China's 'Carrier Killer' Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles - an Overview

China's 'Carrier Killer' Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles - an Overview

Show Video

Anti-ship ballistic missiles, or shortly ASBMs, are not a new concept. They were first pioneered by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and this idea has been picked by PLA and further refined since the 1990s. ASBM is designed to take advantage of its ballistic trajectory through the upper atmosphere to propel its warhead to hypersonic speed, so they can penetrate any shipborne anti-ballistic missile system. Traveling at more than 5 the speed of sound, such a warhead would clearly give a defending ship little time to react. Given a warhead’s mass and speed of descent, even a successful interception might not be enough to stop it.

For a long time, China had considered ASBMs to be a core weapon for defeating US carrier battle groups, although more recently the emphasis has shifted somewhat to a conventional blue water navy, owing to the rapid Chinese naval build-up. Nevertheless, ASBMs remain an important weapon in the Chinese arsenal, one intended to support its naval forces against peer adversaries. We provide an overview of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, although what we cover here is by no means exhaustive. We also respond to some common questions – for example, how do these missiles locate their targets? And, do they actually work? During a military parade in Beijing in September 2015, China first unveiled the DF-26 – a mobile, two-stage solid-fuelled ballistic missile, tailored for the intermediate range.

The DF-26 has a shorter reach compared to the country’s ICBMs, but it is long range as far as naval strike capability goes. It is enough to cover most of the Western Pacific. Here is a map showing the range of the DF-26, which is approximately 4,000 km. As you can see, it is capable of striking the US territory of Guam, and even slightly beyond that, earning it the nickname the ‘Guam killer’.

In theory, it is also capable of reaching Darwin in northern Australia. The DF-26 can carry up to 1,800 kg of conventional or nuclear warhead. It is transported and fired from a road-mobile Taian HTF5680 transporter erector launcher. Despite its range, the DF-26 has no strict demands for where it can launch, and that is helpful to the deployment and concealment of the PLA rocket forces. The anti-ship variant of the weapon, called the DF-26B, is likely to feature an active seeker to track down the target enemy ship during the terminal phase, although the exact guidance technology is unknown.

According to Chinese media, the Global Times, the DF-26B is a strike weapon, an ASBM “customised for supersized US aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships”. The DF-26B would probably rely on its hypersonic speed to get past anti-ballistic missile defences – estimates of maximum speed ranges between Mach 10 and Mach 18, although there is no official information. In short, the DF-26B is designed to threaten US aircraft carriers, forcing them to maintain a long distance from the theatre of war, which means their aircrafts cannot engage Chinese forces. The other naval strike missile, the DF-21D, has been described as the world’s first modern anti-ship ballistic missile, nicknamed the “carrier killer.” The DF-21D first entered service more than 30 years ago and replaced the obsolete Dong Feng-2. It became China’s first solid-fuel road-mobile ASBM.

Compared to the long-range DF-26, the DF-21D is more of a medium-range anti-ship weapon. According to estimates by the US Airforce, it has a maximum range of 1,500 km, which can cover most of the area between the first and the second island chains, as well as the entirety of Japan and the South China Sea. Chinese media sources generally cite a much greater range than US estimates, but again no official information is public.

Like the DF-26, the DF-21D uses a vehicle-based erector launcher, allowing it to be deployed to various places very easily and launched in a short timeframe. The DF-21D is believed to carry a single manoeuvrable warhead with terminal guidance, or a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle to be precise. This warhead is 600 kg of high explosives, although like the DF-26 the DF-21D can be armed with a nuclear warhead if necessary.

Some sources suggested that the DF-21D is actually equipped with multiple warheads inside multiple individual re-entry vehicles. There is no evidence to corroborate this claim, but if true, this would vastly increase the carrier-killing capability of the DF-21D. The DF-21D is designed to target US warships once they have entered the theatre of war, as opposed to the DF-26 that aims to keep US forces out of the theatre altogether. This is due to the shorter range of the DF-21D. So, it is more of an area denial weapon rather than anti-access. The DF-21D and the DF-26 are complementary systems, covering each other’s weaknesses with their respective strengths.

