The 2007 Chinese Military Power is out.
The most interesting development is that OSD describes the status of the DF-31 as “initial threat availability.”
That’s not quite deployment, but the biggest news for DF-31 watchers since the first (apparently unsuccessful) flight tests in 1999 and 2000.
It means the missile has been successfully tested at least once.
Initial Threat Availability
In case you don’t remember the nastiness that ensued over the 1996 NIE on ballistic missile threats, political pressure on the intelligence community led to the creation of a not-completely-stupid designation of “initial threat availability” to signal a missile that has been successfully tested, but not deployed. Bob Walpole ‘splains it all:
Third, because countries could threaten to use ballistic missiles following limited flight-testing and before a missile is deployed in the traditional sense, we use the first successful flight test to indicate an “initial threat availability.” Emerging long-range missile powers do not appear to rely on robust test programs to ensure a missile’s accuracy and reliability nor will they necessarily deploy a large number of long-range missiles to dedicated, long-term sites. A nation may decide that the ability to threaten with one or two missiles is sufficient. With shorter flight test programs—perhaps only one test—and potentially simple deployment schemes, the time between the initial flight test and the availability of a missile for military use is likely to be shortened. Using the date of the first projected flight test as the initial indicator of the threat recognizes that an adversary armed with even a single missile capable of delivering a weapon of mass destruction may consider it threatening. Using the first flight test also results in threat projections a few years earlier than those based on traditional definitions of deployment.
So, the DF-31 has been tested successfully at least once. Which, you know, is a big deal.
I should note that the Rumsfeld Commission, which exerted the pressure that resulted in the change, was right to observe that “ballistic missile programs often do not follow a single, known pattern or model, and they use unexpected development patterns.” That works both ways, of course, and the Chinese seem to do very odd things with how they test and deploy systems. Take the slowly roll-out of the DF-21, which I described in Minimum Means of Reprisal:
Even the CSS-5 (DF-21), which had a comparatively smooth testing program compared with the CSS-NX-3, was not deployed for many years following a series of successful tests in 1985. The Second Artillery created an operational CSS-5 unit in 1986, but declassified U.S. intelligence estimates note that “deployment of this missile seems to have begun in the early 1990s.”61 In 1996, the U.S. intelligence community observed that China had deployed only a handful of the DF-21 missiles while R&D flight tests continued and that China planned to keep the CSS-2 (DF-3) in service until CSS-5 (DF-21) deployments were “adequately underway, … perhaps by 2002.”62 As in the cases of China’s ICBM and SLBM programs, the token deployments of the DF-21 in 1994 were substantially below DIA projections from the mid-1980s.^63
61. National Security Council, Report to Congress on Status of China, India and Pakistan Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs (National Security Council, np). A later edition of Chinese Military Power expresses more confidence, noting the CSS-5 (DF-21) has been “operationally deployed since about 1991.” See Department of Defense, Future Military Capabilities and Strategy of the People’s Republic of China, Report to Congress Pursuant to Section 1226 of the FY98 National Defense Authorization Act (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1998), p. 9.
62. National Air Intelligence Center, China Incrementally Downsizing CSS-2 IRBM Force, NAIC-1030-098B-96 (November 1996) in Gertz, The China Threat, pp. 233–234.
63. DIA anticipated twenty-eight MR/IRBM follow-on missiles by 1994. Defense Estimative Brief: Nuclear Weapons Systems in China, p. 4.
The DF-31 seems to have had similar growing pains.
The IC confirmed three DF-31 tets in 1999-2000. Although Gertz reported preparations in 2001 and 2004, the missile seemed to be held up for some reason. Perhaps Gertz was right about a failed 2002 test. Indeed, the DF-31 tests seem to have all failed until now.
Anyway, Craig Covault reported that China had increased flight testing year—which now seems confirmed by the change in the status of the DF-31
We might see a small number of Df-31s deploy to operational units in the next year or so, followed by further testing, if China replicates the DF-21 roll-out.
Then again, the DF-21 roll-out occured before the central leadership reorganized COSTIND into the GAD and solved all those nasty weapons development problems, right?
What’s the TEL Look Like?
