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Why China's Aircraft Carrier Killer Missile Could Be a Nuclear Weapon in Disguise

When would Beijing use it? What is the overall strategy for its use in a potential conflict? And what are its capabilities?

Countless ink has already been spilled when it comes to China’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM)the DF-21D, over the last few years or so. Back in late 2015, Beijing unveiled a longer-range version of the weapon, the DF-26. While countless news articles marked the debut of the system, specific information on the new weapon was scarce. However, thanks to the sleuthing skills of U.S. Naval War College Professor Andrew Erickson, we now know a little more about the weapon—and its possible uses beyond the much discussed “killing” of carriers.  

But first, a recap of how both the DF-21D and DF-26 work: The missile is launched from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere, with over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles providing guidance. It also incorporates a maneuverable warhead (MaRV) to help find its target—and defeat an adversary's missile defenses. Such a device could be instrumental in striking a vessel in the open ocean or denying access to a potential opponent in transiting to a conflict zone (think Taiwan or in the East and South China Seas).

READ: The U.S. Army's New Mission - Crush North Korea in a War

(This first appeared December 2015.)

READ: What a War Between China and America Would Look Like 

So now that we know how the weapon works, the next set of questions are obvious: When would Beijing use it? What is the overall strategy for its use in a potential conflict? And what are its capabilities? This is where Andrew Erickson’s discovery comes in: he has uncovered the only in-depth article that gives at least some hard information concerning the weapon. While you can read the whole article here in Mandarin, written by Wang Changqin and Fang Guangming in China Youth Daily, here are five key points from the article worth knowing (the translation was also discovered by Dr. Erickson):

READ: What a War Between America and Iran Would Look Like 

Point #1 - The DF-26 has multiple uses—not just killing carriers.

“In contrast with the DF-21D is the DF-26's distinct characteristic of being nuclear and conventional all in one; that is, the one missile body can carry a nuclear warhead [singular or plural not indicated] for a nuclear strike against the enemy, or it can carry a conventional warhead [singular or plural not indicated] for a conventional firepower attack against the enemy. That “change the warhead, not the missile” feature provides a rapid switch between nuclear and conventional.”

Point #2 - It Could Help Increases the Size of China’s Nuclear Arsenal in a Crisis.

“Given that China has only a limited number of nuclear weapons, and as a medium range ballistic missile, by changing to a nuclear warhead at the last minute it [the DF-26] can as needed form up a nuclear deterrent and nuclear counterattack capability linking long and short ranges and strategic and campaign roles.”

Point #3 - Mobility matters.

“Compared with silo launched and site launched ballistic missiles, another distinct characteristic of the DF-26 is that it can be launched on the move with no support. Land-based mobile launches in the past, whether with movement by rail or by road, all required a launch site prepared in advance. Although movement over a large area could be accomplished before or during a war, the destination of the move was always a prepared launch site. Because prepared launch sites are limited in number and easily exposed, destruction of a launch site could result in the bad situation of having missiles but not being able to launch them. Also, that sort of missile requires quite a lot of time to set up and get ready in a prepared launch site, which puts it at a great disadvantage against an encroaching enemy with strong mobility and a fast tempo of operation in its “combat chain.