Jeffrey LewisIs China Developing a MARV?

Anonymous officials tell Bill Gertz that China is develping a maneuverable re-entry vehicle for the DF-31 and JL-1 ballistic missiles:

A CCTV program about MARVs that got Rick Fisher
all hot and bothered.

It also is developing a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MARV), or MARV, for its nuclear warheads. The weapon is designed to counter U.S. strategic-missile defenses, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The warhead would be used on China’s new DF-31 long-range missiles and its new submarine missile, the JL-2.

This claim pops up now and again. Rick Fisher, Andrew Erickson, Mark Stokes and even Li Bin have all mentioned Chinese interest in maneuvering warheads.

I know, I know—you are thinking “Another article about Gertz? Leave much low hanging fruit, pal?”

In fact, I wanted to take a different approach in this post. The forthcoming Pentagon report on Chinese Military Power continues to be delayed, at least partially because the Defense Department wants to answer Jonathan Pollack’s question about how the United States ought to define “legitimate” Chinese military modernization.

That question applies to nuclear force modernization programs in China.

Warheads that can maneuver would be useful in evading missile defenses. In 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted of “an experiment” during the “Security-2004” military exercise that would “ensure Russia’s strategic security for a long historical perspective.” Wade Boese at Arms Control Today explained:

Neither Putin nor other top Kremlin officials have shed further light on what the new weapons system is. Most speculation centers on the development of a warhead for a long-range missile that can maneuver after separating from its booster instead of following a ballistic trajectory through space and back to Earth. A warhead that could alter its trajectory would present a much harder target for a missile defense system to hit than a warhead that followed a predictable path.

China clearly hasn’t tested such a system yet, but one might ask “What would the development and testing a maneuverable re-entry vehicle imply about the Chinese deterrent?”

China deploys just 30 ICBMs, kept unfueled and without warheads that conventional wisdom suggests are vulnerable and invite preemptive attack during a crisis. The simplest explanation for this choice is that the Chinese leadership worries less about its vulnerability to a disarming first strike than the costs of an arms race or what some Second Artillery officer might do with a fully armed nuclear weapon.

This choice is overwhelmingly in the interest of U.S. security.

The Bush Administration claims the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) is “intended to defend against threats or attacks from rogue states” and “would not be a threat to China.” Missile defenses and other forms of strategic modernization outlined in the US Nuclear Posture Review, however, complicate that choice (or so I have argued):

The Chinese leadership chose their arsenal in part on the belief that the United States would not be foolish enough to use nuclear weapons against China in a conflict. By asserting that Washington may be that foolish, and by attempting to exploit the weaknesses inherent in China’s decision to rely on a small vulnerable force, the NPR creates incentives for Beijing to increase the size, readiness, and usability of its nuclear forces.

Assuming that China is committed to maintaining at least some deterrent capability against possible US coercion, China has two options:

  • Make incremental improvements to minimize the inherent vulnerabilities of a posture characterized by small forces that are kept off alert, or
  • Abandon that posture by deploying a larger, more diverse and ready nuclear force that is inherently more survivable and credible.

It seems to me that investments in survivability (like road-mobile ballistic missiles) and penetration aides (like decoys and maneuvering warheads) are consistent with the first strategy, which is an alternative to a posture that—from our perspective—is much more provocative and dangerous.

Note: The other day, I gave a talk at China’s Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics—which conducts research on nuclear warhead design computations—about my article in the Bulletin, “The Ambiguous Arsenal”. That ruled.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    Just a random comment, but it’s worth remembering that the “M” in MaRV can take place exoatmospherically as well as the more commonly discussed endoatmospheric terminal maneuvering. In fact, in terms of the US’ midcourse defense system, it’s the exo version that makes sense as a countermeasure.

    And midcourse maneuvering can be accomplished by reprogramming a MIRV bus—“bussing” is usually done right after booster burn-uout, but it doesn’t have to be. E.g., launch, wait until a minute or two or three before reaching the ABM engagement volume (which can be estimated fairly well in advance) and then maneuver, drop off RVs, toss out decoys, etc.

  2. ry (History)

    HAs anyone looked at what Norman Polmar has dreged up on the subject? This months Proceedings has a teaser.