Strategic Weapons: August 17, 1999

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Chinese test DF-31 Missile: The missile was launched in early August from the Wuzhai missile & space center in central China. The missile landed on land not in the ocean which was considered less provocative given the current tensions with Taiwan. By the end of next year China will have nearly doubled their strategic rocket force by deploying 20 DF-31s. The DF-31 has a nearly 9,000 kilometer range and can carry a warhead in the 1 ton range. Because the 3 stage solid fuel missile is mobile it will be harder to locate than silo based systems. A congressional report indicated that the DF-31 would be used to test stolen miniature nuclear weapon technology and it may include engine improvements provide by a U.S. company. China has already threatened, indirectly, to nuke Los Angeles, if the U.S. came to the aid of Taiwan. This isn't credible given the current nuclear balance since the U.S. could easily destroy all of the static missiles the Chinese possess and then systematically destroy China. However it is unclear what would happen if the Chinese used nuclear weapons against Taiwan or some other Asian country. By using nuclear weapons the Chinese would put the U.S. in the position of either having to risk a first strike hoping that they could destroy all of the Chinese ICBMs, stand by and do nothing, or press a conventional response knowing that the DF-31 would ensure that the Chinese would always have a regional second strike capability. The DF-31's primary advance over current systems is its mobility which insures that it can't be located and destroyed, at least based on Gulf war and Kosovo experience, so that it provides an assured second strike capability. In that environment the willingness of the U.S. to support Taiwan has to be questioned. The primary risk is that the Chinese will underestimate the U.S. and start a series of events that will result in a nuclear exchange, as almost happened during the Cuban missile crisis. It's also important to remember that the Korean war was a result of the Communist blocks misinterpretation of U.S. statements on where and when we would fight. The subsequent Chinese intervention was based on the U.S.'s mis-estimation of what the Chinese would do.

The missile has significant implications for the Japanese as well. It's unclear if the Japanese would be willing to count on a U.S. nuclear umbrella once the Chinese have an assured regional second strike capability. It's likely therefore that what Asia has been fearing will happen, both China and Japan will be significant military powers. While Japan has done a good job of reform after WWII there is still concern in Asia and elsewhere. -- Tom Trinko

 


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