The Buzz

China Is Building Mobile ICBMs (But Is America Paying Attention?)

Let’s examine the Global Times (环球时报) story posted as a “top story” in English on the official site of China’s Defense Ministry, though this will be a cursory summary since TNI readers should read it themselves and make up their own minds about its content and significance. The article suggests that the DF-41 can strike “targets anywhere around the world” and that perhaps the second brigade of DF-41s has been deployed now to Heilongjiang Province. In a bit of vitriol, the piece asserts: “The US has not paid enough respect to China's military. Senior US officials of the Asia-Pacific command frequently show their intention to flex their muscles with arrogance. The Trump team also took a flippant attitude toward China's core interests after Trump's election win.” In the rather unmistakable tone of a nuclear threat, the piece suggests, moreover, “China's nuclear capability should be so strong that no country would dare launch a military showdown with China under any circumstance.”

In the Dragon Eye column series, the emphasis has not been on analyzing English-language articles, such as the important piece discussed in the paragraph above, but rather on Chinese-language sources, so let us examine very briefly a couple of recent articles from the Chinese defense press regarding rail-basing for its new, mobile ICBM force. One such Chinese analysis followed a test launch during late 2015 that also received a little attention in Western news outlets. In explaining why Beijing might pursue the rather complex approach of rail-basing for ICBMs, the Chinese-language analysis states that “air basing and sea basing for nuclear strike capabilities remain weak points” (在空基和海基的核打击能力建设上仍显短板) for China. In other words, Beijing must continue to prioritize the land-based deterrent for the near- and medium-term, or at least until the other triad legs are more established. The author contends that China has “a huge rail network . . . [and therefore] mobility and survival are guaranteed” (龙大的铁路网… 机动性,生存性是可以保障的). Among the advantages of rail-basing for China discussed in this article are a “reduced time for launch preparation” (缩短 . . . 发射准备的时间), a related ability to “shoot and scoot” (打了就跑), the “stability advantage” (平稳性的优势) (vice road-dependent transport erector launchers) and, perhaps above all, the fact that the launch trains “look the same as regular trains” (与普通列车一样). Yet another benefit of rail-basing, according to this discussion, is the fact that a single train can easily carry command, communications, maintenance and personnel-support cars to accompany the actual missile launch car. Perhaps, it is not too surprising that China Defense News (国防报) published a 2015 piece mainly about Russia’s rail-based nuclear-armed missile system under the title: “The train missile that terrifies the West” (让西方胆寒的导弹列车).

It is troubling, to state the obvious, that Beijing would resort to such nuclear saber-rattling. Undoubtedly, it is not easy to square such threats with “peaceful development.” On the other hand, the last two months may have revealed a new and stark nadir in post-1978 U.S.-China relations, so regrettably this set of somewhat subtle signals may well be a harbinger of coming attractions. It is also rather disturbing that the nation’s leading papers have not seen fit to cover these latest nuclear threats emanating from Beijing. For example, the Washington Post has written about other short-range missiles (DF-16DF-26) over the last year, but seems strangely oblivious to the DF-41 that can actually hit Washington, DC with a high probability. Likewise, the New York Times has not written about the DF-41 warning, and its last article about Chinese nuclear forces (almost two years ago) made no mention whatsoever about the new mobile ICBMs capable of hitting New York.

Let’s hope this is not a deliberate effort by U.S. media outlets to minimize Chinese nuclear capabilities. We’ll put it down instead to the fact that both papers are currently obsessed with pursuing Russian hacking stories to the detriment of reporting on rather more vital strategic issues, such as Chinese nuclear capabilities. The danger, of course, is that neither the American public, nor even foreign-policy elites, have a clue regarding the true risks of pursuing a confrontational course with China. This is how misperception leads to cataclysm on an unprecedented scale.

No, this is not the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course, and we should not exaggerate the nature of the threat. At the same time, this low-level nuclear signaling still needs to be understood by American leaders.