The Buzz

China Is Building Mobile ICBMs (But Is America Paying Attention?)

No, this is not the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course, and we should not exaggerate the nature of the threat. At the same time, this low-level nuclear signaling still needs to be understood by American leaders.

Browsing a highly reputable bookstore the other day, I was somewhat surprised to come upon a pile of books set for display in a prominent location near the cashier titled Nuclear War Survival Skills: Life-saving Nuclear Facts and Self-help Instructions. Figuring the volume was sure to be some sardonic humor related to our contemporary national predicament, I was a bit disturbed to see that it was more than three hundred pages, chock full of intricate diagrams and checklists assembled by “revered civil defense experts.” Maybe I’m not the only one who stays up late watching Chinese news programming?

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Peering into my phone on the night of January 25, I was perturbed to see my customary Chinese talk show about diplomacy 今日关注 (Focus Today) focusing on the South China Sea, but also alluding to an image of a very large transport erector launcher in the middle of a map showing northeast China. To be sure, most of the show focused on the White House spokesman’s recent characterization of the South China Sea issue: “Yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.” Now, it’s not unusual for that particular show, which features retired People’s Liberation Army Navy Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo on most days, to discuss the latest developments regarding the South China Sea. But it is unusual for the show to discuss Chinese nuclear weaponry, and especially to connect these developments to the evolution of the situation in the South China Sea.

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(This first appeared early this year.) 

This unique segment said that reports (including foreign news media) suggested that the Dongfeng-41, a solid-fueled road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, had been deployed to the city of Daqing (大庆) in the northeast province of Heilongjiang, close to the Russian border. Graphic material accompanying the reporting illustrated one of the few relatively high-quality photos of the massive DF-41 on a transport erector launcher. These graphics strongly implied:

1.a planned rail-basing system for the new ICBM, a theme taken up in some detail below:

2.a range sufficient to target the entire United States, including the East Coast; and

3.a multiple independent reentry vehicle warhead configuration.

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Admiral Yin reliably observes in the segment that the missiles “are not targeted against any single nation,” and insists that they only constitute retaliatory forces. As if to emphasize the veracity of the report, a Russian senior official was interviewed. The official asserted that Russia was not concerned about the movements of Chinese missiles near the Russian border, because the obvious target of the missiles was not Russia, but rather the United States. In a bizarre twist, a Russian military analyst suggested the DF-41 deployment actually demonstrated trust between the Asian giants, since the Chinese missiles could be vulnerable to Russian weaponry in that particular area.

Another troubling part of the news segment was its accusation that a particular U.S. nuclear-attack submarine, USS North Carolina, had been monitoring Chinese naval activities. That observation alone might raise some significant operational-security questions, but let us concentrate here on the connection between China’s new nuclear weapons and the South China Sea situation. Showing the clip to colleagues, one analyst made the logical observation that genuine Chinese nuclear signaling would not be done in Chinese. This must be some kind of “morale boosting” for Chinese audiences, right? But then an article appeared on the official site of the Chinese defense ministry in English. True, the article and the CCTV-4 report suggested above both quoted foreign sources, but the fact that the article was given a prominent place among the “top stories” on the official PLA site demonstrates a clear intention by Beijing to send a message, even if it was one with some “plausible deniability.”

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