Chinese authorities announced, with supporting photographs, that the YJ-21 and CJ-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles were already operational and equipping PLA naval and air units, particularly the Type 055 heavy destroyers. The arrival of these missiles increases the Chinese challenge to the US Navy even more so, while tensions between Beijing and Washington continue to grow over the Taiwanese case.
Could China have stolen Russia’s courtesy by deploying an onboard hypersonic anti-ship missile? Is it a new Type 055 heavy destroyer?
In any case, this is the question that arises after the publication of photographs showing the firing of a missile identified as YJ-21 from one of these ships, suggesting that the missile could actually be in service or at least in the advanced testing phase.
As if this news alone wasn’t enough, new photos were aired showing an H-6N long-range naval bomber also carrying an anti-ship ballistic missile, which experts believe to be the CJ-21.
YJ-21 and CJ-21 derived from the anti-ship missile DF-21D
This is the airborne version of the YJ-21, derived from the famous DF-21D long-range anti-ship ballistic missile deployed from ground launchers since the early 2010s. With a range of 1 km, the DF-700 had caused a profound disruption in the freedom of action of American and Western naval forces near the Chinese coast.
The YJ-21 and CJ-21 are derived from the CF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.
However, the US Navy had for several years implemented a response to the threat represented by the DF-21D and its older brother, the DF-26, with a range of 4 km. In fact, like the monitoring of Chinese deterrent ballistic missile launches, the deployment and launches of these anti-ship missile batteries are precisely monitored by US intelligence and observation satellites.
In the event of aggressive fire against a US ship, this early detection would allow escort ships to deploy their anti-ballistic weapons. The SM-3 missile intercepts the threat before it reaches its target.
At the same time, the threat posed by the YJ-12 and CJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, with a flight profile comparable to the Russian Kalibr, deployed respectively by Chinese ships (destroyers and submarines) and naval aircraft, was within the range of SM2 anti-aircraft missiles from American destroyers and cruisers.
Although it should not be neglected, the threat posed by the new Chinese anti-ship missiles that have appeared in recent years was contained by the US Navy and its allies.
H-6N long-range bomber carrying a ballistic missile, probably a CJ-21
New capabilities for Type 055 destroyers and H-6N bombers
The introduction of the YJ-21 missile on the Type 055 heavy destroyers and its airborne CJ-21 version carried by H-6N long-range bombers has the potential to significantly disrupt the existing balance of power and pose a threat to US Navy and Air Amphibious groups far beyond the current defense perimeter of the People’s Liberation Army.
Unlike the DF-21D, the YJ-21 missile can be launched from a destroyer, which is inherently mobile and capable of moving beyond the surveillance range of US observation satellites. Similarly, the CJ-21 can be transported by air aboard a bomber, making tracking much more challenging.
While the YJ-21’s performance is expected to be comparable to that of the DF-21D in terms of range, speed, and precision, its launch detection is likely to be much more uncertain. This reduced reaction time limits the effectiveness of anti-missile systems like the SM-3 ballistic missile interceptor.
Furthermore, the YJ-21 can be launched relatively close to its target, within a few hundred kilometers, and follow a semi-ballistic trajectory with an apogee below 80 kilometers. This renders the SM-3 missiles and their kinetic impactors, which are effective only at higher altitudes, ineffective.
Although the YJ-21 and CJ-21 may not possess true hypersonic maneuvering capabilities to evade missile defenses, they are still considerably harder to intercept. The SM-6 missile, rarely deployed on American escort vessels, is the only system capable of intercepting such ballistic targets.
This development also extends the Chinese defensive perimeter significantly beyond the previous ranges of the DF-700D (1 km), YJ-500 (21 km), and DF-4 (12 km).
The SM-6 missile represents the sole effective countermeasure against the emerging threat posed by new Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles. This situation leaves carrier-based platforms with limited options for launching missiles beyond the reach of American fighter aircraft, relying primarily on attack submarines to address surface threats and very long-range radars to anticipate incoming airstrikes.
Towards a dedicated detection chain?
However, to deploy these missiles, Chinese destroyers and bombers will also need to have precise information about the position and trajectory of their targets.
However, achieving this is far from easy for the Chinese Navy. It could rely on its submarine fleet, although it currently has only a small number of nuclear attack submarines capable of this mission and its rapidly growing fleet of observation satellites.
But above all, it will likely aim to develop, together with these attack capabilities, a fleet of aerial, naval and underwater drones designed precisely for this mission and capable of carrying it out effectively with less risk, at a lower cost and at a lower price. Much more discreet cost than satellites and even submarines.