China close to deploying U.S.-influenced nuclear missile

Technology for DF-31 believed to be stolen


WASHINGTON -- For the first time, China is close to deploying a nuclear missile with a warhead whose design draws on stolen U.S. secrets, U.S. intelligence officials say.

A long-range Chinese missile, known as the Dong Feng-31, is being equipped with a small nuclear warhead whose design uses secret U.S. technology, according to the U.S. intelligence assessments.

The technology is believed to have been stolen from a government weapons laboratory, according to the intelligence information, although there is some debate over precisely what information officials believe is being used. The missile is expected to be deployed within three or four years, according to the estimates.

Since suspicions of Chinese nuclear espionage became public, the Clinton administration has said there is no evidence that Beijing has deployed nuclear weap- ons that rely on stolen U.S. secrets.

Officials have said, for example, that China stole design information about the most advanced U.S. warhead, the W-88, between 1984 and 1988. Yet they stress that while China has developed a test version with a similar design, it has not produced such a weapon.

That is not the case with the warhead to be deployed on China's DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile, U.S. officials believe. They say that this stolen U.S. warhead technology will help China achieve its goal of building a modern nuclear arsenal that relies on mobility to evade attacks. The DF-31 will be a truck-based mobile missile that can be moved and thus will be hard to detect and destroy.

China's nuclear arsenal today is still much smaller and less technically advanced than that of the United States. Yet the DF-31 and its new warhead represent a step forward in China's efforts to present a more formidable nuclear presence.

It also means that China might soon be using stolen U.S. nuclear secrets on weapons capable of hitting a wide range of countries, including those in Europe, Asia and even the western United States.

U.S. intelligence estimates say the DF-31 will have a range of about 5,000 miles. It is expected to be ready for deployment as soon as 2002 or 2003.

Some U.S. officials believe that the new Chinese weapon will use design technology from the U.S. W-70 warhead, a small bomb designed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in the 1970s.

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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