China on the Launch Pad

SINGAPORE – Behind a veil of secrecy, China’s development of strategic and tactical missiles is well into its third generation of modernization. While the development of Chinese long-range missile and nuclear forces has traditionally been characterized as conservative, incremental, and slow, it has taken place against a backdrop of steadily growing official emphasis on the country’s defense-industrial complex, particularly its aerospace sector.

This process has been accelerated by a confluence of defense-industry reforms, comprehensive military upgrading, and integration of innovative operational concepts. The net effect is a growing capability of China’s strategic missile forces and military space platforms.

Various reports suggest that China is selectively enhancing its strategic and tactical missile capabilities by developing solid-fuel motors; diversifying its range of warheads and increasing their accuracy; deploying missiles with multiple warheads; and upgrading its ballistic-missile defense countermeasures, such as decoys, chaff, jamming, and thermal shielding, and possibly maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRVs) and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs).

In particular, China is developing, testing, and deploying a new generation of solid-propellant, road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). These include the DF-31 and DF-31A, which are equipped with nuclear payloads. It is also designing and developing new classes of conventional short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), such as the DF-21 – mobile, solid-propellant, longer range, more accurate, and able to exploit vulnerabilities in ballistic missile-defense systems.