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.”

Let’s examine the Global Times (环球时报) story posted as a “top story” in English on the official site of China’s Defense Ministry, though this will be a cursory summary since TNI readers should read it themselves and make up their own minds about its content and significance. The article suggests that the DF-41 can strike “targets anywhere around the world” and that perhaps the second brigade of DF-41s has been deployed now to Heilongjiang Province. In a bit of vitriol, the piece asserts: “The US has not paid enough respect to China's military. Senior US officials of the Asia-Pacific command frequently show their intention to flex their muscles with arrogance. The Trump team also took a flippant attitude toward China's core interests after Trump's election win.” In the rather unmistakable tone of a nuclear threat, the piece suggests, moreover, “China's nuclear capability should be so strong that no country would dare launch a military showdown with China under any circumstance.”

In the Dragon Eye column series, the emphasis has not been on analyzing English-language articles, such as the important piece discussed in the paragraph above, but rather on Chinese-language sources, so let us examine very briefly a couple of recent articles from the Chinese defense press regarding rail-basing for its new, mobile ICBM force. One such Chinese analysis followed a test launch during late 2015 that also received a little attention in Western news outlets. In explaining why Beijing might pursue the rather complex approach of rail-basing for ICBMs, the Chinese-language analysis states that “air basing and sea basing for nuclear strike capabilities remain weak points” (在空基和海基的核打击能力建设上仍显短板) for China. In other words, Beijing must continue to prioritize the land-based deterrent for the near- and medium-term, or at least until the other triad legs are more established. The author contends that China has “a huge rail network . . . [and therefore] mobility and survival are guaranteed” (龙大的铁路网… 机动性,生存性是可以保障的). Among the advantages of rail-basing for China discussed in this article are a “reduced time for launch preparation” (缩短 . . . 发射准备的时间), a related ability to “shoot and scoot” (打了就跑), the “stability advantage” (平稳性的优势) (vice road-dependent transport erector launchers) and, perhaps above all, the fact that the launch trains “look the same as regular trains” (与普通列车一样). Yet another benefit of rail-basing, according to this discussion, is the fact that a single train can easily carry command, communications, maintenance and personnel-support cars to accompany the actual missile launch car. Perhaps, it is not too surprising that China Defense News (国防报) published a 2015 piece mainly about Russia’s rail-based nuclear-armed missile system under the title: “The train missile that terrifies the West” (让西方胆寒的导弹列车).

It is troubling, to state the obvious, that Beijing would resort to such nuclear saber-rattling. Undoubtedly, it is not easy to square such threats with “peaceful development.” On the other hand, the last two months may have revealed a new and stark nadir in post-1978 U.S.-China relations, so regrettably this set of somewhat subtle signals may well be a harbinger of coming attractions. It is also rather disturbing that the nation’s leading papers have not seen fit to cover these latest nuclear threats emanating from Beijing. For example, the Washington Post has written about other short-range missiles (DF-16DF-26) over the last year, but seems strangely oblivious to the DF-41 that can actually hit Washington, DC with a high probability. Likewise, the New York Times has not written about the DF-41 warning, and its last article about Chinese nuclear forces (almost two years ago) made no mention whatsoever about the new mobile ICBMs capable of hitting New York.

Let’s hope this is not a deliberate effort by U.S. media outlets to minimize Chinese nuclear capabilities. We’ll put it down instead to the fact that both papers are currently obsessed with pursuing Russian hacking stories to the detriment of reporting on rather more vital strategic issues, such as Chinese nuclear capabilities. The danger, of course, is that neither the American public, nor even foreign-policy elites, have a clue regarding the true risks of pursuing a confrontational course with China. This is how misperception leads to cataclysm on an unprecedented scale.

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.

Lyle J. Goldstein is associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.