NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Deployment of China‘s new DF-26 intermediate-range missile, dubbed the “Guam killer” by Beijing, has rapidly expanded over the past year, according to a Pentagon intelligence report.
The latest report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) on ballistic and cruise missile threats reveals the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force of arsenal of DF-26 missile launchers increased from 200 road-mobile launchers in 2019 to 350 launchers in less than seven months. The number of missiles deployed likely exceeds the launcher numbers, based on “refire” missiles that are kept in reserve and placed on launchers after the first missile is fired, the report said.
The rapid expansion is part of a large force of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, including short-range, medium-range, intermediate-range and intercontinental missiles that the report notes are increasing in both numbers and variants.
“China continues to have the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world,” states the NASIC report, produced in July with the Defense Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee. “It is developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, upgrading missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.”
The report offers new details of the DF-26, which can be armed with either nuclear or conventional warheads and is deployed on road-mobile launchers to thwart pre-launch attacks.
The Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military published last year stated that as of the end of 2019, China had deployed 200 DF-26 launchers. The report noted that the DF-26 is the first nuclear-capable missile that can be used in precision strikes.
The NASIC analysis indicates that 150 more launchers were added during the first half of 2020.
“Therefore, [the DF-26] is the most likely weapon system to field a lower-yield warhead in the near-term,” the Pentagon report said.
NASIC said Chinese military experts believe missiles like the DF-26 “have become an important factor that influences the world political set-up, controls the battlefield posture, and even decides the outcome of war.”
“It is appropriate to say that ballistic missiles have become an important sign of national defense strength and symbol of national status,” the Chinese assert.
China‘s missiles are designed to prevent enemy military forces from fighting in regional conflicts. The DF-26 is being developed into a ship-borne anti-ship ballistic missile variant, a system requiring unique precision-targeting capabilities that allow it to strike large ships at sea.
“Official Chinese media commentary described the DF-26 IRBM as ‘one carrier, many warheads,’” the report said.
Beijing state media reports have dubbed the DF-26 the “Guam killer” because its 2,480-mile range can reach the major U.S. military hub on the U.S. South Pacific island.
China‘s military carried out flight tests of at least one DF-26 during large-scale military exercises in the South China Sea in August.
“Chinese media has stated the DF-26 can carry a conventional or nuclear payload and that it can launch conventional medium and long-range precision strikes against important targets on land and large ships at sea. It also requires little support equipment and has fast reaction times, according to descriptions in official Chinese media outlets.”
China also has boosted the range of its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile with a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) that “gives the PLA the capability to attack aircraft carriers in the western Pacific Ocean.”
“According to a Chinese CCTV report, the DF-21D brigades are capable of quickly reloading in the field and launching multiple salvo strikes within a few hours.”
China has conducted more missile tests than any other nation in recent years.
According to a declassified State Department document, China has nearly tripled its production of ballistic missiles since 2010, with 60% of them theater and short-range missiles and the rest new strategic missiles.
The report noted that China has continued a decadeslong deployment of DF-15 and DF-11 short-range missiles opposite Taiwan, where Beijing has been saber-rattling in recent weeks with daily warplane incursions into the island’s air defense zone.
Rick Fisher, a China specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the NASIC report provided new information on Chinese DF-15 and DF-16 short-range missiles indicating that they can now strike U.S. targets in Okinawa, Japan, in addition to Taiwan.
“It appears a significant proportion of China‘s [short-range ballistic missile] force is capable of threatening Japan as well as Taiwan,” he said. “This gives the PLA the flexibility to use its 350 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to attack more distant targets like Guam and U.S. aircraft carriers far out at sea.”
The NASIC report also said China is building up long-range missiles, with close to 90 deployed last year. The number could exceed 100 by the end of this year, analysts said.
Two ICBM models, the CSS-4 Mod 3, or DF-5C, and the CSS-20, or DF-41, could carry up to 10 warheads each, analysts say. China obtained multiple-warhead technology from the United States during illicit space cooperation carried out during the Clinton administration.
The 90 to 100 ICBMs do not include China‘s estimated 72 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles deployed on Jin-class missiles submarines (SSBNs).
“Should the later Type-094A SSBN be upgraded with multiple-warhead-capable JL-3 SLBMs, this would justify recent U.S. estimates that China could double, or even triple or quadruple their nuclear warhead arsenal by 2030,” Mr. Fisher said.
“China can already target the United States with a relatively small force of ICBMs, and its ICBM force is growing quantitatively and qualitatively,” the NASIC report said.
CONSPIRACY THEORY NO MORE
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress on Wednesday that U.S. analysts now believe the COVID-19 pandemic began either from an accident at a Chinese laboratory or through an infected animal that passed it along to humans.
“Basically, [intelligence] components have coalesced around two alternative theories,” Ms. Haines said in her first appearance as DNI before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “These scenarios are [that] it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident,” she said.
The comments contradict the recent conclusions of a joint World Health Organization-Chinese government report that dismissed the lab theory as “extremely unlikely.” Beijing has angrily denied a leak was responsible.
American scientists as recently as several months ago dismissed the theory that the virus may have escaped from a Chinese laboratory as a “conspiracy theory.” Ms. Haines’ comments on the laboratory escape theory are the first made publicly by a senior intelligence official on the likelihood that the virus began in a Chinese lab.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology and other laboratories in China have been the focus of American intelligence agencies seeking clues to the origin of the outbreak of COVID-19, which has claimed over 2 million lives worldwide. In January, the State Department released a fact sheet on the institute that said there was substantial circumstantial evidence that the virus originated there.
The evidence included workers at the lab who were sickened with COVID-like symptoms in the fall of 2019; known work on a bat coronavirus at the lab that is 96% similar to the virus that causes COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2; and secret work at the laboratory by the People’s Liberation Army, which has conducted animal experiments there.
The DNI’s testimony contradicts assertions of the Chinese government that the virus could not have come from one of its laboratories.
Liang Wannian, leader of the Chinese team that conducted the joint WHO-Chinese study, said the experts “agreed unanimously” that “it is extremely unlikely that the virus leaked from the lab.” Mr. Liang said that, as a result, future virus origin-tracing missions would no longer focus on the lab escape theory unless new evidence is presented.
Ms. Haines did not provide details for the two theories but emphasized that the intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how the virus emerged and spread. Intelligence agencies are continuing to collect information on the virus origin, she said.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the Republican vice chairman of the committee, said a laboratory accident is plausible because “to date no such path of [animal-to-human] transmission has been definitely identified.”
“Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have demonstrated from their publications that they were skilled at techniques in which they genetically modified bat coronaviruses in order to create new man-made viruses that were highly capable of creating diseases in human beings,” said Mr. Rubio.
Several laboratory leaks of viruses have been documented in China, including the original SARS virus, he said. Mr. Rubio also noted that American diplomats who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses high-security bio-research labs, warned in 2018 of poor security.
“We can’t conclude that the virus that causes COVID-19 emerged naturally until there’s been a transmission chain that has identified how the virus evolved and transmitted between species,” he said.
CIA Director William Burns, also testifying before the Senate panel Wednesday, said he agreed with Ms. Haines’ analysis.
“The one thing that’s clear to us and our analysts is that the Chinese leadership has not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent in working with the WHO or providing the kind of original, complete data that would help answer those questions,” Mr. Burns testified.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.