Building a Credible Arsenal: China’s Improved ICBMs

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 21

China's DF-5B ICBM on display during the WWII Victory Day parade (Source: CCTV)

On September 3, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) displayed DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the end of the strategic weapons portion of the Victory Day parade (Global Times Online, September 3). This was the first time the DF-5 missiles have appeared in a public parade since 1984 and were the only liquid-propellant missiles on display, as well as the only non-mobile/silo-based system at the parade. While various reports differ on its exact range, the common agreement is that it the DF-5 series of missiles is capable of hitting most, if not all, of the strategic targets inside continental United States.

The Chinese Dong Feng-5 (DF, East Wind, 东风) family of missiles is undergoing significant modernization, mainly involving an upgrade to an operational Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) system. [1] These missiles are several decades old, have low survivability against Russian and US nuclear weapons, and are few in number, with only approximately 20 in service. Even after upgrading, however, they will still be non-survivable and few in number. This raises the question of why these missiles are being modernized when the missiles could instead be deactivated and the money put toward increasing the number of more survivable DF-31 or DF-41 families.

The DF-5B upgrade (CSS-4 Mod 3) likely acts as a stopgap or diversifying element of China’s arsenal, contributing to its strategic nuclear deterrent. Adding a credible MIRV component to a nuclear arsenal typically multiplies the perceived threat emanating from even a small arsenal, adding to its deterrent value. Modern ballistic missile defense systems have no proven and operational means of targeting missiles in boost phase, they only can intercept reentry vehicles (RVs) in midcourse and terminal phases, and even these intercepts have severe limitations. A MIRV upgrade therefore means that the number of targets in both of these phases is multiplied, turning the DF-5 arsenal of less than 20 launchers into an arsenal with an unknown amount of reentry vehicles.

If the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) does not plan on expanding DF-5 numbers, MIRVs are a necessary upgrade to keep the Second Artillery Force’s deterrent mission relevant and credible. The Second Artillery Force ICBM arsenal is already lean, but the MIRV upgrade helps achieve the “lean and effective” (精悍有效) status advertised by PRC leadership. China’s ICBM force is still fairly small (60 at most, by published U.S. Department of Defense estimates) and may be forced to rely on some older systems for maintaining a credible deterrent while also diversifying its delivery options. [3] Additionally, the PLA Navy has not yet started active nuclear deterrent patrols with its ballistic missile submarines. Without ballistic missile submarine patrols and with an underdeveloped bomber-delivered nuclear capacity, the PRC is relying exclusively on land-based missiles and must find a way to increase the credibility of its land-based delivery systems. MIRVs help to increase the threat and deterrent strength of the PRC’s non-diversified nuclear arsenal.

In short, the new DF-5 variant can actually be relevant as a modern nuclear deterrent if it is upgraded with MIRVs. In the event of a nuclear exchange, 20 launch systems with 20 reentry vehicles are threatening, but some of these launch systems are likely to have been destroyed, leaving a partial DF-5 force behind for a ragged second-strike. This assumes that the DF-5 systems are only launched as a nuclear counterattack, as outlined in the PRC’s “No First Use” nuclear policy, as discussed below. However, if each launch system has multiple warheads, every DF-5 launch is significantly more effective. Especially if ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities increase in the future, ragged second-strike capabilities could be intercepted by national-level ballistic missile defenses. However MIRVs have a much greater chance of penetrating defenses, even if a first strike eliminates a portion of the already small fleet.

This article will focus on the strategic deterrent aspects of this decision, though there are also significant technical issues that should be kept in mind. They include the possibility of the Chinese missile industry needing to continually experiment with MIRV technology to make it viable for other platforms or some unknown budgetary decision to intentionally limit DF-31 and -41 production runs.

The State of China’s ICBMs

The DF-5B is a relatively new variant of the old DF-5 missile. The DF-5 reached initial operating capability (IOC) sometime in the 1980s, and there have only ever been a few DF-5s of any type active. According to U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) reports, there were only around 20 DF-5 missiles active as of 2010. [2]

An unknown portion of DF-5 missiles are DF-5Bs, though the modernization of DF-5 associated facilities in southwestern Hunan province, visible on open-source satellite imagery, may provide a hint of which brigades received the DF-5B upgrade. However, this is still unverified and requires further analysis.

