Jeffrey LewisDF-31: Initial Threat Availability

The 2007 Chinese Military Power is out.

The most interesting development is that OSD describes the status of the DF-31 as “initial threat availability.”

That’s not quite deployment, but the biggest news for DF-31 watchers since the first (apparently unsuccessful) flight tests in 1999 and 2000.

It means the missile has been successfully tested at least once.

Initial Threat Availability

In case you don’t remember the nastiness that ensued over the 1996 NIE on ballistic missile threats, political pressure on the intelligence community led to the creation of a not-completely-stupid designation of “initial threat availability” to signal a missile that has been successfully tested, but not deployed. Bob Walpole ‘splains it all:

Third, because countries could threaten to use ballistic missiles following limited flight-testing and before a missile is deployed in the traditional sense, we use the first successful flight test to indicate an “initial threat availability.” Emerging long-range missile powers do not appear to rely on robust test programs to ensure a missile’s accuracy and reliability nor will they necessarily deploy a large number of long-range missiles to dedicated, long-term sites. A nation may decide that the ability to threaten with one or two missiles is sufficient. With shorter flight test programs—perhaps only one test—and potentially simple deployment schemes, the time between the initial flight test and the availability of a missile for military use is likely to be shortened. Using the date of the first projected flight test as the initial indicator of the threat recognizes that an adversary armed with even a single missile capable of delivering a weapon of mass destruction may consider it threatening. Using the first flight test also results in threat projections a few years earlier than those based on traditional definitions of deployment.

So, the DF-31 has been tested successfully at least once. Which, you know, is a big deal.

I should note that the Rumsfeld Commission, which exerted the pressure that resulted in the change, was right to observe that “ballistic missile programs often do not follow a single, known pattern or model, and they use unexpected development patterns.” That works both ways, of course, and the Chinese seem to do very odd things with how they test and deploy systems. Take the slowly roll-out of the DF-21, which I described in Minimum Means of Reprisal:

Even the CSS-5 (DF-21), which had a comparatively smooth testing program compared with the CSS-NX-3, was not deployed for many years following a series of successful tests in 1985. The Second Artillery created an operational CSS-5 unit in 1986, but declassified U.S. intelligence estimates note that “deployment of this missile seems to have begun in the early 1990s.”61 In 1996, the U.S. intelligence community observed that China had deployed only a handful of the DF-21 missiles while R&D flight tests continued and that China planned to keep the CSS-2 (DF-3) in service until CSS-5 (DF-21) deployments were “adequately underway, … perhaps by 2002.”62 As in the cases of China’s ICBM and SLBM programs, the token deployments of the DF-21 in 1994 were substantially below DIA projections from the mid-1980s.^63

61. National Security Council, Report to Congress on Status of China, India and Pakistan Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs (National Security Council, np). A later edition of Chinese Military Power expresses more confidence, noting the CSS-5 (DF-21) has been “operationally deployed since about 1991.” See Department of Defense, Future Military Capabilities and Strategy of the People’s Republic of China, Report to Congress Pursuant to Section 1226 of the FY98 National Defense Authorization Act (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1998), p. 9.

62. National Air Intelligence Center, China Incrementally Downsizing CSS-2 IRBM Force, NAIC-1030-098B-96 (November 1996) in Gertz, The China Threat, pp. 233–234.

63. DIA anticipated twenty-eight MR/IRBM follow-on missiles by 1994. Defense Estimative Brief: Nuclear Weapons Systems in China, p. 4.

The DF-31 seems to have had similar growing pains.

The IC confirmed three DF-31 tets in 1999-2000. Although Gertz reported preparations in 2001 and 2004, the missile seemed to be held up for some reason. Perhaps Gertz was right about a failed 2002 test. Indeed, the DF-31 tests seem to have all failed until now.

Anyway, Craig Covault reported that China had increased flight testing year—which now seems confirmed by the change in the status of the DF-31

We might see a small number of Df-31s deploy to operational units in the next year or so, followed by further testing, if China replicates the DF-21 roll-out.

Then again, the DF-21 roll-out occured before the central leadership reorganized COSTIND into the GAD and solved all those nasty weapons development problems, right?

What’s the TEL Look Like?

When I was at CSIS, we had a sad, small little project that no one wanted to work on: T-21.

