Chinese Mobile ICBMs Seen in Central China

Road-mobile DF-31/31A ICBM launchers deploying to Central China are visible on new commercial satellite images. Click on image for larger version.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Recent satellite images show that China is setting up launch units for its newest road-mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in central China. Several launchers of the new DF-31/31A appeared at two sites in the eastern part of the Qinghai province in June 2011. This is part of China’s slow modernization of its small (compared with Russia and the United States) nuclear arsenal.

An image taken on June 27, 2011 (see above), shows two DF-31/31A launchers on the launch pads of a small launch unit near Haiyan (36°49’37.12″N, 101° 6’22.97″E). One is positioned in a circular pad with support vehicles surrounding it. The circular pad was added to the facility sometime between 2005 and 2010. The other launcher is on a pad to the north, located next to an x-shaped launch pad and a missile garage. The layout of the Haiyan launch site is similar, yet not identical, to the DF-31 launch unit of the 813 Brigade at Nanyang.

Another image taken on June 6, 2011 (see below), shows six DF-31/31A launchers lined up on the parade ground at the 809 Brigade base in Datong about 50 kilometers (32 miles) to the east (36°56’57.67″N, 101°40’2.63″E). The brigade has been thought to be equipped with the DF-21 medium-range missile, but might be under conversion to the longer range DF-31/31A. It is unclear if the launchers are permanently based in the area or temporarily deployed from the 812 Brigade some 500 kilometers (290 miles) to the southeast.

Six mobile DF-31/31A launchers seen on display at a launch brigade in Datong, Qinghai, in central China in June 2011. Click image for larger version.

With an estimated range of 7,200-plus kilometers (4,470 miles), the DF-31 cannot target the continental United States from Central China. But the modification known as DF-31A can with its estimated range of 11,200-plus kilometers (6,960 miles), reach most of the continental United States from Central China. The DF-31/31A missiles can target all of Russia and India from Central China.

Slow Deployment

Deployment of the DF-31 has been slow since it first entered service in 2006. Less than 10 missiles had been deployed with as many launchers by 2010, and not many more were added in 2011.

The DF-31A began deployment in 2007 with about a dozen missiles on as many launchers by 2010. Also counting 20 silo-based DF-5As, the U.S. intelligence community estimates that China currently has “fewer than 50” missiles that can target the continental United States, suggesting that less that 25 DF-31As are currently deployed. (The number is a little more uncertain now after the Pentagon in 2011 started supporting Chinese nuclear secrecy by no longer providing a breakdown of Chinese missile forces in its annual report on Chinese military power).

As older missiles with shorter range are retired and replaced by the DF-31/31A over the next decade, a greater portion of the Chinese missile force will be able to target the continental United States, perhaps twice as many by 2025.  But even then, the Chinese force will be small compared with that of Russia and the United States.

Also visit: IMINT & Analysis and Project 2049

Analysis made possible by generous grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ploughshares Fund.

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.

12 thoughts on “Chinese Mobile ICBMs Seen in Central China

  1. There are more TELs under cover at 36 49 33.41 101 06 10.13. These could be from Tianshui garrison. The ones at Datong are probably permanently deployed.

    Reply: Possibly, good find. Though someone else who has a good eye for these matters cautioned me that the garrison at Datong doesn’t appear to have the infrastructure to support permanent deployment of DF-31/31A. HK

  2. [Edited] There seems to be an entrance to an underground facility that is located under the Laoyeshan Scenic Area. There is a tunnel entrance on the north side of the scenic area ( 36°56’17.34″N, 101°42’4.80″E). I thought maybe this was a tunnel going under the scenic area, but I do not see any other entrances. The only other feature that I can see is a small pad area, ESE of the tunnel, off of the same road. Maybe this is a scenic area viewing area? Maybe a launch platform? This seems unlikely, but who knows. Does anyone know what the purpose of this ugf/tunnel is? This scenic area is located in Datong btw. Could this be a weapons storage area for the 809 Brigade, for the few actual warheads each brigade are said to have under their control?

    Reply It appears to be the north end of a rail tunnel being dug through the mountain. The other end of the tunnel is here: 36°55’14.98″N, 101°42’49.37″E. You can see it connects to track clearing extending further south along the road. Also, I doubt the 809 Brigade has nuclear warheads “under their control.” My understanding is that all Chinese warheads are under the control of the Central Military Commission during peacetime and only in a crisis would be transferred to the launch units. HK

  3. Long March 7 carrier rocket to lift off in five years: official


    BEIJING, March 3 (Xinhua) — The Long March 7 carrier rocket, one of China’s latest generation of rockets, is expected to make its first voyage within the next five years, an official with the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology said Saturday.

