DF-21D: China's Missile Built to Sink Navy Aircraft Carrier in a War

November 20, 2023 Topic: military Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: DF-21DDF-26BU.S. NavyNavyAircraft Carrier

DF-21D: China's Missile Built to Sink Navy Aircraft Carrier in a War

In the late summer of 2020, China conducted test launches of both the DF-21B and DF-26B into the South China Sea.


The DF-21D Was China's First Aircraft Carrier Killer Missle - There has been much hype around the People's Liberation Army's (PLA's) DF-26B (Dong Feng-26), a road-mobile, two-stage solid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic missile that was first unveiled during a military parade in September 2015. It has a reported range of 4,000km (2,485 miles) and it can be used in both conventional and nuclear strikes against ground as well as naval targets.

The DF-26B has been described as a carrier killer due to how it could be used to target the U.S. Navy's fleet of Nimitz- and Ford-class nuclear-powered supercarriers and other warships. It could also strike targets on Guam.


However, the DF-26B isn't the only missile in Beijing's arsenal that should be seen as a threat to the U.S. military. More than three decades ago, the PLA introduced its DF-21D (Dong Feng-21, CSS-5), a medium-range, road-mobile ballistic missile.

It was developed as the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) or "carrier killer." Work on the missile began in the late 1960s, and the first test launch occurred in 1985. It became operational in 1991 and has been steadily improved, with the DF-21A entering service in 1996. It is reported to be more accurate than the original model.

Enter the DF-21

Designed to replace the obsolete Dong Feng-2 (CSS-1), it was China's first solid-fuel road-mobile missile. It also employs a two-stage solid propellant motor. Able to deploy a 600 kg payload with a minimum range of 500 km (311 miles) and a maximum range of 2,150 km, while the improved DF-21D's warhead is likely maneuverable and may have an accuracy of 20 m CEP (circular error probable).

As it employs solid propellant and a Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) vehicle launch system, the DF-21 can be easily transported while it also has a short launch time, allowing it to be deployed during a rapidly changing military situation, adding to its tactical effectiveness.

Beijing has since developed several DF-21 variants, including a dual nuclear/conventional capable version (DF-21C) and another designed as an anti-ship ballistic missile (DF-21D). In 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) also revealed that it believed a new nuclear variant, the DF-21E CSS-5 Mod 6) was also being produced.

The DF-21D's mobile launcher is based on the Wanshan WS2600 special wheeled chassis, utilizing a 10x8 configuration. It is fitted with a central tire inflation system, which can improve mobility over various types of terrain, including mud and snow. Though the vehicle has some degree of cross-country mobility, it is typically deployed to operate on hard surface roads.

Capable of Defending China's Home Water

Though the DF-21 lacks the range of the new DF-26B, it could still deny access to a potential opponent in transiting to a conflict zone in waters that Beijing seeks to control, notably the East or South China Seas.

It would likely play a role in any attempt to invade Taiwan, the self-governing island that the Chinese Communist Party maintains is a breakaway province, one that will be returned to mainland control and by force if necessary.

As Naval Post reported, the DF-21 could be integrated with China's maritime reconnaissance-strike network of satellites, over-the-horizon radars, and maritime intelligence assets. In this regard, the DF-21D is a significant and symbolic component of the anti-access strategy.

2020 Tests of the Carrier Killers

In the late summer of 2020, China conducted test launches of both the DF-21B and DF-26B into the South China Sea. The move came just one day after Beijing accused the United States of sending a U-2 spy plane into a "no-fly zone" during a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) live-fire naval drill in the Bohai Sea off China’s north coast.

The DF-26B was launched from the northwestern province of Qinghai; while the DB-21B was launched from the eastern province of Zhejiang. Both of the missiles were fired into an area between the Hainan province and the Paracel Island, a source within the PLA told the South China Morning Post at the time.

The landing areas were within a zone that maritime safety authorities in Hainan had said would be off-limits because of those military exercises. It marked the first time the DF-21 platform had been successfully against a moving target.

Various sources have claimed that the DF-21 can surpass existing U.S. missile defense systems, including the sea-based AEGIS ballistic missile defense (BMD) system.

In early 2021, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Jeffrey Trussler, the deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare (OPNAV N2/N6), warned that the Chinese military has been increasing its investment in anti-ship missiles including the DF-21.

"They're pouring a lot of money in the ability to basically rim their coast in the South China Sea with anti-ship missile capability. It's a destabilizing effort in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, all those areas," Trussler explained at the time, adding, "They’re probably aimed and specifically developed towards the United States Navy. So we watch them very closely."

Author Experience and Expertise

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Image Credit: Creative Commons.