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China’s ICBM Force Could Start a Nuclear War on America

Chinese Nuclear Weapons
DF-41 Road Mobile ICBM. Image: Chinese Internet.

A few month back, the ever-vigilant Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation hosted its annual China Forum in Washington, DC, highlighting Beijing’s malign behavior in the areas of security, economics, and human rights. Among the guest speakers was Russell Hsiao, Executive Director of the Global Taiwan Institute.

Russell gave a detailed account of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) military exercises Aug. 4. The PLA designated six closure areas and fired 11 ballistic miles, four of which overflew Taiwan. Hsiao added some historical perspective by noting that the PLA fired a mere eight ballistic missiles during its 1995-1996 “missile diplomacy” shenanigans.

The good news is that Taiwan has fairly robust missile capabilities of its own, as noted last year by my 19FortyFive colleagues Steve Balestrieri and Brent Eastwood. That said, China’s missile program is obviously something that needs to be taken seriously, and now is a good time to take a look at their missile arsenal. With the hope of expanding this into a multipart series, today I will focus on the deadliest and most powerful arrows in China’s quiver, their intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

F-5 (Dong Feng-5 / CSS-4)

This is the biggest ballistic boy on Beijing’s block, with a launch weight of 183,000 kilograms and a payload of 3,000 to 4,000 kg. It has a long reach, with a range of 13,000 kilometers, and the F-5 is the oldest of China’s homegrown ICBMs, first entering operational status in 1981. Strictly silo-based, it is capable of delivering large nuclear payloads across the United States and Western Europe

DF-41 (Dong Feng-41 / CSS-X-20)

This will be the second-biggest entry in the Chinese ICBM arsenal, with a launch weight of 80,000 kg and a payload of 2,500 kg. It has the longest range of the bunch at 15,000 km. 

The DF-41 is still in development, but once operational it will be capable of loading up to 10 multiple independently-targeted warheads (MIRVs). For perspective, America’s LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBM carries only three MIRVs.

The DF-41 will also offer versatility. It can be based on road-mobile, rail-mobile, and silo launching platforms. The PLA tested the DF-41 in the Gobi Desert in November 2021 and displayed them on a large military parade commemorating the PRC’s 70th anniversary in October 2019. 

DF-31 (Dong Feng-31 / CSS-10)

The DF-31 was first deployed in 2006. It is a three-stage, solid-fueled missile with an estimated range of 7,000 to 11,700 km. Launch weight is 42,000 kg, and payload is 1,050 to 1,750 kg. It is launched from mobile platforms. The original variant was carried on an 8-axle, tractor-trailer-based transporter erector launcher (TEL) built by Hanyang. The latest edition, the DF-31AG, has an upgraded TEL that can traverse unpaved terrain. This allows dispersal to a wider variety of concealed positions, reducing the missile’s vulnerability to countervailing attack.

JL-2 (Ju Lang-2, CSS-NX-14)

This is essentially the submarine-launched ballistic missile variant of the DF-31. It is deployed from the PLA Navy’s six Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic submarines, each of which can host a dirty dozen of the JL-2s. In service since 2015, the JL-2 has a range of 8,000 to 9,000 km, a launch weight of 42,000 kg, and a payload of 1,050 to 2,800 kilograms. 

Presumably the missile carries only a single warhead, but some analysts speculate that it could deliver anywhere from three to eight lower-yield MIRVs.  

Further Reading

Riki Ellison’s Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance was a supremely helpful source of technical information for this article. Riki’s name ought to ring a bell with old-school football buffs, as he was a member of the USC Trojans’ 1978 college football national championship team who then went on to win three Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers. Riki established a distinguished post-football career as the founder and chairman of Alliance, and I’ll give his fine organization the final word here:

“As China continues to rise to power, its ambitions rise alongside it. Today, the People’s Republic of China’s ultimate intentions are clear: It seeks to overthrow the U.S.-led order. In an effort to aggrandize itself, China hopes to dominate the Indo-Pacific region. This contest over the future of the regional and world order between the United States and China may potentially lead to massive conflict. For this reason, China poses the greatest danger to the U.S. national interest.”

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).