The DF-21D or
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The DF-21D or "Carrier Killer": An Instrument of Deception?


There’s no doubt that China’s Dong Feng 21D (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is, in theory, a formidable anti-access weapon. Since its alleged deployment circa 2010, many defense analysts have argued that the so-called “carrier killer” would be a game changer in any armed conflict in Northeast Asia and prevent the participation of U.S. carrier groups in regional contingencies, such as war in the Taiwan Strait. But is the missile really that much of a threat, or is all the hype part of an asymmetrical campaign by China to defeat its enemies without a fight?

If last week’s statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee by Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael T Flynn is any indication, the U.S. military is buying into the capabilities of the DF-21D. The unclassified version of Flynn’s annual threat assessment even states that China has augmented its 1,200 conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles deployed opposite Taiwan with “a limited but growing number of conventionally armed, medium-range ballistic missiles, including the DF-21D.”

But ever since the People’s Liberation Army then chief of general staff General Chen Bingde gave the first official confirmation in July 2011 that the PLA was developing the DF-21D ASBM, specifics about the missile have been few and far between, with officials refraining from discussing the program in detail. For the most part, the hype has been the result of reports in Chinese media, which were subsequently picked up by Western outlets and analysts — including the missile’s alleged maximum range of 2,700 km, which, it was later found, had been an erroneous addition by editors at the China Daily. Later assessments by the U.S. Department of Defense set the missile’s range “in excess of 1,500 km.”

Although some analysis have posited that the lack of information given by Chinese officials about the DF-21D may stem from efforts to downplay the threat and thereby disincline U.S. and regional powers from developing effective countermeasures, the reverse could also be true. It is worth exploring the possibility that the DF-21D is an asymmetrical weapon whose utility is unrelated to whether the system has reached “initial operational capability.” In other words, the ASBM doesn’t have to be fully operational to meet China’s strategy of anti-access and area-denial within its sphere of influence.

As long as there is enough uncertainty, and as long as experts worldwide vaunt the missile’s threat to carrier battle groups and other surface vessels within the region, the DF-21D will remain the ultimate deterrent. As far as we know, the PLA has yet to conduct a test of the ASBM with a moving target in the middle of the ocean — a huge challenge for even the most technologically advanced military. To date, the only alleged test has involved “sinking” an immobile carrier mockup in the Gobi desert, which, even if successful, hardly replicated actual combat conditions. And yet, despite never having conducted proper tests, we are told that the PLA has deployed the DF-21D, and many accept that at face value.

The value of such deception is hard to overstate. The Chinese government may not have gone as far as to claim that it is producing DF-21Ds “like sausages,” as the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once famously said of his country’s nuclear missile production, but its decision not to correct misrepresentations in the media nevertheless encourage paranoia. This certainly reflects Sun Tzu’s saying that the acme of skill is one’s ability to subdue the enemy without fighting. This also has echoes of Myamoto Musashi, who famously said in The Book of Fire Rings that: “In battle, if you make your opponent flinch, you have already won.”

What if our intelligence missed some crucial information, and China’s ASBM capabilities are far more advanced than we expected? Such questioning alone can be sufficient to deter intervention in second-tier (that is, of no existential value to the U.S.) conflicts where decision makers in Washington might not want to gamble an aircraft carrier over, say, Taiwan, or disputed islets in the South China Sea. Ironically, it also provides convenient ammunition to voices in the U.S. that have increasingly called on Washington to “abandon” Taiwan, which is far more important to China than it is to the U.S.

One of China’s top mid-term objectives is to push U.S. naval forces out of what it regards as its backyard. It will use every means at its disposal — diplomacy, sweeteners, threats — to achieve this goal. It would be a terrible mistake to ignore deception as another tool in China’s box.

EMP Is Not A Dirty Word
January 30, 2014 at 20:44

What would be the anticipated CEP of a 300 kT warhead, sufficient to disable a CBG? Is the EMP alone sufficient to call game over? China was never a signatory to the INF, so the barn door was left open for this loophole. When you arrogantly dismiss a potential adversaries ability to exploit your “barn doors” then the Trojan Horse ends up biting you in the arse. I don’t believe the aforementioned is a Chinese proverb, though. I believe that ultimately the US kill chain will be actively targeted through cyberwarfare techniques, disseminated from the P-3C incident over the Straight of Taiwan. The Gulf Wars proved that fighting fire with fire is a flawed pursuit if you are the adversary, though the prudent will target the Achilles’ Heel. As for appeasement via treaties and a gentleman’s handshake, well the red cross on medevac hueys was the perfect bullseye for VC heavy gunners. Asymmetric warfare was never a lesson learned.

