Here's What You Need to Remember: Uncertainty as to whether an incoming DF-26 missile is carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead could inadvertently trigger an escalation to nuclear retaliation by the United States.
On April 2018, the PLA Army finally publicly unveiled twenty-two of its new DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBMs) at a military parade. The fourteen-meter long rockets were first spotted in a parade three years earlier.
As all Chinese ballistic missiles opaquely share the same Dong Feng (“East Wind”) prefix, the weapon’s name reveals little about its abilities. However, Chinese internet users have accorded the new missile a name which concisely spells out what is likely its primary role: the “Guam Killer.”
Between five and six thousand miles of Pacific Ocean separate the U.S West Coast from China. For the United States to project any sustained volume of military power across that distance requires a trans-Pacific-spanning chain of island military bases and East Asian allies. The growth of this network began in the mid-nineteenth and eventually concluded after World War II with both Japan and South Korea effectively becoming clients, and hosts, of U.S. military power.
During this period, China wasn’t doing the same thing from its end of the Pacific because it was afflicted by a devastating series Western and Japanese maritime invasions. As a result of this “Century of Humiliation,” Beijing believes as a great power it’s entitled to dominate its half of the Pacific Ocean and is energetically expanding its naval bases to make up for lost time.
The Chinese military considers U.S. bases in Okinawa and the Philippines to lie within “First Island Chain”—bases that could easily be used to launch attacks on China using relatively short-range warplanes. During the 1980s, the People’s Liberation Army built up a huge force of more than 1,200 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles that could threaten these bases, as well as Taiwan, with a devastating barrage that could wipe out airpower on the ground.
However, the PLA perceives the United States as having a second line of defense east of Japan—in which Guam, in the Marianas Island chain, is the most important base. Andersen Air Force Base on Guam regularly hosts U.S. B-1, B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers—the latter two of which are configured for nuclear weapons delivery. The island also hosts vast ammunition and fuel stores to arm U.S. warplanes, replenish U.S. Navy vessels and host U.S. Marines, and is defended by Patriot and THAADs air defense missiles.
Unlike for Japan and the Philippines, the PLA rocket force lacks missiles with the range to traverse the 1,900 miles to strike Guam, with one notable exception—it’s nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, which can also hit U.S. mainland cities. However, China has only a few hundred nuclear warheads compared to the thousands maintained by Russia and the United States, so its military favors a deterrence rather than offensive nuclear war posture.
Thus, the PLA military is still looking ahead as to how it can deal with Guam in a conflict. Certainly, H-6 bombers and PLA Navy ships and submarines could approach the island and launch cruise missiles—but this exposes those valuable assets to being destroyed, and the Navy in particular lacks extensive land-attack cruise missile capability.
The significance of the DF-26 is that with its estimated range of 1,900 to 2,500 miles it finally gives Beijing a conventional weapon that can strike at the key U.S. base with up to 3,300 pounds of conventional warhead without going nuclear, or exposing its forces in a risky blue water confrontation. In fact, the modular warhead that could possibly swap in exotic payloads such as Fuel-Air Explosives or runway-cratering sub-munitions. Other potential DF-26 targets could lie in India or northern Australia.
However, there is a large fly in the ointment: Jane’s 360 estimated that the rockets only land within 150 to 450 meters of any given target half the time. A missile with its radius of accuracy measured in the length of multiple football fields would have difficulty delivering reliable military results such as blowing up a hardened fuel depot, a hangar containing a stealth bomber, or cratering a runway. However, some sources maintain the DF-26 is a ‘precision-strike’ missile, so it’s possible the 150-450 meter figure is incorrect or reflects the performance of an early model.
Guam’s missile defenses, which could be reinforced by U.S. Navy ships armed with SM-3 ballistic missile interceptors, may take out some, though probably not all, of a DF-26 salvo. Indeed, in August 2017 the PLA reportedly test-fired four DF-26s in a simulated attack against a THAADs battery, indicating its strategy may be to initiate a rocket barrage with a “kick-in-the-door” attack seeking to eliminate air defenses. Thus, while even a token DF-26 capability is useful to have, the missile will only present a major threat to the U.S. base if it its accuracy or numbers can be increased.
The DF-26 can also carry three nuclear warheads which can separate to hit multiple targets. Keep in mind, however, that the PLA’s military “No First Strike” doctrine is about retaliation, not striking first. The fact that the DF-26 is road multiple is vital in this regard, because it can be easily dispersed to protect it from destruction by an adversary’s first strike—theoretically deterring such an attempt in the first place.
Conversely, uncertainty as to whether an incoming DF-26 missile is carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead could inadvertently trigger an escalation to nuclear retaliation by the United States.
China commenters have also announced that the DF-26 also comes in anti-ship version (possibly called the DF-26B), like the shorter-range DF-21D medium-range ballistic missile. The DF-21D created quite a stir in the U.S. Navy when its entered service a decade ago because of the threat a guided ballistic missiles plunging from space posed to U.S. carriers. As it stands, U.S. flat tops must come dangerously close to Chinese shorelines for their F-35 stealth fighters to be within range, and an anti-ship DF-26 could put them at risk even further away.
However, there is a major caveat to both the DF-26 and DF-21D anti-ship capabilities: there is no confirmation that either has been tested against a moving target at sea, and any realistic operational tests that may have taken place would likely be observable. (To be fair, there are reports of a mysterious missile test in the Sea of Bohai that may possibly have involved either missile.) Any weapon that has not been repeatedly tested for a difficult task simple isn’t one that can be counted upon to deliver a specific effect. Thus, it’s possible Beijing is talking up both weapons for propaganda and deterrence reasons until it’s confident enough in the technology for an extensive test regime.
There is another key issue when it comes to both land and sea-attack capabilities of the DF-26D: it’s one thing to build a missile that travel two thousand miles, but how do you see what you’re shooting at in the first place? Strong intelligence/surveillance and communications assets are required, especially to comb the seas for an aircraft carrier and send a ballistic missile towards its general vicinity. China has around one hundred military satellites giving it good coverage of waters and bases within the first island chain. Coverage of Guam is believed to be more sporadic, though in time is expected to improve.
Thus, constraints on accuracy and intel likely limit the “Guam Killer” in its present form to being more of a harassment weapon than a reliable military threat—unless armed with nuclear warheads. However, Beijing will likely increase its accuracy, numbers and supporting intel assets in time.
However, as the United States moves towards withdrawing from the INF Treaty between it and Russia, the Pentagon may look into developing its own IRBMs—which geography dictates would likely be situated in Guam as well.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This article first appeared a few years ago and is being republished due to reader interest.