Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In search of the DF-31's spotty record

My analysis of the credibility of the DF-31 in the face of China's recent ASAT has definitely gotten some attention lately. Although Dr. Jeffrey was kind enough to entertain my thoughts, he did voice a legitimate doubt about one of my points:

I wasn’t aware that the booster for the previous tests [in 2002] had been unsuccessful, but if Robot Economist is right … that explains why the DF-31 remains to be deployed.

Now that I look back at my information on the DF-31 tests back in 2002, I am starting to question the veracity of my sources. This all started after I reviewed the DF-31 test timeline prepared by

Given the evident challenges associated with the DF-31 program, and the variety of operational missiles that are expected to derive from this development effort, it is plausible that there have been a number of flight tests of components associated with the DF-31 prior to an all-up full range test of the complete DF-31 missile.

1. It is reported that the new missile was test-fired for the first time on 29 April 1992. Because of quality problems in its components, the missile exploded after launch.
2. The second launch also failed due to similar problems.
3. Beginning in June 1995 four other missiles were test-fired successfully.
4. A test on 10 November 1995 possibly included endoatmospheric reentry decoys.
5. A test on 10 January 1996 possibly included endoatmospheric reentry decoys.


13. In May 2001 it was reported that China was preparing a flight test of the DF-31, with test preparations at the Wuzhai Space and Missile Center in central China having been detected by US intelligence. Some [not particularly credible] reports claim that a newly-formed electronic warfare unit test-fired DF-31 with inputs from "military reconnaissance satellites that cruise above the Taiwan Strait" as part of the "Modern 1" exercise conducted on 28 June 2001.
14. A flight test in January 2002 failed.

Not one to rest on my laurels with this snippet of information, I whipped out LexisNexis and attempted to hunt down the initial reporting on this failed flight test. Among a few 150 word bare-bones wire reports from the BBC World Service on Russian observation of the January test, I came across this article from conservative The Times (of London):


LENGTH: 367 words

HEADLINE: Chinese test new missile threat to US shield

BYLINE: Oliver August * Beijing


Chinese scientists are close to a breakthrough in rocket technology that would allow Beijing to overcome President Bush's proposed anti-missile shield, American military analysts say.

The People's Liberation Army is believed to be in the final stages of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile with multiple warheads, matching Russian, American and British nuclear technology. One Washington analyst said: "It looks like the Chinese are much further (ahead) than we originally thought."

China's most advanced missiles have a range in excess of 8,000 miles, which puts them within striking distance of the continental United States. Chinese scientists are working on equipping these missiles with multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (Mirvs), meaning that the warhead can separate into more than a dozen individual weapons in space.

At present China has around 20 long-range missiles, a number that experts say would allow the American shield to protect against the Chinese arsenal. Washington aims to be able to guard against attacks by rogue states employing up to 24 missiles.

If Beijing upgraded all its missiles with multiple warheads, the analyst said, "it could easily overwhelm the shield. That would change the balance of power in Asia."

US government agencies have followed China's progress in missile technology closely before a decision on the development of the missile shield.

Beijing is said to have stepped up Mirv tests in recent weeks. Earlier this month the Japanese media reported a test flight, during which a Chinese missile completed the first half of its trajectory before disintegrating upon the deployment of the separate warheads.

It was a Dongfeng-31, which has a range of more than 5,000 miles. China is also said to be preparing for a test of the naval version. US intelligence officials are said to have spotted preparations for the test at a Chinese naval port.

Washington first highlighted China's attempt to develop Mirv technology in 1998, when it claimed that Beijing had obtained Russian SS18 missile technology.

The topic is expected to be discussed during President Bush's visit to Beijing next week.

LOAD-DATE: February 12, 2002

I guess I should have known to better than to trust a periodical that has Rupert Murdoch's dirty little fingerprints on it, even a fairly reputable institution like The Times. In order to do this issue true justice, I decided to poke around the Japanese side of the Internet and hunt down an reporting on the January 2002 test.

The first place I looked was the Japanese publication Nuclear Weapon and Nuclear Test Monitor, which is a great Japanese language source on most things nuclear weapons-related. Nestled in their testing log for January-February 2002 is this bullet (page 4):

2月1日 中国が先月、射程約8千キロの「東風(DF)31」ミサイルの多弾頭(MIRV)化の為の飛行実験を行ったことを明らかに。実験は失敗。

Translation: February 1 It became apparent last month that China conducted a flight test of a MIRVed version of the 8000 kilometer range DF-31 missile. The test was a failure.

The Japanese are not known for their concision or their directness, I think those are droids I am looking for. There is only one problem: My search options for the Japanese language news are pretty limited, so this is where the trail goes cold - for now. I will look into this again soon, but for now, I need to finish the readings for Mike Mochizuki's class tomorrow or he will be pissed.

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