January 4, 2014 at 06:39

As “Top Gun” was a hype for American citizens to actually believe that American Air Force is the top notch?

The answer is “Yes, indeed, it was a hype”, and actually helped the general audience to support those wars in Middle East.

Now look at the mess we have created and couldn’t pull out of the mess.

August 11, 2013 at 02:36

Dear Melissa,

When the what so called: "Dominoes effect.." theory has "failed"… South Vietnam was dropped by US even before the 1973 treaty was signed. The 1973 treaty worth nothing other than ink and paper… Hope you understand: The Vietnam war was the war between the great nations with.. "Benefits".

I do not want to discuss much about it, just think about your closest friend deserted you after shooting you in the a@#..!

Oliver Lu
August 6, 2013 at 23:14

You have a wonderful imagination.

June 15, 2013 at 13:50

No Melissa, the Chinese did not defeat you in Vietnam. It was just that your generals did not understand the difference between winning individual battles (bomb, shoot, shell) and winning a war. If they had even glanced at the first chapter of Clauswitz's timeless book 'On War' they would have read: "If we desire to defeat the enemy, we must proportion our efforts according to his powers of resistance. This is expressed by the sum of two factors which cannot be separated: the sum of the available means and the strength of the will" . British General Sir Rupert Smith (who fought in Desert Storm, Norhtern Ireland, Kosova and was Deputy Supreme Commander NATO)  quoted this in his book "The Utility Of Force" in which he set out very clearly how and why a nation with vastly superior arms may win battles but not the war. The USA was defeated by the Vietnamese. Sorry.

June 15, 2013 at 03:46

Just remember that during the Vietnam war, it was the "Chinese" that defeated the Americans, not the Vietnamese.  It was the Chinese that directed all field tactics and strategies.  How could Vietnam, such a small and poor farming country defeat the US?  Think about this.  One of the reasons why the Japanese lost WW2 was that they lacked experience in full-scale warfare, whereas the Chinese has thousands of years of experience. 

April 25, 2013 at 07:46

Dear @Whichway:

You spoke as if U.S. is the savior, the hero, the justice that the world needs but in fact you're just a naive warmonger who has not outgrown his teenhood.  Where in the world you got the idea that China is threatening the waterways in South China Sea other than from war-hungry U.S. officials tied to weapon makers?  I saw the same arguments prior to the Iraq War and they were so rampant and emotional that anyone having a second opinion or doubt of them was labeled a traitor.  Your senators — including Hilary Clinton who spearheaded the 'pivot to Asia' policy — voted YES to the Iraq invasion under the pretext of patriotism and 'protecting America'.  Guess how many people died from their decision?  YOU'RE THE WEAPON DESIGNER.  I get it.  You're precisely the type who drums up the threat and oratorical, war-mongering agenda that only benefits your type.  If you like war so much, I suggest you take a hike to Iraq or Afghanistan for a month.  Travel to different cities and villages and feel the 'warm welcome' that the locals extend to you.  Go visit families that have members killed in the Iraq War.  Oh, please bring your children to have them experience war and its aftermath. 

In 1961, Eisenhower on his parting speech warned the American people of a threat to their democracy: a military-industrial complex of the union between defense contractors and armed forces.  This has been what we've witnessed in the past decades.  Using fabricated evidences from the Gulf of Tonkin incidence, the NSA led the U.S. into the Vietnam War.  By virtually the same pretext, we were led into the Iraq War by Bush and Cheney. 

How many 'false' wars and how many people would have to be killed before we realize that we should root out your type from the Washington?  Even if the DF-21 is a hoax, but as long as there's uncertainly to its capabilities, will you risk sending American lives, including your children, into oblivion?  If DF-21D is false, this only means China does not want a direct confrontation with the U.S.  Taiwan is none of our business.  So stop drumming up war rhetorics that the freedom of the sea is threatened, etc.



Refused To Be Led Into War.

April 25, 2013 at 01:32

As an American I agree with you on this issue

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief