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New Chinese Missiles Target the Greater Asian Region

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on July 24th, 2007
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Imagery made available on Chinese web pages on July 13 and July 15 appears to confirm that China has developed new short range and medium to intermediate range ballistic missiles for use in the Asia Pacific region. First viewed in an unclear image in November 2006, the new medium to intermediate range missile may be a version of the DF-21 (NATO code: CSS-5) or it may be the long-awaited DF-25. The other missile appears to be a new version of the DF-15 (CSS-6) with a terminally guided warhead. The significance of these revelations is that China is upgrading its regionally-targeted missile forces, which will soon pose additional threats to, among others, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea and to U.S. forces in the East Asian region.

 
 
 
New Medium to Intermediate Missile: While the top is an altered image, the appearance of other images of the transporter and missile at least indicate that China is developing a new medium to intermediate range missile to deploy against its neighbors. Source: CJDBY web page

China’s Medium and Intermediate Range Missiles

China has long employed medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles as part of its nuclear, and increasingly, it non-nuclear missile arsenal. These missiles target Russian, Indian, Japanese, South Korean and U.S. military forces in East Asia. Early MRBM and IRBMs include the 2,790km range DF-3 (CSS-2) and the 5,470km range DF-4 (CSS-3). Both are liquid fuel missiles deployed in hangers or caves and towed to launch sites. Both of these weapons date back to the 1960s, and although they have been continually improved, are considered obsolete and due for replacement. In its 2007 report on the PLA the Pentagon notes there are 14 to 18 DF-3s and 16 to 24 DF-4 missiles.

Starting in 1987 China started deploying the DF-21 (CSS-5), a new solid-fuel missile derived from the JL-1 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). In its latest report on the PLA the Pentagon notes that 34 to 38 transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) are ready to fire between 40 to 50 DF-21 missiles. The DF-21 is now reported to come in an initial variant with a range of 1,770+km to 2,150km, and the DF-21A (CSS-5 Mod 2), with a range of 2,500km. The DF-21 can be armed with nuclear or non-nuclear warheads.

 
 
DF-21: The DF-21 was the Second Artillery’s first solid fueled and mobile ballistic missile. Source: Chinese Internet

Asian military sources have told the author that a version of the DF-21 is expected to be the first PLA missile to carry a new terminally-guided warhead to create the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). Both U.S. and Asian sources have stated that this missile was tested in 2005 and in 2006. With the April 2006 launch of the Jianbing-5/YaoGan-1, China’s first dedicated military synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite, and a related new high-resolution digital imaging satellite Jianbing-6/YaoGan-2 last May 25[1], China’s new ASBM may be close to achieving an initial operational status. Russian technology SAR and electro-optical satellites dedicated to counter-naval missions may be launched later this year. These satellites can join existing Chinese long-range Over-the-Horizon radar and land-based electronic intelligence sensors, aircraft and even ships to provide composite targeting data for ASBMs. China will also use its future "Compass" navigation satellite constellation to provide precision guidance for this and other missiles.

 
 
First Possible Image of DF-21 ASBM: Appearing on a Chinese web site last May, this image shows an apparent mockup of a DF-21 size missile with a maneuverable warhead shape. The photo is likely copied from a Chinese brochure or publication and dates from early in this decade. Source: Chinese Internet

China’s new ASBMs pose a strategic as well as a tactical challenge to U.S. forces in Asia. At present the U.S. does not have anti-missile capabilities to defend large U.S. ships against this threat, so vulnerable targets, most importantly aircraft carriers, will have to remain out of missile range in order to survive. This factor will further limit the effectiveness of their already range-challenged F/A-18E/F fighter bombers. U.S. Aegis cruisers and destroyers now being outfitted with new SM-3 interceptors with upgraded radar and processing capabilities may in the future be configured to deal with this threat, but if so, they may not be available for other missions, like protecting people. The fact is that no anti-missile system is going to come close to providing reliable defense. For China, ASBMs provide a means for saturating U.S. ships with missiles. While ASBMs are bearing down from above, their attack can be coordinated with waves of submarine, air and ship-launched anti-ship cruise missiles.

The DF-21 also provided the basis for the four-stage KT-1 mobile solid fuel space launch vehicle, which in turn, forms the basis for the SC-19 direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile. A more capable ASAT missile may be derived from the KT-2, which Chinese sources at the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow stated was based on the DF-31 ICBM. The massive debris from the January 11 satellite destruction has forced the U.S. to move one satellite[2], and possibly, the International Space Station, to avoid destruction. The threat from the Chinese satellite debris will exist for about a decade to come.

