China Reportedly Tests 10 MIRV DF-5 C ICBM: Not a Dramatic Shift in Nuclear Posture.

Bill Gertz is a good source of information, given his sources, regarding the fact of missile tests and the like, but is a horrid source for interpretation.

On 31st January Gertz, writing in The Washington Free Beacon, reported that China had tested a DF-5 ICBM, dubbed the DF-5C, with 10 multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles

China flight tested a new variant of a long-range missile with 10 warheads in what defense officials say represents a dramatic shift in Beijing’s strategic nuclear posture

The test does not presage a shift, let alone a dramatic shift, in China’s nuclear posture.

The reasoning that Gertz adopts to support this contention is as crude as can be.

According to the Federation of American Scientists and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2016 Nuclear Notebook for China (compiled by Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris) China has approximately 183 nuclear warheads, and if you add in warheads produced for SSBNs, spares, those waiting for dismantlement etc you get a figure of 260.

Gertz cites 250. Let us make It to 250.

Gertz writes,

Uploading Chinese missiles from single or triple warhead configurations to up to 10 warheads means the number of warheads stockpiled is orders of magnitude larger than the 250 estimate

Orders of magnitude!!! Not order of magnitude but orders of magnitude!! Order of magnitude means 2,500 warheads and orders of magnitude means 25,000 nuclear warheads.

Gertz’s contention (the ordeR of magnitude) is based on the multiplication of the 250 total warhead number by a multiple of 10. However, the 10 MIRV figure applies to the DF-5C ICBM only not the entire Chinese nuclear inventory.

You can’t put 10 MIRVs on an IRBM or a cruise missile, and so on. But Gertz has simply multiplied the total inventory by 10 as if you can.

One cannot do this even for the entire Chinese ICBM force. According to the 2016 Nuclear Notebook China has about 50 to 75 ICBMs, and not all of those can be uploaded with 10 MIRVs and not even all the DF-5’s are to be uploaded with MIRVs as Gertz himself concedes, well later, in his article

China’s known force of around 20 D-5 missiles were deployed with large single warheads in the past, while some were upgraded with three-warhead top stages

Notice the “some” part. The 3 MIRVed DF-5 is the DF-5B. So, you have the DF-5 (1 RV), the DF-5B (3 MIRV) and the DF-5C (10 MIRV).

But there is a more serious omission that lurks hidden behind the fallacious interpretation of Gertz.

A change in Chinese strategic nuclear posture would be represented not so much by an increase in warhead numbers, but rather by a conceptual shift away from credible minimum deterrence what Jeffrey Lewis referred to as “the minimum means of reprisal.”

China is, partially, MIRVing its ICBM force in response to US ballistic missile defence. The objective, it very much appears to be, is to maintain the credibility of the minimum means of reprisal in a world characterised by growing BMD capabilities.

Recently, China has expressed concern at the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, especially the THAAD system radar, the US and Japan have just conducted a joint test of the advanced SM-3 IIA based BMD system, the Republican controlled Congress wants a third GMD site in the US, and there is now increasing talk of space based BMD.

But you get no inkling of that at all from Gertz. The picture painted is one of unilateral Chinese assertiveness requiring a response from the hitherto hapless United States.

There are other claims here that are fanciful, but I’ll limit myself by avoiding those.

One interesting claim, made by Henri Kenhmann, is that the DF-5 test might have used the DF-5 as a platform for the testing of the DF-41 bus. That’s well worth keeping an eye out for.

The throw weight of the DF-5 is reported as 3,900 kg whereas the throw weight of the DF-41 is reported as 2,500 kg.

Walter Pincus, who wrote on nuclear affairs for decades, he retired from the Washington Post in 2015, epitomised everything that a journalist should be. Coolly analytical, possessed of a critical disposition toward authority, and displaying a yearning for knowledge motivated by the finer humanist impulses.

Contra Gertz.