Last Tuesday, China conducted a flight test of its newest road-mobile intercontinental missile (ICBM), the DF-41 (CSS-X-20), according to information obtained by The Washington Free Beacon. The test involved the launch of a missile equipped with two multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which were tracked in flight by U.S. military satellites and other U.S. tracking devices in the Asia-Pacific region.
The exact location of the launch is unknown; however, previous tests of the DF-41 took place at the Wuzhai missile test center in central China’s Shanxi Province, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Beijing, in July 2012, December 2013, and August 2015. On December 5, China conducted its latest DF-41 test, which involved a new rail-mobile version of the missile. The December 2015 test, however, was not a full test since the missile’s engine was allegedly not ignited. Rather, the ICBM was “cold launched” from a canister with a gas charge.
“Development of the missile reportedly started in 1986 but was abandoned in the early 2000s. According to unconfirmed media reports, the program (Project 41H) was only relaunched in 2009. Nevertheless, most details about the DF-41 program and the missile’s true capabilities remain cloaked in mystery,” I wrote last year.
The latest test appears to confirm that the missile is nearing operational status and could be deployed within the next three years. “U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that the DF-41 can carry up to ten 150-300 kiloton yield thermonuclear warheads per missile and that it is capable of targeting the entire continental United States. It is solid fueled, road mobile and has an estimated range of between 12,000 and 15,000 km (6,835 miles and 7,456 miles),” I reported in August 2015.
There has also been repeated speculation that the DF-41 could be armed with a DF-ZF (previously known as WU-14) hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). As I explained previously, hypersonic glide vehicles are “carried to the boundary between space and Earth’s atmosphere, approximately 100 kilometers above the ground, by a large ballistic missile booster.” Once the HGVs reach that height, they begin to glide in a relatively flat trajectory by executing a pull-up maneuver and accelerate to speeds of up to Mach 10.
The gliding phase enables HGVs not only to maneuver aerodynamically – performing evasive actions and evading interception – but also extends the range of the missile. A DF-41 equipped with the DF-ZF could hit any target in the United States within 30 minutes, according to some estimates.
The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is also in the process of upgrading its older liquid-fuelled, silo-based Dongfeng 5A ICBM with MIRVs containing three (some sources say eight) warheads. However, these missiles will eventually be phased out and replaced by the DF-41.