Global Risk

Missile Mystery in Beijing

10.05.09 | 5 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen
The mysterious DF-41 missile did not appear at the Chinese National Day parade on October 1st, but the Chinese Ministry of National Defense says the DF-31A did. But did it, or was it in fact the DF-31?

By Hans M. Kristensen

The military parade at China’s 60th National Day celebration last week was widely rumored to be displaying a new long-range ballistic missile described in the news media as the DF-41. The rumors turned out to be, well, rumors.

Instead the Chinese Ministry of National Defense identified two other missiles: the nuclear DF-31A and the conventional DF-21C, to my knowledge a first.

But was it the DF-31A that rolled across the square or the shorter-range DF-31 already displayed ten years ago at the 1999 parade?

What Was Displayed: DF-31A or DF-31?

The Chinese Ministry of National Defense web site carries several pictures (backup copy here) that identify the DF-31A, the long-range version of the DF-31 mobile ICBM, taking part in the parade. No DF-31s were identified. The U.S. intelligence community estimates that the DF-31A with a range of 11,200+ kilometers (6,959+ miles) is capable of striking targets throughout the United States and Europe. The missile is thought to carry a single warhead, was first deployed in 2007, and less than 15 are currently deployed.

The identification is curious because the DF-31A mobile launcher displayed in the 2009 parade is almost identical to the DF-31 launcher displayed in the 1999 parade. I’ve been going through all my images of Chinese mobile launchers and I cannot see any significant difference between the two. The only apparent difference is that the eight-axle truck has been upgraded and painted. But the missile canister on the “DF-31A” launcher appears to have the same dimensions as the one on the DF-31 launcher (see Figure 1).

Figure 1:
Common DF-31 and DF-31A Launcher or DF-31 Displayed Again?

The DF-31A launcher identified by the Chinese Ministry of Defense at the 2009 parade (top) is almost identical to the DF-31 launcher displayed at the 1999 parade (bottom). Do the two missiles use a common mobile launcher or did the Chinese government re-display the DF-31? Images: Chinese Ministry of National Defense

And it’s not as if there were two different long-range missile launchers in the area. A satellite image taken on June 23, 2009, and first described in China Brief, shows what appears to be the military vehicles rehearsing at Tongxian Air Base in the outskirts of Beijing in preparation for the parade. A line-up of 14 mobile launchers for long-range missiles all appear to have the same overall dimensions, including a 16-meter missile canister, and appear to be the “DF-31A” launchers identified in the parade (see Figure 2).

Figure 2:
Line-Up of “DF-31A” Launchers

Fourteen vehicles of what the Chinese Ministry of National Defense says are DF-31A missiles launchers lined up at Tongxian Air Base prior to the 2009 National Day parade all appear to have the same overall dimensions. Image: DigitalGlobe/Google Earth

Do the DF-31 and DF-31A use the same or a very similar mobile launcher? Or were the launchers displayed in Beijing in fact DF-31s but misidentified on Chinese television and the Chinese Ministry of National Defense web site as DF-31As? It’s hard to imagine the Ministry misidentifying the DF-31 as the DF-31A. But although there are no official public comparisons of the two missiles and their launchers (except the DF-31 has two stages and the DF-31A has three), the DF-31A is assumed to be longer than the DF-31 – 18 meters versus 13 meters, according to Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems. If so, the launchers displayed at the parade were too short for the DF-31A and must have been for the DF-31.

The Mysterious DF-41 (or still-to-be-seen DF-31A)?

The news media widely reported that the DF-41 would be displayed at the parade. The rumors about the missile seem to have fed off private web sites that claim the existence of a missile called DF-41. There is no official confirmation of this missile and a 2009 report from the U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Agency does not list a DF-41 missile or any other new Chinese long-range ballistic missile under development even though it lists new missiles under development by other countries.

The rumors about the DF-41 were so prevailing that an interviewer on the Chinese CCTV 4 Focus Today program the day before the parade kept asking Major General Zhang Xinan, the Assistant Director of the Second Artillery Corps’ Political Department, about the missile. But the General appeared to caution about what he called the “so-called DF-41,” saying that “this mystery will be cleared up tomorrow in the parade.” He did not dismiss the existence of a DF-41, but no such missile launcher rolled across the square.

Even so, photos have been circulating on the web for several years allegedly showing what appear to be a Chinese mobile missile launcher that is clearly different from the DF-31. Many have speculated that the launcher is for the elusive DF-41. Is it, or could this be the launcher for the DF-31A, or something completely different?

DF-31A or DF-41 Mobile Launcher?

Images of a Chinese eight-axle mobile missile launcher have circulated on the web for years, said to be for the DF-41 missile. Is it, or is it for the DF-31A, or something else? Images: Web

The JL-2 Payload

Finally, although the Chinese Navy’s new Julang-2 sea-launched ballistic missile was not displayed at the parade, the CCTV 4 Focus Today program interviewed Du Wenlong, identified as a “researcher” from the Chinese Academy of Military Science, who said the JL-2 “penetration capability and number of carried warheads have been raised to a large degree” compared with the JL-1.

The JL-2 is expected to carry some form of penetration aids, but it would be a surprise if it carries more than one warhead. Whether the “researcher” is in a position where he would know what JL-2 will carry or is talking in general terms is unclear, but the U.S. intelligence community has consistently – most recently in June this year – assessed that the JL-2 carries a single warhead.

Final Observations

It would be interesting if the DF-31 and DF-31A use a similar mobile launcher. It would mean that estimates of an 18-meter DF-31A are wrong; the missile would have to be less than 16 meters to fit inside the launcher that was displayed at the parade as the DF-31A. A common launcher would have some serious implications for crisis stability in a hypothetical war between China and the United States because a launch of a DF-31 against regional targets initially could be misinterpreted by the U.S. military as a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland, and lead to further escalation of the war.

But it would certainly be curious if the Chinese Ministry of National Defense claimed to display the DF-31A but instead re-displayed the DF-31.