As in “21st Century Truck.” Seriously, it’s a real DOD initiative. We were going to bring transformation to transportation. As you might imagine, no self-respecting R.A. wanted anything to do with that project.

Anyway, the point: It’s called a “road mobile” missile for a reason, folks. It’s carried on a big truck.

An even though the missile is the sexy aspect of the system, the, er, pointy end of the spear, the development of a transporter-erector-launcher for the DF-31 has also been challenging for China. In 1997, Bill Gertz reported that the IC caught a picture of an SS-20 TEL near the missile checkout facility at Nanyuan:

According to the report by the Air Force National Air Intelligence Center, the presence of the six-axle chassis at the Beijing Nanyuan missile plant “suggests some relationship between this vehicle and the DF-31 program.”


The intelligence report, labeled “secret,” says the chassis was made at the Minsk Automotive Factory in Belarus, known by its Russian acronym as a MAZ.

“The mobility of the MAZ is significantly better than that of heavy Chinese vehicles,” according to the report. “For that reason, the Chinese will probably reverse-engineer the MAZ vehicle to better understand its superior characteristics.”


“Improved mobility is needed for the DF-31 TEL [transporter-erector launcher],” the report says, noting that the current DF-31 is limited to travel on surfaced roads. “Improved chassis features will in turn improve off-road capabilities, increasing the number of potential deployment locations.”

The SS-20 TEL carries the missile in such as way that the front overhangs the cab where the driver sits. And, photographers seem to have captured the odd picture of a possible DF-31 canister on something that might be an SS-20-like TEL with six axles. For example, this snapshot that appeared in Kanwa:

Most of the pictures in the public domain, however, including Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, however show the DF-31 being towed by an eight axle truck/trailer combination:

I think the assumption was the truck/trailer in the parades was show and the other for actual use with operational units (with the caveat that the missile wasn’t deployed, so we were guesing).

Now, Seymour Johnson with … Is that a real name? Or just somone Bart Simpson prank calls Moe to ask about, prompting Moe to ask the bar “Hey guys, I wanna Seymour Johnson” …

Well anyway, Mr. Johnson in Jane’s Missiles and Rockets has apparently plucked two photos from the internet, purporting to show a third configuration—single TEL with eight axles—out for a spin (sans missile).

Johnson does a nice job summarizing the other two configurations and speculating about whether this is an obsolete TEL for the DF-41 or a test drive for the DF-31A:

One possibility is that the new eight-axle vehicle was built under the DF-41 programme, which started development in 1986. This three-stage heavy ICBM was expected to have a range of 12,000 km and be deployed as a replacement for the DF-5 and DF-5A (CSS-4) liquid-propellant missiles. To date there have been no confirmed flight tests, and an unconfirmed US report stated that the project was halted or terminated in 2002.

Another is that it is an upgraded TEL for the DF-31A. China is known to be concerned by the relative lack of off-road mobility of the current Hanyang HY4301 TEL used for the DF-31.

Current doctrine emphasises dispersed, off-road, operations, which may have provided the impetus for developing a better TEL for use with the DF-31A variant. This extended-range missile is based on the DF-31, but uses a lengthened third stage, a feature that may have called for a longer eight-axle TEL.

Cool stuff, for a truck.

Update: Q&A With A Defense Official

DOD sent an “official” to meet with reporters on background about the report. Some reporter asks the DOD official about “initial threat availability” and then takes the piss out of the poor official.

Q (Off mike)—about terminology. Could you explain a little further with regard to the DF-31 status what you mean by initial threat availability? And also, could you say a little bit more about what’s referenced in the report of China developing methods to counter ballistic missile defense?

DEFENSE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I can address that question. When we say initial threat availability, what we mean is that the system is available and could be used if China’s leaders determine that they wanted to. The distinction between initial threat availability and initial operational capability is that right now we assess that DF-31 may not be fully integrated into the force structure, may not have all the requisite supporting personnel/equipment that we believe they would need to have to be considered fully operational. So I mean it’s a distinction that says that the system is ready or available now but it’s not necessarily fully operational.

Q Kind of like the U.S. missile defense system? (Laughter.)

DEFENSE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Let’s not try and compare where theirs is with ours. But it is what the respondent said it is.

Somebody sounds grumpy.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    I have a shamefully cynical interpretation of this ITA stuff:

    Remember, the 2006 China Military Power document flatly predicted IOC for the DF-31 in 2006.

