Lifting the Veil on China’s “Carrier-Killer”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Lifting the Veil on China’s “Carrier-Killer”


The good folks at the Jamestown Foundation here in Washington D.C. have produced what is clearly the world’s authoritative guide detailing the strategic rationale, development, and ramifications concerning a piece of Chinese military hardware Diplomat readers know all too well: The DF-21D, or the “carrier-killer” as it is known in the popular press.

Authored by what I would consider the world’s leading expert on the subject (the DF-21D is the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile or ASBM) and the first to recognize its importance in modern warfare, Dr. Andrew Erickson has developed a one of a kind assessment tracing the missiles’ origins, development, possible uses in combat conditions, as well as its overall implications for the U.S. Navy. Simply stated: the report is a must-read for China hands interested in Asia-Pacific security matters.

A brief description of the weapon itself clearly demonstrates why there is so much hype surrounding it: the missile is mobile and fired from a truck-mounted launcher, making its detection more of a challenge. Most accounts have the weapon receiving guidance from over-the-horizon radar, satellites and other pieces of intelligence gathering technology. Many reports have the missile hitting its target, most likely a military vessel like an aircraft carrier, at a speed many times faster than sound (some say Mach 10 – 12). Scholars debate if present U.S. missile defenses can shield carriers against the weapon, especially if sea-based AEGIS naval platforms were also pressed to defend against sea and land-based cruise missiles simultaneously in numbers that could overwhelm the amount of interceptors available.

Over the last several years, as Erickson and others have noted, the missile has gone from development, to likely tests of its components, to what U.S. Navy Admiral Willard dubbed reaching initial operational capacity via comments made in late 2010. Taiwan’s defense establishment also reported in 2011 that small batches of the missile have been “produced and deployed.” Just this year, various news outlets declared the missile was deployed across the Taiwan strait.  Yet despite these reports, many analysts doubt such a weapon could be deployed in the near term. As Erickson explains in his report:

“The real surprise is how much “ASBM denial” there has been outside active governmental circles. Some individuals, including a few respected professionals with the highest levels of Cold War experience, assumed that any Chinese ASBM would have many of the shortcomings of failed Soviet Industrial-age design but would nevertheless be susceptible to U.S. Information-age ballistic missile defense systems. Other skeptics stated that a conventional ASBM was technologically unfeasible; still more said that there was no evidence that China could achieve such a capability. Physics, however, allows for an ASBM; physics is the same for the Chinese as it is for everyone else. China has many physics experts and engineers who have served their country. We are witnessing the results today as well as the ability of China’s once-moribund defense industry to integrate existing technologies in innovative ways.”

Beijing has thus come a long way and Erickson's report demonstrates China has the technical skill and personnel, historical rationale, and strategic vision to pull it off.

Besides the doubts many have placed on the actual ability of the Chinese to develop and deploy such a weapon, information on the system has been spotty and inconsistent at best. As someone who has spent the last several years studying the ins and outs of this weapon, the greatest frustration in my own research has been the utter lack of not only new information, but also the amount of recycled data points and conflicting or speculative reporting done on the subject.

While clearly any weapon with the name “carrier-killer” will drive a tremendous amount of hype and speculation, there have been very few places to turn to for scholars to understand the history, development and trends concerning the DF-21D. Erickson’s work not only removes the veil on this important part of China’s “assassin's mace,” but gives scholars an important desk-ready guide that is very readable for those who might not be familiar with the weapon.

The report itself presents a number of previously unknown data points. This is thanks to Erickson’s clear mining of Chinese-language open-source documents, which reveal a host of new information - at least to me. For example, the report documents a May 2010 news release from the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation. The release notes that the missile can hit “slow-moving targets” with a “CEP of dozens of meters.”

Erickson also treads territory that others have also explained in detail regarding the historical rationale for the missile. The 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis, of course, played a major role in convincing Beijing that it needed to develop weapons that could deter or deliver a crippling blow to American carrier power. However, the report also shows that Chinese military thinkers had been conceptualizing using missiles in other more exotic ways long before the mid 1990s. The report notes an April 1972 meeting of the Central Military Commission that was clearly a starting point for ideas of “using the land to control the sea.” As one official appears to have remarked, according to the report, “We are continentalists. Now guided missiles are well developed. Installed on shore, they can hit any target, and there is no need to build a big navy.”

