Should America Fear China's "Carrier-Killer" Missile?

How worried should the U.S. Navy be when it comes to the much-discussed DF-21D? 

The development of the DF-21D may have contributed to the USN’s decision to focus on air defense ships (such as the Arleigh Burke Flight III) capable of ballistic missile interception, at the expense of such platforms at the Littoral Combat Ship and the DDG-1000. But as suggested earlier, the United States has also looked into other options, including SSGN launched cruise missiles and hypersonic strike vehicles designed to attack Chinese bases before the Second Artillery can launch the missiles. The United States is also, presumably, working on cyber, electronic, and physical means of disrupting China’s recon and communications systems.

Nevertheless, some have suggested that the DF-21D has rendered the supercarrier obsolete. While it depends on how we use the term “obsolete,” it’s probably too early to make that claim. China has expended vast time and resources determining how to kill US carriers, which suggests that the Chinese military takes carrier capabilities seriously. Moreover, the number of countries with both the interest and technical capability to develop the system of systems necessary to operate an ASBM is probably limited to two for the foreseeable future, with only Russia joining China.

Still, efforts to diversify US capabilities surely make some sense. SSGNs, equipped with land attack cruise missiles, can pick up a great deal of the slack while remaining relatively safe from attack. Amphibious assault ships, the term the USN uses for its light carrier fleet, can ably carry out much of the “strategic influence” mission that the supercarriers currently provide.

Strategic Relevance

Just because China has ASBMs doesn’t mean that it will use them, even in a shooting war. The point of the “system of systems” is not to use it, but instead to deter the US from going to war. Failing that, it is to deter the USN from aggressively using its carrier groups in combat. Sinking a carrier could kill 6000 Americans in a few minutes, the prospect of which could make the US President reconsider intervention in any dispute with China. Moreover, ASBMs and the other assorted systems would make USN admirals very leery about sailing its primary assets into danger. Aircraft carriers don’t just symbolically represent national power, they ARE national power, and the loss of two or three would dramatically cut US capability to intervene anywhere in the world.

However, The DF-21D will suffer from the same problem as the variety of global strike weapons that the United States and others have considered over the years. A credible threat to kill a US carrier at range is great, but no one has any idea what will happen when the Second Artillery first lets loose with a salvo of ASBMs. Any medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) launched could carry a nuclear warhead, targeted either at a carrier or some other target. Chinese leadership will have to count on very cool heads in Washington for the fifteen minutes between launch and impact. Much will depend on the extent of contact between Beijing and Washington during the process of escalation; if this process has involved multiple misunderstandings, then launching a missile could lead to a degree of escalation that China has not prepared for.

At the extreme, launching at a US carrier represents an enormous risk, because it could start a decision-process that would bring full nuclear retaliation from the United States. That China still lacks a secure second strike capability against the US (and would struggle, in context of a conflict, to safely deploy its ballistic missile submarines) makes the situation even less stable, because the Americans might suspect the PLA of engaging in “use it or lose it” thinking. Even if the US correctly assesses the nature and purpose of the attack, the destruction of a carrier could serve to commit the United States, rather than scare it off.

The United States also faces escalatory problems. Air-Sea Battle, the emerging “operational toolkit” that has dominated much discussion of US Pacific strategy, apparently envisions pre-emptive strikes against Chinese land-based missile installations. Such strikes, which make a great deal of sense from an operational perspective, represent a grave danger of strategic escalation. Again, China must recognize the intent behind US attacks, and refrain from reacting inappropriately, a problem exacerbated by China’s nuclear deficit.


The ASBM is essentially a sea denial/anti-access weapon, not a sea-control weapon. It cannot prevent the USN from killing Chinese ships, only change the method by which the Americans do so. The use of such a weapon in anger would carry the potential for grave escalatory consequences on both sides. It’s difficult to imagine what, besides Taiwan, China and the United States might be willing to tolerate such risk for.

As such, it’s not entirely clear how transformative the weapon really is. It certainly marks an important contribution to China’s arsenal, and a harbinger of China’s growing power. It’s impact, however, is more incremental than revolutionary, especially in context of the steady growth of China’s other anti-access options.