A new generation of Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles may come into service as early as this year and will herald a period of rapid nuclear build-up by China, according to experts.
With a 14,500km estimated range, the DF-41 is the first Chinese missile capable of carrying multiple warheads that can strike any part of the US from anywhere in China. Previous missiles have been more limited. The first version of the DF-5, which went into service in 1980, could only hit the northwestern corner of the US from the north-east of China.
“Given the number of real reported tests, it is reasonable to speculate the DF-41 will be deployed to PLA Strategic Rocket Force bases in 2016,” said Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.
The news comes as US President Barack Obama prepares to meet China’s President Xi Jinping at a nuclear security summit in Washington on Thursday.
The new missile is the latest in Chinese efforts to challenge US global primacy on a number of fronts.
Beijing has been beefing up artificial islands in the South China Sea, while a new generation of weapons, including a stealth fighter, the DF-21D “carrier killer” missile and the 052D class destroyer, are underlining the transformation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army from a peasant-based land army to a mobile modern fighting force capable of challenging the US in the western Pacific.
While it will be a long time before China achieves nuclear parity with the US and Russia, the world leaders in stockpiled warheads, China clearly sees this as a gap that must be addressed.
Until roughly 2008, according to Mr Fisher, the US believed China had a maximum of 20 nuclear missile warheads. Now, with the advent of a redesigned DF-5 and the new DF-41, both capable of carrying multiple warheads, Mr Fisher says current western estimates for total Chinese warheads are between 200 and 400, with the potential to increase very rapidly.
The US has a stockpile of 4,760 nuclear warheads, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
With the ongoing deployment of the DF-5B multiple warhead equipped ICBM, and the new DF-41, “we will see a period of rapid increases in the numbers of China’s nuclear warheads that can reach the United States”, said Mr Fisher.
Tong Zhao, a nuclear security expert at the Carnegie Tsinghua centre in Beijing, said the DF-41 did a number of things that old missiles could not. While the DF-5 is silo-based, the DF-41 has a mobile launcher. The longer range also means it can be deployed anywhere in China, whereas previously China’s nuclear deterrent had to be based in the north-east of the country.
News of the DF-41’s imminent deployment was first reported by Canada-based military journal Kanwa Asian Defence.