Chinese Missiles: Threat and Capability

China may be the only country in the world that targets U.S. cities with nuclear missiles. And it is the only country still conducting nuclear tests, in part to develop lighter missile warheads.

China’s missiles were conceived to target U.S. forces and allies but were later aimed at Soviet targets during the Cold War. “One has to regard China as a potential threat,” says a senior U.S. official. “We have no knowledge that they have detargeted us.” Former U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley concurs: “My sense is that we target them, and they target us.”

In 1956, Chairman Mao Zedong urged Chinese industry to start building atomic bombs and long-range missiles because, he said, “If we don’t want to be bullied, we must have these things.” The same year, China’s Ministry of Defense created its Fifth Academy to develop ballistic missiles. Within ten years, China had exploded its first atomic bomb and tested a nuclear-capable missile. Today, China is believed to have roughly 450 nuclear weapons, a modest arsenal compared to that of the United States and Russia, but larger than that of Great Britain.

Russia was China’s main missile tutor. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Nuclear Weapon Databook, Moscow sent scores of specialists in 1957 to help China build its main missile test center at Shuangchengzi. With them came Russian missiles, blueprints and know-how that enabled China to test its first nuclear missile, the Dong Feng-2, in 1964. China would build a series of DF missiles, each with a different target in mind.

The DF-2 was initially aimed at U.S. military bases in Japan, according to the Databook. A copy of the Soviet R-5 missile, it was turned against the Soviet Union when Sino-Soviet relations soured in the late 1960s.

The DF-3, tested in 1966 and destined to become China’s mainstay, more than doubled the DF-2’s range to 3,000 kilometers. The DF-3 engines are used in the DF-4 missile and to power China’s Long March-1 space launcher. It also earned China nearly $3 billion from sales to Saudi Arabia in 1988.

The DF-4 was designed to target U.S. forces in Guam, but it could strike Moscow and the Middle East. Its successor, the DF-5, brought China its first intercontinental-range missile in 1981, with the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead to any city in the United States, Europe or the former Soviet Union. China also has a submarine-launched ballistic missile that could reach targets in North America, and is working on a new one.

China is now “trying to make its capability world class,” says a U.S. official. It is building a new solid-fuel ICBM, the DF-41, and trying to reduce the weight of its nuclear warhead to extend the missile’s range. It is also trying to earn money with its space launch program. Because China uses the same rockets to power both its missiles and space launchers, the U.S. Commerce Department controls U.S. exports to both programs. To reach its goal, China is shopping for better technology, especially American goods. A Pentagon study ranking countries’ military potential says China has “limited capability” in several areas, including navigation and guidance, electronics, and composite materials.

A larger question is how China will use its growing capability. China already has massive conventional strength that intimidates its neighbors. But its generals view China’s “sovereignty” as extending to Taiwan and disputed territories such as the Spratly Islands, which China seized in February. “The Chinese are pursuing a policy of calculated ambiguity,” says one State Department official. “On the one hand they will assert themselves forcibly, but not in a decisive way, just to keep the pressure on.”

Defense planners say America will keep its defenses in East Asia, but it probably won’t be enough to outweigh China’s ambitions. If China’s military-owned companies continue to sell missile and chemical weapon technology to the Middle East, China will destabilize the region and undermine the international effort to stop proliferation. Such exports, combined with China’s budding missile capabilities, lead at least one senior U.S. official to conclude that “China is a country that we will have to reckon with in the long run.”