Behind the China Missile Hype


The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is in the headlines quite a bit for a weapon that has never been formally and publicly tested on a moving target. A little over a year ago, the U.S. military declared the missile had reached Initial Operating Capability (IOC). In your view, where does the missile stand today, in terms of operational readiness?

I haven’t heard of any additional tests of this missile, although I guessed that they might test it this past January 11. So far, I haven’t heard that they did, but it’s possible that they did and we just haven’t heard about it yet. The PLA generally doesn’t announce its weapons tests, and they would have had a particular incentive not to publicize a test that occurred this month, because of its proximity to the January 14 elections in Taiwan. The Chinese leadership discovered in 1996 and again in 2000 that overt threats don’t influence elections in Taiwan in the way that they want them to, so they’ve refrained from such threats in subsequent elections. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t test this year, however. If they did, U.S. satellites would have detected and tracked the missile launch, but the U.S. government generally doesn’t publicize such matters at the time that they occur either, although the information may later leak out or subsequently may be mentioned by U.S. officials in speeches, interviews, or Congressional testimony.

Assuming that they haven’t yet tested the DF-21D against a moving target at sea, however, then the system can’t be considered to be fully operational. Since the missile is designed to hit a ship on the ocean, there’s no way that an overland test can fully simulate the conditions under which the missile would actually be used. 

There’s also a question of numbers.  When Adm. Willard said a year ago that the U.S. regarded the missile as having reached IOC, he didn't specify what he meant by IOC.  Did he simply mean that the basic viability of the system had been demonstrated, or did he mean that missiles had actually been deployed to operational units? If the latter, how many missiles?  It’s one thing if the system is still in development, but if a war started tomorrow they could try to use some test missiles in combat; it’s something quite different if development is considered largely complete and one or more fully-equipped brigades are out there ready to be used, although some modifications might have to be made if the overwater test isn’t completely satisfactory. The latter is what the U.S. has done with its national missile defense system, officially called Ground-based Midcourse Defense.  Over 20 interceptors have been built and deployed, even though development of the system isn’t complete.  I’m not sure if that’s what Admiral Willard was talking about when he said the DF-21D had reached IOC though

There seems to be dispute over the range of the DF-21D. Ranges have been estimated from 1500 kilometers to as much as 2700 kilometers. Where do you feel the figure should be placed? Do you feel the range could be extended even more with improvements in technology?

The most recent version of the DoD’s report on Chinese military states that the DF-21D “has a range exceeding 1,500 kilometers.” Unless for some reason they are being coy, I assume that if they thought the range was greater than 2,000 kilometers, then they would have said that it “has a range exceeding 2,000 kilometers.”  Since they didn’t, I assume that the range of the DF-21D is somewhere between 1,500 kilometers and 2,000 kilometers. U.S. intelligence analysts can calculate the maximum range pretty precisely, even if the missile is tested in a “lofted” trajectory that sends it higher but not as far as it could go, by observing the trajectory, calculating the amount of energy needed to send it in such a trajectory, and then calculating the distance the missile would go if fired on a range-maximizing trajectory. Solid fuel rocket motors are difficult to shut off, so the amount of energy the missile uses will be the same regardless of what trajectory it is sent on, and it would be difficult for China to deceive the United States about the range of the missile. Plus, I’m sure the Chinese would like to make sure that it will go as far as they think it will, so they would want to conduct at least one test involving a complete burn of the rocket motor. So I’m inclined to believe the DoD range estimates. 

April 12, 2014 at 13:27

obvious point= If this was such a viable weapons concept, why didnt anyone else develop it? NO other military bothered with an anti ship icbm.. as they stated the guidance system would have to be phenomenal to hit a moving target in the vast ocean. This is no wunderwaffen, its a propaganda piece.

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January 31, 2013 at 23:55

thanks for share

January 29, 2013 at 14:57

@James, Just like British and Germany at 19th century.

January 29, 2013 at 14:56


You should know the answer why.

China is just the ONLY THIRD owner of US Debts, big deal.

Ken G
December 31, 2012 at 04:53

The Chinese can evict the American presence in west Pacific without firing a shot.

Just simply stop funding the stupid American trillion dollar deficits.

John Smith
December 26, 2012 at 20:35

Not only that; it would ruin the Chinese economy because whilst all this is going on, the USN will be turning back or sinking shipping carrying Chinese exports and food and raw material imports, not to mention wrecking her railway infrastructure to stop overland supply. Modern bulk carriers are huge but relatively fewer in number than ships of 50 years ago, so relatively easy to find and stop on their long and vulnerable sea-routes.
This would make thousands of Chinese companies bankrupt and 100s of millions of workers unemployed, the effect on the Chinese economy and maybe the CPA's grip on power would be incalculable. China's economic strength as an exporter is also it's Achilles heel and there's nothing that many western manufacturing companies would like to see more than a cessation of cheap Chinese imports.
My guess is that China needs the rest of the world as much as if not more than much of the world needs it, so regional strength and ability to cause havoc locally notwithstanding a war with the US would hurt it more than it would hurt the US and national pride gained in winning a local conflict won't be a long-term substitute for full wallets and putting rice on the table.

John Smith
December 26, 2012 at 20:23

It's a ballistic missile John Chan, the ship has to still be in the same vicinity as when reported to the unit that targets and fires it; if the target then moves after launch, it's going to be hard for a reentry vehicle to make the necessary corrections to hit it unless it's only moved a mile or 2, which in the circumstances of a shooting war is fairly unlikely.
Scarey if it hits but it's got to hit and if it doesn't – no cigar.

