Aaron SteinChina MIRVs Some Missiles

The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military power (PDF) describes for the first time, China’s CSS-4 mod 3 missile equipped with multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles. MIRVs! Hans Kristensen noticed the passage and, over the weekend, David Sanger and Bill Broad published a nearly 1000 word piece in the New York Times that includes quotes by several experts including Jeffrey.

Aaron and Jeffrey discuss what China is doing, whether it heralds a change in Chinese nuclear posture and what the US should do in response. Jeffrey also gets in plugs for his two books on China’s nuclear weapons programs, Minimum Means of Reprisal (2006) and Paper Tigers (2014).

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  1. J_kies (History)

    A largely pro-forma Pentagon report states MIRV’ing is happening – why is this credible? Why is this not ‘old news’ creeping out or just poorly filtered worst case/low credibility assessments? DF-5s deserve antique status. Seriously, that’s silly when the Chinese are moving nearly entirely to road-mobile solid propellant missiles for many reasons. The silo-based missiles with MIRVs are an attractive nuisance for preemption attacks and its fairly stupid without context. One un-sourced Pentagon report is a thin basis for assessing a fundamental change, perhaps the Chinese were lofting a ‘policy trial balloon’ and the credulous took it ‘hook line and sinker’.

    Not saying no, it merely defies logic as stated.

    • biopower (History)

      1) is there a better source out there for Chinese military developments, or is the Pentagon’s reporting on the matter somehow suspect? The claim seems extraordinary.
      2) What policy balloon?
      3) Why do you see it as a fundamental change, when Mr. Lewis sees it as nothing more than a hum-drum development, since they’ve got some extra space at the top of the missiles that they can now cram extra warheads in. Why waste the space, right?!

    • J_kies (History)

      Excellent / insightful questions; it’s a policy waivers / confusion issue. Nearly all military systems in foreign countries are the collection and analytic province of the Defense Intelligence Agency, detailed estimates with error estimations are done and abstracts of those estimates appear in such Pentagon documents. Uniquely, Ballistic Missile threats are the province of the “Missile Defense Agency” where waivers to DOD acquisition practices result in MDA making up its own threat, it is not clear if the MIRV comment is an IC estimate or MDAs views.

      Since China does not participate in the military to military exchanges nor the pertaining treaties, what apparently substitutes for such data sources are some levels of ‘Academic to Academic’ discussions which are reported as if they somehow have weight. If the Chinese were considering a change to actual military practice, they might surface it in such unofficial / deniable discussions as a ‘trial balloon’ to observe US reactions.

      I don’t see it as a ‘fundamental change’ but others (UCS etc) do and explicitly point to MIRVs as a Chinese reaction to US BMD build-out (as if 14 interceptors of current design are a ‘build out’).

    • David Wright (History)

      Not sure why you say “UCS” sees this as a “fundamental change.” I have a post at AllThingsNuclear (http://allthingsnuclear.org/china-and-mirved-warheads/) that says MIRVing the Mod-3s, if true, is not a big deal, and shows that China’s mobile missiles don’t have the payload capacity to carry more than one or two warheads. The point was to show that claims that China’s mobile missiles can carry 10 warheads any time soon are nonsense.

  2. Shahryar Pas (History)

    A comment and a question:

    1) Aaron mentioned a publication that discussed Russian concerns about the threat posed by Tomahawk LACMs to ICBM silos. He didn’t recall the publication but suggested that it was a work by Dennis Gormley. My initial reaction was that it was in a footnote of a publication by James Acton but I may be wrong [I don’t have the publication with me]. I would appreciate a clarification.