Subsequent DoD reports have not listed the specific number of DF-5 missiles of any type. After 2010, PRC ICBMs have been bundled together in DoD reports and the reported number for 2015, between 50–60 ICBMs, includes the DF-5A, DF-5B, DF-4, DF-31, DF-31A, and the new DF-41. The introduction of the DF-41 platform and the general lack of reports of any additional DF-5 production or silo construction in the PRC indicates that there are likely only 20 active DF-5 missiles at this time. For comparison, the U.S. has roughly 450 silo-based nuclear ICBMs and the Russian Federation has approximately 300 mobile and silo-based nuclear ICBMs, in addition to ballistic missile-capable submarines (SSBNs) and strategic bomber forces.

Two notable features of Chinese ICBMs is the number of mobile missile launchers and the lack of operational submarine-launched missiles. The mobile missiles contribute significantly to the survivability of the arsenal and the PRC’s second-strike capability. While China has built the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the PLA Navy is not currently reported to perform deterrent patrols, meaning that the typical “last resort” option maintained by Russia and the U.S. is absent from the PRC arsenal.

DF-5 Survivability

The silo-based DF-5 family, unlike the mobile DF-31 or DF-41 ICBM families, is not a survivable missile family. While the DF-31s and -41s can move, making targeting difficult, DF-5 positions are static and easily trackable. And where Russian and U.S. systems are many in number, making it difficult to ever completely destroy either arsenal, the PRC’s systems are relatively few in number, with upwards of 20 DF-5 systems in total. In a nuclear exchange, this means there would be a higher chance of eliminating a significant number of DF-5 systems before they left their silos.

These launchers, pre-upgrade, only contribute minimally to China’s second strike capability. The basing configuration of the DF-5 attempts to leverage mountainous geography to overcome its numerical shortcomings, but ultimately the DF-5s are susceptible to preemptive and first strikes and thus do not contribute highly to the PRC’s second strike capability. However, with the MIRV upgrade, even semi-survivable missiles can become very threatening, as even a small number of missiles can cause incredible damage.

The basing configuration of the DF-5 leverages mountainous geography to increase survivability, though this survivability has likely dropped with the rise of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) and the modernization of missile guidance systems. DF-5s are based on hill or mountain sides, with a few possibly in valleys. [4] When missile guidance was less developed, these hills and mountains provided cover for the silos and increased the likelihood of incoming reentry vehicles (RV) missing their targets, especially in the case of ICBMs fired from the United States. [5] An RV detonating in or above the next valley over would be partially mitigated by mountainous geography and the strength of the earth, especially with the addition of a hardened silo. For airbursts, this meant that the overpressure would be dispersed partially by the surrounding rough terrain.

At a minimum, the slightly increased survivability may, depending on the exact accuracy and predicted fail rate of U.S. and Russian nuclear systems, force U.S. and Russian planners to keep multiple RVs dedicated to the DF-5 forces. However the MIRV upgrade means that additional targeting is necessary. While DF-5 RVs could be caught by a possible future ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, DF-5B RVs would likely be too numerous for any near-future BMD systems.

For calculations of strategic balance and nuclear deterrence, this means two things. Aggressive opponents would be incentivized to target DF-5Bs for preemptive strike, as every DF-5B that leaves the silo means a significantly larger number of RVs to defend against. Less aggressive opponents would potentially be deterred, as a DF-5B barrage is unrealistic to defend against and nuclear preemption is unprecedented.

The MIRV upgrade revitalizes the DF-5 family and keeps it strategically relevant. A small force of statically based ICBMs that have been in the same positions for decades would not be expected to survive a nuclear exchange, fundamentally undermining the credibility of this particular part of the Chinese arsenal. Any surviving DF-5s that did manage to launch could possibly be intercepted by future BMD systems, again undermining the credibility of the arsenal. However, the upgrade to MIRV means that the DF-5B are a threat, as any missile escaping its silo is several times more dangerous and difficult to stop. These may act as a stopgap of sorts until the PRC’s submarine-based deterrent comes online, or as a partial alternative in case SSBNs end up being less than effective for whatever reason. The additional threat posed by the few DF-5Bs is modest compared to effective SSBN patrols, but it still adds some credibility, additional threat, and diversification to an ICBM force that otherwise is made up of only a few mobile missile systems. If this is the case, the DF-5Bs may act as a sort of “land-based submarine,” where the total DF-5 family takes the place of one SSBN until the actual SSBNs are credible and active

China’s Stated Policy Regarding Strategic Missiles

Chinese stated policy on the use of nuclear weapons is “No First Use,” as seen in documents such as the 2015 Defense White Paper and in the older 2004 Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (State Council Information Office, May 26; China Brief, May 29). While there is still debate about whether this policy is absolute, it is, at a minimum, emphasized publicly.