    Fuelled by an environmentally-friendly propellant, the Long March 7 is expected to have a launch capacity of 13.5 tonnes in low-Earth orbit and 5.5 tonnes in Sun-synchronous orbit, said Liang Xiaohong, deputy head of the academy, which is affiliated with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

  4. Nice find, although because this looks so obvious, it may be a faux installation. Faux installations are mentioned repeatedly in The Science of Second Artillery Operations – they go to great efforts to make them look operational, and in a sense they are almost as valuable.

    Reply: Certainly, that is always the dilemma with using satellite imagery. Datong was thought to be a DF-21 deployment area (and probably still is), so there are several potential options: a) that it is indeed a DF-31/31A deployment, b) that it is a DF-31/31A visit, or c) that it is a hoax. HK

  5. Let me add an interesting facility some 17 km to the northeast of the DF-31 site. It’s at 36.978 N, 101.161 E and consists of a main area on the east side of a mountain and several revetted buildings in an arroyo along the south side of the mountain. No idea what it is.

  6. Rocket research boosts China’s lunar mission

    Updated: 2012-03-05

    BEIJING – Scientists have finished preliminary research into a heavy-thrust carrier rocket that could help China send men to the moon and fly to deep space in the future, said Liang Xiaohong, vice-president of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.

    “If approved (by the government), the heavy-thrust carrier rocket will be able to meet the demands of any proposed Chinese mission in space,” said Liang, who is also a member of the National Committee of the 11th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

    After about two years of research and argument, scientists agreed that China’s future heavy-lift carrier rocket should have a lift-off thrust of 3,000 metric tons and be able to send a payload of 100 metric tons into the low-Earth orbit. Liang declined to give more details.

    The behemoth launcher will be much more powerful than China’s current largest launcher, Long March 5, which is designed with a lift-off thrust of 1,000 metric tons that enables it to send a maximum payload of 25 metric tons to the low-Earth orbit and a payload of 10 tons to the higher geo-stationary orbit.

  7. Question for those in the know; are Chinese ICBMs MIRVed?

    Reply: At least in its unclassified publications, the U.S. intelligence community has consistently stated that Chinese ICBMs each carry a single warhead. You can see one recent example of this here. The IC has reported for several decades that China has been working on MIRV technology and speculated that if they decided to deploy MIRV (or MRV) it would probably be on the large silo-based DF-5A. Another thing to think about is why want to deploy multiple warheads on its ICBMs. The US and Russia deployed MIRV to be able to strike multiple targets quickly in a first strike. A secondary reason was to overwhelm missile defenses (this was primary motivation for the British multiple warhead system). China doesn’t have a first strike posture so rather than hitting a lot of targets quickly its interest appears to be to ensure that its warheads can get through missile defenses. Warheads are heavy and reduce missile range so I would expect that China will focus on decoys and penetration aids. We’ll see what happens in the next decade. HK

  8. Earlydawn, not an “expert” but in answer your question, the US has never confirmed any Chinese test launches with a MIRV payload. While everyone at the Pentagon believes Beijing has long had the technical ability to build multi-warhead ballistic missiles apparently the decision not to test and deploy such weapons was a political one. That’s why there is so much speculation on the Second Artillery Corps’ new Dongfeng-41 (DF-41, CSS-X-10 “East Wind”). Will it have multi-warheads? I bet it will.

    Reply: Just a note: the CSS-10 is the designation the US intelligence community uses for the DF-31. There are two: CSS-10 Mod 1 (DF-31) and CSS-10 Mod 2 (DF-31A). Also, why do you bet a rumored DF-41 will have multi-warheads? HK

  9. [Edited] China has the industrial capacity and finances to build a hundred new ICBMs a year if it so chooses. Yet, development of the Chinese nuclear missile arsenal is slow, methodical, and deliberate. Each design is an incremental improvement; almost a “working prototype”; tested, produced and deployed in low numbers. The DF-21 is the closest to a “series production missile” the Chinese military has ever deployed and it comes in at least two conventional versions. My contention is the development and introduction of the DF-41 will be no different. It will be an incremental improved ballistic missile system with greater range, accuracy, and battlefield survivability. I also speculate that the missile will be used to test MIRV technology as a natural extension of the evolutionary path of Chinese ICBM development. I suspect 20 or so will be built; whether actually deployed with multi-nuclear warheads remains unknown. I also speculate that neither the DF-31A or the before mentioned DF-41 will actually replace the soft-silo DF-5As. We tend to look at Chinese nuclear policy and the weapons that policy creates always as a “direct threat” to the United States. However, what if Beijing doesn’t? What if the People’s Republic of China has looked 30 years into the future and sees India as its “peer security rival”? Changes things, doesn’t it?

