By Hans M. Kristensen
The biggest surprise in the Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military power is the claim that China’s ICBM force now includes the “multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV)-equipped Mod 3 (DF-5).”
This is (to my knowledge) the first time the US Intelligence Community has made a public claim that China has fielded a MIRVed missile system.
If so, China joins the club of four other nuclear-armed states that have deployed MIRV for decades: Britain, France, Russia and the United States.
For China to join the MIRV club strains China’s claim of having a minimum nuclear deterrent. It is another worrisome sign that China – like the other nuclear-armed states – are trapped in a dynamic technological nuclear arms competition.
A Little Chinese MIRV History
There have been rumors for many years that China was working on MIRV technology. Some private analysts have even claimed – incorrectly – that China had developed MIRV for the DF-31 ICBM and JL-2 SLBM.
Fifteen years ago, CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate on foreign missile developments concluded that “China has had the technical capability to develop multiple RV payloads for 20 years. If China needed a multiple-RV (MRV) capability in the near term, Beijing could use a DF-31-type RV to develop and deploy a simple MRV or multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) for the CSS-4 in a few years.” (For a review of earlier information and assessments, see here.)
The Pentagon echoed this conclusion in July 2002, when it stated that any Chinese multiple warhead capability will “most likely [be] for the CSS-4.”
Chinese MIRVing of a mobile ICBM such as the DF-31 “would be many years off” the CIA told Congress. This was also the conclusion of the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate in 2001, which concluded that “Chinese pursuit of a multiple RV capability for its mobile ICBMs and SLBMs would encounter significant technical hurdles and would be costly.”
In an exchange with Senator Cochran in 2002, CIA’s Robert Walpole explained that MIRVing a mobile ICBM would require a much smaller warhead and possibly require nuclear testing:
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 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.
What makes the Pentagon’s report on the MIRVed DF-5A payload noteworthy is that it was not included in several other intelligence assessments published in the past few months: the prepared threat assessment by the Director of National Intelligence; the prepared threat assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency; and STRATCOM’s prepared testimony.
The Pentagon report also repeats an earlier assertion that “China also is developing a new road-mobile ICBM, the CSS-X-20 (DF-41), possibly capable of carrying MIRVs.” STRATCOM commander Admiral Cecil Haney also mentioned this, saying China is “developing a follow-on mobile system capable of carrying multiple warheads.”
“Possibly capable of” and “capable of” are not equal assessments; the first includes uncertainty, the second does not. Assuming CIA’s prediction from 15 years ago is correct, the DF-5 MIRV payload might consist of three warheads developed for the DF-31/31A.
Whatever the certainty, the MIRVed version of the DF-5 – which I guess we could call DF-5B – is not thought to be loaded with warheads under normal circumstances. In a crisis, the warheads would first have to be brought out of storage and mated with the missile.
Moreover, The Pentagon lists two versions of the DF-5 deployed: the DF-5A (CSS-4 Mod 2) and the new DF-5 MIRV (CSS-4 Mod 3). So only a portion of the 20 missiles in as many silos apparently have been equipped for MIRV.
Why Chinese MIRV?
The big question is why the Chinese leadership has decided to deploy MIRV on the silo-based, liquid-fuel DF-5A.
Chinese officials have for many years warned, and US officials have predicted, that advanced US non-nuclear capabilities such as missile defense systems could cause China to deploy MIRV on some of its missiles. The Pentagon report repeats this analysis by stating that China’s “new generation of mobile missiles, with warheads consisting of MIRVs and penetration aids, are intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent in the face of continued advances in U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Russian strategic ISR, precision strike, and missile defense capabilities.”
Chinese MIRV on the DF-5 ICBM is a bad day for nuclear constraint.
Seen in the context of China’s other ongoing nuclear modernization programs – deployment of several types of mobile ICBMs and a new class of sea-launched ballistic missile submarines – the deployment of a MIRVed version of the DF-5 ICBM reported by the Pentagon’s annual report strains the credibility of China’s official assurance that it only wants a minimum nuclear deterrent and is not part of a nuclear arms race.
MIRV on Chinese ICBMs changes the calculus that other nuclear-armed states will make about China’s nuclear intensions and capacity. Essentially, MIRV allows a much more rapid increase of a nuclear arsenal than single-warhead missile. If China also develops MIRV for a mobile ICBM, then it would further deepen that problem.
To its credit, the Chinese nuclear arsenal is still much smaller than that of Russia and the United States. So this is not about a massive Chinese nuclear buildup. Yet the development underscores that a technological nuclear competition among the nuclear-armed states is in full swing – one that China also contributes to.
Although it is still unclear what has officially motivated China to deploy a MIRVed version of the DF-5 ICBM now, previous Chinese statements and US intelligence assessments indicate that it may be a reaction to the US development and deployment of missile defense systems that can threaten China’s ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons.
If so, how ironic that the US missile defense system – intended to reduce the threat to the United States – instead would seem to have increased the threat by triggering development of MIRV on Chinese ballistic missiles that could destroy more US cities in a potential war.
The deployment of a MIRVed DF-5 also raises serious questions about China’s strategic relationship with India. The Pentagon report states that in addition to US missile defense capabilities, “India’s nuclear force is an additional driver behind China’s nuclear force modernization.” There is little doubt that Chinese MIRV has the potential to nudge India into the MIRV club as well.
Indian weapons designers have already hinted that India may be working on its own MIRV system and the US Defense Intelligence Agency recently stated that “India will continue developing an ICBM, the Agni-VI, which will reportedly carry multiple warheads.”
If Chinese MIRV triggers Indian MIRV it would deepen nuclear competition between the two Asian nuclear powers and reduce security for both. This calls for both countries to show constraint but it also requires the other MIRVed nuclear-armed states (Britain, France, Russia and the United States) to limit their MIRV and offensive nuclear warfighting strategies.
This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
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