The Air Force’s New Report On Ballistic And Cruise Missiles Misses Its Target
According to a U.S. think tank, the Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report is both inconsistent and contradictory.
The military intelligence analysts at the U.S. Air Force have released their latest public report on ballistic and cruise missile threats facing the U.S. military, with a heavy focus on China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. However, some of the information the report includes is badly out of date and a number of significant developments appear to be omitted entirely.
The Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) posted the 2020 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report online earlier this month. The last edition of this public report was released in 2017.
“With their relatively low operating costs, potential to penetrate defense systems, and value as a symbol of national power, ballistic and cruise missiles will continue to be the offensive weapons of choice for many nations,” the report says by way of introduction. “As such, they are threats that must be carefully considered in future military planning and operations.”
This is certainly true and the report provides a wealth of information on the topic. However, independent experts and organizations were also quick to find curious errors, inconsistencies, and omissions throughout. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a U.S.-based global policy think tank, conducted a particularly thorough analysis of the report, which is worth reading in full.
The primary focus of the report, as already noted, to begin with, is on developments in China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.
China has significantly expanded its ballistic and cruise missile arsenal, including both nuclear and conventional types, in recent years. The addition of the DF-41 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), DF-17 tipped with a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, both of which you can read about here, and the growing importance of the DF-26 family are particularly notable examples of this.
FAS identifies the description of the new Chinese JL-3 sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) as a particular point of interest in the report since it is revealed that this weapon is capable of carrying multiple warheads. This appears to be the first public confirmation of this capability for the JL-3 from the U.S. Intelligence Community, which has been reported in the past.
Development of the JL-3 began with the primary intention of it becoming the primary armament of the Type 096 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, or SSBN. The weapon will be able to deliver multiple warheads over a distance of more than 6,200 miles, according to NASIC. The report further suggests that the fielding of the JL-3 will be a key element in the development of the country’s strategic arsenal, which is predicted to double over the next 10 years. FAS notes that the expected range of the new JL-3 means that a Chinese SSBN homeported in the South China Sea would still need to leave its base to be able to hit targets in the continental United States, potentially having to venture far out into the Pacific.
At the same time, the report curiously does not mention the two additional submarines that are being added to the Chinese SSBN fleet now. Last year, the Pentagon’s report on China’s ballistic missile arsenal noted that the People’s Liberation Army Navy had six Type 094 Jin class ballistic missile submarines, “four operational and two outfitting at Huludao Shipyard.” The Type 094 submarines are armed with the previous JL-2 SLBM, but reports have suggested that they could also carry JL-3s.
NASIC also considers the DF-41 ICBM to now be operationally deployed, a significant change from its 2017 report, as evidenced by the change in Western designation from the “experimental” CSS-X-20 to the in-service CSS-20. The new report suggests that at least 16 launchers have been deployed.
The DF-41 is a road-mobile ICBM, first publicly displayed in October 2019. With an estimated range of around 9,300 miles, it is China’s longest-range strategic nuclear weapon and its service entry is clearly a significant development, although the first of these missiles were reportedly deployed operationally in 2017, with two brigades of them in service by the end of that year.
NASIC's report says that China also has “16+” road-mobile launchers for DF-31A and DF-31AG ICBMs, though FAS believes, based on its own open-source work, that the actual number is “probably twice that.” The NASIC report is also unclear on the warhead for the DF-31AG version, specifying one for the DF-31A variant, but “unknown” for the DF-31AG.
“The NASIC report projection for the increase in Chinese nuclear ICBM warheads that can reach the United States is inconsistent and self-contradicting,” the FAS analysis contends. While at one point in the report NASIC claims that this number will grow to “well over 200” within the next five years, later on, it provides the figure of “well over 100” in the same period, the same as was projected in the 2017 report. As FAS notes, the authors of the report “might simply have forgotten to update the text.”
NASIC notably continues to attribute a range of 1,860+ miles to the DF-26 rather than the 2,480+ miles found in the last annual Pentagon report on China, as well.
We also now know the Western designations for various Chinese missiles that have appeared in the past few years. The DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) is now also known as the CSS-18, and the DF-17, which uses a ballistic missile to boost an unpowered DF-ZF hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, is called the CSS-22.
An entirely new addition to the 2021 report is the air-launched ballistic missile category, but this surprisingly excludes China, further suggesting that some sections of the report make use of data from no later than early 2018. The importance of this new class of ballistic missiles and their potential to engage large, relatively slow-moving ships, such as aircraft carriers, is something that The War Zone has charted in the past and you can read more about them here and here.
This country has long been engaged in controversial missile development programs and has recently revealed a number of novel developments, which have been covered in depth by The War Zone, including so-called “missile farms” and an underground missile magazine.
NASIC says that Tehran has a desire to have a “strategic counter” to the United States that could involve it developing an ICBM, perhaps using technology developed for its space program.
The most recent Iranian ballistic launch mentioned in the report is the Khorramshahr-2 MRBM, in 2019. This weapon uses “fins installed on the warhead to enable guidance throughout flight.” Other than that, and the fact that this is a liquid-fuel, road-mobile system, there are no other details provided about the Khorramshahr-2, other than it having the same range — 1,240+ miles — as the original Khorramshahr.
NASIC also confirms that Iran is developing a ground-launched land-attack cruise missile (LACM), describing the latest Hoveyzeh LACM that was unveiled in February 2019 as a follow-on to the Soumar. Both the Soumar and Hoveyzeh are thought to be based on the Soviet-designed Kh-55 air-launched cruise missile, according to NASIC.
North Korea has been at the center of controversy on account of its nuclear developments and long-range missile programs for much of the period since the 2017 report was published. In that time there have been two high-profile military parades that have provided observers with a chance to see its expanding strategic missile capabilities up close.
