CHINA'S STRATEGIC MODERNIZATION plans took an important step forward August 2 with the first successful flight test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), known as the Dong Feng (DF)-31. The 8,000-kilometer-range, three-stage, solid-fuel missile had previously undergone only static tests. The test flight, reportedly covering the 2,000 kilometers from Wuzhai (Shanxi Province) to Lop Nor (Xinjiang Province), was announced in a one-sentence press release from China's official Xinhua news agency.
According to John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, the missile has had several engine tests on the ground. The first test in April 1992 and the second test were both failures ending in explosions, Pike said. However, six successful tests have followed since, including a soft-launch ejection, or "tube" test. According to Stanford scholars John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, China has been working on the DF-31 since January 1985 and plans on modifying it for use as the Julang (JL)-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Beijing has already used this method to deploy the twin 1,800-kilometer-range, land-based DF-21 and submarine-based JL-1.
With an estimated payload of 700 kilograms, the DF-31 could be used to deliver multiple warheads if China were to develop light-weight nuclear devices. A select congressional committee led by Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA) reported in May that China had stolen design information on the advanced U.S. W-88 warhead and that it would probably "exploit elements of...stolen U.S. thermonuclear weapons designs on its new ICBMs currently under development." The Cox panel's report said that with a 1999 flight test the DF-31 could be deployed by 2002.
An intelligence community damage assessment prompted by the Cox Report judged that "China has had the technical capability to develop a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV)...for many years but has not done so." The assessment also concluded that "U.S. information acquired by the Chinese could help the development of a MIRV for a future mobile missile."
But a U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity said, "We still judge [the DF-31] to be a one-warhead missile; the Chinese haven't made the technical strides needed to MIRV it."
Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon said on August 3 that there was no evidence that the Chinese missile employed any stolen U.S. technology. Bacon said that, depending on the numbers deployed, the DF-31 "does not give them a significantly enhanced military capability."
If deployed in eastern China, the DF-31 would be able to reach significant portions of the western United States. Analysts, however, believe the mobile DF-31 is meant to replace China's current force of 20 liquid-fueled, 4,750-kilometer-range DF-4s, which are thought to be targeted at Russia, India and U.S. bases in the Pacific.
Coming amid growing tensions between China and Taiwan, and prominent efforts by the United States, Japan and South Korea to prevent North Korea from testing a new long-range missile, State Department spokesman James Rubin sought to downplay the test flight's significance. Explaining that Washington had anticipated the launch for some time, Rubin said on August 3, "China already has long-range missiles, and therefore the fact that they've tested a new missile is not a dramatic new development that requires massive effort and diplomacy to try to deter." Rubin also noted, "We do not have any basis to conclude that the timing of the launch is linked to the issues with Taiwan."