Jeffrey LewisDF-31 is NOT deployed, got that?

Bill Gertz, reporting with Rowan Scarborough in his latest Inside the Ring column, states:

China has deployed a brigade of up to eight new road-mobile DF-31 long-range missiles.

That’s the latest assessment from the authoritative International Institute for Strategic Studies publication, “The Military Balance.”


The assessment that eight DF-31s are operational goes beyond the Pentagon’s latest report on Chinese military power made public in May. The Pentagon report stated that the DF-31 is still in development with deployment expected “later this decade.”

IISS has been making this (dubious) claim since at least 2002, when The Military Balance declared that the “first DF-31 (CSS-9) bde [is] reportedly operational.”

Mark it “8”, Dude.

So what’s the big deal? Sayeth the Claremont Institute’s, IISS offered a precise estimate:

Although some claimed that this is the first report that the DF-31 has actually been operationally deployed, this is not the case. Specifying that eight are deployed, however, is significant, and may be the first such count. Given the cautious methodology of the IISS, however, the actual number deployed may be considerably more.

Let’s talk about that “cautious methodology.” IISS estimates of Chinese ballistic missiles have, historically, been higher than those of the US intelligence community (IC).

One reason becomes clear when we ask what IISS means by “reportedly.” The reporting in question, I believe, is a pair of news stories:

  • The Taipei Times in May 2001 reported that China had “built two fixed missile launch sites in its southeastern provinces and is planning to build more as part of a project to build a “wall” of longer-range missiles against the US, according to a defense source.” Those sites were “capable of launching longer-range ballistic missiles such as the Dong Feng-31,” the paper noted [emphasis mine].
  • In September 2001, Bill Gertz reported “China will soon deploy its first road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles” citing “the Chinese military’s formation of the first missile units equipped with Dong Feng-31 missiles in July.”

China hawks at the time jumped all over the reports. Representative Bob Schaffer (R-CO) mischaracterized both in the Congressional Record, declaring:

In … May 2001 Taipei Times defense reporter Brian Hsu noted China has built two bases for housing the DF-31 and plans to build more. It would be very reasonable to assume that these bases house DF-31s. In addition, according to a story by Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz, China was expected to obtain an operational capability for the DF-31 by the end of 2001…

Neither story has been corroborated, but IISS (stiff upper lip and all) is sticking with its estimate. That may be right, but it isn’t cautious.

Moreover, IISS continues to list China as having 12 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) deployed aboard its lone nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), even though the SSBN, according to the IC, is not operational and does not have SLBMs deployed aboard.

That’s not cautious, either.

The IISS estimates are not reckless, though I respectfully disagree with them. IISS—like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Council on Foreign Relations—is simply on the high side, relative to what the Defense Department and the Chinese themselves say. It simply isn’t accurate to infer, as does, that “actual number” is “considerably more” than the IISS estimate.


And while I am making friends, let’s talk about Bill Gertz (left).

So, look: I’ve never met the man. For all I know, he is witty and charming or maybe a caring and sensitive lover. Whatever.

But he isn’t precise in reporting about Chinese ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

For example, Gertz claims that China “is expected to add 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) to its arsenal this year and 30 more ICBMs by 2010,” citing Chinese Military Power.

Chinese Military Power does not say that. The 2004 edition of Chinese Military Power says the number of Chinese ICBMs “could increase to about 30 by 2005 and may reach up to 60 by 2010 [emphasis mine].” It does not say the intelligence community expects such changes, but merely allows for their possibility.

In fact, CMP used exactly the same phrase in 2002 and 2003. That isn’t expectation, its covering your ass.

This is not the first time Gertz has misquoted a publicly available Pentagon document.


China will, of course, eventually deploy the DF-31 to replace its aging inventory of 12 DF-4 ballistic missiles, which have been in service since about 1980.

That modernization was programmed in 1985, when the State Council and Central Military Commission reorganized ongoing research into solid-propellant ballistic missiles. It’s not a reaction to missile defense or part of a secret conspiracy to rule the world. It may just be an excuse to wear silly hats (below).

The DF-31, relative to the DF-4, marginally improves the survivability of Chinese ballistic missiles and, as a result, will marginally contribute to the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent. The DF-31 will not, however, alter the basic configuration of China’s strategic forces. China will, ceteris paribus, continue to maintain a small number of ballistic missiles stored without warheads in service of a purely retaliatory operational doctrine.

The reports by Gertz and Claremont seem to me designed, not to track developments, but rather to keep the “China missile threat” in the news.

As we say at ACW, this isn’t really about hunting bears.


  1. Brian Konash (History)

    Keeping a china threat alive in the alarmist echo room is likely what the Washington Times’ messianic cult leader and owner, Sun Young Moon, wants. Only natural for his employees at Washington Times to oblige.