    2) A potential aspect overlooked in the podcast is that converting the single-warhead DF-5s with MIRV capabilities can result in a lower ‘overall’ yield per missile. Given the (relatively) high yield of the warheads known to have been designed for the DF-5, could it not be that Beijing *also* desired a more ‘sensible’ warhead for the purpose of signalling? I emphasise ‘also’ because the podcast covered a number of potential explanations for this MIRV program, none of which necessarily eliminate the possibility of what I am suggesting.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      The answer to your 2nd point is the well understood geometric properties of an explosion that make smaller warheads more efficient (down to the point where making a bomb smaller begins to impair efficiency). Surface area annihilated progresses according to the square ratio; energy, and volume annihilated progresses at more or less a cube ratio (the ground tends to absorb and reflect energy, lowering the useful annihilation even more). Giant “city killer” H-bombs were principally mounted on missiles by users concerned with the limited accuracy of early generation missiles

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The really tough silos will resist a LACM hit but specialized warheads easily able to penetrate those silo doors and destroy and ignite ICBMs inside could be developed. Large multi-warhead EFP arrays would be one way.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The Dennis Gormley report is referenced here: http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/2486/can-conventional-trident-bust-russian-silos
      And here: http://www.armscontrol.ru/pubs/en/em042312.html

      Unfortunately, in both cases the link is broken. I leave it to others to follow up and find it.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The Gormley reference is here: http://www.jean-jaures.org/content/download/12775/122307/1_Gormley.pdf

      On Pas’ point 2, I pick up Matteson’s point and combine it with the information in Wright’s link above. Wright argues we are only talking about 10 missiles, moving from 10 warheads to 30 warheads. What I don’t know is the yield of the one “big” warhead vs. three smaller warheads, so as to compute areas.

      If the Chinese would aim at point targets, this would be 30 targets rather than 10 targets, for triple the value. If they would instead aim at area targets, one 3-Mt bomb can destroy the area of 2.08 1-Mt bombs, and three 0.5-Mt bombs can destroy the area of 1.89 1-Mt bombs, about the same total area. However, the periphery of an area is likely less densely valued than its center, so three smaller areas destroyed would be more valuable than one bigger area destroyed, holding constant for total area.

  3. biopower (History)

    I really fail to understand Mr. Lewis’s argument that, for Chinese military planners, this move means nothing at all. “Eh, you’ve got some space, you stick some more warheads in there.” (Mr. Lewis’s words, almost verbatim, at about 13 minutes into the podcast.) Do we assume the Chinese are so blithe about these matters? Or that they are either so ignorant of how such a move would be perceived, or that they simply could not give a damn? It’s a strange, strange sort of argument. Not to mention the fact that it has, as far as I could tell from the podcast, nary a scrap of evidence to back it up. Meanwhile, the plain fact that the warheads just got that much more dangerous–clear to the PRC (one certainly hopes!), the United States, Japan, other countries in region, and presumably everyone on God’s green earth apart from Mr. Lewis–is subsumed in the shrugging ‘ehs’ and non-dismissal. It’s just bizarre.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Well, maybe my column will persuade you.

  4. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    If the Chinese are starting MIRV their ICBM’s at what point do you really start to worry they’re going to adopt a counterforce posture? The hill they have to climb is much smaller thanks to the post Cold War drawdown such as it was. My first thought would be to watch the Russians. They’re more paranoid than we are and have a much weaker disarmament community to keep the hawks in check. They’ll cry foul and react first. I think the real question is, at what point do you engage the Chinese to bring them under treaty with the Russians and Americans?

  5. Jeffrey (History)

    I’ve written a column for Foreign Policy that lays out my thinking in more detail.


    My general point is that much of the *informed* speculation proceeds on the basis of Western assumptions about what MIRVing means for the posture as a whole. But my interactions with Chinese officials and experts doesn’t support the notion that they see MIRVing as especially portentous.

    I would caution against inferring motives on the part of Beijing based on our strategic notions, especially when there are simple technical reasons to MIRV the DF-5.

    (PS: I don’t intend “informed” to be sarcastic, just to signal that perhaps all of us are a bit blinded by our own training and strategic concepts.)

    • J_kies (History)

      Jeffrey; while you certainly try to draw conclusions with the thin data available other explanations certainly deserve some lip-service if not full Occam’s Razor treatment.

      1) Data sources are limited; the Pentagon doesn’t share source confidence and we lack Mil-Mil or treaty revelations as to actual countable numbers. Academic to academic discussions are implied in several discussions on ‘what the Chinese mean’, has anyone done historic credibility checks (they told us X and X happened)? While the Chinese might be reasonable and totally honest/open, the means available do not permit verification and recall that ‘trust but verify’ thing.

