Pentagon officials confirmed this week that China carried out the flight test of a new long-range missile just two days before President Trump visited Beijing earlier this month.
The flight test of the new DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, expected to carry multiple warheads, was tracked from a launch area in northern China to an impact area in the western desert region by U.S. intelligence agencies. The test took place Nov. 6, and details were kept secret by the Trump administration to avoid upsetting the president’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China’s communist government is known for using missile and other tests of new military systems for political messaging, sometimes for its own internal purposes.
The message to the People’s Liberation Army, one of China’s major power centers, could be that despite the Trump visit, China’s leaders still regard the United States as Enemy No. 1.
Other speculation centers on whether the Chinese fired off the DF-41 as political payback for Mr. Xi’s April summit with Mr. Trump in Florida. During the Chinese leader’s visit at the Mar-a-Lago resort, the president ordered a 39-missile salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack, a not-so-subtle sign of Mr. Trump’s approach to the use of military force.
The secret DF-41 test, however, was not made public at the time by either Beijing or Washington. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan declined to comment on the test, citing a policy regarding intelligence matters.
The latest test was China’s ninth DF-41 launch and highlights efforts to develop newer and more powerful nuclear arms.
Chinese press reports have suggested the DF-41 could be armed with up to 10 150-kiloton warheads, or a single, massive 5.5 megaton warhead.
“China’s DF-41 test on the eve of Trump’s visit constitutes a personal demonstration to the president of the essential, systemic hostility in Chinese-American relations and justifies his intentions to increase American military strength in Asia and to increase military cooperation with our Asian allies and friends,” said Rick Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
The missile test was expected. Several days before the launch, an air traffic safety notification was issued by Chinese authorities warning aircraft not to travel in an air-closure zone that was used in the past for a previous DF-41 test. The closure zone activation was reported by the online blog East Pendulum.
Asked about a possible missile test coinciding with the president’s visit, a senior White House official said a day after the test that one was possible but that the Chinese appeared to be making great efforts to avoid upsetting the Trump-Xi summit.
“I am familiar with the different situations that have happened in the past, obviously,” the official told Inside the Ring. “They told us it was just bad coincidences, but let’s hope that there are no bad coincidences on this trip. We’ll see what happens.”
Weeks after the summit, the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily sent out an unusual tweet of what it said was footage revealing the new DF-41. The Nov. 18 tweet described the DF-41 as “China’s newest intercontinental ballistic missile (#ICBM), which can carry 10 nuclear warheads and has an operational range of over 12,000 [kilometers].”
Military observers, however, say the propaganda video carried no images of the DF-41. Instead the short segment included a confusing collage of several different Chinese missile systems.
The mobile missile fired off in the video was identified as most likely a DF-11 short-range ballistic missile with a warhead that appeared to be a new type. The video also showed footage of a DF-3 intermediate-range missile and several air defense missile launches, but nothing closely resembling the DF-41.
Putin directed nuke exercise
Russia conducted a major military exercise recently that U.S. intelligence agencies closely monitored.
The exercise is called the strategic operation of nuclear forces and involved test launches of three submarine-launched ballistic missiles and one land-based ICBM.
According to a Pentagon official, the scenario involved a strategic nuclear attack on the United States and was directed personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who issued the missile launch orders. The exercises were conducted at night.
The Russian leader’s direct involvement comes as critics of President Trump are seeking to curb his powers to conduct nuclear strikes amid rising tensions with North Korea.
The Russian Defense Ministry provided few details of the one-day exercise held Oct. 26, saying the maneuvers involved strategic nuclear forces on the ground, on sea and in the air, including two submarine missile launches from the Pacific and one from the Atlantic. A road-mobile SS-25 was fired from the Plesetsk missile test site.
Nuclear bombers, including Tu-160s, Tu-95s and Tu-22s, were launched from three air bases and fired cruise missiles at three different impact sites in Russia.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear policymaker and an expert on Russian forces, said the large nuclear exercise appeared to involve simulated nuclear strikes.
Mr. Schneider noted that Russia described its plans for nuclear war in a statement from the commander of the strategic nuclear forces in 2009.
“In a conventional war, [the nuclear ICBMs] ensure that the opponent is forced to cease hostilities, on advantageous conditions for Russia, by means of single or multiple preventive strikes against the aggressors’ most important facilities,” the commander said. “In a nuclear war, they ensure the destruction of facilities of the opponent’s military and economic potential by means of an initial massive nuclear missile strike and subsequent multiple and single nuclear missile strikes.”
Russia’s plans for nuclear war have shifted in recent years to a new and potentially destabilizing approach called “escalate to de-escalate.”
The Russians plan to begin with small nuclear strikes and then escalate to massive nuclear attacks if the first strike fails to bring the enemy to heel.
“It is possible that they would try a small tactical nuclear strike, then a larger tactical nuclear strike, then a small strategic nuclear strike, and finally the massive strategic nuclear strike,” Mr. Schneider said.
That strategy exploits the massive asymmetric advantage the Russians currently have in nonstrategic nuclear weapons. “It gives them more hope for a U.S. capitulation before they blow up the world,” Mr. Schneider said. “We don’t have a nonstrategic nuclear triad anymore, and that can be exploited by Russia.”
Pentagon studies counterautonomous weapons
Robot warfare is the next revolution in military affairs, with autonomous weapons that will be able to conduct attacks up to a hundred times faster than humans.
For example, small swarms of what have been termed “slaughterbots” could employ hundreds of three-inch drones, all armed with tiny explosives and directed autonomously as they are unleashed against troops. The speed and precision of the swarms make defenses very difficult.
To study the threat, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board recently launched an in-depth study of how to counter foreign autonomous weapons.
The board announced in May the formation of a task force to study “counterautonomy.”
“Advances in artificial intelligence and global technology proliferation are driving the rapid evolution and global adoption of autonomy, creating economic, social and military disruption,” stated James A. MacStravic, acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
“The ability of future U.S. forces to advantageously harness autonomy in both physical and information systems will be essential to address capability and capacity asymmetries.”
The U.S. military in the future will likely face enemies in battle who will have much lower ethical and legal barriers to the use of robots in warfare.
The study will examine near-term threats and counterautonomy capabilities and trends stretching to 2030.
Robots and other autonomous weapons will be examined in six war fighting areas: land, sea, underwater, air, space and cyberspace.
“The task force should focus on countering autonomous physical systems in addition to autonomous operations in the information domain,” Mr. MacStravic said.
Threats to be looked at include “emergent swarm” weapons — unmanned aerial system capable of maneuvering beyond human limitations.
The task force also will study how to learn enemy autonomous weapons capabilities and intentions while denying adversaries access to U.S. capabilities, a problem highlighted by software that is constantly learning and adapting while possibly denying and deceiving.
Also being examined are gaps in countering autonomous weapons, such as countersensing, reasoning and effecting and command and control issues.
Strategically, the board wants to find unique vulnerabilities in autonomous systems that would provide lasting war fighting advantages, such as dependencies of autonomous vehicles and external navigation signals. U.S. counterautonomous systems will seek to rely on key attributes such as speed, precision, lethality, independence, learning, persistence and affordability. Force-doctrine questions will include whether manned, remotely manned or unmanned systems will be best for counterautonomy.
The study is expected to take nine to 12 months.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.