Is Hype Over China's New Super-Missile Overblown?


It's been called the "carrier-killer." And no one knows whether its touted powers are real. But according to internet rumors Monday, China may have just deployed it. The missiles have been deployed, said reports, in the hotly contested South China Sea and represent a possible early use of a new deterrent technology, the DF-21D or ‘carrier-killer’ missile. But readers should be skeptical of these reports.

Focus Taiwan reported that China deployed the “brigade in its southern province of Guangdong as part of a ‘shock and awe’ strategy to deter other countries with claims to the South China Sea from challenging its dominance in the region, a local newspaper reported Monday.” The piece goes on to suggest that “Missiles installed at the base might include Dongfeng (DF)-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles and Dongfeng-16 — a new type of ballistic missile that has a longer range than anything in China's current cross-Taiwan Strait arsenal, according to the report.”

The Focus Taiwan piece and others site a report from United Daily News stating “Satellite images on the Internet show that the new base covers a large area, with a number of missile launch vehicles parked outside a hangar at the northeastern wing of the base.”

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There has been a tremendous amount of press concerning the DF-21D over the last several years which myself and many other Diplomat writers have contributed to. The missile, fired from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere, with assistance from over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles, delivers a warhead to its target at speeds of Mach 10-12. It has been dubbed the ‘carrier-killer’ in popular media, academic journals, and infamous YouTube clips for its possible usage against U.S. carriers if conflict were to occur.

Despite reports, I would not get too excited just yet. There are some problems in the pieces that are quite glaring.

For one, the report states that “Military experts said the new missile base is equipped with DF-21D anti-ship missiles that have a range of 2,000-3,000 km and are potentially capable of hitting moving targets with pinpoint precision.” U.S. Department of Defense reports suggested the DF-21D missile has a range that “exceeds 1500km.” The article could be citing a widely panned estimate from the English Language China Daily that declared a 2,700km range, which more than likely was citing the DF-21A’s range in error.

The range of such a missile is very important. With rampant speculation that U.S. forces may or may not be able to defend against it, American commanders could be wary of bringing billion dollar naval assets within its sights. In an interview I conducted with RAND Corporation Analyst Roger Cliff back in January, he noted that “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.” Unless the Chinese have made advances to the missiles that are not public knowledge, the range the report cited seems overblown.

The other part of the report that really stood out was the ‘might’. Such a report, if accurate, would be a highly escalatory move on the part of PRC in the South China Sea that has seen its share of highly inaccurate and inflammatory news stories. In combing through the United Daily News website, I was unable to find the original piece the story was sourced from. Though my Chinese is not the best, I find it odd none of the reports citing the piece linked back to it either.

Can we chalk this up to sensational internet rumor? My gut says yes, but stay tuned.

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