China’s much discussed anti-ship missile, the DF-21D, is a dangerous weapon. It’s also at the heart of the People’s Liberation Army’s anti-access/access denial (A2/AD) strategy, aimed at denying an enemy surface fleet command of the high seas.
Fired from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere, with assistance from over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles, a warhead is delivered to its target at a speed greater than sound. Currently, the system utilizes a single warhead per missile. But could the system be expanded to fire multiple warheads from one missile – so-called “MIRV” capability, with two or even three warheads per missile? Its been done before.
Back in the 1970s, the Soviet Union developed an intermediate range ballistic missile to target NATO strategic and tactical forces, the SS-20. The missile system was mobile and could strike with three independently targeted warheads. The United States regarded the system as a grave strategic threat. NATO forces would have had only four to six minutes warning time after the missile was fired, prompting then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan to counter with the Pershing II intermediate range missile. Thankfully, both systems were decommissioned at the end of the Cold War as part of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed in December 1987. Now, both the SS-20 and the Pershing II sit quietly in the U.S. Smithsonian Air and Space museum.
Unfortunately for any potential adversary on the high seas, the Chinese weren’t signatories to the INF treaty. While the United States and Russia have stopped producing intermediate range ballistic weapons, the Chinese and various others have picked up the cause. Over the last decade, the Chinese have deployed various versions of the DF-21 with expanding ranges. Estimates vary on the range and technical capabilities of the system. Some in the Chinese press have speculated the missile could have a range of 2,700 kilometers. The U.S. military recently declared the system to have reached “initial operation capacity”.
Could the Chinese take their current DF-21D design and adapt it to a MIRV capability? This would be tough for a number of reasons. The system as designed hasn’t been fully field tested beyond the laboratory, where components have presumably been demoed in sections. The PLA would also need to either use a missile that has the capability to carry more mass when launching its cargo or decrease the weight by miniaturizing each warhead to accommodate the existing missile. If neither of these could be done, the system would need to use smaller, lighter warheads with a lower yield, which would limit its capabilities.
And there’s also the difference in missions between the SS-20 and the DF-21D. While the SS-20 was designed to attack NATO forces with nuclear weapons, the DF-21D’s mission is to attack moving ocean going surface vessels. If the SS-20’s warhead was off target, the blast of its nuclear payload would still cause tremendous damage. The DF-21D would need to overcome presumed U.S. or allied missile defense systems and strike its target with accuracy. A miss of just a few feet could cause a large wave in the Pacific, but not much else.
Technical challenges aside, though, China’s anti-ship missile technology presents challenges for any surface fleet in the Pacific, in any format. While there’s uncertainty over its possible scaling up to something greater, anyone looking for inspiration would just have to take a trip to the Smithsonian in Washington.
Harry Kazianis is assistant editor of The Diplomat.