Key Point: When China talks about “big targets at sea,” it almost certainly means “aircraft carriers.”
On October 1, 2019, the People’s Liberation Army rolled out an impressive procession of advanced new weapons systems to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
Still, many of the weapons officially debuted that day, like the DF-17, the first hypersonic missile to officially enter regular service, had been public knowledge for some time.
But that was not the case for the regiment of sixteen ten-wheel TEL trucks that came rolling past Tiananmen Square, each lugging two octagonal launch canisters with the designation ‘DF-100’ prominently stenciled on their sides. You can see the video footage here.
The DF, or Dongfeng (“East Wind”) designation, is mostly reserved for China’s many types of ballistic missiles, which arc high into the atmosphere before plunging down at tremendous speeds. But the existence of the DF-100 had never been reported before.
Curiously, the announcer seemed to ignore the DF designation.
“Here comes the CJ-100 cruise missile formation…the latest in the CJ series. The hypersonic weapon features high precision, and long-range strike capability, as well as fast response.”
The CJ-designator, for Cháng Jiàn (“Long Sword”), is used for a land-attack cruise missile, which skim close to the earth’s surface over hundreds of miles. So what on Earth is the CJ-100 or DF-100?
The DF-100’s launch canisters afforded no glimpse of the missiles supposedly inside. But a week earlier on September 25 the PLA Rocket Force posted a video montage including a two-second clip of the launch from a desert test site of a “CJ-100” missile which had never been seen before—then removed that segment shortly afterward.
On the face of it, the PLARF accidentally leaked footage of heretofore secret missile. More likely, this may have been a viral marketing ploy to create buzz in advance of the DF-100’s official reveal during the parade. Note that the missile in the clip was launched by the same ten-wheel truck-based launcher subsequently seen in the parade.
Anonymous sources told Chinese media the CJ-100 was a long-range supersonic cruise missile with a “near space” flight altitude, capable of speeds between three and four times the speed of sound. Analysts speculated that the unusual strakes at the bottom of the missile were possibly intakes for a ramjet a propulsion system, which is optimized for sustained supersonic travel.
A larger-diameter rocket booster at its base (described as identical in size to that of a DF-11A short-range ballistic missile) is designed to loft the missile upwards at high speeds, at which point the booster is discarded and the ramjet takes over.
But at the anniversary parade, state media organs described the DF/CJ-100 as hypersonic missiles—meaning they travel at least five times the speed of sound.
The confused DF and CJ designations may be because hypersonic missiles travel at extremely high speeds and exit the atmosphere like a ballistic missile—but then adopt a flatter trajectory during which they remain maneuverable, allowing them to descend upon their target faster, and making them harder to intercept with anti-ballistic missile defenses.
China’s unique-looking DF-17 land-attack hypersonic missile (technically, the DF-17 is the carrier for a triangular hypersonic glide-vehicle called the DF-Z) was given a DF designator, so perhaps the CJ-100 was re-designated for reason of consistency.
But why is China bothering to develop a second land-based hypersonic missile?
A parade review by the South China Morning Post sheds some light:
“A military insider says the weapon is now in active service. It has a range of about 2000-3000km [1242-1864 miles] and is mainly designed for big targets at sea.”
“Big targets at sea” almost certainly means “aircraft carriers.”
A China Times article on the September 25 launch described it as being for “attack large enemy surface ships and high-value targets such as communications and command hubs.”
China has already developed two truck-born “carrier-killing” anti-ship ballistic missiles, the DF-21D and DF-26B, with ranges of around 1,000 and 2,000 miles respectively. In 2019, the PLARF test-fired several on maritime targets, possibly for the first time. In response, the U.S. Navy has developed the SM-3 and SM-6 anti-ballistic missile interceptors to defend its surface ships against the new threat.
The DF-100, therefore, maybe intended to complement China’s ASBMs with a weapon which flies on a different trajectory and may prove even more challenging for air-defense missiles to intercept.
One of the chief difficulties facing any very long-range anti-ship weapons—both ballistic and hypersonic—is that there’s no way the launch unit will be able to directly track a carrier over a thousand miles away. Instead the battery must receive the initial targeting data from a separate pair of eyes, such as a drone or patrol plane in radar range of the target ship. The missile then soars towards the target’s general vicinity using inertial and GPS guidance, preferably while receiving mid-course updates (as ships are, of course, moving targets), before a seeker on the missile takes over for precise guidance in the terminal phase.
The China Times writes the CJ-100 likely benefits from new composite guidance technology designed to integrate multiple systems, including inertial navigation, terrain image-matching, and satellite navigation using China’s Beidou constellation.
The description of the CJ/DF-100 being ‘fast responding’ therefore makes sense given it would have only fleeting windows of opportunity to exploit relayed targeting data on a moving ship, and likely implies use of a solid-fuel rocket booster as liquid fuel is impractical for a prompt-response system.
A Chinese defense blogger points out that the missile’s mid-body fins and peculiar low-body strakes resemble those on the SY-400 short-range export ballistic missile and U.S. Navy’s SM-6 missile. As a ‘penetration aid,’ the authors claims the missile possesses both an integral jammer to disrupt hostile sensors, and be hardened for resistance to enemy countermeasures (ECM)—which it claims “is a first for a domestically-built missile.” The author points out that it’s increasingly common for modern missiles to do double duty as single-use reconnaissance, jamming or decoy systems.
To be clear, the claims from non-official Chinese media must be treated cautiously as being anonymously sourced, or as merely informed conjecture and speculation.
Many important characteristics regarding the DF-100 remain unclear: is it capable of carrying a nuclear as well as conventional warhead? Is it also intended to deliver surface strikes against command and control centers as a backup to the DF-17? Will the DF-100 be adapted for launch from an H-6N strategic bomber or missile destroyer? Does it actually glide at hypersonic speeds during the midcourse phase, or does it only ‘dash’ to those velocities during its terminal phase?
What is clear, however, is that the Chinese government is telling the world that the DF-100 is a hypersonic, regional-level anti-ship missile that will impose a new, challenging threat-vector for long-range attacks against large warships over a thousand miles of China’s coastline.
It’s also noteworthy that the new missile has apparently been developed and ostensibly entered operational service without making it to the public eye until a week ago—and without receiving specific mention in the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual Chinese military assessment.
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 in 2019 and is reprinted here due to reader interest.
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