China’s DF-21D and DF-26 Anti-Ship Missiles: Rising Concern for US Aircraft Carriers

Long-held US concerns about Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles appear to be accurate, according to a recent Congressional Research report that claims Chinese missiles may likely cause mayhem on US aircraft carriers.

Top US commanders believe China’s stockpile of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) can strike moving targets, as per a March 8 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on China’s naval capabilities. This capability would virtually block the American Navy from accessing an area a thousand miles off China’s coast.

The report notes: “A December 3, 2020, press report stated that Admiral Philip Davidson, the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, confirmed, for the first time from the US government side, that China’s People’s Liberation Army has successfully tested an anti-ship ballistic missile against a moving ship.”

“China reportedly is also developing hypersonic glide vehicles that, if incorporated into Chinese ASBMs, could make Chinese ASBMs more difficult to intercept.” Also, China will have 425 combat ships by 2030, according to the report, compared to the US’s current total of less than 300.

The new report also solidifies previous concerns expressed by numerous US military leaders in the context of a comprehensive evaluation of Chinese capabilities.

Last year, the former head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Phil Davidson told a Senate panel that, in August 2020, China’s military conducted a coordinated test launch of its top anti-ship ballistic missile into the South China Sea to send an “unmistakable message.”

“These mid-range, anti-ship ballistic missiles are capable of attacking aircraft carriers in the western Pacific,” Davidson said, identifying the DF-21D as one of the lethal missiles in Chinese armory.  “Their employment during a large-scale PLA exercise demonstrates the PLA’s focus on countering any potential third-party intervention during a regional crisis.”

The DF-21D remains at the center of China’s policy of deterring any military action off its eastern coast by threatening to destroy the region’s key sources of US force projection, carrier battle groups.

In January 2011, Vice Admiral Jack Dorsett, then-head of Naval Intelligence, told reporters that the Pentagon had underestimated China’s development and deployment of the DF-21D missiles.

However, the DF-21D is not the only Chinese missile about which the US is concerned. Another missile, DF-26, is the most critical missile in Beijing’s arsenal for limiting US mobility. This long-range missile is often termed as “Guam Killer” by many defense analysts.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, China now has between 750 and 1,500 short-range ASBMs with 250 launchers, 150 to 450 medium-range ballistic missiles with 150 launchers, and between 80 and 160 long-range missiles with 80 launchers.

The DF-21 intermediate-range missile has a range of 1,500 kilometers, while the DF-26 long-range missile has a range of 4,000 kilometers.

The American airbase at Guam is almost 3,000 kilometers from China’s coast, well within the DF-26’s range. As per a RAND Corporation analysis, the US facility at Kadena, which is “the only major US airbase within unrefueled range of the Taiwan Strait,” is 816 kilometers from Shanghai.

It is also well within the range of Chinese intermediate-range missiles.

“China’s navy forms a key element of a Chinese challenge to the long-standing status of the United States as the leading military power in the Western Pacific.

Some US observers are expressing concern or alarm regarding the pace of China’s naval shipbuilding effort and resulting trend lines regarding the relative sizes and capabilities of China’s Navy and the US Navy,” the report said.

USA’s Response 

The concerns related to the threat of DF-21D may have influenced the US Navy’s decision to focus on ballistic-missile-intercepting air-defense ships, such as the Arleigh Burke Flight III, over platforms like the Littoral Combat Ship and the DDG-1000.

However, existing American defenses can be overwhelmed by missile barrages. Furthermore, no existing anti-missile system is capable of countering hypersonic glide vehicles.

The CRS report warns, “China’s navy is viewed as posing a major challenge to the US Navy’s ability to achieve and maintain wartime control of blue-water ocean areas in the Western Pacific—the first such challenge the US Navy has faced since the end of the Cold War.”

Other alternatives considered by the US include SSGN-launched cruise missiles and hypersonic assault vehicles, which would attack Chinese bases before the Second Artillery could launch the missiles. The EurAsian Times had recently reported that the US is looking to deploy its first hypersonic weapon on a warship in early 2023.

The US is also likely working on cyber, electrical, and physical methods to impair China’s reconnaissance and communications systems. Furthermore, the United States is diversifying its capabilities.

Amphibious assault ships, as the US Navy refers to its light carrier fleet, are capable of carrying out much of the “strategic influence” task currently performed by supercarriers. This could allow the Navy to be more flexible in its operations.

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