New Missile

The new medium to intermediate range missile pictured above began to appear on Chinese web pages in late November 2006. The first image was clear enough only to determine that a new missile with a new 10-wheel TEL could be seen on a testing range. Days later another image appeared of the TEL on a railroad flatbed car. The TEL is similar to that used by the DF-11A or CSS-7 Mod2 short range ballistic missile (SRBM).

 
 
First Picture: This first vague picture of the new missile appeared on Chinese web pages in November 2006. Credit: Chinese Internet

The latest picture to emerge on July 13, however, shows signs of being altered or "photo shopped." The missile tubes and TEL show significant differences; the TEL in the background may be fake. This is often sufficient cause to discount such a picture as Chinese military fans often have great fun generating such images, as does the Chinese government, to confound observers. Both often alter such pictures merely to conceal certain aspects of a system. However, the presence of other pictures of the missile tube and the TEL lend credibility to the main conclusion that there is a new medium to intermediate range missile.

One can only speculate about this missile, as no official data have been divulged by Chinese or Western sources. It is clearly in the same class as the DF-21 but is also larger, meaning it has a longer range, perhaps up to 3,000km or more depending on the payload. Chinese web posters have alleged this is the "DF-25," a program from the early 1990s first identified by authors John Lewis and Hua Di (who returned to China and was arrested), as a 1,700km range, 2000kg payload missile which uses the first two stages of the DF-31 ICBM.[3] On July 15 Chinese web reports alleged this new missile has a range of 3,200km and can carry as many as three multiple nuclear warheads.[4] In 2002 the PLA tested a DF-21 with about five or six dummy warheads to assist penetration against missile defenses.[5] So it is plausible that Chinese technology has improved since to include placing multiple warheads on medium to intermediate range missiles.

 
 
Possible TEL Image: This image appeared about the same time as the first, showing the same 10-wheel TEL. Credit: Chinese Internet

This missile’s longer range also means it is capable of higher speeds, which would be useful in helping to counter current and projected U.S., Japanese, and perhaps Australian and Indian missile defense systems. Its deployment will likely come before even these at best partially effective systems are in place. A larger payload also means this missile can carry multiple warheads or more decoys, also useful in defeating missile defenses. All of this will only add a greater burden on the U.S. and its allies to devise more effective missile defenses.

More DF-15s

On July 15 a Chinese web poster placed an image of a new version of the DF-15 short range ballistic missile on the CJDBY web page (http://bbs.cjdby.net/). Seen below, this new version features a new warhead shape with a blunt tip and maneuvering fins. This shape is similar to that of the now defunct U.S. Pershing II intermediate range ballistic missile, destroyed in the late 1980s as part of the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. Back then the Pershing II featured a very modern radar-image correlation system (RADAG) to give its small nuclear warhead very high accuracy. The warhead seen on the DF-15 below may also be featured on the new anti-ship version of the DF-21 mentioned above.

 
 
 
New version DF-15: The warhead is similar to that used by a former U.S. radar guided missile warhead, indicating this may be a new terminally guided warhead for anti-ship missions. Second photo appears to show same missile in testing. Source: CJDBY.net; FYJS.cn

This may indicate that China is deploying not one, but two new anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). The smaller DF-15 ASBM is likely more easily deployed on ships and aircraft; such flexibility would be useful in securing Taiwan or other target (such as Japanese islands), following a PLA invasion, from potential U.S. and coalition forces which might conceivably intervene. The smaller DF-15 ASBM may also become an important capability that China’s friends and clients may seek to also deter the United States. It is possible that Pakistan, Iran, even Venezuela might eventually seek to obtain this weapon, along with ground and air sensors, plus access to Chinese space systems for targeting.

In May 2006 the first images of another DF-15 variant appeared on the Chinese web. Subsequently indentified by Asian military sources as the DF-15C, its distinctive feature is an elongated warhead section. This is a new deep-penetration warhead intended to attack underground bunkers and bases. Taiwan and other countries rely on underground structures to shield their primary command facilities and in Taiwan also important air bases. It is likely that this new warhead may also be fitted to longer range missiles like the DF-21 or "DF-25."

 
 
DF-15C: Shown in a test flight, the DF-15C is intended to attack underground facilities. Source: Chinese Internet

Transparency—PLA Style

This week, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army, China has opened a new display at the Beijing Military Museum for modern armor, air and missiles system. Partial to scant knowledge of these new weapons has existed for several years in most cases. The most important revelation at the display has been the first picture of China’s new Type 093 nuclear powered attack submarine. But the picture is not accompanied by any additional supporting data, even though the 093 program likely dates back to the 1970s. Asian military sources recently disclosed that the third Type 093, apparently an improved version, was launched in 2006.

