China’s military conducted the second flight test of its newest long-range missile that is capable of hitting targets in the United States with a nuclear warhead, according to defense officials.
The flight test of the new Dong Feng-41, or DF-41, took place Friday from the Wuzhai missile launch center in Shanxi province to an impact range in western China, said officials familiar with details of the tests.
It was the second test of the new, road-mobile, long-range ICBM that U.S. intelligence agencies assess will be outfitted with up to 10 multiple, independently-targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs.
Prior to Friday’s flight test, the last DF-41 flight test took place July 24, 2012.
Pentagon spokesmen did not return emails seeking comment on the missile test.
The most recent test indicates that China’s long-range missile development is continuing, and the missile is raising new concerns about China’s professed nuclear doctrine of not being the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.
Disclosure of the nuclear missile flight test comes as tensions remain heightened between the United States and China over the near collision between the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, and a Chinese navy tank landing ship in the South China Sea on Dec. 5.
The State Department and Pentagon protested the incident, which involved the Chinese ship stopping in the path of the Cowpens, forcing the cruiser to make an abrupt maneuver to avoid a collision. The incident took place near China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
The DF-41, with its range of between 6,835 miles and 7,456 miles and expected multiple-warhead capability, is viewed 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.
A report by the Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center made public in May referred to China’s development of a new long-range missile with multiple warheads, in addition to current long-range DF-31 and DF-31A mobile ICBMs.
"China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world," the NASCI report said. "It is developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses."
"The Chinese ballistic missile force is expanding in both size and types of missiles."
Without mentioning the DF-41, the report said, "China may also be developing a new road-mobile ICBM capable of carrying a MIRV payload, and the number of warheads on Chinese ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to well over 100 in the next 15 years."
Defense officials said the report was referring to the DF-41.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs expert and senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said reports of the latest DF-41 test coincide with disclosures on Chinese military enthusiast websites showing a new 18-wheel transporter erector launcher for the new DF-41.
"It appears that this new large MIRV-capable ICBM is making progress toward achieving an operational status," Fisher said.
Fisher said there are reports that the Second Artillery Corps, as China’s missile service is called, includes at least one reload missile for each mobile missile-launcher system.
If the new DF-41 is deployed in the future with a reload missile per launcher, it would vastly increase the numbers of nuclear warheads in the Chinese arsenal, as many as 120 to 240 warheads for each DF-41 unit.
"What this means is that Obama administration suggestions that the United States can continue to reduce its number of deployed warheads, perhaps to 1,000 or less, is simply irrational," Fisher said.
"What we know and don't know about China's ability to rapidly increase its warhead numbers points to an unacceptable level of risk for the United States."
In addition to the DF-41, China also has begun to deploy its submarine-launched ballistic missile called the JL-2 and may develop a follow-on JL-2A with up to three warheads.
"Inasmuch as the U.S. Navy estimates there will be up to five of the 12-missile carrying Type 094 nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines, this at least indicates that [missile submarines] could become another source for fast Chinese warhead growth," he said.
The publication Jane’s Strategic Weapon Systems reported in 2012 that the Chinese were developing the DF-41, also designated the CSS-X-10, and that it is intended to replace easy-to-target silo-based DF-5 and DF-5A missiles.
Larry Wortzel, a former military intelligence officer and member of the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, told the House Armed Services Committee in testimony last month that the new DF-41 is part of China’s growing nuclear missile arsenal.
"China is enhancing its nuclear deterrent capability by modernizing its nuclear force," Wortzel said Nov. 20. "It is taking measures such as developing a new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the DF-41. This missile could be equipped with a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV), allowing it to carry as many as 10 nuclear warheads."
Wortzel said the Chinese, in addition to MIRVs, could outfit their missiles with "penetration aids" designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses. China also may be developing rail-mobile ICBMs, he said.
The Chinese nuclear buildup could have a profound impact on regional security. China recently has been bullying its neighbors, specifically Japan and Philippines, over islands and maritime claims.
"When China achieves a position of nuclear parity or even superiority, we can expect that it will make far more vigorous demands on the United States that could diminish the security of America and its friends and allies," Fisher said.
Mark Stokes, a former Pentagon official and specialist on China’s strategic nuclear systems has said the DF-41 has been mentioned in Chinese military writings and appears to involve a larger, solid fuel rocket motor derived from the DF-31 series ICBMS.
Ground tests of the DF-41 motor have been detected over the past several years.
There are suspicions among U.S. intelligence analysts that the DF-41 is based on Russia’s mobile ICBM known as the SS-27 and that the DF-41 will incorporate Russian missile guidance technology.
China in August conducted two flight tests of the DF-31A ICBM and in November 2012, another DF-31A was flight-tested.
Tsai The-sheng, Taiwan’s director of the National Security Bureau, as the intelligence service for the island nation is called, told Taiwan’s legislature that China is still developing the DF-41 and the sub-launched JL-2.
"Neither of them has been deployed at any Chinese military base yet," Tsai said, the official Central News Agency reported April 15.
Tsai said that China's fast pace of military technology development makes it very likely the People’s Liberation Army will deploy a multi-warhead DF-41 in the future.