Australia and China’s DF-26 Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile

Is Australia best off pursuing investments in missile defense to defend against China’s DF-26?

Australia and China’s DF-26 Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile
Credit: CCTV screen capture

In late April 2018, China formally commissioned a brigade of Dong Feng 26 (DF-26) intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM). As I discussed then, the first brigade consists of what appear to be 22 transporter-erector-launchers. The missiles are capable of both conventional and nuclear payloads; in their conventional configuration, they become the world’s longest-range conventional payload-bearing ballistic missile, with a maximum range estimated at around 4,000 kilometers.

The DF-26 has been informally dubbed China’s “Guam-killer.” Its range gives it the ability to conventionally disable U.S. facilities on Guam, including Andersen Air Force Base, which hosts U.S. Pacific Command’s forward-based bomber presence in the Asia-Pacific. China’s declared nuclear no first-use posture means that, in a conflict, the People’s Liberation Army-Rocket Force would presumably strike these targets with conventionally armed weapons.

But is the DF-26 primarily a weapon for U.S. targets and only U.S. targets?

Over at the Interpreter, Peter Layton gives thought to what the conventionally armed DF-26 implies for Australian security. Layton notes that the DF-26, like the DF-21C/D that preceded it, are of concern to Australia. He correctly observes that, taking the DF-26’s capabilities at face value, the PLARF could easily range “northern Australia, including Darwin, Katherine (Tindal), and Derby (Curtin).”

Layton recommends a range of measures to improve the survivability of Australian forces against Chinese strikes in the event of a conflict. (Australia, as a U.S. ally, could be expected to join Washington as a belligerent, leaving its military open to Chinese strikes.) There are two realistic means of improving the survivability of Australian forces.

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The first is to invest in area and point missile defense systems to lower the probability that a Chinese DF-26 is able to successfully penetrate Australian territory to degrade Canberra’s power-projection capabilities. Layton mentions ship-based SM-3 Block IIA interceptors and land-based THAAD batteries as two possible options for Australia. Setting aside cost, its unclear either would be a particularly smart survivability play.

The SM-3 Block IIA, though no doubt a capable mid-course system on paper, has a disappointing interception test record, with two recent failures. Moreover, given the possible trajectories of DF-26 missiles from China toward Australia, Canberra would likely be forced to either engage incoming missiles in late-midcourse or even descent, reducing the chances of a successful interception. THAAD, while providing a smaller area of coverage than ship-based SM-3 IIAs, has just seen one test against an IRBM-class target.

It’s apparent why Canberra needs to take the DF-26 and other Chinese ballistic missile systems as a serious challenge, but ultimately the PLARF is likely to concern itself with denying theater power projection to the United States. Washington already has several Aegis-equipped destroyers in the Asia-Pacific and Guam hosts a THAAD site. While SM-3 Block IIA deployment timetables have been delayed by one year, the PLARF will not feel convinced of a sufficiently developed soft counterforce capability against the United States with even two deployed DF-26 brigades.

For Australia and other regional U.S. allies and partner states concerned about Chinese long-range precision conventional strike capabilities and force survivability, the smarter and more cost-effective play in the long-term would be to horizontally build out those capabilities that’d make a difference in a conflict with China. For Australia, this might include the pursuit of additional frigates and even attack submarines.