For the United States and its democratic allies the acquisition of a new major weapon system is usually a matter of public knowledge, if not intense debate, years before the system is put into service. Official data on the system is supplemented by contractor data and press reporting. The weapon is usually designed to carry out publically known military doctrines, which conform to stated strategic and foreign policy objectives. From open sources and with modest effort, any foreign government, including China’s, can with confidence determine the near to medium term U.S. strategic trajectory.

 
 
Apparent First Type 093 Image: This picture is the only public information released by the Chinese government about its second generation nuclear powered attack submarine, a program that is likely about 30 years old, and up to three of which have been launched since 2002.

One cannot do likewise for China. It is not possible to truly know China’s military doctrines and strategic objectives, just as it is not possible to know most current and certainly not future planned weapon systems. If you are not a government intelligence analysts with access to very expensive high resolution satellite imagery, which is not the case for the vast majority of non-Chinese and Chinese—and often even if you are- then you learn of a new Chinese military capability by chance: a revelation in a sales brochures; the unexpected statement by a Chinese military official; a surprising revelation by a foreign government official; or a random Internet posting by a Chinese military enthusiast.

Or worse, one learns by surprise. Increasingly, owing to the ability of the Chinese military to conceal, the revelation of a new capability comes as a shock and surprise. China’s January 11, 2007 interception of a weather satellite with a direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon was an example of such a surprise. The apparent new medium to intermediate range missile constitutes another surprise. Other than two or three non-revealing photographs from the Chinese web, there has been no official Chinese comment on the new missiles depicted above. Are they nuclear armed or do they employ a new radio-frequency warheads for attacking electronic infrastructure? Or might they carry a new terminally-guided warhead to attack large ships, like aircraft carriers? How many does China intend to build and against whom are they to be deployed? At present one cannot know.

Such Chinese actions do not build assurance or confidence, but prompt suspicion and reaction. China’s missile threat is likely to strengthen resolve in Tokyo and possibly Delhi to proceed with increased missile defense cooperation with Washington. Such defenses pose no threat of harm to Chinese or the Chinese government, other than to lessen the ability of the Beijing regime to coerce its neighbors with the threat of missile strikes. This loss of coercive power appears to frighten China’s leaders the most, motivating its hard-to-overlook political campaign against U.S.-led missile defense cooperation in Asia. Past endeavors like the 640 Project prove China’s past interest in missile defenses, while its recent ASAT demonstration demonstrate it can master the technology for new strategic missile defenses. Rather than let its neighbors rest behind new defensive missiles that cannot reach Chinese targets, however, China instead develops new missiles to overcome their new defenses.

China’s new missiles are creating significant new burdens for U.S. forces dedicated to deterring Chinese military forces in Asia. Few in the US government expected that China’s missile program would be as robust as it has turned out, or involve large numbers of missiles. The conventional wisdom was that China would pursue "minimal deterrence" and spend its money on desperately needed social reforms. But from one missile, the DF-21, China has devised new versions that can target U.S. aircraft carriers and the space information system essential to their successful employment. Additional missiles are now being developed for both missions. Should the U.S. 7th Fleet’s sole aircraft carrier based in Japan be neutralized by Chinese missiles, it may be weeks before another can arrive to face the same Chinese missile gauntlet.

What China’s leaders appear unable to understand is that before too long, Japanese, Taiwanese and even Australians will determine that mere defensive measures, as well as reliance on insufficient American forces, are in turn no longer sufficient to deter China. They may conclude that they will also require their own independent deterrent, maybe even a nuclear one, as India (and North Korea) concluded long ago.


[1] Jonathan Weng, "China satellite launch indicates rapid progress," Jane’s Defence Review, June 13, 2007, p. 25.

[2] Brian Berger, "U.S. Moves Satellite To Avoid Debris From Chinese ASAT Test," Defense News, July 16, 2007.

[3] John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, "China’s Ballistic Missile Programs, Technologies, Strategies, Goals," International Security, V. 17, N.2, p. 11.

[4] For examples of Chinese web reporting on the "DF-25" see: http://zaobao.com/special/newspapers/2007/07/hongkong070715b.html and http://military.china.com/zh_cn/top01/11053250/20070716/14222598.html

[5] Bill Gertz, "China Tests Missile," The Washington Times, July 23, 2002.

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