China’s Ballistic Missile Update – 2004


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.

Modernization efforts


The DF-21 is a two-stage, solid-fuel, mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile carried in a canister on a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL). It can be armed with a single 200-300 kiloton-yield nuclear warhead, is reported to be 10.7m long and 1.4m in diameter, to weigh 14.7 tons, and to have a range of 1800 km with a payload of 600 kg. It is estimated that 48 DF-21s have been deployed. In 2002, according to a report in Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper, a DF-21 equipped with several MIRV-ed warheads was successfully test-launched, making it the first Chinese missile to be successfully armed with multiple warheads. The DF-21 is capable of reaching U.S. military bases in Asia, as well as targets in Russia, India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.


The DF-31 is a three-stage, solid-fuel, mobile missile that forms an essential part of China’s modernization effort. It has an estimated range of 8,000 km with a 700 kg payload, and is designed to carry a single 200-300 Kt nuclear warhead. The DF-31 was successfully flight-tested in August 1999, reportedly using a dummy warhead and several decoys. China conducted two more successful flight tests of the DF-31 during 2000. According to a report in the Washington Times, a 2002 test of the DF-31 re-entry vehicle was unsuccessful, ending in a mid-flight explosion. The DF-31 offers a number of operational advantages over older Chinese missiles such as the DF-4. Instead of being launched from a single location, the DF-31 can be transported on its TEL to one of many predetermined launch sites, providing greater survivability in the event of a first strike. Furthermore, liquid-fueled missiles such as the DF-4 require greater launch preparation time. The DF-31 may also be the first Chinese missile to be armed with a warhead based on the W-88 or W-70, U.S. warheads the designs for which were stolen from American weapons labs. Despite a number of successful flight tests, deployment of the DF-31 has not come as quickly as previously predicted. Currently, the system is expected to be deployed before the end of the decade. The JL-2 is the submarine-launched version of the DF-31.


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.

Outside assistance

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.

Threat outlook

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.