Page 1 of 2 Mixed signals over Chinese missiles
By Peter J Brown
As defense analysts and experts in the United States, Japan and India digest
the recent "Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat" report by the US Air Force
(USAF) National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) - particularly any
elements pertaining to China - important gaps or omissions are surfacing.
The bottom line is that these gaps, along with differences between the NASIC
report  and a US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)-authored report on the
Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) released earlier this year, are making
the overall US analysis of the situation unfolding in China involving missiles
and military space matters increasingly hard to gauge.
An admission by the commander of the USAF Space Command
(AFSPC), General Robert Kehler, made in a written response to questions
submitted to him during a Congressional sub-committee hearing in March and just
recently published, underscores the fact that the US recognizes that it has to
do a much better job when it comes to the broad topic of space intelligence.
"Several initiatives have been taken to address the need for more and better
qualified space intelligence analysts. Recent billet additions at AFSPC, NASIC,
DIA and CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] have taken place through internal
reallocations and external over guidance approval. NSA [National Security
Agency] has reprioritized for better space analysis and USSTRATCOM J2 [US
Strategic Command - Intelligence] is reestablishing space analysis.
Overall analytic resources will remain insufficient, despite the improvement
cited above, and will require active efforts to increase efficiency and
collaboration. AFSPC is hosting an interagency forum to review/refine
intelligence shortfalls and to seek interagency solutions," said General
"The Defense Intelligence Space Threat Committee under NASIC leadership has
been established to oversee and coordinate a wide variety of complex space/
counterspace analytical activities. Space/counterspace intelligence
requirements have been revaluated and are now being reprioritized and rewritten
to more clearly focus the intelligence community."
As the world adjusts to China's overt display of anti-satellite (ASAT) warfare
in 2007 - satellites like the inactive Chinese weather satellite it destroyed
that year represent a critical component in almost all ballistic missile
defense systems - and as the line which separates conventional ballistic
missiles from small satellite launchers becomes blurred due to advances in
satellite design and complexity, the task at hand does not get any easier.
Witness the launches undertaken since last year both by Iran and North Korea,
for example. China's decision to use its latest manned space flight in 2008 as
an opportunity to launch a small satellite from the manned spacecraft may not
fall into the same category as these launches, but it does not make matters
less complicated either.
"Training is also a critical element of USAF efforts to address adversary space
threat. AFSPC recently expanded the Space Professional Development Program to
include the USAF intelligence community. The National Space Security Institute
has begun a comprehensive review and expansion of AFSPC's space professional
training courses in close cooperation with the (AFSPC Directorate of
Intelligence) and the intelligence community at large," said General Kehler.
His response speaks to the process and not the results. Still, it is quite
unlikely that a Chinese military commander would make any admission in public
Dr Gregory Kulacki, China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists,
identifies the lack of analysts with meaningful proficiency in the Chinese
language as one of the most important gaps in US space intelligence
"The mistaken characterization by US experts of the BX-1 satellite released
from the Shenzhou VII [last year] is a good example of how insufficient or
non-existent language skills can weaken analysis," said Dr Kulacki. "The BX-1
mission was highly publicized and discussed in detail in the Chinese media, but
because [many US experts were] unable to understand that material, [they]
created yet another tempest in a teapot over the BX-1."
In Asia, important gaps in the NASIC report have generated questions in India
in particular. Specifically, two important omissions involve China's activities
in Tibet, and a reorganization of its missile facilities at a base near Tibet
that started two years ago, according to Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior
fellow in security studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
"China's positioning of its intermediate range missiles such as DF-4s and
DF-21s in Tibet, and reports which suggest that China could also deploy DF-31
and DF-31A ICBMs at bases such as Delingha near Tibet, raise serious concerns.
Both the DF-31s and DF-31As are road mobile and use solid propellant engines.
Placing medium-range ballistic missiles in Delingha which can hit targets
approximately 2,500 kilometers away can put all of northern India at risk,
including New Delhi," said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow in security
studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
On page 3 of the NASIC report, it is reported that, "China has the most active
and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world ... China's
ballistic missile force is expanding in both size and types of missiles. New
theater missiles continue to be deployed in the vicinity of Taiwan, while the
ICBM force is adding the CSS-10 Mod 1 (DF-31) and CSS-10 Mod 2 (DF-31A) ICBMs.
The new JL-2 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) is also under
development. Future ICBMs probably will include some with multiple
independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), and the number of ICBM
nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States could expand to well
over 100 within the next 15 years."
Richard Fisher, a Chinese military expert at the Washington DC-based
International Assessment and Strategy Center, told the Washington Times in
early June that, "in just over two months, US intelligence community estimates
have China's ICBMs increasing by 25%. That's a formidable rate of growth." 
For Fisher, this sharp increase signals a need for more in-depth analysis, and
for more players to become involved.
"This year's dual assessments have been produced by two US intelligence
community teams: the DIA is largely responsible for the annual PLA report to
the Congress [released in March], and a USAF team produces the NASIC report,"
said Fisher. "We should not be surprised that they produce differing results,
but the fact that we have benefited slightly in terms of new ICBM number
assessments to me proves that there should be much more competition in the
production of such assessments. Democracies require more facts, not less."
Rahul Bhonsle, a South Asian defense analyst based in New Delhi, finds Fisher's
statement quite alarming.
"However, this does not denote the trends of developments in the past which
have been more conservative. For China to suddenly attain a leap does not
appear to be practical. My reading is that China is more focused today on
improving its internal information and logistics management systems so as to
enhance response times rather than develop and or induct additional systems,"
Otherwise, despite the fact that the NASIC report specifically mentions Taiwan
in three different sections, he is not concerned about the omission of China's
activities in or near Tibet in the report which, "appears to be more of a
capability-based rather than a threat-based analysis".
"There are some indications of the Chinese preparing some advanced launch
positions in Tibet which is of concern to us. These locations remain
unidentified so far, so building up information on these is a priority," said
Brian Weeden, technical advisor at the Colorado-based Secure World Foundation,
sees the NASIC assessment as warranting further clarification. He describes
what is underway in China as "actually fairly slow growth compared to what the
US and Soviet Union did starting in the 1950s".
"Right now, it is clear that China has no intention of matching the US or
Russia warhead for warhead, and it has no plans to achieve the same level of
overwhelming nuclear force. They are still sticking to the philosophy of
limited deterrence, ie having just enough," said Weeden. "And if having 'just
enough' is your goal, then it is obvious that you would want to have those few
nuclear weapons as survivable as possible. Road-mobile ICBMs and SLBMs are
Weeden finds that talk about percentages is a way to overemphasize or perhaps
even conceal real numbers.
"Going from 10 to 20 nuclear weapons is a 100% increase, but so is going from
1,000 to 2,000, and adding 1,000 more warheads is much more of a problem than
adding 10," said Weeden.