September 11, 2012 at 11:47

But…Red China IS the bad guy.  Hell, they roll over their own people with tanks and have forced abortions.  Doesn't get much more evil than that. 

[...] in the needed detection, data processing, and communications systems.” – Roger Cliff Behind the China Missile Hype | The Diplomat Globalizzazione….. si grazie. [...]

John Powers
August 24, 2012 at 06:34

It is hard to imagine the warhead decelerating sufficiently for the reaction motor or aerodynamically induced  vector changes needed to assure a direct intercept of a a fast, multi-screw ship conducting extreme evasive maneuvers.  Looks like a nuke to me!

[...] to acquire the ability to mission-kill each other’s surveillance satellites, and a broad area maritime satellite surveillance capability is a requirement for China to operational…. However, unlike during the Cold War this is a rivalry of deployment rather [...]

August 11, 2012 at 08:00

The only way to keep Asia in peace and prosperity is to have BOTH USA and China to change their mentalities and behaviors.  Right now they are both arrogant and hostile to each other.  They are both in an action-and-reaction mode, which are good for neither of them.  They (and their people) could otherwise have a much better life.
By the way, all of us here are wasting our time here.  Those weapons will never get used.  The arm race will be a total waste of time and money, like Soviet Union did in the cold war.  And, whatever we say here  will make no difference whatsoever to our life or to the world at all.  It would be better for us to spend the time to do something more meaningful, such as making some friends (or money) elsewhere.

August 11, 2012 at 07:53

@John Chan,
No offense.  But you probably can try learning some more human psychology, so that you will be able to better understand why others are not listening to you.  
Right now, you can see other countries' minor problems but cannot see China's big problems.   If you appear to be biased, how can other people take your words seriously and listen to your words sincerely?    Do you take the words of "People's Daily" seriously?   Same thing here.  You got to appear to be objective (unbiased) before people can have sincere civil conversations with you.
Please don't take this advice in any negative ways. This is really intended for your future good.  And don't feel too bad, since most Americans are as simple, sometimes as naive, as you, if not more.
BOTH USA and China are the root  of all "troubles" in Asia.   (You only saw half of the problem.)  The only way to keep Asia in peace and prosperity is to have BOTH USA and China to change their mentalities and behaviors.
By the way, all of us here are wasting our time here.  Those weapons will never get used.  Whatever we say here  will make no difference whatsoever in our life and in the world at all.  It would be better to spend the time to make more friends (or money) elsewhere.

Mike China
August 6, 2012 at 16:09

The US by its very actions is making a mockery of it welcoming China's rise. China aint taking over Asia or South China Sea.These are statments made by the western media with links to the US govt.The US is building  a chain of missile shield all over the world to defend against NK or Iran missile launch.Only the most naive and utterly stupid or numbskull will believe so. The Pentagon is investing billions if not trillions for such a project designed to give  the US absolute  or 100% immunity from Russian or Chinese missile  retaliation after a US preemptive strike on these t wo countries.
Only the most blinkered and missile shield proponent will think its 100% possible.Since the neo cons involved the US in the ME wars,Russia and China have surely taken steps to ensure that at least ten to fifty nm will be able to hit back.There could be surprises in store for US war planners should the war not go according to plan. 
If the US initiates such a war, I hope the court of international justice will arrest the perpetrators of such a war where millions will be killeBlai r was harangued as a war criminal and is lucky still to be around.

Mike China
August 4, 2012 at 16:21

The carrier missiles will only be launched if China comes under attack from,who else,but the  US.The media is portraying China as the bad guy.Like all bad guys,China must be destroyed  so that the good guy,the US, will live.I am afraid the true picture is the US is the public enemy of the world.It has threatened to attack for possession of nuclear weapons. The US has 20000 nm and is the greatest security threat to China,Russia,Korea,iran and others.
Like it or not the PLA will modernise and increase the number and lethality of its nm . The US better know though it can eliminate the majority of China's nm, five to ten will get through to cause massive damage on the CONUS.Oh,btw,the PLA,aint keeping still.They will add on to the number and who knows may have one thousand to two thousand nm.Surely the US president aint that naive to attack China without risk. If such a president starts a war ,the American public better better impeach him and hang the congressmen and seantors. 

Oliver Mochizuki
August 2, 2012 at 03:21

The missile tech that China has is in part linked to Russia's decision in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union to focus on one area (missile tech) as opposed to trying to match the US on all fronts – partly what helped bankrupt the country.
Missile technology is the one field where Russia has superceded the US and subsequently China benefits from the same tech as they work closely with Russia on R&D.
I hope we never have to find out whether the missiles work as I would consider a diplomatic solution over warfare as being of far more interest to both sides.
Chest thumping USA USA style posts are from people living in the past. China is a massive power and will only grow in stature on the world stage. I for one welcome it, it's a great country and I love the people, culture, history etc. Let's hope we can get past outdated warmongering and all get along. I know, I know idealistic to a fault!
We can all learn from each other and perhaps not blow eachother up in the future. That would be nice.

May 3, 2012 at 11:42

that is wishfull thinking man remember that china also has nuclear weapons to devastate the us mainland and that is why the us govt initiate dialoguews with the

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