Do Countries Really “Point” Missiles At Each Other?

How does it work?

Don't point that thing at me
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Don’t point that thing at me

The head of Taiwan’s opposition party returned on Tuesday from an eight-day visit to mainland China. Relations between the two countries may be on the mend; after the visit, China made a peace offering to the island in the form of two giant pandas. But reports about the possible rapprochement have been careful to note that the Chinese military still has around 725 missiles “pointed” at Taiwan, with no plan to remove them any time soon. Wait, are these missiles literally pointed toward the island?

Well, not right now. China has deployed hundreds of short-range missiles at military bases near the coast that faces Taiwan, but they appear to be stored in underground tunnels. If China were to launch a missile attack, it would first need to haul the missiles out of these tunnels, turn them on, and point them in the right direction.

Which direction is the right one? That depends on the missile. China might use three kinds for such an attack: The DF-7, the DF-11, and the DF-15. The DF-11 and DF-15 can be used to attack targets between 200 and 300 miles away; both are fired straight up into the air and then turn toward the target after they’ve reached a certain altitude. The shorter-range DF-7 may skip this step; these missiles could be pointed directly at Taiwan before being launched.

Before China could use the missiles, the military would have to drive them out of the underground tunnels on transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), or trucks that move missiles around and elevate them into firing position. The missiles must also be “spun up,” which means the gyroscopes in their guidance systems must begin to spin and stabilize, and they must have target information loaded into their guidance systems. The missiles “pointed” at Taiwan may already be targeted; spinning them up would probably take about half an hour.

Are missiles deployed in America pointed at anyone? Our nuclear missiles were aimed at specific locations during the Cold War until concerns about inadvertent launches led to a series of international agreements on “detargeting” in the early 1990s. Today, experts believe that long-range missiles in the U.S. are spun up and ready for launch at any time, but they don’t have preset target information. Retargeting our nuclear weapons takes less than 15 minutes.

Next question?

Explainer thanks John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.