The Buzz

China's DF-26 Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile: What Does the Pentagon Really Think?

Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) (3,000-5,500 km): The PLA is developing a nuclear and conventional road-mobile IRBM, which increases its capability for near-precision strike out to the “second island chain.” The PLAN also is improving its over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting capability with sky wave and surface wave over the horizon (OTH) radars, which can be used in conjunction with reconnaissance satellites to locate targets at great distances from China, (hereby supporting long-range precision strikes, including employment of ASBMs.”

Considering how this report, and many prior Pentagon reports, have discussed in varying levels of detail the DF-21D, why not some analysis of the DF-26 ASBM?

The easiest explanation I can think of is that the US military has very little information (beyond what is in open sources) on the system’s true ASBM capabilities. In fact, when discussed in non-ASBM areas, as noted above, the report itself refers to the missile with terminology such as “when fielded” and “is developing” but then uses terms like “this system is capable of conducting.”

Anti-Access Nightmare in Asia:

While this is a little confusing, this could be a reflection of real debate inside the US military of how effective this weapon could be against fixed land targets and to a greater extent against a moving target at far away ranges. If this is the case, why feed a narrative that US carrier strike groups would now face volleys of advanced Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles starting at the second-island chain if they did not have clear intelligence confirming such a disturbing fact?

From this perspective, you can see rather quickly why the Pentagon would want to get this right: combining a 2500 mile-range ASBM with the likely more reliable DF-21Ds (being operational for several years now) with a range of roughly 900 miles and various types of anti-ship cruise missiles being fired from land, air and sea in various types of salvos/saturation strikes—the US Navy is quickly facing an anti-access nightmare in the Asia-Pacific that is growing worse year by year.

In the past I have described the challenge of Chinese anti-ship missiles as a “great complicator” for the US military—but it would be sure nice to know what the defense gurus of the Pentagon thought of this latest weapon, even if it was a statement to the effect that they were still formulating an opinion. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait until some random Friday late in the day next May to find out.

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) is a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest and is now a Senior Editor at The National Interest. He is the author of a new monograph on China’s military modernization: The Tao of A2/AD. The views expressed in this article are his own.

This article first appeared in AsiaTimes here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons.