Behind the China Missile Hype

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Behind the China Missile Hype

The Diplomat’s Assistant Editor Harry Kazianis sits down with Roger Cliff of the Rand Corporation to discuss China’s much talked about anti-ship missile, the DF-21D.

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. 

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. 

Once the basic technology for intercepting a ship at sea has been developed, however, it would be a relatively simple matter to install it on a longer-range missile. The DF-31A is also a road-mobile, solid-fuel missile, and has a range of 11,200+ kilometers, so China clearly has the capability to produce a road-mobile, solid-fuel missile of any range up to at least 11,200 kilometers.  Three thousand kilometers might be a nice choice, as that would reach all the way out of Guam.  Some modifications to the ASBM version’s maneuvering warhead might be required because of the higher reentry speed of a longer-range missile, but such adjustments would probably be relatively minor.

In the current U.S. arsenal of countermeasures, do you feel the U.S. has something that would be able to defend against such a missile? Would the SM-3 aboard Aegis vessels in the Pacific be able to provide a defense without their ever being a full test that U.S. officials could observe or study?

The U.S. arsenal has a variety of potential countermeasures, some of which I probably don’t even know about. The thing to keep in mind is that, in order for China to successfully attack a U.S. navy ship with a ballistic missile, it must first detect the ship, identify it as a U.S. warship of a type that it wishes to attack (e.g., an aircraft carrier), acquire a precise enough measurement of its location that a missile can be launched at it (i.e., a one-hour old satellite photograph is probably useless, as the ship could be 25 miles away from where it was when the picture was taken), and then provide mid-course updates to the missile. Finally, the warhead must lock onto and home in on the ship. 

This complicated “kill chain” provides a number of opportunities to defeat the attack.  For example, over-the-horizon radars used to detect ships can be jammed, spoofed, or destroyed; smoke and other obscurants can be deployed when an imagery satellite, which follows a predictable orbit, is passing over a formation of ships; the mid-course updates can be jammed; and when the missile locks on to the target its seeker can be jammed or spoofed. Actually intercepting the missile is probably the most difficult thing to do. The SM-3 has an exoatmospheric kill vehicle, meaning that it can only intercept the missile during mid-course, when it’s traveling through space, so an Aegis ship escorting the target would have to fire its SM-3 almost immediately in order to intercept the missile before it reentered the atmosphere, or else there would have to be an Aegis ship positioned right under the flight path of the missile. The DF-21D may be equipped with decoys that are deployed in mid-course, making the SM-3’s job harder. U.S. Aegis ships are also equipped with the SM-2 Block 4 missile, which is capable of intercepting missiles within the atmosphere, but the DF-21D warhead will be performing some high-G maneuvers, which may make it impossible for the SM-2 Block 4 to successfully intercept it.

How all this would work in reality is impossible to know in advance. Even after China has tested its missile against an actual ship, it won’t have tested it against one employing the full range of countermeasures that a U.S. ship would throw at it and, as you say, the U.S. Navy will never have tested its defenses against such an attack. Somebody is likely to be surprised and disappointed, but there is no way of knowing who. 

Do you feel at any point China could or would attempt to sell versions of the DF-21D to other nations such as Pakistan or export such a system with less of a range?

The missile by itself would be pretty useless. As implied by my response to the previous question, an entire “system of systems” is needed to make it work. Some countries might buy them just to impress their neighbors, but their combat effectiveness would be negligible unless the country also invested in the needed detection, data processing, and communications systems.  In any case, I doubt if China would sell it in the near-term, as that could result in knowledge of its technical details (e.g., radar frequencies and waveforms, etc.) getting out, making it easier for countries like the United States to figure out ways to defeat it.

Could the DF-21D be converted into an ASBM that could be delivered by an aircraft or submarine?

The original DF-21 is actually a land-based version of the JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile, so I see no particular reason why the DF-21D couldn’t return to the sea in the form of a submarine-launched version (because of its maneuverable warhead, it might not fit into the single Xia-class submarine for which the JL-1 was designed, but that submarine is probably too old anyway and one of China’s newer Jin-class submarines could be modified to take it). In theory, I suppose it could also be launched from an airplane. The weight of the DF-21 exceeds the maximum bomb load of China's largest bomber, the H-6, but a transport aircraft such as an Il-76 could possibly be modified to carry it. In practice, however, you would probably want a different kind of missile, as the DF-21 is designed to be launched from a standing start at ground level, whereas an air-launched version would already have some altitude and velocity.

Another possibility would be to launch it from a surface ship.  If it can be launched from underwater, it could definitely be launched from a surface ship, although it would have to be a specially-designed ship to accommodate the vertical launch of such a relatively large missile.

Overall, then, how much of a threat do you feel the DF-21D is to U.S. forces in the Pacific in combat conditions?

It’s impossible to know in advance just how effective such a missile is likely to be in actual combat. However, the mere possibility that such a system might be effective is likely to affect the way in which the U.S. would operate its surface ships in a crisis or conflict with China. If nothing else, it will force fleet missile defenses to split their attention between anti-ship cruise missiles flying along just above the surface of the ocean and ballistic missiles coming in from overhead.

My understanding is that an individual Aegis ship isn’t capable of simultaneously looking both for air-breathing threats, such as cruise missiles and aircraft, and for ballistic missile threats, so some of the ships would have to look for cruise missiles and aircraft while others looked for ballistic missiles. This decreases the number of ships available to defend against a given kind of threat and increases the likelihood that something will get through. The DF-21D isn’t necessarily a “game changer,” but it does add a dimension that wasn't there before. As we argued in our 2007 book, operating within about 1,000 miles of China’s coast is going to get increasingly risky due to a whole range of threats – aircraft, surface ships, submarines, and now ballistic missiles. A U.S. president or Pacific forces commander is going to think long and hard before he sends major surface ships into that area in a crisis and risks having the first aircraft carrier lost due to enemy action since World War II.


Roger Cliff is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation whose research focuses on security issues involving China. Recent studies have included Chinese air force doctrine, Chinese anti-access strategies, and China's aerospace industry. Cliff is currently leading a study on Chinese military space power. Before coming to RAND, Cliff served as assistant for strategy development in the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and as a defense systems analyst for VERAC, Inc.