Yesterday’s Beijing V-Day parade addressed multiple audiences . Among them, clearly—the U.S. Navy, the U.S. military writ large and their regional allied and partner counterparts. After years of foreign speculation and surprising skepticism about an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), China has for the first time officially revealed two variants: the DF-21D and DF-26.
There were other hardware firsts, with DF-16 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) also revealed for the first time (the latter an air-launched missile on a display truck for parading purposes). The DF-5B ICBM officially confirmed as a “MIRV-ed nuclear missile” (分导核导弹), with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles that can greatly complicate its intercept by ballistic missile defenses. What makes these displays particularly significant: all the missiles on parade are currently in PLA service . That explains why China’s DF-41 ICBM and YJ-18 ASCM were nowhere to be found—they are not yet deployed. Otherwise, by raising concerns without demonstrating credible capabilities, China would risk reaping “the onus without the bonus.” A tremendous non-hardware-related announcement provided greater context: Xi Jinping’s statement in his speech at the parade, “ I announce that China will reduce military personnel numbers by 300,000 .” But what is arguably most significant in hardware terms is that Beijing used this high-profile occasion to reveal not one but two different ASBMs—both already deployed by China’s Second Artillery Force (SAF).
Debuting Two New ASBMs Unmistakably
There was nothing subtle about the parade or its showcasing of Chinese military hardware. First, precise details of the weapons showcased and their formations were available on the Internet several days before the big event . Second, all major missiles had large English-language designators stenciled in bright white—even the most ophthalmologically challenged foreign observes could not possibly miss the deterrent message.
The parade, together with official commentary, remains available on YouTube, and from behind China’s Great Firewall for those who can’t access such foreign social media. As official Chinese-language commentary streamed on the state television channel CCTV-1, and sixteen DF-21D MRBMs rolled by in precise formation on their transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), the missile was described as an “assassin’s mace weapon” (杀手锏武器) with the ability to strike “targets on water” (水面目标). The set of sixteen DF-21Ds was further described as the “Conventional Missile Second Formation. DF-21D, road mobile anti ship ballistic missile, the assassin’s mace for maritime asymmetric warfare” (常规导弹第二方队, DF21丁是打击舰船目标的路基弹道导弹, 是我军海上非对称作战的杀手锏武器). The DF-21Ds appeared to have a longer, pointier nose cap than the DF-21C variants displayed in the previous parade.
Official commentary states that the longer-range DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) is “capable of nuclear and conventional strike” (核常兼备). This dual-payload term is particularly interesting, and the Janus-faced concept has clearly been contemplated by Chinese strategists and technicians alike for some time. In September 2006, in Xiamen, China, at the “10th Program for Science and National Security Studies Beijing Seminar on International Security” conference, I remember an unattributed paper on “核常兼备” appearing mysteriously on the publications table. That conference was co-sponsored by the Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics (IAPCM), a reclusive organization closely affiliated with China’s nuclear-weapons industry .
Official commentary elaborated that the DF-26 is “capable of targeting large- and medium-sized targets on water” (打击大中型水面目标). This “ Guam Killer ” missile is credited with 3,000-4,000-km (1,800-2,500 mile) range, sufficient to strike U.S. bases on Guam. The set of sixteen DF-26 missiles was further described as the “Conventional-/Nuclear-capable formation. The DF-26 can perform medium-to-long-range precision attack on both land and large-to-medium-sized maritime targets. A new weapon for strategic deterrence” (核常兼备导弹方队, 东26能对陆上重要目标和海上大中型舰船实施中远程精确打击, 是我军战略威慑力量体系中的新型武器).
The ASBMs’ Significance
China’s V-Day military parade has two major audiences: domestic and foreign. With regard to foreign audiences, an important part of its purpose is to reveal enough about Chinese capabilities to enhance deterrence and persuade potential adversaries to—at a minimum—treat Beijing’s concerns with the utmost care. To this end, Beijing showcased new weapon systems that have not been displayed publicly before. Likely due to not only the historic weight of the occasion, but also Xi’s need for tangible accomplishments to compensate for recent economic problems and ongoing risks in that regard, China leaned extra-far forward and displayed these armaments.
Mark Stokes of the Project 2049 Institute has offered further analysis, suggesting that all missiles displayed are operational at specific basing locations, and that China is keen to show them off for both internal and external purposes:
“The six [SAF] formations [in the parade] were led by a corps deputy leader-grade officer from each of the six SAF missile bases: Base 51 (DF-21D); Base 52 (DF-15B and DF-16); Base 53 (DH-10A); Base 54 (DF-26); Base 55 (DF-5B); and Base 56 (DF-31A). All these systems entered the operational inventory between 2010 and 2013—or perhaps even earlier in the case of the DF-5B and DF-31A, which was included in the 2009 parade. In 2009, representatives from the brigades equipped with the particular missile system led the formations. So it seems that China’s Central Military Commission wanted to raise the level of representation and spread the glory around to each missile base. Additionally, the parade gave some pretty good hints about which missile bases/brigades these various missile systems are assigned to. So I’d give the PLA some credit for progress in transparency.”