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

Recent Features


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

A new report traces the DF-21D’s origins, developments and possible uses in combat conditions.

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.