China is testing hypersonic missiles–news that is sucking all the oxygen out of the room when it comes to breaking defense and national security news involving Beijing for the last year or so.
But the most powerful fully-working long-range missile or ICBM in the Chinese arsenal was in fact first tested in 2013 and put on public display in 2019. Enter China’s DF-41 ICBM.
I would argue that hypersonics are great, but in the case of China and its overall nuclear weapons that are deployable right now, the DF-41 is really the one to worry about. Also, being a ballistic missile, it already flies at hypersonic speeds.
The DF-41 could reach the American mainland and eliminate cities on the West Coast. It’s not as flashy as a so-called hypersonic missile, but it can do more damage, in the here and now.
In fact, the DF-41 is one of the most dangerous ICBMs in the world for quite a few reasons. The missile is road-mobile on an eight-axle launcher vehicle, so that gives it a plus in survivability. It is also China’s longest-range missile with a range of 9,300 miles and can carry a payload of 5,500 pounds. The DF-41 can carry 10 Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), meaning one missile can fire off 10 warheads to 10 different targets.
DF-41 Can Reach The U.S. In Less Than 30 Minutes
Making matters worse for those who would challenge it in a fight, the DF-41 is so fast that it could make the trip to the United States in an astonishing 20 to 25 minutes. It could be accurate to 150 meters. Most Chinese road-mobile ballistic missiles remain in hardened tunnels until they get launch orders, then the vehicles take them out to the launch site. This makes the DF-41 more difficult to eliminate in a first strike.
What About NATO?
If the DF-41 is as good as advertised and if it can really carry up to ten warheads, the Western world has a problem. Consider that Europe is also in the Chinese crosshairs with the DF-41. What does that mean for NATO countries that are nuclear-capable such as France and the United Kingdom? Would NATO respond to a Chinese first strike against the United States?
Nuclear Strategists Are Back In Style
The Chinese have always what Henry Kissinger described, as a “prickly sense of sovereignty.” They are easily offended. Would they escalate to de-escalate their nuclear strategy? For example, let’s say the Chinese began an amphibious landing in Taiwan and the invasion began. Would they escalate to a nuclear attack if the Americans came to Taiwan’s aid in a shooting war? Would they then dare the United States to escalate to nuclear brinksmanship?
As China expands its nuclear arsenal and adds more DF-41s, these questions must be answered. Since 9/11, the West has focused on the global war on terror. But Afghanistan is over. It used to be that counter-insurgency strategists kept everyone’s attention.
Now nuclear strategists are back in vogue and the DF-41 has them confused–not confusion about China’s nuclear capabilities, but confusion about their future use.
19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.