Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 7

As recently as the 1980s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) operated on military doctrines that evolved during World War II and military means preceding the war. The country’s political and economic evolution had far outstripped its military capacities, engendering a credibility gap in the overall national power quotient, which Beijing required in order to play the role it hoped to in the international forum. As a result, Beijing began to focus its energy on developing a modern national security complex. In military terms, Beijing “promote[d] [the] coordinated development of firepower, mobility and information capability, enhance[d] the development of its operational strength with priority given to the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Force, and strengthen[ed] its comprehensive deterrence and war-fighting capabilities.” [1]

This triggered a massive drive to modernize its conventional and strategic forces to levels comparable with the United States. While this military modernization program covered the entire spectrum (including equipment, structures and systems, doctrine and human resources), the gap in strategic competencies received special attention, so as to offset U.S. potential to interfere with China’s regional aspirations. According to an Independent Task Force report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, “China is developing limited power-projection capabilities to deal with a range of possible conflict scenarios along its periphery, especially in maritime areas. The PLA is acquiring military capabilities designed to defend Chinese sovereignty and territorial interests and, in particular, to pose a credible threat to Taiwan in order to influence Taiwan’s choices about its political future; …These capabilities are also intended to deter, delay, or complicate U.S. efforts to intervene on behalf of Taiwan.” [2]

The biggest threat to Beijing has always been the ability of the U.S. and others to prevent China from exercising its sovereign right over territories it claims as integral to the PRC. To offset this threat, China created a minimal nuclear arsenal that for three decades was seen as a sufficient deterrent to the U.S. and Russia. The effectiveness of this deterrence is perceived to have eroded dangerously, though, prompting the increased attention to China’s strategic forces in the hopes of restoring it.

Two major factors contribute to the growing concerns of the Chinese leadership. The first is U.S. initiatives to realign and reinforce its military presence in East Asia, especially through accelerated deployment of a missile defense system. Second, is the ongoing constitutional overhaul by Japan; Tokyo is seen as “adjusting its military and security policies and developing the missile defense system for future deployment.” [3] Nor have rumblings from certain quarters of the Japanese strategic community and political leadership about Japan’s national defense and nuclear policies gone unnoticed.

Western intelligence sources have long known of Beijing’s worry over the diminishing credibility of its strategic deterrent vis-à-vis the United States. It is also known that the China Aerospace Corporation, the research institute of the Second Artillery Corps, was in the process of modernizing the missile component of the Strategic Forces to reduce this gap. Chinese advances in this area included a new generation of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), the Dong Feng 31 (DF-31) and Dong Feng 41 (DF-41), to augment and eventually replace the earlier generation CSS-3 and CSS-4, which are the mainstay of the PRC missile fleet. A sea-based variant of the DF-31, the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile is concurrently being developed.

It is therefore significant that London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies states in its Annual Report of World Militaries that China has deployed eight DF-31 long-range missiles. As late as 1998, the assessment of the U.S. National Air Intelligence Center was that this missile had not been tested. However, according to a source in Washington, U.S. intelligence is quietly confirming that China has indeed deployed 12 DF-31 ICBMs. These new ICBMs are in addition to the 20-24 DF-5 liquid fuelled, silo based, five-megaton warhead missiles that were reportedly deployed at the turn of the century to cover targets on the American mainland – bringing the total to between 32 and 36.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that the Second Artillery Corps is expected to develop and equip roughly five rocket battalions fitted with the DF-31 – including all supporting structures and systems – by 2008. The first such unit, the 80304 battalion, has its headquarters at Luoyang, in Henan province. The fundamental change it gives to the prevailing deterrence equation threatens to seriously undermine the U.S. strategic advantage.

Development of this new missile started in 1978 and the first, though unsuccessful, flight tests are reported to have been conducted on April 29, 1992. The first successful test was conducted in 1995, and in October 1999 the DF-31 was paraded before the public on the 50th anniversary of the PRC. Later, in November and December 2000, two live fire tests were conducted to coincide with the visit of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Henry Shelton.

