Behind the China Missile Hype


The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is in the headlines quite a bit for a weapon that has never been formally and publicly tested on a moving target. A little over a year ago, the U.S. military declared the missile had reached Initial Operating Capability (IOC). In your view, where does the missile stand today, in terms of operational readiness?

I haven’t heard of any additional tests of this missile, although I guessed that they might test it this past January 11. So far, I haven’t heard that they did, but it’s possible that they did and we just haven’t heard about it yet. The PLA generally doesn’t announce its weapons tests, and they would have had a particular incentive not to publicize a test that occurred this month, because of its proximity to the January 14 elections in Taiwan. The Chinese leadership discovered in 1996 and again in 2000 that overt threats don’t influence elections in Taiwan in the way that they want them to, so they’ve refrained from such threats in subsequent elections. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t test this year, however. If they did, U.S. satellites would have detected and tracked the missile launch, but the U.S. government generally doesn’t publicize such matters at the time that they occur either, although the information may later leak out or subsequently may be mentioned by U.S. officials in speeches, interviews, or Congressional testimony.

Assuming that they haven’t yet tested the DF-21D against a moving target at sea, however, then the system can’t be considered to be fully operational. Since the missile is designed to hit a ship on the ocean, there’s no way that an overland test can fully simulate the conditions under which the missile would actually be used. 

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There’s also a question of numbers.  When Adm. Willard said a year ago that the U.S. regarded the missile as having reached IOC, he didn't specify what he meant by IOC.  Did he simply mean that the basic viability of the system had been demonstrated, or did he mean that missiles had actually been deployed to operational units? If the latter, how many missiles?  It’s one thing if the system is still in development, but if a war started tomorrow they could try to use some test missiles in combat; it’s something quite different if development is considered largely complete and one or more fully-equipped brigades are out there ready to be used, although some modifications might have to be made if the overwater test isn’t completely satisfactory. The latter is what the U.S. has done with its national missile defense system, officially called Ground-based Midcourse Defense.  Over 20 interceptors have been built and deployed, even though development of the system isn’t complete.  I’m not sure if that’s what Admiral Willard was talking about when he said the DF-21D had reached IOC though

There seems to be dispute over the range of the DF-21D. Ranges have been estimated from 1500 kilometers to as much as 2700 kilometers. Where do you feel the figure should be placed? Do you feel the range could be extended even more with improvements in technology?

The most recent version of the DoD’s report on Chinese military states that the DF-21D “has a range exceeding 1,500 kilometers.” Unless for some reason they are being coy, I assume that if they thought the range was greater than 2,000 kilometers, then they would have said that it “has a range exceeding 2,000 kilometers.”  Since they didn’t, I assume that the range of the DF-21D is somewhere between 1,500 kilometers and 2,000 kilometers. U.S. intelligence analysts can calculate the maximum range pretty precisely, even if the missile is tested in a “lofted” trajectory that sends it higher but not as far as it could go, by observing the trajectory, calculating the amount of energy needed to send it in such a trajectory, and then calculating the distance the missile would go if fired on a range-maximizing trajectory. 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. Plus, I’m sure the Chinese would like to make sure that it will go as far as they think it will, so they would want to conduct at least one test involving a complete burn of the rocket motor. So I’m inclined to believe the DoD range estimates. 

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