Missile Mystery in Beijing

The mysterious DF-41 missile did not appear at the Chinese National Day parade on October 1st, but the Chinese Ministry of National Defense says the DF-31A did. But did it, or was it in fact the DF-31?

By Hans M. Kristensen

The military parade at China’s 60th National Day celebration last week was widely rumored to be displaying a new long-range ballistic missile described in the news media as the DF-41. The rumors turned out to be, well, rumors.

Instead the Chinese Ministry of National Defense identified two other missiles: the nuclear DF-31A and the conventional DF-21C, to my knowledge a first.

But was it the DF-31A that rolled across the square or the shorter-range DF-31 already displayed ten years ago at the 1999 parade?

What Was Displayed: DF-31A or DF-31?

The Chinese Ministry of National Defense web site carries several pictures (backup copy here) that identify the DF-31A, the long-range version of the DF-31 mobile ICBM, taking part in the parade. No DF-31s were identified. The U.S. intelligence community estimates that the DF-31A with a range of 11,200+ kilometers (6,959+ miles) is capable of striking targets throughout the United States and Europe. The missile is thought to carry a single warhead, was first deployed in 2007, and less than 15 are currently deployed.

The identification is curious because the DF-31A mobile launcher displayed in the 2009 parade is almost identical to the DF-31 launcher displayed in the 1999 parade. I’ve been going through all my images of Chinese mobile launchers and I cannot see any significant difference between the two. The only apparent difference is that the eight-axle truck has been upgraded and painted. But the missile canister on the “DF-31A” launcher appears to have the same dimensions as the one on the DF-31 launcher (see Figure 1).

Figure 1:
Common DF-31 and DF-31A Launcher or DF-31 Displayed Again?

The DF-31A launcher identified by the Chinese Ministry of Defense at the 2009 parade (top) is almost identical to the DF-31 launcher displayed at the 1999 parade (bottom). Do the two missiles use a common mobile launcher or did the Chinese government re-display the DF-31? Images: Chinese Ministry of National Defense

And it’s not as if there were two different long-range missile launchers in the area. A satellite image taken on June 23, 2009, and first described in China Brief, shows what appears to be the military vehicles rehearsing at Tongxian Air Base in the outskirts of Beijing in preparation for the parade. A line-up of 14 mobile launchers for long-range missiles all appear to have the same overall dimensions, including a 16-meter missile canister, and appear to be the “DF-31A” launchers identified in the parade (see Figure 2).

Figure 2:
Line-Up of “DF-31A” Launchers

Fourteen vehicles of what the Chinese Ministry of National Defense says are DF-31A missiles launchers lined up at Tongxian Air Base prior to the 2009 National Day parade all appear to have the same overall dimensions. Image: DigitalGlobe/Google Earth

Do the DF-31 and DF-31A use the same or a very similar mobile launcher? Or were the launchers displayed in Beijing in fact DF-31s but misidentified on Chinese television and the Chinese Ministry of National Defense web site as DF-31As? It’s hard to imagine the Ministry misidentifying the DF-31 as the DF-31A. But although there are no official public comparisons of the two missiles and their launchers (except the DF-31 has two stages and the DF-31A has three), the DF-31A is assumed to be longer than the DF-31 – 18 meters versus 13 meters, according to Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems. If so, the launchers displayed at the parade were too short for the DF-31A and must have been for the DF-31.

The Mysterious DF-41 (or still-to-be-seen DF-31A)?

The news media widely reported that the DF-41 would be displayed at the parade. The rumors about the missile seem to have fed off private web sites that claim the existence of a missile called DF-41. There is no official confirmation of this missile and a 2009 report from the U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Agency does not list a DF-41 missile or any other new Chinese long-range ballistic missile under development even though it lists new missiles under development by other countries.

The rumors about the DF-41 were so prevailing that an interviewer on the Chinese CCTV 4 Focus Today program the day before the parade kept asking Major General Zhang Xinan, the Assistant Director of the Second Artillery Corps’ Political Department, about the missile. But the General appeared to caution about what he called the “so-called DF-41,” saying that “this mystery will be cleared up tomorrow in the parade.” He did not dismiss the existence of a DF-41, but no such missile launcher rolled across the square.

Even so, photos have been circulating on the web for several years allegedly showing what appear to be a Chinese mobile missile launcher that is clearly different from the DF-31. Many have speculated that the launcher is for the elusive DF-41. Is it, or could this be the launcher for the DF-31A, or something completely different?

