China's Ballistic Missile Update - 2004
The Risk Report
China continues to modernize its ballistic missile arsenal. Although
limited in number and capability when compared to their American counterparts,
China's ballistic missiles are being improved in a number of key ways,
making them a growing threat to the United States. The newly-developed
DF-31 is capable of targeting the west coast of the United States, while
its longer-range follow-on, the DF-31A, once deployed, may be able to
reach much of the continental United States. These missiles will be mobile
and require far less launch-preparation time than China's older missiles,
making these new weapons more likely to survive a preemptive strike.
Furthermore, advances in warhead design and multiple independently-targeted
reentry vehicle (MIRV) technology (including a successful test of a MIRVed
DF-21) appear intended to enable China to overcome U.S. missile defenses,
allowing it to maintain a credible deterrent. Information and technology
purchased from foreign companies and stolen from U.S. weapons labs has
contributed greatly to the success of China's modernization program.
The DF-31A is an extended-range version of the DF-31. It is estimated to have a range of around 12,000 kilometers; however, few details are known about the new system. It will likely replace the now-canceled DF-41 as the future mainstay of China's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal. The DF-31A is likely to supplement, rather than replace, the DF-5/DF-5A, China's existing ICBM. Like the DF-31, the DF-31A would provide mobility and a shorter launch preparation time. The DF-5 is stored in silos and elevated prior to launch, making it vulnerable to a preemptive strike.
China currently has approximately 20 DF-5 (CSS-4 Mod 1) ICBMs in service,
most of which are believed to be targeted at U.S. cities. This two-stage,
liquid-fueled missile has a range of over 13,000 kilometers, highest
among China's missiles. The DF-5 Mod 1 will reportedly be replaced by
a longer range version, the DF-5 Mod 2 (CSS-4 Mod 2), possibly by mid-decade.
China's ballistic missile program has received outside assistance from a variety of sources. A 1999 report by the United States House of Representatives Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China found that information supplied by several U.S. firms to China intended to improve the reliability of its space launch vehicles could also be used to improve China's ballistic missiles. A number of well-known U.S. defense and aerospace firms were convicted of transferring data and technology to China in violation of U.S. export control laws. In 2003, Hughes Electronics Corporation and Boeing Satellite Systems, for example, were forced to pay $32 million in penalties for 123 such violations during the 1990s, while Loral Space and Communications Corporation and Lockheed Martin Corporation received fines of $20 million and $13 million, respectively. In June 2000, Lockheed Martin was also fined for supplying China kick motor technology in 1994 that could help position satellites in orbit.
China's efforts to deploy MIRVed warheads on several of its missile systems may also have been assisted by information received from U.S. firms in the 1990s. Hughes, for example, helped China improve the fairing of its Long March 2E rocket. This technology could potentially be used with MIRVed warheads, as well as with submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Hughes also provided China with diagnostic and failure analysis techniques that could help it solve other problems in its missile programs. Such transfers have become all the more troubling since the revelation that China may have developed miniaturized warheads based on designs stolen from U.S. weapons labs, making the MIRV-ing of even mobile missiles– such as the DF-31– a distinct possibility.
The transfer of sensitive technology to China is also conducted by
individuals– often Chinese nationals– living and working
in the United States, as well as US-based companies with ties to the
Chinese military. In 1998, Means Come Enterprises, a Florida company
run by two Chinese nationals, was investigated for exporting to China
several thousand radiation-protected computer chips, devices that can
be used in ballistic missiles and other weapon systems. In 2004, three
Chinese citizens– John Chu, Sunny Bai, and Zhu Zhaoxin– were
indicted for attempting to export to China GyroChips (angular rate sensors)
and military-grade power converters, both items with applications in
missile systems. While it is difficult to gauge the impact that these
comparatively minor transfers might have on China's overall missile program,
it is reasonable to assume that they, like the larger transfers, have
the effect of reducing the amount of time and resources China is required
to devote to research and development of its own.
China's ballistic missile arsenal presents a limited, but increasing, threat to the United States. China's missiles can target both cities on the American mainland and U.S. military bases in Asia. China's ICBM arsenal has always been small when compared to those of the United States and Russia, a reflection of China's belief that a minimal nuclear deterrent is sufficient. China's ongoing modernization of its missiles will result in both qualitative and quantitative improvements. The increased mobility and brief launch preparation times of the DF-31 and DF-31A will boost the PLA's confidence in its ability to survive and respond to a first strike.
Whether China's long-range missiles increase in number will depend on whether China chooses to continue to deploy its more outdated systems alongside its modern missiles. This decision will likely be influenced by the United States' development and deployment of a national missile defense system, which, if effective, could put the credibility of China's nuclear deterrent into question. Concerns over missile defenses were probably also a motivating factor behind China's efforts to develop multiple warheads for some of its missiles and to test decoys and other penetration aids on other missile systems. These efforts have been spurred by China's recent advances in nuclear warhead design, which may have benefitted greatly from leaked information on U.S. warheads. A series of nuclear tests conducted from 1992 to 1996 showed that China was capable of building small, light warheads that could be MIRVed or deployed on mobile missiles. As a result, the number of warheads capable of hitting the United States may be increasing more rapidly than the rate at which new missiles are being deployed.
China's ballistic missile modernization must also be viewed within the context of Beijing's long-term objective of taking possession of Taiwan, through force if necessary. While China's nuclear force has historically been intended to deter an attack on or invasion of the mainland, recently deployed missile systems and others still under development appear designed to both intimidate Taiwan and deter the United States from taking military action if a conflict arises across the Strait. China has devoted extensive resources towards producing short-range ballistic missiles such as the DF-11 (M-11) and DF-15 (M-9). China currently has approximately 450 of these short-range missiles, most– if not all– of which are based in the Nanjing Military Region facing Taiwan. China has used test-firings of these missiles to try to intimidate Taiwan and influence the island's politics, most notably during the run-up to Taiwan's 1996 presidential election. China's newer missiles are also intended to pose a threat to U.S. military forces stationed in the region, in order to convince Washington that any U.S. intervention over Taiwan would be costly.