Behind a veil of secrecy, China’s development of strategic and tactical missiles is well into its third generation of modernization. While the development of Chinese long-range missile and nuclear forces has traditionally been characterized as conservative, incremental and slow, it has taken place against a backdrop of steadily growing official emphasis on the country’s defense-industrial complex, particularly its aerospace sector.
This process has been accelerated by a confluence of defense-industry reforms, comprehensive military upgrading and integration of innovative operational concepts. The net effect is a growing capability of China’s strategic missile forces and military space platforms.
Reports suggest China is selectively enhancing its strategic and tactical missile capabilities by developing solid-fuel motors; diversifying warheads and increasing their accuracy; deploying missiles with multiple warheads; and upgrading its ballistic-missile defense countermeasures, such as decoys, jamming and thermal shielding and possibly maneuverable reentry vehicles and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.
In particular, China is developing, testing and deploying a new generation of solid-propellant, road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles. These include the DF-31 and DF-31A, which are equipped with nuclear payloads. It is also designing and developing new classes of conventional short-range ballistic missiles and medium-range ballistic missiles to exploit vulnerabilities in ballistic missile-defense systems.
As part of its missile and nuclear-force modernization, China is also focusing on developing its sea-launched ballistic missiles and further developing its anti-satellite weapon capabilities.
The purpose behind China’s continuous modernization is to enhance the credibility of its deterrent threat by improving the survivability of its nuclear forces. Thus, China is diversifying its missiles in terms of their strike capabilities and mobility and formulating innovative anti-access/area-denial asymmetric warfare concepts to close the gap with technologically more advanced adversaries.
China’s progress in modernizing its strategic assets and capabilities owes much to the transformation of the country’s defense industries, particularly the aerospace sector, over the past decade. Since the late 1990s, China’s government has gradually introduced elements of competition and globalization, aiming at overcoming the entrenched monopoly of China’s traditional defense-industrial conglomerates.
The reforms have essentially enabled China to streamline research and development efforts, as well as technology transfers between selected components of its civil and commercial space programs. As a result, China has also been able to bypass existing export controls and restrictions on the transfer of sensitive military technologies.
Indeed, China’s military use of space is increasingly dependent and interlinked with civilian and commercial space activities, infrastructure and human capital. Its space launch vehicles can be used for satellites with a range of applications that may significantly enhance the effectiveness of China’s military space operations and systems. While ballistic missiles have generally different rocket engines, basing profiles and launch methods, their guidance and control systems may use similar components.