    Reply: I’d be interested in a source for your assertion that “China has the industrial capacity and finances to build a hundred new ICBMs a year if it so chooses.” The US intelligence community predicted in 1997 that “China probably will have the industrial capacity, though not necessarily the intent, to produce a large number, perhaps as many as a thousand, new missiles [note: “missiles,” not “ICBMs”] within the next decade.” This partly came through, but mainly in the form of short-range DF-11 and DF-15 deployed off Taiwan. Up until 2010, that build-up happened at a rate of more than 100 missiles per year, but leveled off at around 1,000-1,200 missiles in 2011.

    As for the mystical DF-41, who knows. The US intelligence community used to refer to it in the 1990s, then stopped. Then the DF-31A emerged, apparently with similar range. Then there were rumors prior to the 2009 parade that the DF-41 would be displayed, but instead the DF-31A rolled through Beijing. Then in 2010, the Pentagon reported that “China may also be developing a new roadmobile ICBM, possibly capable of carrying a [sic] multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV).” The claim was repeated in 2011. Pictures circulating on the Internet of what some believe could be a DF-41 prototype look more like a Russian transporter for the Gorgon anti-ballistic missile interceptor.

    As for Chinese MIRV, the US intelligence community has reported since the early-1990s that China is researching MIRV technology. Many institutes and experts (even Jane’s) quickly attributed MIRV to both the silo-based DF-5, the road-mobile DF-31, the sea-based JL-2, and the mysterious DF-41. The CIA stated in December 2001, that “China has had the capability to develop and deploy a multiple reentry vehicle system for many years, including a MIRV system,” but has not done so. If China wanted to deploy multiple warheads on a missile, CIA told Congress in 2000, it “could use a DF-31 type RV for a multiple-RV payload for the CSS-4 [DF-5] in a few years.” The DOD echoed this conclusion in 2002, when it stated that any Chinese multiple warhead capability will “most likely [be] for the CSS-4 [DF-5].” In testifying before Congress in 2002, Robert Walpole from the CIA was asked about Chinese MIRV:

    “Sen. Cochran: How many missiles will China be able to place multiple reentry vehicles on?

    Mr. Walpole: In the near term, it would be about 20 CSS-4s [DF-5] that they have, the big, large ICBMs. The mobile ICBMs are smaller and it would require a very small warhead for them to put multiple RVs on them.

    Sen. Cochran: [D]o you think that China will attempt to develop a multiple warhead capability for its new missiles?

    Mr. Walpole: Over time they may look at that. That would probably require nuclear testing to get something that small, but I do not think it is something that you would see them focused on for the near term.”

    The key points being that the reentry vehicle developed for the DF-31, in CIA’s assessment, is simply too heavy to MIRV the new road-mobile missiles, and that it would require development and nuclear testing of a new smaller warhead to be able to do so. Who knows what the “new roadmobile ICBM” that the Pentagon says China “may…be developing” will end up carrying. But the wording that it may “possibly [be] capable of carrying a [sic] multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV)” signals a great deal of uncertainty. HK

  10. Hans Kristensen


    Do we know how much money it takes China to build a single ICBM? Do we have any reliable information to even venture a guess? Just curious…

    We’ve got to dig deeper than public CIA-Congressional testimony looking for truism.

    For example, how do we “know” that China has 10 to 20 DL-31As? Is that something that Beijing has said or is it the opinion of the Pentagon based on the interpolation of “data”?

    Frank Shuler

  11. Don’t worry, China is too incompetent to build any ICBMs. However, they have the “industrial capacity and finances” to do this…

    China aims to launch 100 satellites with 100 rockets during 2011-2015


    BEIJING, March 10 (Xinhua) — China has set a target of completing a space mission of “100 rockets, 100 satellites” during the five years between 2011 and 2015, a senior space executive said Saturday.

    On average, China will complete about 20 launch missions each year before 2015, said Zhang Jianheng, deputy general manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC).

    “The densely arranged launch missions and flight tests have posed an unprecedented challenge to the country’s space program,” Zhang, a deputy to the country’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress, told Xinhua on the sidelines of the ongoing parliamentary session that started on Monday.

    According to Zhang, China launched 19 satellites, a target orbiter Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou-8 spacecraft with 19 Long March rockets last year, a record high for China’s space program in launch numbers.

    China has surpassed the United States, which completed 18 launches in 2011, to become the world’s No. 2 in terms of launch numbers following Russia’s 36 launches, Zhang said.

    In 2012, China has planned 30 satellite launches with 21 rockets, including the launch of Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, which is scheduled to carry out China’s first manned space rendezvous and docking with Tiangong-1 between June and August.

  12. Trying to understand the whole mobile ICBM strategy, and why China and Russia use it. What is to gain? Certainly stealth, but in a world that is hiding ICBMs from each other is a bizarre concept. Maybe not hide, but simply make harder to find when war comes? Can anyone explain?
    I suppose the US finds it doesn’t need these as it has superior numbers of both ICBMs, early warning systems, and strike capability??

    fotos of russian mobile launcher:

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