The DF-31 is a solid-fuel, three-stage mobile missile with a range of 8,000 kilometers, and a launch preparation time of 10-15 minutes. It is an effective strategic system that significantly increases the PRC’s nuclear strike capabilities. From the Chinese mainland, it could reach all major towns on the west coast of the U.S., and all U.S. military bases and forces operating in the Pacific and Indian oceans. The missile also targets all of Europe, as well as parts of Russia and India. Once the upgraded 12,000 kilometer-range DF-41 is deployed, the whole North American continent will fall under the shadow of the PRC’s deterrent forces.

The DF-31 is fitted with endoatmospheric decoys, which would acutely limit the efficacy of any ballistic missile defenses system put into place by Washington. [4] Furthermore, the mobile configuration and minimized launch time would considerably increase its survivability against a counterforce attack by the U.S. or any other power, while limitations of the road mobile system could be neutralized by deployment on rail.

The DF-31 payload ranges between 1.050-1.750 kilograms, and can be loaded with a single megaton-yield warhead or up to five multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV) with a selectable yield of 20, 90 or 150 kilotons. China is known to have obtained at least basic design information on several modern American nuclear reentry vehicles, including the Trident II, through clandestine means in the U.S. [5] China has demonstrated its competence to field MIRVed ICBMs by carrying out a flight test of the DF-31 dispensing three dummy warheads. Either of these configurations makes it a potent force against counter-value targets such as population centers, industrial complexes and ports.

Its inertial guidance, equipped with a stellar update system, gives it the desired accuracy parameters. Based on a reported accuracy of a 100-meters circular error of probability, some analysts have posited that the missile may be used in the counter-force role to destroy hardened silos that house the rival’s nuclear tipped missiles. China is, however, unlikely to pursue this option, as it would require a force level of thousands of missiles to effectively neutralize all silos – and even then without any guarantee. However, the DF-31 payload does give Beijing the scope of seriously degrading the electromagnetic spectrum, on which inimical missile launches are contingent, by well-placed electromagnetic pulse attacks aimed at degrading satellite and ground based systems of communication. Besides giving China a larger range of targets to engage, the MIRV capabilities also enhance survivability in a limited missile defense environment, thus increasing the degree of difficulty for development and deployment of these defenses.

Coupled with its sea-based variant, the new JL-2 (CSS-NX-4) submarine-launched ballistic missile with identical performance parameters as the DF-31, China is fast putting into place a strategic missile capability that will considerably diminish the existing missile gap and cause the U.S. to review its nuclear weapon strategy. Representative Randy Forbes, who recently led a ten-member delegation to China, said on his return: “They are busy buying and building the best weapons they can. Money seems to be no object.” Delegation member Jim Cooper said he was “much more worried” than before about China’s rapid acquisition of offensive weaponry. [6] Statements such as these could well signal that Washington would be initiating a response in the not too distant future – if it has not already done so.

This opens the Pandora’s Box of nuclear weapons dynamics. The U.S. Space Command could gain impetus to push space-based defensive and offensive strategic capabilities to the drawing board stage. Japan, which depends heavily on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and would be a partner in any theater missile defense project, may review its own national defense policy and the place for an indigenous nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, South Korea and Taiwan, who surrendered their advanced nuclear weapons programs in the 1980s at the behest of the U.S., may well view a diminishing China-US missile gap as a threat to the latter’s autonomous capacity to guarantee the traditionally accepted nuclear umbrella. In short, the ripple effect of a China-US missile race is bound to have serious repercussions not only in East Asia, but throughout the world.

Brigadier Vijai K Nair VSM (retired) is a defense analyst specializing in nuclear strategy formulation and author of two books, including “Nuclear India.”


1. White Paper: China’s National Defense in 2004. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China December 2004, Beijing.

2. Chinese Military Power. Report of an Independent Task Force Sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. Harold Brown, Chair, Joseph W. Prueher, Vice Chair Adam Segal, Project Director.

3. White Paper: China’s National Defense in 2004. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China December 2004, Beijing.

4. Chinese Defence Today. February 02, 2005.

5. House Report 105-851 – Report of The Select Committee on U.S. National Security And Military/Commercial Concerns With The People’s Republic of China Submitted By Mr. Cox of California, Chairman.

6. Defense News January 24. 2005.