When I was at CSIS, we had a sad, small little project that no one wanted to work on: T-21.
As in “21st Century Truck.” Seriously, it’s a real DOD initiative. We were going to bring transformation to transportation. As you might imagine, no self-respecting R.A. wanted anything to do with that project.
Anyway, the point: It’s called a “road mobile” missile for a reason, folks. It’s carried on a big truck.
An even though the missile is the sexy aspect of the system, the, er, pointy end of the spear, the development of a transporter-erector-launcher for the DF-31 has also been challenging for China. In 1997, Bill Gertz reported that the IC caught a picture of an SS-20 TEL near the missile checkout facility at Nanyuan:
According to the report by the Air Force National Air Intelligence Center, the presence of the six-axle chassis at the Beijing Nanyuan missile plant “suggests some relationship between this vehicle and the DF-31 program.”
The intelligence report, labeled “secret,” says the chassis was made at the Minsk Automotive Factory in Belarus, known by its Russian acronym as a MAZ.
“The mobility of the MAZ is significantly better than that of heavy Chinese vehicles,” according to the report. “For that reason, the Chinese will probably reverse-engineer the MAZ vehicle to better understand its superior characteristics.”
“Improved mobility is needed for the DF-31 TEL [transporter-erector launcher],” the report says, noting that the current DF-31 is limited to travel on surfaced roads. “Improved chassis features will in turn improve off-road capabilities, increasing the number of potential deployment locations.”
The SS-20 TEL carries the missile in such as way that the front overhangs the cab where the driver sits. And, photographers seem to have captured the odd picture of a possible DF-31 canister on something that might be an SS-20-like TEL with six axles. For example, this snapshot that appeared in Kanwa:
Most of the pictures in the public domain, however, including Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, however show the DF-31 being towed by an eight axle truck/trailer combination:
I think the assumption was the truck/trailer in the parades was show and the other for actual use with operational units (with the caveat that the missile wasn’t deployed, so we were guesing).
Now, Seymour Johnson with … Is that a real name? Or just somone Bart Simpson prank calls Moe to ask about, prompting Moe to ask the bar “Hey guys, I wanna Seymour Johnson” …
Well anyway, Mr. Johnson in Jane’s Missiles and Rockets has apparently plucked two photos from the internet, purporting to show a third configuration—single TEL with eight axles—out for a spin (sans missile).
Johnson does a nice job summarizing the other two configurations and speculating about whether this is an obsolete TEL for the DF-41 or a test drive for the DF-31A:
One possibility is that the new eight-axle vehicle was built under the DF-41 programme, which started development in 1986. This three-stage heavy ICBM was expected to have a range of 12,000 km and be deployed as a replacement for the DF-5 and DF-5A (CSS-4) liquid-propellant missiles. To date there have been no confirmed flight tests, and an unconfirmed US report stated that the project was halted or terminated in 2002.
Another is that it is an upgraded TEL for the DF-31A. China is known to be concerned by the relative lack of off-road mobility of the current Hanyang HY4301 TEL used for the DF-31.
Current doctrine emphasises dispersed, off-road, operations, which may have provided the impetus for developing a better TEL for use with the DF-31A variant. This extended-range missile is based on the DF-31, but uses a lengthened third stage, a feature that may have called for a longer eight-axle TEL.
Cool stuff, for a truck.
Update: Q&A With A Defense Official
Q (Off mike)—about terminology. Could you explain a little further with regard to the DF-31 status what you mean by initial threat availability? And also, could you say a little bit more about what’s referenced in the report of China developing methods to counter ballistic missile defense?
DEFENSE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I can address that question. When we say initial threat availability, what we mean is that the system is available and could be used if China’s leaders determine that they wanted to. The distinction between initial threat availability and initial operational capability is that right now we assess that DF-31 may not be fully integrated into the force structure, may not have all the requisite supporting personnel/equipment that we believe they would need to have to be considered fully operational. So I mean it’s a distinction that says that the system is ready or available now but it’s not necessarily fully operational.
Q Kind of like the U.S. missile defense system? (Laughter.)
DEFENSE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Let’s not try and compare where theirs is with ours. But it is what the respondent said it is.
Somebody sounds grumpy.