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China Develops Missile Power; MIRVs Possible, But Much Unknown

By | September 18, 2006

      China is developing a muscular military capability ranging from perhaps 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles and a nuclear threat capability, down to 750 short range ballistic missiles, a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimates.

      Yet the report makes clear that assessing the military and missile capabilities of the most populous nation is fraught with difficulties, with the secretive communist regime making it impossible to state with confidence just what sort of missile technologies the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wields. There are both known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

      And yet it is clear this has critical ramifications both for China and other nations.

      “The deployment of ballistic missiles clearly has important political and strategic implications for China’s security policy, both in terms of regional security and multilateral non-proliferation regimes,” the report states.

      However, one shouldn’t be quick to draw inferences from what limited knowledge exists, the report continues.

      “Some reports indicate that China seeks to enhance its missile capabilities, by improving solid fuel motors, diversifying its range of warheads and increasing their accuracy, the deployment of missiles with multiple warheads, and the development of PENAIDS and MIRVs,” the report states.

      “However, at this time it simply is unknown how far China has gotten in each of these areas of missile development.”

      For some U.S. strategists, that murky mystery may be more disconcerting than the troubling picture presented by what is known about burgeoning Chinese military technologies.

      China is in the midst of a massive years-long military buildup, either producing or buying from the Soviet Union and others advanced planes, ships, submarines and more, a procurement spree financed in large part by a $200 billion per year trade surplus with the United States. U.S. consumers buy toys, textiles, televisions, computers, and much more made in China.

      Aside from uncertainties as to what military capabilities and platforms China may be acquiring, there is the further unknown as to just what Chinese leaders intend to do with the hardware. China has enacted a law, for example, stating that it will invade Taiwan unless the island nation submits, soon, to rule by Beijing. But the United States, at least officially, is committed to defending Taiwan from a violent threat.

      The CSIS report examines many of the military-powers questions surrounding the Chinese PLA.

      For example, the report finds it is unclear whether China in fact has produced missiles with multiple independent reentry vehicles, or MIRVs.

      “As far as the development of MIRVs is concerned, [one scolarly report] surmised in 2003 that China has had the capability to develop MIRVs, including targetable MIRVs, for over 20 years, but apparently has not done so.”

      At the same time, “Some cruise missile development programs reportedly include MaRVs,” but “no details on this program are known.”

      It seems likely that China has developed missiles capable of carrying MIRV warheads, the report states.

      “Out of all Chinese ballistic missile programs, the DF-31 and the JL-2 are believed to be able to carry MIRV warheads,” the CSIS report continues.

      But it is difficult to find any certainty in the heavily-veiled PLA missile programs.

      “At this point, a reliable estimate on the status of Chinese MIRV technology is extremely difficult, even more so given the political sensitivity that surrounds this topic,” the report states.

      The report, released this month, is entitled “Chinese Military Modernization and Force Development” and was authored by Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the CSIS Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy, and Martin Kleiber. It can be viewed in full at on the Web.

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