China’s military carried out a fourth flight test of an intercontinental ballistic missile last week, firing off a new road-mobile ICBM on Thursday, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. intelligence agencies monitored the flight test of the DF-31A missile from China’s Wuzhai Space and Missile Test Center to an impact range in western China.
It was the fourth time since late July that China flight-tested its growing arsenal of long-range mobile ballistic missiles.
Thursday’s DF-31A test came 10 days after the flight test at Wuzhai of a silo-based CSS-4 Mod 2 long-range missile, and several weeks after flight tests of a new road-mobile DF-41 ICBM, on July 24, and a submarine-launched JL-2 missile on Aug. 16.
China’s secretive military made no mention of any of the tests, although state-controlled Chinese media recently confirmed China is building the DF-41 ICBM.
U.S. intelligence officials believe the DF-41 will eventually be outfitted with between three and ten warheads. It would be the first time China’s strategic missiles were outfitted with multiple, independently-targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs.
China is currently in the middle of a major strategic nuclear forces buildup that includes four new ICBMs – the DF-41, JL-2, DF-31A, and another road-mobile missile called the DF-31 that is assessed to have less range than the DF-31A.
The DF-31A has been deployed since the mid-2000s and has an estimated range of 7,000 miles, enough to give China the capability of hitting Washington or European capitals in a nuclear strike.
Richard Fisher, a specialist on China’s military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said China has deployed up to four DF-31A missile brigades.
“Assuming that a brigade counts up to 12 mobile launchers and 12 missiles, this may amount to 48 DF-31A missiles, or multiples of 48 if the [People’s Liberation Army] plans reloads for this ICBM,” Fisher said.
The DF-31A and its reload missile are likely stored in the 3,000 miles of tunnels used by the Second Artillery Corps, as China’s nuclear and conventional missile forces are called.
The tunnels, first disclosed several years ago by China and later publicized by a Georgetown University arms control study, are large-scale facilities used to store missiles and warheads, as well as to protect underground nuclear production facilities.
The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, also reported the same day of the DF-31A test that China’s strategic missile forces have fully transitioned from “troops in the mountains” to “troops on the wheel” during the past 10 years.