Reportedly according to US media, Saudi Arabia had secretly purchased the DF-21 ballistic missiles with American permission in 2007, and the weapon is now in service with the Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force. Another medium-range ASBM I want to bring to your attention is the DF-17. The remarkable thing about the DF-17 is not the missile itself, but rather the use of a hypersonic glide vehicle as a warhead instead of a conventional re-entry vehicle, like in the case of a normal ballistic missile. The DF-17 is relatively new, introduced in late 2019. The hypersonic glide vehicle operates differently from the warhead on a normal ballistic missile. Rather than firing and landing in a normal arc as with a re-entry vehicle, the hypersonic glide vehicle can quickly alter its trajectory and become quite unpredictable.

This means intercepting the DF-17’s glide vehicle with conventional ballistic missile defence becomes far more difficult than a normal re-entry vehicle warhead. In effect, the glide vehicle basically turns the DF-17 into some sort of a hypersonic cruise missile, rather than just a ballistic missile. Moreover, because the hypersonic glide vehicle is manoeuvrable, it can extend the effective firing range of the weapon far beyond the operational range of the DF-17’s rocket engine, which itself is already around 2,500 km.

The DF-17 is definitely designed with US aircraft carriers in mind. According to Global Times, the DF-17 can hit both stationary targets as well as slow-moving targets, for example carriers and other warships. By the way, if you enjoyed our video so far, please press the like button. Until this point, we have been discussing relatively long-range ballistic missiles. Obviously, for them to be used in an anti-shipping role, they need to have a way of locating and tracking enemy warships at sea. The missiles and the warheads form just part of a long kill-chain.

Chinese ASBMs and their warheads need reliable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to detect, identify, track, and target warships at sea with sufficient accuracy. This is no easy task, but not as impossible as sometimes imagined. Absolute accuracy is not needed, because the missile warheads can make a degree of course correction if needed. So, one certainly does not need to know where an American carrier will be down to the exact meter, at the exact second. However, intelligence and surveillance capabilities do need to be good enough to get the ASBM close to the target, so that its onboard seeker can take-over. This is no trivial matter, given the very real possibility of locking onto the wrong target among busy maritime traffic.

But China has been steadily assembling all the components for its ASBM kill-chain. The intelligence component spans a wide range of technologies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. If they are properly integrated into a robust network, they offer the Chinese commander a sustained and accurate picture of enemy maritime activity within range of Chinese ASBMs.

The simplest way is probably high-frequency direction finding, or HFDF for short, which essentially collects electronic emissions from targets, such as surface warships. The HFDF method works better the shorter the range, and the more sites available with necessary facilities. Secondly, China relies on a large constellation of surveillance satellites to locate and track hostile warships. Over the past 5 years, China has focused on launching intelligence satellites into low-earth orbit, which is necessary for collecting high resolution data needed for ASBM guidance.

China has recently initiated the Hainan Satellite Constellation project, which is designed to “maintain uninterrupted observation” of the South China Sea. While the satellites are nominally under the civilian control of the Chinese Academy of Science, the data that it collects are likely to have dual-use applications. Lastly, China has one of the world’s largest networks of over-the-horizon radars, which are designed for detecting large warships from thousands of kilometres away. While stealthy ships will probably avoid detection, supercarriers are by nature non-stealthy. Of course, the PLA Navy also have surface warships and reconnaissance aircrafts to contribute to the surveillance effort. Assuming the ASBM is accurately guided to within proximity of the target, it will enter the terminal phase, where its own seeker takes over.