    What I think happened is that essentially no activity in the program—except for one test flight in September 2006—was detected before the ‘07 document had be to published. So, to rescue the previous IOC prediction and to save the threat, DOD unearthed Bob Walpole’s ITA definition from 1999-2000 and used the September test to make it applicable.

    BTW, I haven’t been able to find any other use of ITA between 2000 and now.

    I’m just so cynical…

  2. none (History)

    The transporter erector is much more difficult to engineer than it appears. It may be one of the key reasons why the PRC have taken their time to deploy the missile and could be a reason for them to seek a submarine based nuclear capability.

    Whereas the cycle time from remote sensing (satellite / air recon / drone / humit) from target acquisition / identification / destruction use to be measured in days in the 1980s and early 90s, the cycle time today can be reckoned in hours to minutes, making road mobility far less relevant in ensuring survivability.

    Just how far can a DF-31 move before it is ‘reacquired’ and counterforce weapons retargeted? Suppose the counterforce is not conventional, but nuclear devices with a large ‘kill’ radius? Can a road mobile missile really get out of the way or get ‘lost’ in time to make any difference?

    Notwithstanding these fundamental changes in the balance of power in favor of the hunter vs the hunted—- a far cry from the days during the first Gulf war when US assets had difficulties locating Scud launchers in a desert, there are other issues.

    TELs have to withstand the rigors of off road travel, transfer below a specified amount of shock / vibration / harshness to the missile, and be able to carry out its function in less than ideal terrain (ie erect and launch on not necessarily level ground, etc.) Keep in mind that a TEL never travels alone, but is moved with many support vehicles, armed detachment, etc.

    Take a look at Chinese terrain it is likely to operate in (start with areas and military bases where existing missiles are located, but also consider potential future basing areas in each military region), and it can be extrapolated that the ‘off road’ capabilities are much more demanding than Russian / former USSR faces. Simply reverse engineering the Russian solutions may not meet Chinese needs because their terrain are just that much more difficult.

    There are many areas of China that are relatively flat for miles, making it difficult to hide a road mobile behemoth of this size even if it can be moved.

    In the north (the wheat growing areas) of China, ‘off road’ can mean small dirt roads leading into or beside wheat fields.

    In the south (rice growing area), it means narrow dirt roads and rice paddies that are often flooded. To the west, there is the Gobi desert.

    Beside this, there are the urban areas with all the issues / concerns of moving a mobile ICBM around a major population center.

    The terrain Chinese planners have to reckon with would be difficult for any off-road vehicle, let alone one carrying as large a payload as the DF-31 and requiring the numbers of support vehicles that travel with it.

    What China generally do not have in abundance is a Black Forest / Urals Mountains like forested area that have wide, unimproved but wide roads and a terrain (hilly, with valleys, etc. that makes it easy to hide a road mobile missile.

    Where there is the terrain—- mountains or hills that are rolling, preferably forested and can make observation of such a convoy difficult unless you are ‘on top’ of it,—- China do not often have the wide roads with sufficiently tall underpasses or bridges / overpasses that can take the load.

    Nor are there ‘fords’ or bypasses that can be readily used by a TEL of this size unless it is carefully planned out and prepared in advance. Simply put: TELs of this size have a very limited ability to deal with difficult terrain.

    The shortage of feasible routes for TELs convoys to travel on, and the ease with which such routes can be predicted by an adversary even without humit, makes TELs no better a solution than the old silo based solution that shuttled the missile around to different silos to frustrate targeting.

    Nor do China have a large enough network of paved roads with sufficiently large bridge / overpass clearances to handle the DF-31 TEL moving about.

    What is a puzzle to me is why didn’t they deploy the DF-31 on a self-propelled Rail based TEL where none of these considerations apply? Is there a problem with the DF-31 being too big to move by rail except on special purpose tracks?

    If the Chinese were really clever, they would attempt to package the TEL so that it resembles some kind of standard Rail freight carload (or custom design a new class of such cars) so that it can be easily moved about, and blended in at a marshalling yard that is covered.

    Perhaps we should be thankful that China still believes in the minimum means of retaliation.

  3. davesgonechina (History)

    This is your area of expertise, certainly not mine. But I thought you might be interested in seeing images of a drill for the DF-31/41 mobile train launcher:

    There’s a graphic of a 7 axle vehicle here, I think for the DF-41:

    which might be this?

