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.