One of the martial strengths of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is its missile arsenal, which is advanced and contains a multitude of more than 40 types that can be used to carry either conventional or nuclear warheads. One key type is the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), which is being introduced in greater numbers.
Indeed, China fired more than 100 ballistic missiles during testing and exercises in 2019, according to sources close to the US military. Such a figure greatly exceeded what the USA and Russia launched, and it illustrates that China is not decelerating in any way its development of missiles for the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF).
Most missiles are test-fired in northwest China, where the USA and others have poor radar coverage. The USA must, therefore, use satellites to detect the heat signatures of missile launches.
Among the missiles that China fired last year, a large number were DF-21D medium-range anti-ship ballistic missiles (MRBM) and DF-26 IRBMs. The latter has a range of up to 4,000km and it can reach military targets in Guam when fired from Mainland China. These two missiles illustrate Chinese efforts to keep US and allied warships far from China's coast.
A similar level of launch activity was witnessed in 2019. US Sources noted "China launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training than the rest of the world combined" in 2019.
Part of the reason for Washington's August 2019 withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia is China's proliferation of land-based missiles in the 500-5,500km range, a segment that both Russia and the USA voluntarily gave up. China has gained a distinct advantage in MRBMs and IRBMs because it was not bound by such a treaty.
Quite apart from its range, sufficient to reach Guam and hence its nickname the "Guam killer", the DF-26 is dangerous in that it is dual-capable since it can either a nuclear or high-explosive warhead.
The PLA is believed to have fielded the DF-26 within an operational unit for the first time in 2016, and the latest assessment by US sources on the PLA listed an estimated inventory of 80 DF-26 launchers and up to 160 missiles, whereby each launcher might have one missile reload available.
DF-26 missiles are manufactured at a facility in Fangshan in the western part of Beijing. The same factory also seems to make DF-21 and air defense missiles. The very first DF-26 showed up in satellite imagery there in March 2009. By September 2019, a total of 51 launchers were visible there, of which 38 appeared to be finished and the rest were in various stages of assembly.
The first DF-26 missile unit to be identified was 666 Brigade, which is located in the town of Xinyang in southeastern Henan Province. This unit was formally stood up in April 2018, at which time imagery showed 18 DF-26 TELs. Xinyang is about 3,750km from Guam, compared to 4,350km for Mumbai. DF-26s could thus target locations in India that are closer than this.
The second confirmed DF-26 unit was 624 Brigade located at Qingyuan, just 80km from China's coast in northern Guangdong Province. This brigade was a former DF-21 operator. Qingyuan is believed to be currently hosting 626 Brigade as well, before the latter transfers to a new base being established on Hainan Island. At this point, it is too early to say which of 624 or 626 Brigades will be a DF-26 or a DF-21D unit.
Another assumed DF-26 unit still being developed is 654Brigade at Dengshahe near Dalian in Liaoning Province. Interestingly, photos of TELs at a field training site near there were circulating as early as January 2018.
Missiles have also appeared at Korla in Xinjiang (with 646 Brigade in April and August 2019), possibly at Jinhua in Anhui Province, and at the Jilantai training area in Inner Mongolia. Satellite imagery confirmed that DF-26s were training there alongside DF-41, DF-31AG and DF-17 missiles in April-May 2019, including actual launches. These TELs later appeared in the Beijing parade on 1 October 2019.
US Sources commented about numerous DF-26 missiles turning up at a training base 9km south of Qingzhouin Shandong Province (coordinates 36.6011°N 118.4818°E)recently.
Sources stated, "This is the first time the DF-26 has been seen operating in the area and marks a new phase in the integration of the missile into the Chinese military." Qingzhou contains a nearby PLARF missile support base, with different missile types appearing there over the years.
At the above training location, sources spotted a dozen launchers there in November 2019 imagery. December pictures then showed 18 DF-26 launchers plus many support vehicles at this location. Sources predicted, "The DF-26 launchers are probably at the site as part of their integration into a new brigade."
If there are 18 launchers in each DF-26 brigade, the estimate of 80 TELs could mean enough weapons for up to four brigades, even if not all are operational yet and units are still being equipped. Sources further estimated that 2-3 DF-26 units existed a year ago, with each brigade having 6-12 TELs. Extrapolating, if each DF-26 brigade has 12 or fewer TELs (instead of 18), then this appearance of 18 TELs at Qingzhou could indicate more than one unit was training together.
Sources noted four important points of concern relating to China's multiplication of the DF-26 arsenal. "The first reason is the growing size and diversity of the Chinese nuclear arsenal. China officially maintains what it calls a minimum deterrent focused on ensuring it has a secure retaliatory capability to respond to a nuclear attack." China will soon overtake France with the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal, and its stocks have doubled over the past 15 years. Nonetheless, Beijing is still far behind nuclear weapon numbers in Russia and the USA.
Concerning the angst that Beijing's expansion of its nuclear weapons creates, the sources pointed out: "China's rejection of such concerns as well known but counterproductive, because it will fuel the development and deployment of military capabilities that China will see as growing threats to its national security. The Chinese government could help alleviate concerns and worst-case response by issuing factual statements about the status and future plans for its nuclear arsenal. This would not require disclosing everything, but as a growing military power, the days are over when China could hide behind the larger nuclear powers."
Sources also made a second point is the dual-capable nuclear/conventional nature of the DF-26. "The inability to clearly distinguish the two creates significant challenges for crisis stability and escalation scenarios. In a tense crisis or a war, Chinese readying of conventionally armed DF-26 launchers could easily be misinterpreted as preparations to employ nuclear weapons, and cause an adversary to ready its nuclear weapons unnecessarily and precipitately. If China launched a conventionally armed DF-26, the target country might assume the worst and prematurely escalate to nuclear use."
A third factor is that the DF-26's payload section is guided and is, therefore "capable of near-precision strike capability" against land targets, according to the US Sources. Why is this important? "Retaliatory nuclear deterrence does not require near-precision, but warfighting could. As such, Chinese deployment of highly accurate, quick-strike, dual-capable weapons could further deepen uncertainty and speculations about Chinese nuclear strategy."
China continues to shroud nearly all its missile systems in a bubble of secrecy. It is yet to explain how or when it would use its dual-use DF-26, for instance. Other than that, China's 2019 Defense White Paper listed the aim of enhancing...nuclear deterrence and counterattack [and] strengthening intermediate and long-range precision strike forces". It is doing precisely that with mounting numbers of the DF-26.