    Or this:

    The DF-31 is often mentioned along with the ZX-TJ-2000 eight axle vehicle, which I think is the old one.

    Oh, and here’s one Chinese nationalist bloggers map of the devastation a few DF-31As would supposedly inflict upon Chicago.

  4. Anonymous

    Re: Allen Thomson’s post regarding usage of ITA vs IOC: Since 1996, the IC has consistently used both ITA and IOC when analyzing the status of foreign missile systems. Politics may have been played as to whether to release the ITA information for the DF-31, but the IC designation of it as ITA or not almost certainly had very little to do with the DoD report.

  5. Allen Thomson (History)

    Anonymous said:

    “Since 1996, the IC has consistently used both ITA and IOC when analyzing the status of foreign missile systems.”

    Are examples, other than the one(s) in 1999-2000 available? URLs?

  6. Anonymous

    No other documents in that timeframe appear to have been publicly released—but I can tell you from my day job that ITA and IOC are in routine use in the IC. More documents using these terms will become publicly available over time, I’m sure.

  7. Allen Thomson (History)

    Anonymous responded:

    “No other documents in that timeframe appear to have been publicly released—but I can tell you from my day job that ITA and IOC are in routine use in the IC. More documents using these terms will become publicly available over time, I’m sure.”

    OK, that helps, thanks. But it does get back to the DF-31 and what the annual DOD China reports have been saying.

    To wit, before the 2006 report, they were predicting IOC at some time in this decade. Last year, it predicted IOC in 2006. This year, it said that ITA occurred in 2006 and IOC would happen any time now, if not already.

    The definition of ITA that is available from the 1999 NIE ties it to a successful test flight, which must have been the Sep 2006 one, or a re-evaluation of an earlier one.

    Which means (taking all of this stuff at face value, which may be a mistake) that in early 2006 they were predicting IOC within several months without ever having seen a successful test flight.

    I know Occam’s Razor is an imperfect tool, but it seems like it might be usefully applied here.

  8. Another Anonymous

    To further clarify Anonymous post. The origin of the ITA was the No Dong. The IC was faced with the conundrum of how to declare the ND “operation” if it only met one of the IOC citeria, namely it was “successfully” flight tested, albeit only once.

    Allen – not everything that’s available on the net is the complete story. And that’s true for the DF-31 and its flight test history.

  9. None (History)

    This may be the reason why the Chinese is continuing to raise military spending and expand their Nuclear deterrent.

    See for the original article

    CQ HOMELAND SECURITY – SpyTalkJune 1, 2007 – 5:48 p.m.Defense Officials Tried to Reverse China Policy, Says Powell AideBy Jeff Stein, CQ National Security Editor

    The same top Bush administration neoconservatives who leap-frogged Washington’s foreign policy establishment to topple Saddam Hussein nearly pulled off a similar coup in U.S.-China relations—creating the potential of a nuclear war over Taiwan, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell says.

    Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the U.S. Army colonel who was Powell’s chief of staff through two administrations, said in little-noted remarks early last month that “neocons” in the top rungs of the administration quietly encouraged Taiwanese politicians to move toward a declaration of independence from mainland China — an act that the communist regime has repeatedly warned would provoke a military strike.

    The top U.S. diplomat in Taiwan at the time, Douglas Paal, backs up Wilkerson’s account, which is being hotly disputed by key former defense officials.

    Under the deliberately fuzzy diplomatic formula hammered out between former President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong in 1971, the United States agreed that there is only “one China” —with its capital in Beijing.

    But right-wing Republicans in particular continued to embrace Taiwan as an anticommunist bastion 125 miles off the Chinese coast, long after their own party leaders and U.S. big business embraced the communist regime.

    With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, some of Taiwan’s most fervent allies were swept back into power in Washington, particularly at the Pentagon, starting with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

    They included such key architects of the Iraq War as Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary for policy, and Steven Cambone, Rumsfeld’s new intelligence chief, Wilkerson said. President Bush’s controversial envoy to the United Nations, John Bolton, was another.

    While Bush publicly continued the one-China policy of his five White House predecessors, Wilkerson said, the Pentagon “neocons” took a different tack, quietly encouraging Taiwan’s pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian.

