Nuclear and Missile Threat from China
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Issue Vol 23.3 Jul-Sep2008 | Date : 14 Jun , 2012

The PRC’s ability to launch multiple foreign satellites, such as its Long March 2C/SD configured to launch two US Motorola Iridium communications satellites, also demonstrates the PRC’s ability to build the “bus” necessary to launch multiple nuclear warheads in the future. Manoeuverability for warheads on ICBM or smaller missiles enhances their ability to survive missile defence. Putting multiple warheads on a missile also increases their strike power and deterrent value.


A critical element to sustain and enhance PRC’s nuclear deterrence against the United States has been, its efforts to improve its nuclear missile force survivability. One major initiative to increase the survivability of the PRC’s missile force has been a clear effort to give greater mobility to all future land-based missiles. As such, the PRC is following Russia’s example, and eschewing that of the US, which keeps its land-based ICBMs in fixed silos. Limited mobility is given to the liquid-fueled DF-3 and DF-4 IRBMs, in as much, as they must be taken from disbursed caves to a launch location. There has been a clear effort to give greater road and off-road mobility to the newer classes of solid fueled missiles. New intermediate-range missiles like the DF-21, and new intercontinental-range missiles like the DF-31, are carried by truck-based Transporter-Erector Launcher (TELs).

The missile is towed behind the TEL engine/cab in a tractor-trailer fashion and ejected from their container tubes by compressed air. These TELs are less capable as all-terrain transport, and therefore need access to paved roads, so as not to cause cracks in the solid rocket motors that could lead to missile failure. New SRBMs are carried by TELs with a greater off-road capability.

The WS-2400 TEL manufactured by the Sanjiang Space Group for the DF-11 Mod 2/M-11 Mod 2 SRBM is clearly all terrain capable, enabling these missiles to be disbursed over a wider area.

Defeating Missile Defence

As China vigorously opposed US missile defence plans, the PLA places a high priority on enabling its missile warheads to penetrate future US missile defences. MIRV warheads can defeat missile defences. PRC researchers also show a familiarity with a range of measures that could defeat missiles defences, to include: infra-red stealth cloaking; plasma stealth cloaking; manoeuvering warheads; chaff; balloons; decoy warheads; warhead signature change; attacking satellites; and ground-based missile defence facilities. The use of smaller warheads enables an ICBM/IRBM to carry penetration aids such as decoys, chaff, and other materials that confuse radar that might guide intercepting missiles.

Also read: Prepare for the next great war

Chinese sources indicate they have conducted research into making ICBM warhead decoys. A leaked US intelligence assessment noted that decoys were tested on the DF-21 irbms in 1995, 1996 and 2002. The PRC is reported to have tested decoys on a 1999 test flight of the new DF-31 ICBM. Reported development of small thrusters for PRC SRBM warheads, such as on the DF-15, may also indicate an ability to put thrusters on ICBM warheads. Even a slight manoeuvering capability may be enough to significantly decrease the chances of interception.

New Non-nuclear Warheads

  • Sub-munitions. These are small-unguided bomblets that are disbursed by the missile over a wide area to attack airfields, ports or other soft targets. The PLA is reported to have developed guided sub-munitions for future use that would allow one missile to engage multiple targets.
  • EMP/HMP Warheads The development of non-nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) warheads has been reported for future PLA missiles. EMP is a large electromagnetic shock lasting for a few seconds, one of the effects of a nuclear explosion, which can disable electronic equipment over a wide area. The PLA is also reported have employed a Russian technology called Explosive Magneto Cumulative Generators (EMG), which explosively compresses charged coils to produce an EMP effect. The PRC has developed High Power Microwave (HPM) warheads for missiles, which produce the same effect against electronics as EMP, but cannot be countered as is possible with EMP. It is considered to be possible to use HPM to develop warheads that combine radar and destructive functions.
  • Penetration Warheads. Deep penetration warheads allow a missile to attack targets deep underground, such as command posts or aircraft shelters. Israel is reported to have provided technology that may help PRC to develop deep penetrating warheads. Research and development for ICBM decoys might also be applicable to smaller decoys for SRBMs and IRBMs.
  • Thermobaric Warheads. The PLA is reported to have equipped some SRBMs aimed at Taiwan with thermobaric warheads. Thermobaric warheads rapidly disburse fuel, which is then ignited to produce enormous blast and heat, upto five to eight times the force of an equivalent weight of conventional explosive. They have a devastating effect against buildings, soft equipment and personnel. The PLA obtained Russian thermobaric warhead technology in the mid-1990s when it began co-producing the SHMEL shoulder-fired thermobaric rocket.

Impact on the Region

These developments, now no longer prospects but realities, are already having a strong impact on the Asian region. The case of India is obvious. It has to now undertake a major programme of force development and modernisation, fundamentally in response to China. Evidence suggests that at least some in Russia are increasingly concerned by China’s range of strengths in its weakly-held Far East and Central Asian regions. Why exactly Moscow continues to sell arms to China is a difficult question to answer, but money alone cannot be the reason. Certainly the entire Russian Pacific coast, including Vladivostok, is placed at ever increasing risk by these new Chinese capabilities.

…attractive to the PLA, because the US has no plans to defend its southern approaches with land-based missile defenses.

South-east Asian states are also concerned, though none, except Singapore, is responding with a really major attempt to strengthen its military. Singapore, of course, will deny that China has anything to do with it. Of particular concern to this region will be China’s apparent intention to base some of its future SSBN and SSN fleet on Hainan Island, which is closer to deep water patrolling areas. This deployment will also cause China to move more naval and air forces to that island, perhaps even aircraft carriers in future. This may then lead to more aggressive Chinese behaviour to enforce its territorial claims, and more incidents similar to the April 2001 EP-3 incident could occur should the US Navy seek to monitor or contain China’s vital strategic submarines.

Political scientists believing in the “realist” theory of international relations, argue, that a major challenge to the military balance, such as China, is currently mounting, and will lead to one of two possible reactions–states may bend to the new power and accommodate themselves, or they may seek to form balancing coalitions and seek allies. Unfortunately, the theory does not tell us, as how to know, which of these two quite different reactions will be followed in a given case. The evidence suggests that China is expecting the first reaction: accommodation and acquiescence. It would appear that Beijing wants paramount influence, and expects to achieve it by over-awing its neighbours with military might –but with luck, not actually using it. If this method works, it will be possible to attain hegemony, without conflict, or even endangering economic links around the world.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal, PhD

served in the Regiment of Artillery and was awarded a Doctorate for his research & thesis on "Sino-Indian Relations".

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  2. Nice article, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Centralised and hierarchical (Chinese/communist) organisation and apparatus always wins against the bumbling, sometimes-corrupt, Indian system. Even with similar-order-of-magnitude finance, timescales and geo-politics. Would you agree sir?

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