How much should America or any other nation fear China’s alleged super missiles, the DF-21D or DF-26? The concept of a “carrier-killer” has intrigued analysts for quite some time. These weapons are launched from mobile truck-mounted launchers into the atmosphere. They are likely guided by over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking, and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles, honing in on their target in the open oceans. Additionally, they incorporate maneuverable warheads, known as MaRV, to enhance targeting accuracy.
The DF-21D’s potential lies in its ability to strike vessels in the open ocean or deny access to a potential opponent transiting through conflict zones, such as the East or South China Seas. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense report in August 2011 warned that a limited quantity of these missiles was produced and deployed in 2010. Recent articles in the South China Morning Post detailed various tests of the DF family of missiles last year, with more tests expected this year.
When examining this weapon, two fundamental questions have been asked for years: How capable is it? And if it is capable, can U.S. Navy vessels defend against it?
Regarding its capabilities, the weapon has been tested, but never against an ocean-going, noncooperative target, according to the most recent open-source materials available. The DF-21D has not reached its full potential yet, but both senior U.S. and Taiwan officials have confirmed separately that the ASBM (Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile) is already in the field. However, the supporting information processing systems and capabilities, particularly the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) technologies, are uncertain and untested in war. While the missile components have undergone multiple tests, China’s ability to use the DF-21D against a moving target in the open ocean remains unproven.
Nonetheless, many U.S. defense officials assume that in wartime conditions, the DF-21D could initially target an ocean-going vessel and track it through its course to the target. Considering China’s likely use of multiple missiles in a saturation-style strike, there is certainly reason for concern.
Can America Defend Against the DF-21D?
Assuming the DF-21D is battle-ready, can America defend against China’s formidable missile?
Opinions on this matter are mixed, with great nervousness prevailing in U.S. defense circles. However, initial fears have transformed into a more optimistic outlook over time. Noted defense expert Roger Cliff pointed out that over-the-horizon radars used to detect ships can be jammed, spoofed, or destroyed, while smoke and other obscurants can obscure imagery satellites’ views. The mid-course updates of the missile can also be jammed, making it harder for the missile to lock onto its target.
The SM-3, employed by the U.S., has an exoatmospheric kill vehicle, intercepting the missile during its mid-course in space. This means an Aegis ship escorting the target must fire its SM-3 promptly to intercept the missile before it reenters the atmosphere. However, the DF-21D may deploy decoys in mid-course, complicating the SM-3’s task. U.S. Aegis ships are also equipped with the SM-2 Block 4 missile, capable of intercepting missiles within the atmosphere. Still, the DF-21D warhead’s high-G maneuvers might render interception by the SM-2 Block 4 difficult.
The reality of how all these factors would work together remains uncertain. Neither China nor the U.S. has fully tested the missile’s capabilities against countermeasures, making any real-world scenario unpredictable. Nevertheless, U.S. carriers have defenses, albeit mainly against traditional threats, and naval planners have been working on improving these defenses for many years.
In the face of the DF-21D challenge, the Information Dissemination blog provides a comforting perspective, stating that naval weapon designers and tactical theorists have consistently risen to develop countermeasures against new and challenging threats. While the DF-21D presents a new danger, it is not likely to be an operational surprise, given the U.S. Navy’s long-standing efforts to counter ballistic missile threats.
China’s “carrier-killer” missile should be considered part of a broader anti-access strategy. In the event of a conflict with major powers like the U.S., China aims to use such weapons to deter intervention in regions like the Taiwan Strait and East or South China Seas. However, many aspects of the DF-21D’s performance in an actual shooting war remain uncertain.
Ultimately, this weapon might not be the transformative “game-changer” some claim it to be, but rather a significant complicating factor. Let us hope that its appearances are limited to parade routes.