The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns emphasizes the “No First Use” aspect of Second Artillery Force policy, fairly explicitly noting that all Second Artillery nuclear operations should be assumed to occur under nuclear conditions, as by definition the Second Artillery should be engaging in nuclear operations in response to opposing nuclear operations. [6]

At the same time, the Science of Second Artillery Campaigns emphasizes the importance of deterrence in a nation’s ability to freely conduction operations. Moreover, it notes how even local wars can generate deterrent responses. Campaigns discusses the influence that strategic nuclear power has on operations and, thus, how important a strong nuclear deterrent is. [7] A strong nuclear deterrent may provide a nation the ability to either conduct operations more freely or to reduce the operational freedom of an opponent. Both of these are vital for any future Chinese military operations, particularly those involving Taiwan. The earlier Straits Crises showed that the U.S. could implicitly or explicitly leverage its nuclear strength as a means of controlling situations. Historically, these concepts also applied to Russia, especially after the Damansky/Zhenbao Island dispute that showed Russia could threaten nuclear war to influence conventional operations. Having a strategic nuclear deterrent allows the PLA to exert more control over escalation and keep conflicts conventional.

While the PRC maintains that it will not use nuclear weapons first, its military writings discuss the operational utility of strategic deterrence. While nuclear use is denounced, nuclear coercion is embraced as support for conventional operations. Both of these, however, require an arsenal that represents a credible threat to foreign powers. A small set of aging silo-based ICBMs is not a terribly powerful bargaining chip during a crisis. However even a small set of MIRVs, especially paired with mobile missile systems, will have a much larger impact on coercive strategies and military operations.


The DF-5B is consistent with the PRC’s goal of having the Second Artillery Force provide a credible strategic nuclear deterrent. The DF-5B upgrade specifically transforms the DF-5/DF-5A from aging systems that could be defeated by future U.S. BMD systems to a credible threat capable of overcoming BMD systems for years to come. The MIRV upgrade allows the DF-5 systems to approach a more credible second-strike capability and prevent being totally crippled by a first strike, especially when paired with the PRC’s mobile missile platforms. This in turn supports another Second Artillery Force mission of providing the environment in which other branches of the PLA can act more freely and without fear of “nuclear bullying.”

While the DF-5 is not an optimal launch system, the MIRVs mean that even if only a statistically small portion of the DF-5 arsenal can threaten another power, that small portion can be significantly powerful and valuable as a deterrent. This should all be taken in the context of China’s other missiles. The DF-5s may just be a stopgap for deterrence. The DF-5 is not ideal, but the DF-5B’s increased threat and ability to penetrate ballistic missile defense does add necessary credibility to the Chinese arsenal while SSBNs or more mobile missiles can be constructed.

Scott LaFoy is a Master’s Candidate at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and analyst. His main focus is asymmetric military capabilities, particularly ballistic missiles, nuclear technologies, and cyber capabilities. He is coauthoring a forthcoming report from the Center for Strategic Studies about North Korea’s cyber operations.


1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2015. p. 8. It should be noted that while the MIRV upgrade has be acknowledged by the U.S. government, there could also be unacknowledged upgrades to guidance or changes in range, though this is speculative.

2. Estimates put the total number of DF-5 missiles at around 20. There is no indication that the DF-5B MIRV upgrade has been comprehensive, and the exact spread of DF-5 mods is unknown. It is entirely possible that all of the DF-5s have been upgraded to the DF-5A model with a few further upgraded to DF-5B.

3. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2010.

4. CIA-RDP81T0034R000100450001-7, National Archive CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), Chinese Deployed Strategic Rocket Forces Facilities Encyclopedia, Section 1: Chinese Missile Support Bases and Launch Sites (S) p. 1.

5. Guided missiles, especially older missiles, tend to lose accuracy over longer ranges. Warheads with larger yields were sometimes utilized to overcome this, though the rough terrain mountainous regions can help to mitigate the overpressure generated by a nuclear detonation in certain cases.

6. “China’s Military Strategy,” Section IV, Xinhua, May 26, 2015. Also: People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force, The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, (《第二炮兵战役学》) Beijing: PLA Press, 2004, p. 59.

7. People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force, The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, (《第二炮兵战役学》) Beijing: PLA Press, 2004, p. 59.