Official information on the seeker for each missile basically does not exist, but China is likely to use a combination of different sensors. One type is an electro-optical seeker that uses an image of the target to identify it, but this is vulnerable to weather conditions and hours of darkness. Another type is infrared, which seeks out the heat signature of the target, but this is of course susceptible to flares and other decoys. Last, we have an active radar seeker, which identifies a target using its radar cross section.

Using a combo of different system for the seeker means they can cover each other’s’ vulnerabilities, and better guide the ASBM to the target. Let’s talk about the short-range ballistic missiles, and by short-range I mean shorter than the thousands of kilometres of the DF-21 and DF-26, but by no means short in an absolute sense. These weapons are somewhat less dependent on the surveillance component of the kill-chain, because at shorter ranges the target ship has fewer opportunity to get out of harm’s way.

I am talking about the DF-11 and the DF-15. They were developed in the 1990s, so they are relatively old. They have a relatively short range of 6 to 800 kilometres.

To be clear, they are land-attack weapons, rather than anti-ship, although they do have satellite update capability and terminal radar guidance, suggesting they could be used against warships if necessary. The main purpose of the DF-11 and DF-15 is to attack land targets in the event of conflict. Obviously, all of Taiwan is within range of the two weapons, but also the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Kyushu. The US airbase on Okinawa, for example, is well within range of these short-range ballistic missiles, and China has a plentiful supply of these weapons. That said, the DF-11 and DF-15 are being gradually replaced by the more advanced DF-16. The PLA Navy also has the world’s only ASBM in service on board a warship as far as we know.

I am of course referring to the YJ-21, deployed aboard the Type 55 large destroyer. The vertical launch cells on the Type 55 destroyer are actually much larger than the cells on other Chinese and US Navy destroyers. For this reason, it has been speculated for some time that the Type 55 can fire ballistic missiles. The YJ-21 appears to be a cold-launched weapon, meaning it is ejected out of the VLS by gas expansion, and then the engine was ignited to push the missile upwards. The shape of the new missile resembles the Chinese-export CM-401 tactical ballistic missile, which is a hypersonic ASBM with a range of around 500 km. The YJ-21 adds a powerful new hypersonic weapon to the capabilities of Chinese destroyers, putting the naval assets of their adversaries under even greater threats than before.

So having said everything, the crucial question is of course: does it actually work? We will likely never find out for sure unless there is a shooting war, but China has performed extensive testing on its ASBMs, including against moving targets. In August 2020, the PLA rocket force fired a DF-26 and a DF-21D into the South China Sea, close to the Paracel Islands, during a training exercise. The weapons struck their target – a moving ship. Aside from the PLA, the other party with a major stake in whether these weapons actually work is the US military, which sees China as a major threat. The US Navy is operating on the basis that Chinese ASBMs work as intended.

In fact, Chinese ASBMs had a profound impact on US naval strategy and procurement. In the event of a conflict, the US Navy intends to keep its important assets, such as aircraft carriers, far away from the Chinese mainland, well out of range of ASBMs. The US Navy is also building smaller ships, such as the Constellation class frigates.

They are seen as stealthier and relatively expendable, making them more suitable for use within range of China’s ASBMs. If the US Navy had reasons to believe these weapons do not work, then they wouldn’t be making all these changes to their strategy in response. Understand that anti-ship ballistic missiles are only one part of China’s anti-access and area denial capability. They are only one component of a coherent strategy, albeit a very important one.

Anti-access operations is aimed at preventing US forces from entering the theatre of war in the first place, and this will involve long-range nuclear submarines and bomber aircraft, plus the ASBMs. The objective here is to prevent or deter key US assets with high firepower, like aircraft carriers, from participating altogether. Area denial operations will be conducted with surface warships, conventional submarines and strike aircrafts based in mainland China, as well as the ASBMs. When people think about anti-access and area denial, many people would automatically associate that with Chinese ballistic missile capability, but this is only one cornerstone of an overall strategy.

2022-08-28 17:31

Show Video

Other news