NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Amid growing fears of North Korean nuclear missile threats, China recently showed off a new and more lethal long-range nuclear missile of its own.
The DF-31AG, a variant of the DF-31 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), was unveiled July 30 during the annual military parade marking the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.
Chinese state-run television’s broadcast of the parade showed at least 16 of the new DF-31AGs during a parade in Zhurihe near a combat training base in northern China.
Few details were available on the new missile, shown mounted on an all-terrain mobile launcher. Chinese state media declared the missile carries multiple warheads and boasts a longer range than its earlier variants, the DF-31 and DF-31A. The all-terrain mobile launcher represents greater survivability of the missile system against preemptive airstrikes because the DF-31AG will be capable of hiding in mountainous areas.
China has been uploading its single-warhead missiles with multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles or MIRVs, for the past three years. The earlier DF-31 variants are equipped with a single warhead.
The disclosure of the DF-31AG was not a surprise. U.S. intelligence agencies have known of the development for the past several years.
Defense officials told Inside the Ring that the missile was known as the DF-31B before China officially disclosed it is called the DF-31AG.
The first flight test of the new missile was detected Sept. 25, 2014, and first reported by this columnist. It was assessed as having greater range than the 31A, along multiple warheads.
The DF-31B is also believed to have a ruggedized mobile launcher for greater off-road maneuverability.
The National Air and Space Intelligence Center, in its latest report on ballistic and cruise missile threats, describes China’s missile forces as “the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world.”
“It is developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses,” the report said.
China’s missile forces are expanding in both size and types, including conventional and nuclear-armed systems of varying ranges.
China has around 40 DF-31s and DF-31As, and is also developing a longer-range DF-41 ICBM that is said to be nearing deployment.
Rick Fisher, an analyst who closely monitors the Chinese military, said the multiple-warhead upgrade of the DF-31AG is a significant increase in nuclear power.
“It is clear that China is accelerating its build-up of nuclear warheads capable of targeting the United States,” said Mr. Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “In order to defend the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent for U.S. allies, especially given the added nuclear threats from North Korea, it is imperative that the U.S. redeploy large numbers of tactical nuclear weapons to U.S. forces.”
Stratcom on North Korean threat
Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command that directs America’s nuclear forces, recently warned that North Korea’s nuclear missile capability is growing and that he assumes Pyongyang already can threaten the United States.
Asked about recent intelligence assessments indicating North Korea will field its long-range nuclear missile capability sooner than expected, Gen. Hyten said his calculation of the missile threat has not changed.
“I can’t put a date on it, but it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and I have to assume that the ‘when’ is in the very near term,” Gen. Hyten told reporters in Omaha, Nebraska, last month.
Gen. Hyten said North Korea still must overcome “a number of technical thresholds” before the communist state’s nuclear missile is fielded.
“You can get into debates with a number of technical experts, about ‘Well, they really haven’t done this; they really haven’t done that,’ or they’re a year away or two years away or five years away. All of those things from a military perspective, from a commander’s perspective of U.S. Strategic Command, I have to assume that it’s going to be in the near term,” he said.
“And if we assume it’s going to be in the near term, then we have to postured to respond to that threat in the near term,” Gen. Hyten said. “Because anything else creates a position of weakness in our deterrent message and we don’t want to have any weakness in our deterrent message.”
The commander’s comments were made before President Trump unleashed threatening rhetoric against the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday.
Mr. Trump announced North Korea should back off making threats against the U.S. or face “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
The remarks appeared to mimic North Korean state media that frequently threatens to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire.” North Korea also has produced propaganda videos showing the simulated burning of Washington and New York following a North Korean nuclear strike.
Pentagon sued for POW/MIA files
A group of family members of service members who went missing during the Korean War and Cold War is suing the Pentagon over documents that could shed light on the fate of missing military personnel.
The National Security Agency recently denied a request from POW researcher Mark Sauter for 14 documents that — despite being more than 60 years old — are being kept classified at both the Secret and Top Secret level.
Other recent classified documents also have been withheld that could shed light on the potential survival of prisoners of war from the Korean War and Cold War.
The Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the lead unit for resolving missing personnel cases, remains without a director after the office’s chief, Michael Linnington, quit in June 2016.
Russia has refused to release files from the KGB political police and intelligence service and the GRU military intelligence services on U.S. POWs held there. China as well has failed to supply files on Americans held by Beijing and known to be alive but never returned — after the Pentagon paid China more than $100,000 for POW/MIA files that were never turned over.
The family members also are demanding that President Trump and Congress pressure both Moscow and Beijing to help resolve the cases of missing service members, the group said in a press release.
“We’ve run out of patience and we’re running out of time,” said Bob Moore, whose brother, Capt. Harry Moore, was shot down over North Korea in 1951 and apparently taken to the then-Soviet Union with other American aviators.
Data on Harry Moore was disclosed in declassified U.S. intelligence records and former Soviet officials.
“We’re asking our elected representatives to stand up for military families who’ve sacrificed so much for our country,” Bob Moore said.
Washington lawyer Mark S. Zaid, who has specialized in classified information matters, is representing the families.
“It is astonishing the U.S. government is still keeping information classified on these lost heroes, from intelligence documents withheld as Top Secret just this year to operational files from the 1950s,” said Mr. Zaid, said. “We hope this lawsuit will help compel the Trump administration to finally bring these men home.”
The groups are supported by POW activist groups; the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs; the Korea-Cold War Families of the Missing, Inc.; and the National Alliance of Families. Members of the groups are in Washington for an annual briefing from Pentagon officials.
The lawsuit is seeking the declassification of files held by the Pentagon, State Department, Air Force, NSA, CIA and National Archives.
“We want the American government to show the same faith to our missing loved ones that they showed to the U.S. government during their service,” said Pat Dickinson, brother of Jack Dickinson who went missing with fellow crewmen when the aircraft they were flying in was shot down by the Soviets.
“There may not be much chance our loved ones are still alive, but there remains hope we can still find out what really happened to them,” she said.
A Pentagon spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.