A video recently discovered on a Chinese internet service appears to show a new Chinese road-mobile missile making a turn at an intersection in the city of Daqing. The discovery generated sensational claims about changes in Chinese nuclear strategy. However, a careful search of Chinese sources shows that none of those claims can be substantiated. Some are obvious distortions.
The Dongfeng (DF)-41 Missile
Multiple foreign media sources claimed the missile in the video was a new nuclear-armed long-range ballistic missile called the DF-41. The Chinese government does not comment on the composition and capabilities of its nuclear missile force and has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the DF-41.
The missile seen in the video appears slightly larger than the DF-31A long-range ballistic missiles China displayed in a national military parade in 2015. The U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center states the DF-31A has a range of 11,000+ kilometers and could deliver a single Chinese nuclear warhead, estimated to weigh approximately 500kg, to targets within the continental United States.
Almost all of the reported information about the existence and characteristics of the DF-41 can be traced to a handful of foreign media sources that have a questionable track record when reporting on Chinese missile technology. However, the U.S. Department of Defense recently reported China “is developing a new road-mobile ICBM, the CSS-X-20 (DF-41) capable of carrying MIRVs.”
Although foreign media sources routinely claim the DF-41 could carry 10 or 12 nuclear warheads, the missile seen in the video could not. It’s too small given the mass of Chinese warheads. Similar in size and appearance to the Russian Topol-M, which can carry a payload of 1,200 kg approximately 10,500 km, the missile in the video may be able to carry two Chinese warheads, but it most likely is designed, like the DF-31A, to carry a single warhead and a set of countermeasures to confuse missile defenses.
If the missile seen in the video is the new road-mobile missile discussed in the Pentagon report, it purportedly has a slightly longer range than the DF-31A. This would allow China to reach US targets it could previously reach only with a liquid-fueled, silo-based missile called the DF-5—which was also displayed during the 2015 military parade. Because silo-based missiles are more vulnerable to a preemptive first strike, having a road-mobile missile with the same range as the DF-5 increases Chinese confidence in their ability to retaliate.
False Claims About Chinese Nuclear Strategy
On January 24, Popular Mechanics published a story with a still from the video that claimed the Chinese government “publicly announced the deployment” of the DF-41 and that announcement “is likely a warning to U.S. President Donald Trump, who is known for sharply worded anti-Chinese rhetoric and has announced plans for a new ballistic missile system.” Two days later The Independent ran the same story with the same claims. The Sun, the Daily Caller, the International Business Times, the Moscow Times, Quora.com, ZeroHedge.com, STRATFOR, TASS, RT, and Sputnik International all ran stories about the alleged Chinese nuclear missile “deployment” and what it supposedly revealed about the intentions of the Chinese government.
Breitbart ran the same story with the same claims on January 27, but with the added twist that the so-called deployment of the missile in Heilongjiang province, which shares a border with the Russia, is a prelude to an “approaching Clash of Civilizations world war” where “Russia and the United States will be allied against China.”
The sole basis of the claim that China announced the existence and deployment of the DF-41 is a commentary in the English-language edition of China’s Global Times. The commentary is a response to the publication of images from the posted video in the Hong Kong and Taiwan media, which in turn seem to have their origins in a French website. Yet, the Global Times clearly states,”there has been no authoritative information on whether China has a Dongfeng-41 strategic missile brigade, how many such brigades it has and where they are deployed.” The Chinese commentary is critical of President Trump, and does express the hope that the existence of the DF-41 “will be revealed officially soon.” But that is a far cry from the “official announcement” described in many of the foreign news reports on the posted video.
Fake News about Nuclear Weapons is a Cause for Concern
The fabrication and distribution of misinformation about the size, capability and intent of China’s nuclear arsenal is nothing new. Several years ago an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University cited Chinese-language blog posts to recast decades-old rumors from a Hong Kong tabloid as a “leaked Chinese military document” that allegedly proved China’s nuclear arsenal was ten times larger than existing US estimates. His assertions and sources are demonstrably not credible. Yet, Dr. Peter Navarro, an adviser to President Trump, repeated these alternative facts about the size of China’s nuclear arsenal in a recent book on Chinese military strategy.
President Trump recently directed Secretary of Defense Mattis to initiate a review of the US nuclear posture. This follows a series of statements in the wake of the November election that indicated Mr. Trump supported a major build-up of US nuclear forces. While the new U.S. president’s comments on the need for US nuclear modernization are not unprecedented, his ability to push modernization plans through a Republican-led Congress, despite the enormous projected costs, may be enhanced by exaggerated perceptions of a Chinese nuclear threat to the United States.
As the debate on US nuclear weapons policy takes shape under the direction of Secretary Mattis, who may have reservations about the need for a US nuclear build-up, it is important that US decisions be made on the basis of the best available information, rather than the alternative facts now circulating in Washington.