China: August 29, 2000


Missiles in the (East) Wind; China's DF (Dong Feng, or "East Wind") series of ballistic missiles are not numerous. Although China has been developing ballistic missile technology for over four decades, they have not built a lot of them. Instead, they have put most of their resources into improving accuracy and reliability. This effort has been complemented by an energetic satellite launcher program. These missiles are actually older technology, but by offering reliable, and cheaper, launch services the Chinese have managed to bring in foreign money, and technology, to their entire missile program. Because American satellite companies have used Chinese launch services, much valuable missile technology was obtained. This caused a scandal in the United States during the last few years as the extent of illegal technology transfers was revealed. The Chinese obtained the technology using many different approaches. Faced with the loss of valuable satellites, but unwilling to forego cheap Chinese launch rates, American companies helped the Chinese. This assistance was exploited to obtain technical information useful for the military missiles. Chinese agents also scoured the United States, Japan and Western Europe for additional technology, exploiting the good will of overseas Chinese as well. This last angle often appeared innocent, with the scientists from "the old country" entertaining the Chinese immigrants and talking about events back home. These conversations often resulted in inadvertent disclosures of secret technology. All this is nothing new, as China's ballistic missile program began when US Air Force colonel, Qian Xuesen, went back to China, along with four other Chinese-American missile scientists, in 1955 and began work on Chinese missiles. Qian had come to America in 1935 to study and graduated from MIT and Cal Tech. He was long suspected of being a Chinese spy, and eventually lost his security clearance before returning to China.

The chaos of the Cultural Revolution stopped most missile development from the mid 1960s to the late 1970s. It wasn't until the 1980s that China got four ICBMs operational. Before that, it had several dozen shorter range missiles that could keep the Russians at bay. 
Currently the Chinese have six missiles in their DF series. The 20 DF-5's has a range 12,000 kilometers. Keep in mind that Chinese missiles follow the curve of the earth and are fired over the arctic. With that approach, Los Angeles is 10,600 kilometers away, and Washington DC 11,700 kilometers. There are 40 older DF-3s (range of 2,800 kilometers( and 20-25 DF-4s (range of 4,700 kilometers). 

China is increasing its stock of Shorter range missiles (DF-15 and DF-11.) These are the weapons most likely to be used in a war with Taiwan. The DF-15 (exported as the M-9) has a range of 600 kilometers, the DF-11 (M-11) 480 kilometers. Currently, China has 300-400 DF-11 and DF-15 missiles, and is likely to have 650 of these missiles by 2005. Taiwan currently has Patriot missiles that might be able to shoot down half the DF-11/15s fired at them. Even if China got a few hundred of these missiles on target, the damage would not be devastating. The DF-15 carries an 1100 pound warhead, the DF-11 a 1,760 pound warhead. China would likely use conventional explosives in these warheads. They could do damage, but no more than aircraft bombs. Indeed, the missiles are less accurate than most aircraft bombing systems. But while Taiwan stands a good chance of stopping nearly all Chinese bombers, at least half of the missiles will get through. Most of these missiles are stationed on the coast opposite Taiwan. China is improving the guidance systems of the DF-11/15, making them more accurate, and better able to avoid getting shot down. Chinese scientists make no secret of where they are getting the technology from this, they are getting it from the United States. These improved missiles could be decisive in a war with Taiwan.
China also has a new generation of missiles ready for deployment in the next few years. They all feature solid fuel propulsion, greater reliability and accuracy and multiple warheads. The 1,700 kilometer range DF-21 is actually a land based version of a missile carried on nuclear subs (China has only one such boat, carrying a dozen missiles.) The DF-21 will replace the DF-3. In a similar fashion, the 8,000 kilometer DF-31 is the land based version of the new submarine missile. The DF-31 will replace the DF-4. About ten years down the road, the 12,000 kilometer range DF-41 will replace the DF-5.

When the Chinese protest U.S. efforts at building ballistic missile defenses what they are really saying is, "don't force us to build more of these new missiles in order to overwhelm your defenses." Unlike the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which both had over 10,000 nuclear warheads aimed at each other at the end of the Cold War, the Chinese prefer to build just enough to make their point. 

Most of China's longest range missiles are aimed at American targets. Even some of the shorter range ones target U.S. bases in the Pacific. While the rest of China's armed forces are still rather low tech, China's missiles are not. And they are aimed at us.


Article Archive

China: Current 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close