China’s Ballistic Missiles Update – 1999

China’s ballistic missiles pose a limited, but growing threat to the United States. Although in June 1998 Chinese President Jiang Zemin said that he and President Clinton agreed “we will not target each other with the strategic nuclear arms under our control,” Robert Walpole, the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for Strategic and Nuclear Programs, said in September 1998 that China has about 20 CSS-4 (DF-5) intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), most of which “are targeted against the United States.” According to Walpole, China’s “modernization efforts will likely increase the number of Chinese warheads aimed at the United States.” These efforts include the new 8,000 km range road-mobile Dong Feng-31 (DF-31), which will be able to reach western parts of the United States, and the 12,000 km range DF-41, which could reach any part of the United States. China will also be able to target the United States with its forthcoming submarine launched ballistic missile, the Julang-2.

Estimates place China’s total nuclear arsenal at about 400 warheads, of which about 250 are on land-based ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and about 150 are tactical nuclear weapons of various sorts. Estimates of the numbers of specific missiles deployed vary widely.

Historical development

China’s missile program began in 1956, when Chairman Mao Zedong urged Chinese industry to start building nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Within a decade, China had tested both an atomic bomb and a nuclear-capable missile, the Dong Feng-2. The latter benefitted greatly from Russian tutelage and technology. China would proceed to build a series of DF missiles, each of greater range than the last.

Since 1981, the mainstay of China’s long-range ballistic missile force has been the DF-5, which brought China intercontinental range. China has about twenty of these missiles, most of which are targeted at the United States. According to a Pentagon study, China had more than 100 nuclear warheads deployed on operational ballistic missiles by 1997. (For further information on the historical development of China’s missile forces, see “Chinese Missiles: Threat and Capability,” Risk Report, vol. 1, no. 4, May 1995.)

The Chinese are now modernizing their ballistic missile forces. This modernization consists in part of an increase in numbers, but also includes a move to more mobile, solid-fuel missiles. In addition, China appears to be interested in deploying multiple re-entry vehicles (MRVs) or multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) on ballistic missiles.

The importance of mobile, solid-fuel missiles is that they reduce the period required before launching a missile and make basing less vulnerable, both of which enhance survivability. Mobility also adds a dimension of strategic surprise, since missiles may be launched from more than one area. According to one report, China is currently upgrading its medium-range missile forces with improved mobile systems designed to hit targets in Russia, India, Taiwan and Japan. In addition, all of China’s newest and future ICBMs – the DF-21, DF-31, and DF-41 – are or will be mobile. There are reports that China is trying to deploy MIRVs on the DF-31 and the DF-41. MIRV capability would enable the Chinese to increase the threat from their ballistic missiles by delivering more than one nuclear warhead on each. Because China has far fewer missiles than either Russia or the United States, MIRV capability would maximize China’s strategic deterrent. MIRVs would also help defeat any potential missile defenses that the United States or its allies may develop and deploy, leaving the Chinese with more strategic freedom of manoeuver.

China’s modernization efforts

China’s missile modernization effort comprises three major missiles: the DF-21, DF-31, and DF-41. (For details on China’s other missiles, see “Chinese Missiles: Threat and Capability,” Risk Report, vol. 1, no. 4, May 1995.)


The DF-21, a land-based version of the submarine-launched JL-1, is a two-stage solid-fuel, mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile. With a range of 1800 km and a payload of 600 kg, the DF-21 has a diameter of 1.4m, weight of 14.7 tons, and length of 10.7m. It carries a single nuclear warhead with a yield of 200-300 kilotons. The missile underwent its first test flight in May 1985 and has subsequently been deployed. Estimates of the number of DF-21 missiles deployed vary.


In 1978, China began the development of another road-mobile, solid-fuel ballistic missile, the DF-23, which was renamed the DF-31 in January 1985. The DF-31 reportedly will be a three-stage solid-propellant ICBM, with an 8000 km range carrying a 700 kg payload. The mobile DF-31 would be based underground and before firing, the transporter-erector-launcher would move the missile to a preselected launch site. Its nuclear warhead is estimated to have a yield between 250 and 500 kilotons. According to a report in the Washington Times, quoting a classified report by the National Air Intelligence Agency, the DF-31 will carry at least one nuclear warhead and penetration aids, such as decoys or chaff. It will be able to hit targets along the entire western coast of the United States and in several northern Rocky Mountain states. It is estimated that the DF-31 may enter service by the turn of the century, and that 10-20 may be deployed. China is reported to have tested a solid-fuel rocket motor for the DF-31 on July 1, 1998, at the Wuzhai Space and Missile Test Center. The test occurred during President Clinton’s visit to China. In late 1998, U.S. satellites reportedly detected Chinese plans to conduct an “ejection test” at the Wuzhai Space and Missile Test Center, in which a missile is ejected outside its launch canister shortly before the engines ignite. When this article went to press, this test had yet to take place.


