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The newest generation of Chinese strategic missile, including the Dong Feng-31, will narrow the gap between current Chinese, US and Russian ballistic missile designs. This system is a solid-fueled, three-stage mobile missile with a range of 8000 km carrying a 700 kg, one-megaton warhead. The DF-31 limited-range ICBM will give China a major strike capability that will be difficult to counterattack at any stage of its operation, from pre-flight mobile operations through terminal flight phases. As with the JL-1/DF-21 combination, the DF-31 and JL-2 are land-based and sea-based variants of the same missile. The cancelled DF-25 conventionally armed IRBM was to have been based on the first two stages of the DF-31, and the DF-41 long-range ICBM will use these two stages with a large-diameter third stage. Development of these missiles was accelerated following the successful test of their common 2m-diameter solid rocket motor in late 1983. The missile is apparently comparable in size and performance to the American TRIDENT C-4 long-range multiple-warhead three-stage solid fuel missile missile that is launched from submerged submarines.

The DF-31 has a range of about 5,000 miles, sufficient to hit targets along the entire West Coast of the United States and in several northern Rocky Mountain states. It is believed to incorporate design aspects similar to those of current generation Russian missiles. These could include upgraded mobility for the transporter-erector launcher [TEL], advanced materials for the booster and payload, use of penetration aids such as decoys or chaff, and an improved solid propellant.

The DF-31 is being jointly developed by China Aerospace Corporation, the research institute of the 2d Artillery Corps, and other scientific research organizations. In March 1991 the CMC assigned the task of developing and testing the DF-31 to the Second Artillery Corps, since the new missile was expected to have a limited operational capability as soon as its design was finalized.

The DF-31 development program is highly ambitious, and has presented Beijing with substantial challenges. China has experienced difficulties in casting the large solid fuel motors for the DF-31, and ensuring an adequate seal between the fuel and the booster casing. The DF-31 is in the late stage of development following various delays, and is expected to be deployed about the turn of the century, based on the recent completion of silo construction at the Wuzhai Missile and Space Test Center. As of 1996 it was expected that the DF-31 would enter full service by 1998. By 1999 it was evident that operational deployment of the DF-31 was expected as early as 2002 or 2003.

The details of the testing history of the DF-31 remain obscure. While the open source literature contains a number of references to tests associated with the DF-31 program, as of 1998 the National Air Intelligence Center characterized the DF-31 as "not yet tested." 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.

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. The second launch also failed due to similar problems. Subsequently four other missiles were test-fired successfully, beginning in June 1995. Tests on 10 November 1995 and 10 January 1996 possibly included endoatmospheric reentry decoys. The fourth successful flight test of the DF-31 was conducted on December 28, 1996 from the Shanxi base in central China.

The missile was observed on a launch pad at Wuzhai in mid-October 1997, and a flight test was conducted soon thereafter. In October 1997 the DF-31 also underwent tests simulating launch from nuclear-missile-submarine tubes. An "ejection" (soft launch) test was conducted in December 1998. On 02 August 1999 China successfully tested a DF-31 launched from the PLA Second Artillery base in Wuzhai Prefecture (Shanxi Province), with impact point somewhere in Lop Nor (Xinjiang Province). Chinese preparations for the DF-31 test began during the second half of 1998. The US deployed the tracking ship USS Observation Island to the Western Pacific to monitor the launch, but the PRC missile was not fired seaward.

The 50th Anniversary National Day parade on 01 October 1999, the largest in the past half a century, featured advanced weapons and equipment involving 11,000 soldiers in 17 ground phalanxes and 25 vehicles formations, and ten echelons consisting of 132 warplanes. The DF-31 was included in the parade, though it was in a large cannister that completely enclosed the missile.

Once DF-31 deployment begins, China is expected to decommission its CSS-3 ICBMs. China will then be on its way to a ballistic missile force based around road-mobile systems which will greatly improve Chinese nuclear ballistic missile survivability and will complicate the task of defeating the Chinese threat.

Improved mobility is needed for the DF-31 TEL. Currently this TEL is probably restricted to improved surfaces. Improved chassis features will in turn improve off-road capabilities, increasing the number of potential deployment locations. Such improvements will increase system survivability by making the missile more difficult to locate. US intelligence has photographed a Belarussian six-axle mobile missile TEL [transporter-erector launcher] at the DF-31 production facility in Nanyuan, near Beijing. The Belarussian MAZ launcher is the chassis used for former Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The mobility of the MAZ vehicle is significantly better than that of heavy Chinese vehicles. It is unlikely the Chinese will simply convert the Belarussian launcher to a DF-31 launcher, but rather they would probably will adopt some of its features, including all-wheel independent suspension, higher ground clearance, driver-controlled central tire-inflation systems, and large tires. The Chinese will probably reverse-engineer the MAZ vehicle to better understand its superior characteristics, which can then be incorporated into the existing DF-31 TEL [transporter-erector launcher] design to enhance its mobility and performance.

The DF-41, a 3-stage 12,000km-range missile similar to the American Minuteman and the Russian Topol SS-25, will apparently be developed using the first two stages of the DF-31 along with a much larger third stage. The larger third stage and longer range of the DF-41 is made possible by the fact that, unlike the DF-31, the size of the DF-41 is not constrained by the requirement that it be fitted into a submarine launch tube. The cancelled 1,700km-range DF-25 ground mobile missile was developed using the first two stages of the DF-31.


ContractorAcademy of Rocket Motors Technology - ARMT
OperatorSecond Artillery Corps
  • Tai-Hang
  • Wuzhai
  • ConfigurationThree Stage
    Length [meters]10+
    Diameter [meters]2.0
    Mass [kilograms]20,000+
    First Flight29 April 1992
    Range (km)3,000 - 8,000
    Re-entry Vehicle Mass (kg)700 kg
    Warhead Yield1 @ 0.35 - 1.0 MT or
    3 @ 50-100 KT
    CEP (meters)300-500 ??
    Launch Preparation Time10-15 minutes

    Sources and Resources

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