Understanding the strategy of how the weapon is used is also important. As the report explains, China’s Second Artillery, China’s military force in charge of all nuclear and conventional missiles, would use the weapon as part of Beijing’s “active defense” military doctrine. Erickson defines this as “a concept under which limited offensive measures may be employed as necessary to safeguard core strategic interests, even though those strategic goals are viewed as inherently defensive—such as protecting China’s maritime periphery.”

In speaking to Dr. Erickson in a follow-up to the report, I asked him if he thought the DF-21D could be expanded to include a MIRV capability. In a response via email he explained: 

“The 2013 Department of Defense report on China’s military states that ‘China may also be developing a new road-mobile ICBM, possibly capable of carrying a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV).’ Such advanced technologies are designed to guarantee Beijing’s strategic deterrent. Open sources do not reveal conclusively what precise technical parameters are required for MIRVs, let alone which technologies China will be able to apply to which missiles by what time.

“But while technical feasibility and application remain unclear at the unclassified level, relative operational utility is already apparent. MIRVs offer a good way to hold multiple geographically-separated targets (with the relatively-large post-boost vehicle dispensing warheads appropriately) at risk with each ICBM, and to deploy sufficient warheads to overwhelm missile defenses even with a modest number of ICBMs. For China, this can allow a relatively small number of mobile launchers to strike multiple fixed targets separated by as much as hundreds of kilometers. By contrast, MIRVs would seem to have little real applicability to the anti-carrier mission, where the goal is instead to strike a single moving target, or at least a relatively small set of such targets. Presumably, China could launch several ASBMs, each with a single warhead, at each carrier it was attempting to target. From the perspective of operational utility, then, it is likely that China will rather attempt to develop multiple ASBM variants, tailored to varied mission parameters. The 2013 DoD report suggests that Beijing may build ASBMs of varying ranges. This will most likely include longer-range variants, designed to hold carriers back beyond their operationally-effective range. Since a likely U.S. response to China’s ASBM challenge is to develop longer-range carrier-based strike platforms, China’s corresponding goal will be to hold carriers back farther and farther until using them to conduct strikes on or near China becomes unfeasible.”

The DF-21D, as I have stated before, is more of a “great complicator” than a “game changer.” Scholars now have the definitive guide to understanding the world’s first ASBM and a weapon that U.S. naval planners will be forced to consider in their strategic calculus going forward. China hands, do yourself a favor, pick up a copy.  You won’t be disappointed. 

October 29, 2013 at 10:45

I think some of the commenters may be failing to consider that the primary purpose of the weapon is A2/AD.  In other words, the actual destruction of the carrier is less important than the threat of destruction.  My assessment would be that China is primarily concerned about US intervention in a Taiwan takeover due to US treaty obligations.  The goal would be to keep the US at a sufficient standoff to avoid force projection until mission complete.  This in and of itself does not require destruction, simply protection of the "first island chain".

November 27, 2013 at 16:08

The article sounded like US is incapable of breaking China’s A2/AD strategy.

US has already adopted all those technologies and strategies mentioned by Dr Erickson… The only issue is that most of them are nuclear tipped…

US can equally apply the A2/AD strategy on the first island chain for both China’s navy and missiles, to counter the pure missile defenses that China has.

Island base ASBMs in 1st island chain from US will lock China into a confine area, and the kill rate will be much higher. These missiles can equally be truck based, as US had those in the 60s to counter soviet’s nuclear bombers. selling this solution to the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan and Korea will assure China will never break through the 1st island chain.

October 28, 2013 at 16:09

China has the nuclear capability to engage the US in the MAD (mutual assured desruction) operation. So wake up dude.

Michael Bond
October 25, 2013 at 23:14

I'm surprised that Dr. Erickson discounts the possibility that the PLA will be working to apply MIRV tech to the DF-21D. He is correct in stating that the platform is designed to hit either a single or a relatively few targets, but neglects to take into account U.S. missile defense counter measures (AEGIS combat system) and the current PLA preference for 'high intensity threat environment' (gosh I'm hitting all the hot button words today). Single warhead missiles are exactly what the AEGIS combat system is designed to deal with, even in large numbers. By developing a MIRV variant of the DF21-D the PLA gains the ability to not only increase the number or warheads it can put on target(s) (and thereby increasing the likelihood of at least one making its way through or), but can also “blur” the combat picture for the AEGIS system by adding dummy warheads into the mix. The PLA could conceivable achieve the same result but using several variant single warhead systems as Dr. Erickson suggests, but it logistically it would seem simpler to use the multi-warhead system.  Having not fished his paper these are more initial thoughts, hopefully he’ll address the issue in the paper.  

