China is set to unveil the "ultimate doomsday weapon" during one of the nation's biggest military parades on Tuesday in a clear sign of the country's growing arsenal.
A clutch of new military hardware is expected to take centre stage at a huge parade in China's capital Beijing on October 1 to mark 70 years of Communist rule. It will take place in Tiananmen Square in front of officials, selected members of the public and 188 military attaches from 97 countries.
The most hotly-anticipated piece of equipment is the Dongfeng-41, an intercontinental ballistic missile that is said to have the furthest range of any nuclear missile and could reach the United States in 30 minutes.
Speculation has been rife as to what weapons will be unveiled, with parade rehearsals showing missiles and aircraft under camouflage wraps.
The parade comes against the backdrop of worsening economic relations with the US and continued angry protests in Hong Kong. The Chinese government is keen to assert its dominance in Asia and particularly in the South China Sea where it has been busy building militarised islands in international waters.
It also wants to enforce its claim to Taiwan which has been effectively an independent nation since the Communists took over the Chinese mainland in 1949 and which Beijing regards as a renegade province.
China's message to the US is that it is closer to matching it in terms of military might. A defence ministry spokesman recently said China had no intention to "flex its muscles" but was instead keen to show a "peace-loving and responsible China".
Tuesday's parade will include 15,000 troops, more than 160 aircraft and 580 pieces of military equipment, according to Ministry of Defence spokesman Major General Cai Zhijun.
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A supersonic drone, hypersonic missile and a robot submarine could all be shown off. But all eyes will be primed for whether the huge Dongfeng 41 (DF-41) missile rolls through Tiananmen Square in what would be its debut public appearance.
Many new weapons "will be shown for the first time," Cai told reporters last week. Asked whether that would include the DF-41, Cai said, "Please wait and see."
No details of the DF-41 have been released, but the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said it may have the world's longest range at 15,000 kilometres.
US nuclear tipped missiles fall a few thousand kilometres short of that.
Analysts say the DF-41, flying at 25 times the speed of sound, might be able to reach the US in 30 minutes with up to 10 warheads for separate targets — a technology known as MIRV, or multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles.
China's current mainstay missile the Dongfeng-31 — Dongfeng means "east wind" — has a range of more than 11,200 kilometres that puts most of the continental US within reach.
Chinese academics have previously said the DF-41 "can hit every corner of the earth".
Speaking to news.com.au in 2017, Dr Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the DF-41 was China's most advanced ICBM.
"It's a road-mobile, solid fuelled ICBM with the range to cover all targets in the continental US," he said.
"The missile can carry multiple nuclear warheads — up to 10 warheads each with yields of around 150 kilotons (150,000 tons TNT equivalent) — or a single warhead with a yield up to 3 megatons (millions of tons of TNT)."
"It would also carry penetration aids designed to confuse US missiles defences."
Australia is well within reach of this weapon, with Brisbane, for instance, around 7000 kilometres from the Chinese mainland.
Nuclear disarmament campaigner John Hallam said the DF-41 was the most powerful nuclear missile in the world and was the "ultimate doomsday weapon".
"It's a whopper, comparable to the biggest Russian missiles, which it resembles," Mr Hallam said.
"Just one of these missiles, with 10 warheads each, could essentially destroy either the major cities or the significant military capacity of the US, especially if command and control nodes are prioritised."
The People's Liberation Army (PLA), the world's biggest military with two million men and women in uniform and the second-highest annual spending after the US, is also working on fighter planes, the first Chinese-built aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarines.
Photos circulated on Chinese social media of parade preparations show blurry images of a possible attack drone dubbed "sharp sword" and another drone, the DR-8 or Wuzhen 8.
Last year's spending on the PLA rose 5 per cent to $US250 billion, or about 10 times its 1994 level, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). the US, with a force of 1.3 million, was far ahead at $US650 billion.
"This parade will highlight Chinese military power, at a time when Sino-American relations are deteriorating and international arms control treaties are being called into question," Antoine Bondaz and Stéphane Delory of the Foundation for Strategic Research in France told the Washington Post.
"Our research indicates that unprecedented conventional and nuclear ballistic capabilities will be paraded, some for the first time, demonstrating the quantitative and qualitative modernisation of China's ballistic arsenal," the foundation wrote in a research note.
"Highly rapid, even hypersonic weapon systems could also be shown, illustrating that China is, in some respects, at the forefront of global innovation."
China has about 280 nuclear warheads, compared with 6450 for the United States and 6850 for Russia, according to SIPRI.
Beijing says it wants a "minimum credible nuclear deterrent" but won't be the first to use atomic weapons in a conflict.