    “The Defense Department, with Feith, Cambone, Wolfowitz [and] Rumsfeld, was dispatching a person to Taiwan every week, essentially to tell the Taiwanese that the alliance was back on,” Wilkerson said, referring to pre-1970s military and diplomatic relations, “essentially to tell Chen Shui-bian, whose entire power in Taiwan rested on the independence movement, that independence was a good thing.”

    Wilkerson said Powell would then dispatch his own envoy “right behind that guy, every time they sent somebody, to disabuse the entire Taiwanese national security apparatus of what they’d been told by the Defense Department.”

    “This went on,” he said of the pro-independence efforts, “until George Bush weighed in and told Rumsfeld to cease and desist [and] told him multiple times to re-establish military-to-military relations with China.”

    Routine military ties had been suspended in early 2001 after China forced a U.S. reconnaissance plane down on Hainan Island off Vietnam.Strong Denials

    Feith, now teaching and working on a book at Georgetown University, responded that Wilkerson’s “remarks are not even close to being accurate. They are phrased so vaguely and sweepingly that it is impossible to deny them with precision, but they are not right.”

    Rumsfeld’s former spokesman Lawrence DiRita called Wilkerson’s allegations “completely ridiculous—clear and simple . . . absurd.”

    “The idea that there was some kind of DoD attempt to favor some faction in Taiwan, as described by Wilkerson … is just crazy,” DiRita said in a brief telephone interview.

    Wilkerson told a similar story in a recent critical biography of Rumsfeld by Washington-based British journalist Andrew Cockburn.

    He elaborated on the episode during a May 7 panel, organized to discuss the controversy over Iraq intelligence at the University of the District of Colombia, as well as in subsequent conversations last week.

    “It was a constant refrain of they said one thing, we said another thing for months on end,” Wilkerson said by e-mail. “They said, ‘Don’t worry, you are our allies and we will defend you—regardless.’ We said, ‘Do worry—if you declare independence, we may not be there; so be quiet and let sleeping dogs lie. . . .’ ”Rewriting Bush

    Another key character in the minidrama was Therese Shaheen, the outspoken chief of the U.S. office of the American Institute in Taiwan, which took on the functions of the American embassy after the formal 1979 diplomatic switch.

    Shaheen, who happens to be DiRita’s wife, openly championed Chen and the independence movement, at one point even publicly reinterpreting Bush’s reiteration of the “one China” policy, saying that the administration “had never said it ‘opposed’ Taiwan independence,” according to a 2004 account in the authoritative Far Eastern Economic Review.

    “Therese Shaheen . . . said don’t sweat it, the president didn’t really mean what he said,” Wilkerson said.

    Coming from the wife of Rumsfeld’s spokesman, Shaheen’s remarks sent off angry alarms in Beijing.

    Powell asked for her resignation.

    Douglas Paal was then head of the American Institute in Taiwan, effectively making him the U.S. ambassador there. He backed up Wilkerson’s account.

    “In the early years of the Bush administration,” Paal said by e-mail last week, “there was a problem with mixed signals to Taiwan from Washington. This was most notably captured in the statements and actions of Ms. Therese Shaheen, the former AIT chair, which ultimately led to her departure.”

    Now assigned to State Department headquarters, Paal said he, too, “received many first- and second-hand reports of messages conveyed to Taiwan by DoD civilians and perhaps a uniformed officer or two during that time that were out of sync with President Bush’s position.”

    DiRita defended his wife, saying “she understood U.S. policy and executed it to the very best of her abilities and wasn’t trying to play games with” Taiwanese independence forces.

    “That was always kind of a mythology of what happened over there,” he said.Mushroom Clouds

    “They are dangerous men who will lie about almost anyone or anything,” Wilkerson angrily responded by e-mail, singling out Feith, DiRita, Cheney and Rumsfeld for scorn.

    He called back-stage encouragement of the Taiwanese “even more serious” than the alleged manipulation of Iraq intelligence, because it could provoke China to attack the island, triggering a U.S. response and the world’s first nuclear shooting war.

    The independence issue, agrees China experts Richard Bush and Michael O’Hanlon, is Beijing’s third rail—touch it and you die.

    “Even if the odds are fairly low of miscalculation leading to war, and war then bringing in the United States, this scenario is scary,” they recently wrote in The Washington Times.

    A Taiwanese declaration of independence, they said, “could result in the first major war between nuclear weapons states in history, with no guarantee it would be successfully concluded prior to a major escalation.”

    Jeff Stein can be reached at CQ Homeland Security© 2007 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.