The North Korean section features significant updates compared to the 2017 report, reflecting the major strategic weapons developments that the country has made in the last four years. A new ICBM has been added, the Hwasong-15, which is thought to have a range of 7,450+ miles. However, there is no mention of the even larger Hwasong-16 that first appeared last September and which you can read more about here.
Of the various systems that have been tested since 2017, some are also provided with revised performance estimates, including 2,790+ miles for the Hwasong-12 IRBM. On the other hand, the rage estimate for the Taepo Dong 2 ICBM has now been removed, although it is unclear why.
Another problem in the coverage of North Korea ICBMs has been identified by Ankit Panda, an international security expert who focuses on strategic weaponry. On his Twitter feed, he observed that the document describes the “Hwasong-14” taking part in an October 2015 parade, while the correct name for this weapon is the Hwasong-13. Compounding the issue, the real Hwasong-14 is furthermore described as a “modified Hwasong-14.” The result is a misleading account of North Korea’s ICBM development. In the following Twitter thread, Panda explains how we know in the first place that the nomenclature has become muddled in the NASCI report, and why this matters.
None of the ICBMs are listed as deployed in the NASIC analysis.
While it is no surprise that the latest Pukguksong-5 SLBM is not included in the report, since it was only revealed earlier this month, also absent is the Pukguksong-4, which first appeared in the previous military parade in October 2020. That leaves only the Puguksong-1 and Pukguksong-3 SLBMs, neither of which are listed as deployed.
Since the previous report appeared, Russia has been engaged in the development of different high-profile “super weapons” that were unveiled by President Vladimir Putin in a state-of-nation address in early 2018. Aside from those ambitious projects, however, Moscow has continued to modernize the existing elements within its strategic nuclear triad, at the same time also fielding new and treaty-busting missiles cruise missiles, for example.
In terms of the total number of warheads given for Russian ICBMs and SLBMs, the NASIC figure of around 1,400 warheads is very close to the 1,420 identified by FAS, and the 1,447 provided as part of the New START data. It is worth noting that this is the figure for total available warheads, not a reflection of the number of missiles actually fielded that could carry them. Overall, the figure has dropped from the “over 1,500” reported in 2017 and NASIC predicts that total to continue to decline as a result of treaty limits, the retirement of older weapons, and limited budgets.
The primary anomaly identified by FAS in talking about Russia is the data provided for the RS-26 Rubezh, also known by the Western designation SS-X-28. The RS-26 is known to be a shorter-range ICBM, or perhaps an IRBM. Although the latest information provided by NASIC is for 2018, it is claimed that the weapon is still under development. Many other sources, however, including The War Zone, contends that Moscow likely abandoned work on the RS-26 amid a budget shortfall, which would be in line with the lack of any official updates about this weapon's development after 2018.
FAS does identify what also seems to be a discrepancy in the ICBM and SLBM warhead data, however, highlighting the statement “Russia retains over 1,000 nuclear warheads on ICBMs.” If this is the case, FAS contends, then the Russian Navy’s SLBM warhead inventory must also be smaller than is generally understood.
Among the cruise missiles, the nuclear-tipped, air-launched Kh-102 is a new addition to the 2021 report. This suggests the weapon is now in frontline service with the Russian Aerospace Forces, an idea backed up by the assignment of an appropriate Western designation, AS-23B, although this is missing from the report.
Another possible error, or misunderstanding, relates to the 3M14 Kalibr LACM, known in the West as the SS-N-30. The NASIC report identifies this as a “nuclear possible” weapon, indicating that it can be fitted with either a conventional or nuclear warhead. As FAS points out, the Russian government has previously confirmed that the missile can be fitted with a nuclear warhead.
“Overall […] the new report may be equally interesting because of what it does not include,” Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS, wrote.
“There are a number of cases where the report is scaled back compared with previous versions,” he continued “And throughout the report, much of the data clearly hasn’t been updated since 2018. In some places, it is even inconsistent and self-contradicting.”
For example, the cruise missile section of the report is much thinner than in the past, with only China, Iran, and Russia being listed. In the past, the coverage of nations operating or developing strategic-capable cruise missiles was much more comprehensive. While the omission of certain close U.S. allies in this category might be more understandable, it is odd that neither India nor Pakistan warrants a mention for their cruise missiles. One such weapon, Pakistan’s Babur ground-launched cruise missile, can be seen under test in the video below:
On the other hand, the ballistic missile section includes all relevant countries. However, there are limitations here, too, among them an incomplete table of ballistic missile launches, with the most recent such data inexplicably missing.
Moreover, all these kinds of threats are proliferating and also in countries outside those with nuclear stockpiles, even including non-state actors. For example, Houthi rebels in Yemen have employed both ballistic missiles and cruise missiles against Saudi Arabian targets in recent years, reflecting an ever-increasing ability to hit targets at longer ranges. While the Houthis have almost certainly received assistance from Iran in conducting these strikes, the significance of such advanced weapons in non-state hands should not be underestimated.
Exactly why the NASIC report contains so much contradictory information and has so many significant gaps, is hard to say. For their part, FAS suggests that possible reasons could be “changes in classification rules, chaos in the Intelligence Community under the Trump administration, or simply oversight.” However, the fact that so many of the updates seem to end in 2018 might suggest that only limited efforts were made to acquire new information after this date or if it was available, it was decided not to incorporate it.
We can only hope that the next report, in four year’s time, provides a more thorough analysis of all the world ballistic and cruise missile inventories. Until then, it will be down to FAS, and other independent experts, to fill in the many gaps.
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