A Chinese provincial government website has confirmed China’s newest and largest intercontinental missile—the multi-warhead DF-41, which is capable of striking the United States
Official confirmation of the new multi-warhead missile was touted by state-run Chinese press a day before the Aug. 1 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, China’s communist-controlled military that is undergoing a major crackdown on corruption that has ensnared one of the most senior uniformed officers, former Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Xu Caihou.
A report on the new missile that appeared in one of the official Communist Party newspapers, Global Times, was quickly censored by authorities shortly after it appeared on Thursday, adding to speculation that the leak was not authorized.
U.S. officials confirmed that the appearance of the DF-41 images and a description of the missile on a government website June 13 are the first official confirmations of the still-secret weapon.
The Shaanxi provincial government announced on its website June 13 a progress report on its Environmental Monitoring Center Station included work on the DF-41.
"On-site monitoring for Phase Two of the project's final environmental assessment and approval of support conditions for the development of the DF-41 strategic missile by the 43rd Institute of the 4th Academy of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) was initiated," the notice said. AVIC is China’s state-owned aerospace and defense conglomerate.
Prior to the Shaaxi provincial website report, only unofficial references and unofficial photos were posted online about the DF-41.
According to the censored Global Times report, a military expert stated that "the development of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle third generation nuclear missiles is a major trend against the backdrop of the US’ constant enhancements to its missile defense systems."
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that the DF-41 has a range of between 6,835 miles and 7,456 miles and will be equipped with up to 10 multiple, independently-targetable warheads. It is regarded as a potential "first strike" weapon, or a weapon capable of carrying out a surprise nuclear attack that would knock out an enemy’s arsenal and limit its counterstrike capability.
The missile is viewed by many military analysts as China’s answer to U.S. missile defenses, which are designed to counter limited missile attacks from North Korea or, in the future, from Iran, but not from China or Russia.
The Pentagon’s annual reports to Congress on China’s military several years ago stated that China halted development of the DF-41. However, after flight tests in 2012 and December, the Pentagon reversed its assessment. The latest report said, "China also is developing a new road-mobile ICBM known as the Dong Feng-41 (DF-41), possibly capable of carrying multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV)."
The Shaaxi government website in the past several days has replaced the work report web page with an error message telling those who try to access the document that the website is undergoing maintenance—standard parlance for Chinese Internet censorship.
Rick Fisher, a military expert, said that Aug. 1, the PLA anniversary day, is a popular time for Chinese to show national pride by posting new information on the military.
"The emergence of the most recent image indicates that the DF-41 may now be in production," Fisher said. "If this is the case, then it is also likely that the first DF-41 unit is now building up."
Fisher said the revealing of the new missile is significant because it will add to the ongoing debate over China’s still-secret nuclear arsenal and the large-scale strategic forces buildup that is underway, also largely in secret.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that China has some 240 to 300 strategic nuclear warheads. However, other U.S. and foreign military analysts say the Chinese could have twice or three times that many, based on the growing size of its missile force and it large underground production facilities and material.
The Obama administration has sought to play down China’s strategic nuclear buildup and has not forcefully pressed for Beijing to hold talks on its strategic forces.
For example, Fish said it is not known if each Second Artillery ICBM unit operates with six or twelve launchers, and it is likely that all units include one "reload" missile for each launcher.
"So it is possible that 12 to 24 DF-41 missiles would be included in a unit," he said, noting that if the DF-41 can carry up to 10 warheads, each unit may deploy with between 120 to 240 warheads.
"The math is not comforting: Three DF-41 units could account for up to between 360 to 720 new warheads," Fisher said, adding that China is quickly gathering the potential to achieve nuclear parity with the United States.
To compound U.S. strategic deterrence, China can hide its ICBM forces in the thousands of miles of tunnels and is working on missile defenses that will protect its mainly road-mobile missiles.
Additionally, Fisher said there are new concerns that growing Chinese-Russian military cooperation included coordination on strategic nuclear warfare.
"The bottom line is that there is the potential for great instability in the strategic nuclear balance," Fisher said.
The recent New START arms agreement with Russia to cut U.S.-deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 "could turn out to have been a major strategic mistake," he said, and the administration seeking further warhead cuts below 1,550 "may only compound nuclear dangers to the United States."
The Free Beacon first reported in December that China conducted the second flight test of the new DF-41.
The last time China’s government posted a semi-official leak of a photo of the DF-41 was in February, when a Chinese online military bulletin board posted a picture of the missile leaving a factor.
In October, Global Times published a report on how China’s strategic missile submarines would attack the western United States. The report included a graphic showing the impact of nuclear warheads in Los Angeles and Seattle and said the resulting destruction and radiation would kill between 5 million and 12 million Americans.
Asked about the Chinese nuclear strike report, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert dismissed China’s submarine nuclear forces as lacking credibility.
"For a submarine-launched ballistic missile to be effective it has to be accurate, and you have to be stealthy, and survivable and I’ll leave it at that," Greenert said in November during a conference in California.
The PLA anniversary on Friday was overshadowed by growing corruption scandals.
On the 87th anniversary, the official PLA newspaper published an article vowing allegiance to Chinese President Xi Jinping—the key figure behind the crackdown on military corruption.
In addition to Xu, the highest-ranking official facing corruption charges, former Gen. Gu Junshan, a senior PLA logistic officer, has been charged with corruption. Xu is charged with selling promotions within the military and is being held in a hospital in Beijing. Reports from Asia say a formal verdict against Gu, charged with bribery and embezzlement, will be made public in the near future.
Corruption within the Chinese military is said to be widespread and the charges against senior officers is unusual.
"We must express a sense of pain within our heart caused by serious corruption within the PLA," the Global Times said in its commentary on the PLA.
"The cases of Xu and Gu have defied our past impression of the PLA. Such a situation is something we do not want to see, regardless of its cause."
The commentary also praised efforts to root out corruption. Chinese military officers have been ordered to sell houses given to them by the military.
The highest-ranking Chinese official currently under investigation for corruption is Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security czar who was a member of the Communist Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member collective dictatorship that rules China.
China also is conducting large-scale military exercises in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea—both places where China has angered regional states by claiming international waters as its maritime territory.
The military exercises have caused massive, nationwide delays and commercial flight cancelations, prompting the military to warn Chinese citizens not to criticize the military.