Several reports say the often-discussed Chinese “carrier-killer” missiles succeeded in destroying moving ships in recent tests, raising new questions about the threat scope and tactical significance of the weapons.
The Chinese DF-21D and DF-26B missiles have long been on the radar at the Pentagon and even greatly informed ongoing studies and debates about the shape, role and configuration of future aircraft carriers. Now, there may be new evidence that the missiles can actually accomplish the stated goal of tracking and destroying moving targets, something which has been a matter of debate, and uncertainty, for quite some time.
“The South China Morning Post reported last week that Wang Xiangsui, a retired People’s Liberation Army officer, had said that one DF-26B intermediate-range ballistic missile and one DF-21D medium-range ballistic missile had struck the target vessel as it sailed near the Paracel Island chain during the August exercise,” the Drive reports.
These often-discussed anti-ship missiles can, according to recent Chinese-government-backed newspaper reports, “adjust trajectory” in-flight while detecting, tracking, and “locking on” enemy targets. Reinforcing these claims, a report in China’s Global Times says the missiles operate as part of an integrated network including satellites, radar, reconnaissance assets and warships.
This may or may not be true, yet either way, the world, and especially the United States, is taking the threat very seriously. The weapons have reported ranges of concern to U.S. war planners, as they are over 1,500 kilometers in the case of the DF-21D and 4,000 kilometers in the case of the DF-26B.
Many of the actual capabilities of the weapon may still remain somewhat mysterious and invite several questions. Are these ranges accurate? Is it true that these missiles can hit moving targets, as claimed by the report? What kind of sensors and targeting technologies does it have? Is there a precision guidance mechanism?
One claim that is likely accurate is its reported ability to fire from mobile launchers. For instance, Congressional studies and various reports have for many years maintained that China has mobile launchers capable of firing from various locations. This could, of course, make the launchers themselves more difficult to target.
Finally, despite all of the hype about the seriousness of the threat presented by these weapons, one key relevant question remains could they actually destroy a moving U.S. Navy destroyer, carrier or amphibious assault ship? That may not be so clear, given advances and emerging technologies when it comes to ship defenses.
Some of these efforts include ongoing work to arm surface ships with precision-guided, power-scaled laser weapons able to optically track and then incinerate approaching targets at increasingly longer ranges. Ship-fired interceptor weapons—such as the SM-3, SM-6, Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II, SeaRAM, Rolling AirFrame Missile and Close-in-Weapons System—have existed for quite some time. However, they are now much better networked and armed with software upgrades able to improve sensing, range and guidance systems.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.