China is also developing the DF-41, which will be a road-mobile, three-stage missile. This solid fuel ICBM will have a 12,000 km range, with a reported payload of 500-700 kg. The DF-41 may also have multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles. It is scheduled to replace the DF-5 in the first decade of the 21st century. This missile will be capable of reaching most of the United States.

In addition to these three land-based missiles, China has been expending great effort to develop a longer-range follow-on to its current submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-1. This new missile will be called the JL-2. (For a discussion of the JL-1 and JL-2, please refer to “China’s Submarine Forces,” Risk Report, vol. 5, no. 2, March-April 1999.)

Help from outside

China’s missile program has long benefitted from the acquisition of foreign technology and know-how. One important source of that help has been the United States. A select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired by Representative Christopher Cox, recently issued a 700-page classified report which concluded that China has obtained sensitive American military technology over the past 20 years. One of the main issues before the Committee was whether US missile technology was transferred to China as part of the satellite launch contracts of Hughes Electronics and Loral Space and Communications.

An investigation of Hughes by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency and National Air Intelligence Center determined that the company directly aided China’s rocket program when it collaborated with Chinese engineers to assess the causes of the 1995 failed launch of the Apstar II satellite. This help included the provision of specific details on modifying the fairing design and launch operations of Chinese rockets to improve their performance. It also included insight into US diagnostic techniques that would allow Beijing’s engineers to detect flaws in launch vehicles, whether they were used to launch satellites or missiles. This insight was sufficient to help the Chinese to perform more accurate Coupled Loads Analysis and to improve the Chinese Finite Elements Model.

Outside help may also contribute to the Chinese capability to develop MIRV technology. It has been reported that several Chinese engineers were arrested for trying to steal SS-18 blueprints from the Yuzhnoye missile plant in Ukraine in the summer of 1996. The two-stage SS-18 can deliver up to 10 reentry vehicles, so acquisition of SS-18 technology could help China resolve its remaining hurdles to achieving MIRV capability.

The United States may also be helping China in its attempt to develop MIRV capability. According to the Washington Times, in an article citing a secret report by the Air Force National Intelligence Center, China’s new rocket stage developed for a Motorola Iridium satellite created a “technology bridge” that could help China deploy multiple warheads on missiles. The new Chinese rocket booster, called a “smart dispenser” was built in 1996 for the Long March 2C/SD rocket. The dispenser has its own solid and liquid fuel propulsion, avionics and guidance package, and communications that could provide China with maneuvering capabilities “not previously available with past Chinese space launch vehicles.” The Air Force report noted that with a few minor modifications, the dispenser could “easily become a credible post-boost vehicle.” Air Force intelligence analysts estimated the dispenser could be used on CSS-4 (DF-5) ICBMs or on the new DF-41 missile.

Threat outlook

China’s ballistic missile program poses a growing threat to the United States and its security interests. China targets the United States with its long-range missiles and targets US forces and allies in the Asia Pacific region with its medium- and short-range missiles. Although this threat currently is a limited one, it is growing.

A larger issue is the likely uses to which China’s capability will be put. One clear rationale for the modernization of China’s ballistic missile forces is to provide a better strategic deterrent against a global foe, in particular the United States. The Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Patrick Hughes, stated in 1999 that “China will modernize and expand its relatively small and dated strategic deterrent force, and the number of Chinese warheads capable of hitting the United States will increase.” Although Chinese President Jiang Zemin said in June 1998 that China would no longer target the United States with strategic missiles, CIA officials have cast doubt on whether this pledge has been fulfilled.

A second objective for China is to protect its interests with respect to Taiwan. During a 1995-1996 winter visit to China by former Pentagon official Charles Freeman, a Chinese official asserted that the United States would not challenge China militarily over Taiwan because American leaders “care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan.” In other words, China’s strategic deterrent would give it the ability to act against Taiwan without fearing reprisals from the United States. It is important to note that the Chinese government’s July 1998 paper on National Defense does not rule out the use of force to reunify mainland China and Taiwan. When discussing Taiwan before Congress in February 1999, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet noted that China “refuses to renounce the use of force as an option and continues to place its best new military equipment opposite the island.” And according to one report, China conducted military exercises in late November through early December 1998 that included simulated missile firings against Taiwan and, for the first time, also included mock attacks against US troops in the region. Road-mobile CSS-5s (DF-21) and silo-housed CSS-2s (DF-3A) were included in the exercises, though the missiles were not actually fired. The exercises appear to be a sign that China is willing to go to war with the United States over Taiwan.

In the past few years, China has been vastly increasing its deployments of its DF-11 (M-11) and DF-15 (M-9) missiles in its southern regions facing Taiwan. The Chinese military has reportedly stationed 150-200 M-9 and M-11 missiles in these regions and is planning to increase this number to 650 missiles over the next few years. By comparison, China had only 30-50 such missiles stationed in these regions in 1995-1996 when it launched missile “tests” into the waters off Taiwan. The new deployments show China’s intent to use such missiles in a regional conflict.