Mainland state media have acknowledged for the first time that China is developing a state-of-the-art intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) equipped with multiple nuclear warheads that could defeat America's anti-missile defences.
On Wednesday, the Global Times, a newspaper under the party mouthpiece People's Daily, denied a report by the consultancy IHS Jane's last week that a Dongfeng-41, or DF-41, had been test-fired last month by the Second Artillery Corps, the People's Liberation Army's strategic missile force. Instead, it said, such a missile was being developed.
The Jane's report quoted anonymous US officials as saying that the Second Artillery Corps had conducted the first flight test of a DF-41, the third generation of China's ICBMs. It was the first time the US authorities had confirmed the existence of the missile project.
Andrei Chang, who edits the Canadian-based Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, said it was unlikely the missile corps was currently able to launch a full-course flight test for its third generation ICBM.
"The challenges and difficulties between the second and third generation of ICBMs are very complicated, and the intelligence I've gathered tells me that China is still incapable of overcoming many problems, even though they have spent more than 20 years to develop it," Chang said. Antony Wong Dong, chairman of the Macau-based International Military Association, said China's third generation ICBMs would not be named DF-41 because that project was cancelled years ago.
The Global Times quoted Wei Guoan , a Chinese military expert familiar with the missile corps, as saying that China is developing a third generation ICBM which meets the descriptions in the Western media, but he denied that the missile tested on July 24 was a DF-41.
"The third generation ICBM equipped with multiple independent re-entry vehicles [MIRVs] is exactly the developing direction of the Second Artillery," Wei told the Global Times.
China has long maintained that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons and that its nuclear forces are designed for counterstrikes against nuclear attacks on its territory.
But Wei said that Beijing should proceed with limited development of third generation ICBMs because it is facing increased nuclear threats, with both the United States and Russia failing to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
The Jane's report quoted former US military intelligence official Larry Wortzel as saying that China's third generation ICBMs could defeat US missile defences.
"The DF-41 is mobile and will be very hard to detect and counter because of that mobility," Wortzel said. Professor Phillip Karber, from Georgetown University, who has studied Chinese nuclear programmes, also told Jane's that China's third generation ICBMs, which could carry up to 10 MIRVs, "would be enough for China to target every US city with a population over 50,000 people" with 32 missiles.
"If the Chinese end up developing that kind of counter-value posture against American cities, and we do not build missile defences against it, it spells the end of extended nuclear deterrence for Asia," Karber said, adding that the likely result would be a nuclear arms race in Asia.
The US is planning an expansion of missile defences in Asia to address threats from North Korea that could also serve to counter China's military build-up, The Wall Street Journal reported.