Exaggerated Claims About China’s Missiles

January 8, 2011
David Wright
Former contributor

Last Sunday’s op-ed in the Washington Post by Mark Stokes and Dan Blumenthal about the extent and consequences of China’s missile buildup is riddled with important errors.

Their primary argument is that the development of conventionally armed Chinese missiles (short and intermediate-range missiles and anti-ship missiles) will have ripple effects on strategic stability and could fuel missile buildups elsewhere. They argue China’s missiles “will soon force Washington” to:

(a) build mobile short-range missiles to deploy in Japan and elsewhere, which would violate the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (which bans the U.S. and Russia from having missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km), and/or

(b) develop long-range conventional missiles (Global Strike) that would undermine strategic nuclear stability, since the launch of a long-range conventional missile could be mistaken for a nuclear launch.

Even assuming the United States felt compelled to threaten conventional missile attacks against China, it already has a very potent threat in its submarine and ship-based conventional Tomahawk land-attack missiles. These highly accurate, 2,500 km-range systems would be able to reach a lot of targets in China. Washington would not be forced into doing either (a) or (b).

While Chinese development of an anti-ship missile is something the U.S. military needs to watch, Stokes and Blumenthal’s fears of this system are exaggerated. Developing a reliable high-speed, high-precision missile that can home on a target within the atmosphere is very difficult. Slowing the missile down to ease the guidance and homing problem—as the U.S. did with the Pershing missile (which still never worked reliably)—would make it more vulnerable to attack by ship-based defensive systems.

A December 25 Washington Post article on China’s military purchases from Russia makes this same point:

Although the United States is making changes in response to China’s growing military power, experts and officials believe it will be years, if not decades, before China will be able to produce a much-feared ballistic missile capable of striking a warship or overcome weaknesses that keep it from projecting power far from its shores.

Moreover, U.S. ballistic missile warning satellites would be able to detect the launch of an anti-ship ballistic missile and determine the direction it was traveling. The DF-21 missile that is believed to be the basis of the system China is developing has a reported range of 1,700 km, which would have a flight time of 10 to 12 minutes, so a ship being attacked would have significant warning time.

Stokes and Blumenthal’s claim that China is “building a missile force second to none” is also an exaggeration. The Pentagon estimates China has fewer than 50 long-range missiles. The United States, by comparison, has more than 700. After three decades of development, China has deployed only 15 of its new mobile strategic missiles, and none of them can carry multiple warheads (i.e., MIRVs). That’s because China’s smallest tested nuclear warhead is too heavy for the missiles to accommodate more than one.

Moreover, the authors conflate all of China’s missiles, without regard to range or capability. By far the largest part of China’s missile buildup is conventional missiles with ranges of 300 and 600 km used to target Taiwan. None of these short-range missiles could reach Japan or U.S. bases in Guam, for example.

We would support the United States and Russia working to get China (and other countries) to agree to missile limits like those in the INF Treaty, as the authors suggest. But if China does not, U.S. policymakers should not be deluded into believing U.S. responses are limited to pulling out of the INF treaty or building systems that decrease strategic stability.

A short version of this analysis appeared as a letter to the Washington Post.