact that the DF-31 and DF-31A are roadmobile and not silo-based makes a pre-emptive airstrike dubious.
“Immense efforts have also been focused on improving the robustness of the Second Artillery’s C4ISR capabilities in order for it to be able to fire even when conventional communications are down after a nuclear strike,” Li said.