China conducted a flight test this month of its newest long-range missile that U.S. intelligence agencies say lofted two independently-targeted simulated nuclear warheads, according to defense officials.
The launch of the DF-41 road-mobile missile Aug. 6 was the fourth time the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has been test-fired in three years, and indicates that the weapon capable of hitting U.S. cities with nuclear warheads is nearing deployment.
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The DF-41, with a range of between 6,835 miles and 7,456 miles, is viewed by the Pentagon as Beijing’s most potent nuclear missile and one of several new long-range missiles in development or being deployed.
As with earlier DF-41 flight tests, Pentagon spokesmen had no direct comment. A defense official, however, told the Washington Free Beacon: "We do not comment on PRC weapons tests but we do monitor Chinese military modernization carefully."
The Pentagon has said it expects the new missile to become operational as early as this year.
Deployment of the DF-41 also could coincide with China’s first patrols, slated to begin this year, of submarines armed with nuclear-tipped JL-2 missiles.
The Aug. 6 test is viewed as significant by U.S. intelligence agencies because it confirmed the DF-41’s multiple-warhead capability, said defense officials familiar with analyses of the test.
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the repeated flight tests indicate the DF-41 is "nearing operational status."
"The mobile and solid-fueled DF-41 will be the second MIRV-equipped ICBM to enter PLA Second Artillery Corps service after the currently deployed, liquid-fueled and silo-launched DF-5B," Fisher said.
"The bottom line is that China potentially is beginning a new phase in which its nuclear warhead numbers will be increasing rapidly," he said.
The Pentagon’s latest annual report on China’s military, published in May, stated that the DF-41 is "possibly capable of carrying MIRVs"—the acronym for multiple, independently-targetable reentry vehicles. The Pentagon calls the DF-41 the CSS-X-20 missile.
MIRVs (Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles) are considered state-of-the-art nuclear warhead technology because their use vastly increases the potential killing power of a single missile.
The annual Pentagon report states that China’s missile force, called the Second Artillery Corps, "continues to modernize its nuclear forces by enhancing its silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and adding more survivable, mobile delivery systems."
When deployed, the DF-41 is expected to significantly enhance China’s force of between 50 and 60 ICBMs that include DF-5, mobile DF-31, DF-31A, and submarine-launched JL-2 nuclear missiles.
Mark Stokes, a former Pentagon expert on China, said the DF-41 "marks a significant evolution in the Second Artillery's force modernization program."
"The DF-41 is one of a number of PLA ballistic missile systems in the advanced stages of research and development," Stokes, now with the Project 2049 Institute, said. "Few details on deployment plans technical characteristics are currently available. Once fully operational, the DF-41 is expected to be the PLA's most sophisticated ICBM to date."
China’s first suspected multiple warhead flight test for the DF-41 was carried out in December 2014, when an unknown number of dummy warheads were thought to have been used. Earlier DF-41 flight tests took place in December 2013 and July 2012.
The new multiple-warhead missile is likely to renew debate over the size of China’s nuclear arsenal. Current U.S. intelligence estimates put the total number of Chinese warheads at around 240 warheads. Other analysts, however, say China’s warhead arsenal is far larger, with perhaps as many as 1,500 warheads, and base their assessments on the growing size of China’s missile forces, the addition of multiple warhead technology, and its large-scale nuclear material production capabilities.
The DF-41 is assessed by U.S. intelligence agencies as being able to carry up to 10 warheads on a single missile.
The location of the latest test was not disclosed. Past DF-41 flight tests, however, were carried out from the Wuzhai Missile and Space Testing facility, located about 250 miles southwest of Beijing.
Little is known publicly or within the U.S. government about China’s strategic nuclear arsenal, because Beijing has refused for decades to engage in international nuclear talks, fearing any discussion would reveal information that could undermine its deterrent forces.
The mobile DF-41 is considered especially lethal because it can be driven on roads and easily hidden prior to launch, making it difficult to target.
The Pentagon is developing a new system called Prompt Global Strike that will be designed to locate and destroy mobile missiles, along with other difficult-to-find targets, in 30 minutes or less.
According to a senior intelligence analyst with the Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center, China’s shift to multiple-warhead missiles is aimed at ensuring the survival of its nuclear deterrent.
"MIRVs provide operational flexibility that a single warhead does not," Lee Fuell, an analyst for the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), told the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
"Specifically, they enable more efficient targeting, allowing more targets to be hit with fewer missiles, more missiles to be employed per target, or a larger reserve of weapons held against contingency," Fuell said.
China is expected to use a combination of three long-range missiles "as MIRVs become available, simultaneously increasing their ability to engage desired targets while holding a greater number of weapons in reserve."
The China commission’s latest annual report stated the DF-41 could be deployed as early as 2015, and could carry up to 10 MIRVs with enough range "to target the entire continental United States." The report added that the DF–5 and the DF–31A also are being modified to carry MIRVs.
Concerns over China’s multiple warhead missile attacks were heightened after Chinese state-run media in October 2013 published a report and graphic showing the effect of a submarine-launched, five-warhead nuclear strike on Los Angeles.
The series of articles made the alarming claim that Chinese nuclear attacks could kill up to 12 million Americans with blasts on the West Coast and deadly fallout that would then drift eastward.
China gained technology for launching multiple warheads from the United States during the Clinton administration. After the 1990s White House loosened controls on U.S. exports of satellite technology, American companies, including Motorola, Space Systems Loral, and Hughes Electronics gave China valuable missile know-how.
A classified report by NASIC dated Dec. 10, 1996, stated that China copied a multiple satellite launcher, called a "smart dispenser" from Motorola that allowed China to launch several Iridium satellites from a single Chinese rocket booster.
"An initial NASIC study determined that a minimally-modified [smart dispenser] stage could be used on a ballistic missile as a multiple-reentry vehicle, post-boost vehicle (PBV)," the report said.
Lockheed Martin was fined $13 million by the State Department in 2000 for improperly providing China with rocket motor technology used to maneuver multiple-warhead vehicles.
In addition to the DF-41, DF-31, DF-31A, and JL-2 long-range missiles, China also is developing a near long-range system called the DF-31B.
The Free Beacon first disclosed the DF-31B in October after it was flight tested on Sept. 25, 2014.
The DF-31B is also expected to carry multiple warheads.
A U.S.-based Chinese media outlet, Duowei News, reported last week that China is expected to show off the new DF-31B during a World War II anniversary ceremony in Beijing set for Sept. 3.
In addition to nuclear ballistic missiles, China is also developing maneuvering hypersonic strike vehicles that travel along the earth’s atmosphere and can avoid missile defenses.
China’s government had no immediate comment to the latest test.
In December, the Chinese Defense Ministry confirmed the DF-41 test saying it was a scientific exercise and was not targeting other countries.
Fisher, the China military expert, said the sharp increase in warheads is prompting new questions about whether China is seeking nuclear parity with the United States or eventually will opt for nuclear superiority.
Also, a larger warhead arsenal may signal China’s plans to jettison its self-declared defensive nuclear posture, and could signal that Beijing will eventually agree to coordinating nuclear strike plans against the United States with Russia, Fisher said.
"With their continued rapid development of multiple types of intercontinental, intermediate, and medium range nuclear missiles, it is clear that China and Russia have no intention of adopting the Obama administration's dreams of achieving ‘nuclear zero,’" Fisher said.
"It is also time for the United States to reverse such policies that amount to unilateral disarmament and build a larger and more modern nuclear arsenal sufficient to deter both China and Russia."