Most people seem to be assuming that China would be making the first, unprovoked, strike. I would suggest learning to read mandarin and then getting onto PLA Daily, Seeking Truth, or any of the other CCP publications on political theory or strategy. The PLA does not see itself as a “first strike” military, but rather plan for “active defense” (originally from Mao, but I think I got it from Dr. Erickson’s book. Either that or it was from Blasko’s.). If the PLA went after one of our carries then it would be because we got involved in something with in the first Island Chain. Japan stations troops on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and we move a carrier in as support for example, though this too might even be a stretch. War is just as bad for China as it is for us.  Possibly more so because of the likely economic back lash, though China recently has shown it will sacrifice economic benefit in the face of strong nationalist sentiment.

On the AEGIS system, Everyone should keep in mind that in the event of an attack on a U.S. surface combatant the PLA is going to not only be attacking ships, but also the AEGIS system itself. It is highly reliant on Satellite and X-Band radar.  China has already demonstrated it can destroy satellites fairly easily. The X-Band sites are all in Japan where China can easily overwhelm local defense with high intensity cruise and ballistic missile strikes. Once those two platforms have been eliminated the AEGIS system capabilities are going to be severally limited, and likely overloaded by the combined ASCM/ASBM launches, especially within the First Island Chain. This doesn’t mean that all is lost for the U.S. Navy. As has been pointed out, a new system can and will have to be developed to deal with this threat. The issue is that the Navy’s current strategy is no longer viable for the pacific theater, but with the current budget environment it is unlikely that a new system will be able to be developed.

Perhaps this is why Dr. Erickson feels it is unlikely for a MIRV variant is unlikely, as under these conditions a large number of single warheads stand a high probability of eliminating the target(s).

October 25, 2013 at 05:31

China continues to bark about this DF-21D like a toothless old dog. Meanwhile America takes Chinese sabre rattling seriously and continues to develop counters to this so called "carrier killer" DF-21D. One example showing good promise are the various  obscurant smokes being tested that would hide the carrier in both infrared and millimeter wave parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The DF-21 would have a difficult time distinguishing the carrier from clouds of radar and IR opaque smokes in the limited time it has to resolve the carrier as it attempts to home in on its target.

October 25, 2013 at 00:55

@Dan: Please don't under-estimate the chinese.  You know, long time ago (about 2000 years or so), a very well known chinese strategist named Kong Ming, already invented wooden-animal vehicles for military purpose.  These vehicles did not consume any form of energy.  One only needed to insert a secret key in to the animals and, voi-la, the animal will carry as much weapons/stuff that they can put on them.  The animals will travel as much as they want them to and did not get tired.

October 24, 2013 at 16:19

Regarding 'moving target'..assume the terminal velocity is Mach 12 (4000m/s) with missile guidance blackout at 100 miles from target (which translates to 40 sec of unguided travel).  During that 40 sec, assume the target is moving at flank speed, say 40 knots (20m/s), the total distance traveled is 800m, or less than 3 ship length in a relative straight line- which makes it an almost 'stationary' target.

Recently there was a photo (forgot the link) showing multiple craters within a full size outline of Nimitz-class AC in China's western desert.  And it was rumored the test was done with fd-21s, back in 06-07.

Little Helmsman
October 24, 2013 at 06:18

Kinda curious what actual carrier have these missiles actually killed in a test or combat to receive that moniker? Chicoms should test this weapon on its own flat top, Liaoning, to see if it actually work or capable!

October 24, 2013 at 05:53

1. DF-21 (assume it does its job) is like a mini-dooms-day weapon, once they are launched (and killed a US carrier with thousands lives lost), there is no guarantee to the Chinese that the US will react with constraint- we jumped into WW2 (and Afghanistan) with couple thousands dead sailors in Pearl (so were the equivalent amount of dead civilians in WTC).  The whole AD/A2 is predicated on the US won't use its carrier as an I-dare-U-human-shield; and pump billions on re-equip/protect a somewhat dated war-platform concept.

2.  It can't kill subs with DF-21.  If the US can develop subs that can project power like a carrier (after all, its Pacific-Rim allies would like to see the rah-rah display as confidence booster), and hide like a traditional sub.