      2) Drawing conclusions from observed activities is fraught with confirmation bias issues. If we observed a Chinese developmental / R&D flight for payloads that happened to be launched by a DF-5 (excess inventory expenditure) should we conclude that payload was intended for the DF-5? Museum status awaits the DF-5s, MIRVing such a system ‘not kept armed’ is in the ‘you have got to be kidding me’ status.

      Could William of Occam please weigh in here?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Just got back from a breakfast seminar where three hawkish fellows discussed Chinese and North Korean capabilities. One suggested the Chinese had 900 warheads – not quite as high as the 3,000 suggested by Karber a few years back – but higher than official U.S. estimates. At least one suggested there was unofficial U.S. talk that China had more, as well as some Russian estimates of more.

      With a bit more transparency, the Chinese could clear up these misconceptions to their own advantage. If they only have 300, but the U.S. or Russia think they have 900, there is little incentive for the U.S. or Russia to reduce their arsenals much further. It is manifestly in China’s interest for U.S. and Russia to reduce their arsenals.

      On the other hand, if China really does have 900 warheads, China is not deriving its maximum deterrent advantage from such a large arsenal. Even worse, a future enemy might mistakenly try to pre-empt a small arsenal, thereby precipitating a nuclear war that neither side really wants.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The Chinese believe the U.S. and Russia know the approximate number of Chinese nuclear weapons and that higher estimates are nothing more than propaganda by people seeking to start an arms race.

      Looking at the people on the panel, I can’t say I am unsympathetic to their cynicism.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      Regarding Kies’ 2nd. point, I asked myself ‘what US missile was most like the DF-5?’ My answer is the Titan II. If I have understood correctly, we kept the Titan II past its Use By date because it was the only missile we had that could reach out and touch any point on the globe. With the advent of the Trident that purpose was diminished. Of course in the instance, we kept the Titan II fueled (a dubious proposition with hypergolic fuels) and it was retired after a horrific accident in a silo.

      Our current ICBM fleet consists mostly of the smallest missile that can carry an optimum sized thermonuclear warhead (public information I’ve read suggests that’s somewhere near 200kt?), and reach our priority targets. The latest Chinese ICBMs appear to more like these. The Chinese appear to have no other option that reaches the entire globe.

    • J_kies (History)

      Mr Matteson; The US ICBM fleet is presently stated to be single warhead equipped (entirely). Those warheads are either W87 Mark 21 or W78 Mark 12a depending on what the USAF inventory and equipage have available.

      The US is ‘requirements based’ thus the systems were capable of destroying designated targets given the circular error probable of RV v target point and weapon yield.

      From a view of history; I suggest the Titan II and other systems have ‘inertia’. Once a traditionalist military have an operational weapon they are loath to retire it due to anything short of catastrophic losses (or newer cooler toys are plentiful).

      I suspect that given the asserted Chinese views; they only care that the US and the Russians believe that their systems can strike targets (despite some level of initial attack). ‘World wide capability’ seems to be something that strategic view would not recognize as an imperative.

  6. Juuso (History)

    Since these older warheads use uranium pit’s are Chinese able to recycle them and use the material in newer warheads? If I remember correctly you were writing something about Chinese composite pit’s in your older book.

    Offtopic comment: I ordered your book “paper tigers” and I hope it good as The Minimum Means of Reprisal what is sitting on my book shelve (unfortunately delivery time is several weeks).

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I believe the original DF-5 warhead used a plutonium pit, based on Swedish analysis of the fallout from Chinese atmospheric testing.

    • Juuso (History)

      In that case I was probably thinking something else they designed.

      Is there any estimations how much the older RV’s weight? There are few pictures of people standing next to them and they are larger than average outhouses in here Finland.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      They started with U pits, then switched starting in the late 1960s.

    • Juuso (History)

      CCTV claimed this to be a DF-31 RV. True or not?

      If that’s the DF-31 RV I can understand why Chinese have problems MIRVin their mobile missiles.

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