Key Point: What China lacks in international reach is made up for big time in regional capabilities.
China’s missile arsenal can threaten regional adversaries like Taiwan and Japan, or global competitors like the United States—on their own territory.
China’s missile program is very secretive. This is partly because China has not entered arms control agreements as willingly as America and Russia, but also since Beijing only reveals intentionally misleading or opaque information.
Beijing’s missiles serve multiple purposes. The first use, especially for their shorter-range missiles, is part of an anti-access/area denial strategy in which China and the South China Sea are an impregnable fortress, able to resist attacks from land, air, and sea.
The other purpose is to threaten the United States in Asia, and American allies in the region like Japan and South Korea.
Lastly, China has an increasingly sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal that can threaten the United States directly. These ICMBs are nuclear.
According to CSIS, China has “the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world, upgrading its missile forces in number, type, and capability.”
Here are some of the notable arrows in China’s quiver.
China’s longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile is the Dong Feng-5 family of missiles. The progenitor of the DF family entered service in 1981. As with the entire DF family, the original DF was silo-based and liquid-propelled, apparently based in central China.
It had a range of 12,000 kilometers, or about 7,500 miles. The initial variant had a Circular Error Probability (CEP) of 800 meters, meaning that each missile had a 50% chance of falling within 800 meters of a specific target point. Not terribly accurate—but the United States is well within range.
In 2015, the newer DF-5B was deployed. These missiles carry more warheads and have increased accuracy, up to 300 meters, or about a thousand feet. Rather than a single warhead, the DF-5B has multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV).
The DF-5C was reported to exist only recently, in 2017. It’s MIRV capability was increased to ten.
The DF-15 family are road-mobile missiles that use a transporter for launch. They have a range of anywhere from 600-900 kilometers, or about 370 to 560 miles, depending on the variant.
The DF-15 enjoys more of a tactical rather than strategic position within the Chinese military due to its more limited range and modest payload. Despite these limitations, the DF-15 can be equipped with a nuclear warhead, high explosive, or air-fuel burst mixture, or chemical weapons.
Because of their shorter range, possible targets are highly dependent on launch location. Given a close enough launch location, South Korea, some parts of north and east India, and Taiwan could be hit. Accuracy and range have both steadily improved with later variants.
The DF-21 family is also road-mobile, and was the first highly mobile, solid-fuel missile developed by China.
One variant, the DF-21D has been called the carrier-killer because of it’s relatively high accuracy of 20 CEP, maneuverability, and range of about 930 miles.
Although China’s intercontinental strike ability is somewhat limited when compared to heavyweights like the United States or Russia, Beijing’s capabilities are growing.
What China lacks in international reach is made up for big time in regional capabilities, especially anti-access/area denial capabilities. Regional adversaries—and U.S. Navy—should beware.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.
This article first appeared earlier this year and is reprinted due to reader interest.