DF-31A or DF-41 Mobile Launcher?

Images of a Chinese eight-axle mobile missile launcher have circulated on the web for years, said to be for the DF-41 missile. Is it, or is it for the DF-31A, or something else? Images: Web

The JL-2 Payload

Finally, although the Chinese Navy’s new Julang-2 sea-launched ballistic missile was not displayed at the parade, the CCTV 4 Focus Today program interviewed Du Wenlong, identified as a “researcher” from the Chinese Academy of Military Science, who said the JL-2 “penetration capability and number of carried warheads have been raised to a large degree” compared with the JL-1.

The JL-2 is expected to carry some form of penetration aids, but it would be a surprise if it carries more than one warhead. Whether the “researcher” is in a position where he would know what JL-2 will carry or is talking in general terms is unclear, but the U.S. intelligence community has consistently – most recently in June this year – assessed that the JL-2 carries a single warhead.

Final Observations

It would be interesting if the DF-31 and DF-31A use a similar mobile launcher. It would mean that estimates of an 18-meter DF-31A are wrong; the missile would have to be less than 16 meters to fit inside the launcher that was displayed at the parade as the DF-31A. A common launcher would have some serious implications for crisis stability in a hypothetical war between China and the United States because a launch of a DF-31 against regional targets initially could be misinterpreted by the U.S. military as a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland, and lead to further escalation of the war.

But it would certainly be curious if the Chinese Ministry of National Defense claimed to display the DF-31A but instead re-displayed the DF-31.


10 Responses to “Missile Mystery in Beijing”

  1. RAJ47 October 5, 2009 at 8:51 am #

    The differences seen are-
    1 – The angle of launcher tube. DF31A has it more parallel to ground.
    2 – The launcher is slightly behind on the chasis, plz see the gap between drivers cabin and missile launcher. It is more in DF31A.
    3 – The hydro-pneumatic elevators (or whatever they are called), looking like shock absorbers, being at the same place in both TELs, DF31A would be easier (meaning faster) to raise to firing position than DF31.
    4 – The cannister seems to have become sleek, especially the base and the cover, probably the reason for lesser length.

    Well, the SAC’s senior official would not have made a mistake but they all are just enjoying the confusion in everybody else’s mind.
    DF41 seems to be only a myth. The number of axels have never matched in all its images. One of the DF 41 images clearly shows that the missile cannister will need to bend if the chasis is turning like this. The rear wheels turning in opposite direction looks very odd.

  2. JK October 6, 2009 at 6:50 pm #

    1, The whole problem may come from the fact that we are now using two different systems of weapon designators: what was called “Chinese CSS-6 Mod 2″ (in the NASIC 2009 report) is different from the “DF-15B” (in the Second Artillery’s term) during the National Day parade. It is possible that DF-31A in the Chinese designator system means DF-31 in the IC. The same problem comes when we are talking about seeing “DF-21C”.

    2, If there are “less than 15″ DF-31As (or another “less than 15″ DF-31s) deployed in China, is it very strange that almost all of the force (“comprise a very large percentage of the total number of DF-31/31As deployed”, as said in the China Brief) is in Beijing during the National Day period?

    We were seeing some undeployed missiles, or a significant mistake in DOD and NASIC’s numbers concerning Chinese nuclear force.

    Reply: Terminology certainly confuses. I too find it hard to imagine why China would assemble nearly its entire DF-31 or DF-31A force in one location. The US IC talks about the DF-31/31A being “deployed to units within the Second Artillery Corps,” so it is possible – but unknown – that the ones displayed were new launchers not yet deployed with the units. HK

  3. JM October 9, 2009 at 7:21 am #

    Concerning the concentration of launchers in one spot: It could well be that China has only 15 or so missiles, but more launchers (as decoys, test and training vehicles, etc.). So having excess launchers for parade is not necessarily confusing. As long as you cannot look inside the cannisters (let alone the warheads), the presence of the launchers in Beijing tells us relatively little about the Chinese nuclear capacities.

  4. dylan October 9, 2009 at 9:02 am #

    Err, the assumption that is probably incorrect underlying this analysis is that the cannisters on display in Beijing actually contained missiles. It seems highly unlikely (for a number of reasons) that they would, as JM points out.