October 24, 2013 at 05:01

Even the US Navy respects the UNCLOS 12-mile territorial waters as stated in the treaty. Thus, even though Washington hasn't signed nor ratified UNCLOS treaty, the US still follows the UNCLOS agreement. China has ratified UNCLOS in 1996, and the Chinese violate the treaty everyday in the ESC & SCS with their ancient claims supported with zero documentation in the UNSC.

Even if China used the DF-21 on a US carrier and sank her, it would do so in international waters, American public outrage would be 100 X that of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 if China makes such a miscalculation.

If China's strategy is to just force the Americans to fight from a distance, then the PLAN should read about how Argentina's Junta thought the same thing by forcing the British Navy to fight from a distance……..and still lost despite having weeks to fortify the Falkland islands with troops.

China's problem is simply the logistical aspects of war. They could launch a first strike in another 'sneak attack', even land troops on islands, but they wouldn't be able to keep them in their possession when the US simply can destroy the Chinese supply lines in a heartbeat. Cut off the head of the snake, and the rest of the body dies!

Just like Argentina's fleet retreated back to home waters when the British navy showed up to defend the Falkland islands, there's no doubt the PLAN would also flee back to their home ports in a war with the USA. The only difference is that the US could destroy 40% to 50% of China's navy by striking them while trying to hide in their home ports during a conflict. Mao's strategy of hiding in the hills growing Opium from 1937 to 1945, while the KMT did majority of fighting against Imperial Japanese army forces won't work here today.

If China's strategy is to simply keep US surface naval forces at a distance, then what is China's defense when US submarine based cruise and strategic missiles can easily destroy PLA ships, and bases in China?

I hope no 50 center says the idiotic nuclear response, as just one US nuclear ballistic missile submarine can wipe out one-third to half of China with its MIRV'd nuclear warheads.

I can understand why China doesn't actually test the DF-41 on a moving target to see if it actually works, as China's 094 submarine and the JL-2 tests have proved China's unrelibility in that development as well in recent tests. Explains the lack of transparency by China as it would be another embarrassment for China to admit they buy Russian made equipment. China ordering SU-35s, S-400 missile battery, and Lada attack submarines from Russia pretty much tells about China's own indigenous military industries today as they obviously need to buy more Russian to learn how it works.

I agree that China's DF-41 isn't a game changer anymore than China's domestic auto brands will become a game changer in the world's car marketplace!

October 24, 2013 at 04:18

This is all hype. This weapon has never been proven. I don’t see the Russian and US militaries shaking in their boots. Either Russia or the US can destroy all of China in a few minutes. By simply keeping the Chinese guessing what the response will be to sinking an aircraft carrier with 6,000 sailors will be enough to make the Chinese pause. Attacking the Chinese mainland will be fair game. Bottom line is that the hype behind this missile is one way to get the Chinese adversaries tied down and needlessly spend resources.

October 24, 2013 at 04:01

Would you not expect Chinese publications to extol the virtues and capabilities of their systems? Soviet publications of the 1970s and 1980s are filled with similar praise for their systems. Reports on the first ASCM's were equally frightening and forced naval planners to come up with effective active and passive defense systems. The US Navy has been working on ballistic missile defense for over 20 years. An effective solution to the DF-21 will be found just as countermeasures to the ASCM were implemented. Yes, the DF-21 is a threat, but should we just stop all naval planning and cower in fear?

October 24, 2013 at 02:14

Wouldn't a MIRVed ASBM help increase the chances that a successful hit would occur?  Assuming that the ASBM's payload relied more upon or even exclusively upon kinetic rather than explosive energy to deal with its target, a MIRVed warhead would give the DF-21 more of the "shotgun effect", in essence peppering a target – be it a single vessel or a collection of vessels – with multiple rounds rather than only having one shot at it, so to speak.

Mind you, this question is based upon a shooter's perspective and there may be multiple technical reasons why it wouldn't apply.  I readily admit that this supposition on my part lacks all the details of the big picture.

October 24, 2013 at 01:19

There are many ways to neutralize the so-called  'carrier-killers' & other Chinese missiles not just missile defense systems. Rail gun & laser weapons will be one of the answers to these potential threats.

October 23, 2013 at 22:46

“We are continentalists. Now guided missiles are well developed. Installed on shore, they can hit any target, and there is no need to build a big navy.”

This type of narrow minded thinking doomed China in the past. Luckily, chinese strategists have rectified their errors.

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