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.”
News of the DF-21D’s development has emerged over roughly two decades, and it has been analyzed extensively in open-source publications. Inspired by a continentalist desire to “use the land to control the sea” (一陆之海), Beijing’s ASBM development was initially catalyzed by its inability to respond adequately to what it decried as unacceptable U.S. intervention in the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, and what it misperceived as the intentional bombing of its embassy in Belgrade by the United States during the Kosovo War in 1999.
In developing the DF-21D, Chinese engineers drew quite heavily on concepts and technologies from the U.S. MGM-31B Pershing II theater ballistic missile fitted with maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRV). The highly accurate, terminally maneuvering American missile was similar enough to be highly useful for China’s purposes—although substantial modifications of its control surfaces, sensor interface and other aspects were almost certainly required to produce a missile capable of hitting a noncooperative moving sea-surface target. As ASBM efforts progressed, in a not uncommon instance of China being more transparent in Chinese, relevant Chinese-language publications multiplied throughout the late 1990s, dipped in a classic “bathtub-shaped” pattern from 2004 to 2006 at a critical point in ASBM development and component testing, and rose sharply thereafter as China headed towards initial deployment in small numbers beginning in 2010.
According to its 2004 handbook, the SAF has thought seriously about at least five ways to use ASBMs against U.S. carrier strike groups, at least at the conceptual level:
– “Firepower harassment [strikes]” (火力袭扰), which involve hitting “carrier battle groups.”
– “Frontal firepower deterrence” (前方火力慑阻), which involves firing intimidation salvos in front of a CSG’s advance “to serve as a warning.”
– “Flank firepower expulsion” (翼侧火力驱赶), which combines interception of a CSG by PLAN forces with intimidation salvos “launched toward the enemy carrier battle group opposite our relatively threatened flank” designed to direct it away from the vulnerable areas where China feels most threatened.
– “Concentrated fire assault” (集火突击), which entails targeting the carrier as a center of flight operations:
“When many carrier-borne aircraft are used in continuous air strikes against our coast, in order to halt the powerful air raids, the enemy’s core carrier should be struck as with a ‘heavy hammer.’ The conventional missile forces should be a select group carrying sensitive penetrating submunitions and, using the ‘concentrated firepower assault’ method, a wide-coverage strike against the enemy’s core carrier should be executed, striving to destroy the enemy’s carrier-borne planes, the control tower [island] and other easily damaged and vital positions.”
– “Information assault” (信息攻击), which entails attacking the carrier strike group’s command and control system electromagnetically to disable it:
“Directed against the enemy’s command and control system or weak links in the Aegis system, conventional missiles carrying antiradiation submunitions or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) submunitions can be used when enemy radar is being used and their command systems are working, with antiradiation submunitions striking radar stations and EMP submunitions paralyzing the enemy’s command and control system.”
Obviously, the above suggests tremendous potential for dangerous misunderstanding and escalation!
According to the Pentagon’s 2015 annual PLA report, the CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) ASBM China has “fielded” in small numbers “gives the PLA the capability to attack ships in the western Pacific Ocean” “within 900 nm [1,667 km] of the Chinese coastline.”
While much additional research is still needed, the DF-21D has already received detailed coverage. I, for one, was so interested that I published a book on it: Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development: Drivers, Trajectories, and Strategic Implications. The more-recently-developed DF-26, by contrast, has received far less coverage thus far. It is long overdue for greater attention in the open-source analytical community.
None of this tells us how China’s ASBMs would perform in the unfortunate event of conflict. First, it remains unclear how well China would be able to target the DF-26, particularly towards the far end of its range. By parading the DF-21D and DF-26, Beijing is indicating that the missiles themselves have been tested carefully and accepted into military service as operational hardware. The reconnaissance strike complex that supports them, by contrast, remains a work in progress. But it is clearly being developed rapidly, with new satellites of multiple types devoted to remote sensing and other relevant missions being launched frequently. On August 27, for instance, China launched the Yaogan-27 remote sensing satellite. In fact, well over twenty-seven Yaogan satellites have been lofted, with some number of designators covering three-satellite triplets apparently optimized for triangulating surface ship location in a manner akin to that of the U.S. Naval Ocean Surveillance System. Open-source analysts are still waiting for evidence of China testing an ASBM comprehensively against a noncooperative moving maritime target.