China’s Bulava?

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By Hans M. Kristensen

Similar to Russia’s troubled Bulava sea-launched ballistic missile, the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power reveals that Chinese efforts to develop a new sea-based nuclear missile have run into problems.

Other nuclear force developments described in the Pentagon’s delayed annual report on China’s military power, now renamed Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, include a slow deployment of new land-based mobile missiles and nuclear command and control challenges.  

Naval Nuclear Programs

While the first boat of a small class of new Jin-class (Type 094) sea-launched ballistic missile submarines “appears ready” and up to four more may be building, development of the long-range ballistic missile Julang-2 for the class is said to have “encountered difficulty.”

The report reveals that the new missile has been “failing several of what should have been the final round of flight tests.”

Julang-2 “Dry” Launch
The Pentagon says China’s new sea-launched ballistic missile has failed several tests.

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The latest setback continues the problems that have characterized China’s naval nuclear program over the years. The first SSBN program (Type 092) only produced one boat, the Xia, which has never sailed on a deterrent patrol. Even following a recent lengthy submarine overhaul, the Pentagon describes the operational status of the Xia’s Julang-1 missile system as “questionable.”

The nuclear-powered attack submarine program also seems challenged, with only two Shang-class (Type 093) boats operational – the same as last year – and four old Han-class (Type 091) boats still in service. Instead, the focus of the nuclear attack submarine program appears to have shifted to building a new class, the Type 095. The Pentagon report projects that “up to five” Type 095s may be added “in the coming years.”

Land-Based Nuclear Missiles

Introduction of new land-based mobile ballistic missiles continues, but at a slow pace. The DF-31 program appears stagnant at “<10” missiles, the same as reported last year. The number of intercontinental DF-31As has only increased by a couple of missiles, from “<10” last year to “10-15” in this year’s report.

DF-31A Parading in Beijing
Deployment of the DF-31 and DF-31A has been slow, new Pentagon report shows.

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Probably as a possible result of the slow deployment of the new DF-31, the number of old liquid-fueled DF-3A and DF-4 missiles remain the same as last year.

Despite a strong display at the military parade in Beijing last year, the number of DF-21 launchers has not increased compared with last year. The number of missiles is a little higher, 85-90 missiles versus 60-80, probably reflecting addition of conventional DF-21C versions.

The report continues previous years’ predictions that a new road-mobile ICBM may be under development, possibly a reference to the elusive DF-41 or another system. The new missile is described as “possibly capable of carrying a multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV).”

Previous reports have reported development of MIRV technology for many years, but always concluded that MIRV technology for mobile missiles would be too difficult and expensive. The reference to a road-mobile ICBM MIRV capability is new, although it comes with a lot of caveats: “may be under development,” and “possibly capable of carrying” MIRV.

A MIRV system would, if deployed, represent a significant change in Chinese nuclear employment strategy. Russia and the United States deployed MIRVed systems to improve targeting against military targets. A secondary reason – for Britain it was probably the primary reason – was to overwhelm missile defenses.

Rather than increased targeting, the Chinese motivation for pursuing MIRV probably is the emergence of increasingly advanced U.S. ballistic missile systems. Phase 4 of the Obama administration’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) includes an anti-ballistic missile defense capability against ICBMs from around 2020. This may push China further toward MIRV.

Julang-1 Loading
Could loading of nuclear missiles in a crisis affect crisis stability?

Nuclear Command and Control

As were the case with the 2009 report, the 2010 report underscores the command and control issues facing Chinese leaders. “The introduction of more mobile systems will create new command and control challenges for China’s leadership, which now confronts a different set of variables related to deployment and release authorities.”

One of these is the emerging SSBN force, an almost entirely new form of nuclear deployment in Chinese posturing. The report states that “the PLA has only a limited capacity to communicate with submarines at sea, and the PLA Navy has no experience in managing a SSBN fleet that performs strategic patrols with live nuclear warheads mated to missiles.”

Chinese SSBNs have never performed a strategic deterrent patrol (none were conducted in 2009), and if current Chinese doctrine is any indication it is doubtful that the SSBNs will deploy with “live nuclear warheads mated to missiles” in peacetime. But the absence of operational experience and the limited communication capability raises serious questions about how inadequate proficiency and launch control procedures might create problems in a crisis.

The report raises similar issues with the emergency of the new generation of land-based mobile missiles. Although China has operated medium-range mobile missiles for decades, the delegation of launch authority in a crisis to units with quicker-launch solid-fuel long-range missiles raises questions about use control, crisis stability, and misunderstandings.

DF-31A on Launch Pad
How will quicker-firing long-range missiles such as the DF-31A affect command and control and delegation of launch authority?

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And there “is little evidence,” the Pentagon concludes, “that China’s military and civilian leaders have fully thought through the global and systemic effects that would be associated with the employment of these strategic capabilities.”

Despite these issues and speculations in previous annual Pentagon reports and the public about possible changes to Chinese nuclear doctrine, particularly conditions to its no-first-use policy, the 2010 report concludes that, “there has been no indication that national leaders are willing to attach such nuances and caveats to China’s ‘no first use’ doctrine.”

See also: previous blogs about China

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

2 thoughts on “China’s Bulava?

  1. The lack of absolute trust of the Party on those who operate its biggest guns is a problem without a technical solution. As long as the Party feels that its power comes from the gun barrel, not the free will of the public, it will never be at ease with mating a nuclear warhead with a delivery vehicle. The separate storage and control of warheads and launch vehicles are to ensure that someone does not possess a cocked gun to threaten the power of the ruler. Now that the Americans have upped the ante, can Chinese leaders trust their engineers to develop a fail safe PAL. It’s never going to be as safe as mating-on-order, with over 1 hr of filling the liquid fuel. I really doubt that President Hu or his successors will let his SSBNs carry a boat-load of mated ICBMs to do “strategic patrols” in peacetime. They may carry mock warheads to exercise, but carrying paper tigers is not the point and will not help in a sudden crisis. China has to change its political structure to meet the challenges in going from #2 to #1. Without that, #1 is not possible. An empire requires willing and professional mandarins who have no desire for mutiny.

  2. Would you please give some examples for ‘previous years’ predictions that a new road-mobile ICBM may be under development’?

    Having a prediction concerning MIRVed mobile ICBM, can we say that Chinese warhead miniaturization level has been improved, even in a test moratorium?

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