China's Plan To Beat America's Aircraft Carriers: Push Them Out to Sea
Out to ranges that American carriers can't attack from
Key point: No need to fight what can't reach you.
Recently, Chinese state media reported that a new brigade of Beijing’s most advanced intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) has been “activated.”
The newly commissioned brigade is armed with the Dong Feng-26 (DF-26) IRBM. According to the Diplomat, “Video footage carried in Chinese state media showed at least 22 integrated six-axle DF-26 transporter-erector-launchers along with their crews.” What do we know about this missile?
First, the basics. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Threat Project notes that the DF-26 is a road-mobile, two-stage solid-fueled IRBM. The Missie Threat Project cites Chinese sources as saying that the “missile measures 14 m in length, 1.4 m in diameter, and has a launch weight of 20,000 kg.” Notably, the DF-26 is believed to have a range between three and four thousand kilometers. This means it can hold Guam—a major hub of U.S. military operations in the western Pacific—at risk. In fact, as the Missile Threat Project points out, this is China’s first conventionally armed ballistic missile capable of threatening Guam.
China first unveiled the DF-26 during a military parade in September 2015. The missile subsequently participated in a massive strike simulation last year as part of a larger barrage of missiles. The Diplomat reported, citing an unnamed U.S. government source, that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) shot off “four DF-26C intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM), ten DF-16A medium-range ballistic missiles, and six CJ-10 land attack cruise missiles in the live fire portion of the exercise.” The drill was a simulation of attacks on U.S. missile-defense systems as well as aircraft on the ground.
When China first unveiled the missile in 2015, state media said that the DF-26 would have conventional, nuclear and antiship variants. This was later confirmed by the Pentagon. In its most recent assessment of Chinese military power, the Department of Defense said, “In 2016, China began fielding the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), which is capable of conducting conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets and conventional strikes against naval targets in the western Pacific Ocean.”
In this sense, the DF-26 fits in perfectly with the direction China’s nuclear and conventional force doctrines are headed. With regards to its nuclear arsenal, recent years have seen Beijing building a more mobile, survivable force. As a 2017 RAND Corporation report noted, “China has been transitioning to a more survivable, road-mobile theater nuclear force for many years.” More recently, according to a report by Ankit Panda, China has been flight testing a new nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) based off the DF-21. In some ways, a more mobile, survivable force makes China’s No First Use declaratory policy more credible, since Beijing is better able to withstand a first strike. At the same time, the greater accuracy of precision-guided missiles like the DF-21 and DF-26 gives China a better nuclear warfighting capability. It’s also worth noting that having dual-use missiles continues Beijing’s pattern of intermingling its conventional and nuclear forces.
The DF-26’s conventional variant enhances China’s ability to destroy U.S. bases in the region, which is an underappreciated threat. A June 2017 report published by the Center for a New American Security argued, “The greatest military threat to U.S. vital interests in Asia may be one that has received somewhat less attention: the growing capability of China’s missile forces to threaten U.S. bases in the region.”
In the report, the two authors, Thomas Shugart and Javier Gonzalez, simulate a preemptive Chinese attack on U.S. bases in Japan. They found the results would be devastating, including “every major fixed headquarters and logistical facility being struck” and “almost every U.S. ship in port in Japan struck pierside by ballistic missiles.” Shugart and Gonzalez’s simulation also found that most of the military runways would be cratered in the attack, effectively grounding America’s Air Force in Japan.
The DF-26 will enhance China’s ability to carry out a similar attack on the U.S. military in Guam, where nearly four thousand U.S. military personnel are based. The U.S. Air Force forward deploys bombers at the Anderson Air Force Base in the region. Thus, Beijing would view destroying America’s military installations here as crucial to preventing the United States from intervening in a conflict between China and one of its neighbors, most likely Taiwan. That said, China’s ability to attack places closer to the Chinese mainland is much greater compared to those that can threaten Guam.
The DF-26’s antiship variant is likely to garner a lot of attention in the Western press. The DF-21D—which is the antiship variant of that missile—has received many headlines over its purported ability to sink U.S. aircraft carriers. In theory, the DF-26’s greater range could force U.S. carriers to operate far outside China’s second island chain, whereas the DF-21D might be limited to the first island chain. Still, both missiles’ ability to perform this mission are currently questionable. As Andrew Erickson has noted, “limitations in China’s reconnaissance-strike complex, along with evolving American and allied countermeasures, continue to render their [DF-21D and DF-26] operational effectiveness uncertain.”
Undoubtedly, China is working hard to acquire this capability. And, even if the United States is simply uncertain about whether China can sink its carriers, it may decide not to put them at risk given the lives and material costs involved. This might be what Beijing is banking on.
Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is a former managing editor of the National Interest. This first appeared several years ago and is being republished due to reader interest.