    Reply: Err, no, as I point out in the article it is the launcher that was displayed. HK

  5. Sean October 13, 2009 at 6:05 pm #

    Would it be possible to analyze the photos and tell (with some degree of accuracy /error) if the canisters were loaded or empty?

  6. sp00ky1 October 13, 2009 at 7:16 pm #

    They are clearly different. But hard to say which missles they carry. The DF31A launcher has differences from the DF31:

    The carrier tube is longer in the back from the lifts to the end, i think it was extended just at the end. The carrier tube is farther back in the front compared to the other, you can tell this by how it aligns to the wheels on the cab wheel train. With this it does appear to be whats also shown in the fuzzy image in figure 2 as there you can see the gap in between the tube and the cab unlike with the DF31 which is alot less. Unless the cabs wheelbase was lengthened, as its hard to tell due to the picture distances. Not to mention many other smaller changes especially in the launcher tube accessory equipment. Also in the text it states that the tube is 18m and in the image it is 16m, not sure which one is correct.

    Anyway interesting article and pictures.

    Reply To me those look like minor upgrades that I would expect might happen to a launcher over the course of ten years, but not the ones that would indicate a different missile system. As for the 18m and 16m, if you read the text again you’ll see that what I point out is that the missile canister appears to be around 16m while Jane’s estimates the DF-31A is 18m. Thus my question: a common launcher or re-display of DF-31? HK

  7. dylan October 14, 2009 at 9:17 am #

    Mea culpa, I was really replying to a comment (no.2 by JK and the reply by HK) which implied that the presence of the launchers in Beijing meant the missiles must be there as well. Should have said “JK’s analysis” rather than “this analysis”!

    Reply: I did not imply the missile were there as well. I have no way of knowing that, but I doubt the parade organizers would want a dozen missiles with rocket fuel to roll across the square packed with thousands of spectators. HK

  8. xxx October 28, 2009 at 1:27 am #

    Obviously, the author had no basic information on the DF-31 when he wrote this article. He needs to go back to check the data of DF-31 and DF-21.

    Reply: Your IP address, Mr. xxx, is in China. Please teach me. I’m more than willing to correct mistakes. HK

  9. Robert Loo November 7, 2009 at 1:12 am #

    China has no intention of attacking the US. The Americans have contingency plans for a Taiwan war scenario. The PLA DF missiles are of obvious interest to the US. The Americans are using the pretext of defending freedom and US security to attack other countries including China. That is why with the DF the US will have to think twice about attacking China. Of course Taiwan and the need to maintain US credibility are shams to give an excuse for the Pentagon to beef up the US military. Yes the US will prevail but the price for attacking China is going up. Any US carriers in the Taiwan Straits with hostile intent will be blown up. China is not N Vietnam where the US navy could launch attacks from there.

    Reply: Well, I can’t say I agree with a lot of what you say, much less understand how to reach those conclusions. No one I know here are trying to find a pretext to attack China, but to avoid that misperceptions, suspicion, and misunderstandings lead to a crisis that escalates to military confrontation. I’m sure you can find bad people in the Chinese military as well. HK

  10. JK May 19, 2010 at 7:22 am #

    Edited] The ‘confusing terminology’ has somehow been clarified, semi-officially; this authentic account showed that:

    1. Chinese weapon designator system also uses ‘DF-31′ and ‘DF-31A’, which confirmed that those were DF-31As in the Parade.

    2. Chinese system also uses DF-21A/B/C/D, and it says that they were all ‘successfully developed’, having CEPs from ‘hundreds of meters to tens of meters’, and can attack targets ‘from fixed to slow-moving ones’.

    Reply: Thanks for the article (unofficial English translation here). It is attributed to Wang Genbin, deputy director of China Aerospace Science and Engineering Group 4, or what is known as China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) Fourth Academy’s Fourth Design Department. The correct translation of his title apparently is “deputy commander.”

    The history of the DF-21 is interesting, and the data largely consistent with John Lewis/Hua Di’s article published in the early 1990. But the
    article does not tell us anything new about the DF-21D capability against “slow moving” targets (probably referring to ship speed), a term frequently used in technical articles to describe research. An interesting report on the DF-21D has been published by Mark Stokes.

    I don’t see explicit confirmation that the DF-31A was in the 2009 Parade. I know it was announced, but I still can’t square that the dimensions of the launchers were nearly identical to the DF-31 launchers displayed in 1999. HK

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