30 May 2013

Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development: Drivers, Trajectories, and Strategic Implications

Andrew S. Erickson, Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development: Drivers, Trajectories, and Strategic Implications (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation, May 2013).

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China’s anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), the DF-21D, has reached the equivalent of Initial Operational Capability. While perfecting the system-of-systems to maximize its effectiveness remains a work in progress, it has been deployed in small numbers. This 160-page book examines the ASBM’s capability and history, showing how the DF-21D meets multiple priorities in Chinese defense modernization and in the national security bureaucracy as well its implications for the United States. The ASBM’s physical threat to U.S. Navy ships will be determined by the development of associated systems and organizations, which currently limit data fusion and coordination in the complex task of identifying a U.S. aircraft carrier in the open ocean. Still, the ASBM poses a direct threat to the foundations of U.S. power projection in Asia and will undermine the U.S. position, unless efforts to counter its political-military effects are taken continually.

Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) Development_Drivers, Trajectories and Strategic Implications


In 2015, the largest military parade in Chinese history displayed nearly a dozen operational ballistic missiles, including sixteen trucks carrying the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), the Dong Feng-21D. Official commentary dubbed it “the assassin’s mace for maritime asymmetric warfare.” China’s most advanced ASBM has a range of 1,500 km and a maneuverable warhead, giving the DF-21D the ability to hit ships far out into the Pacific.

Since 2010, China has deployed the world’s first system capable of targeting a moving aircraft carrier group with long-range, land-based mobile launchers. How did Beijing get there first? This book tells the story for the first time. Drawing on a wide range of authoritative Chinese-language sources from doctrinal materials to technical papers, it traces in detail the motivations, genesis, programmatic history, and implications of Chinese ASBM development.

Chinese strategic thinkers have long sought to exploit their nation’s continental depth to project power beyond its once-frequently-invaded shores, an approach termed “using the land to control the sea.” Inspired in part by U.S. development of the Pershing II theater ballistic missile and China’s own decades of investment in ballistic missiles, in the 1970s this strand of strategic thought began to converge in research toward an ASBM.

It would take a series of threatening events in the 1990s, however, to persuade Chinese leaders to fund concerted ASBM development as a dedicated megaproject. In May 1999, in the aftermath of the accidental NATO bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, Chinese President Jiang Zemin directed the defense industry to rapidly develop “assassin’s mace” weapons, declaring, “That which the enemy fears most, that is what we must develop.”

For over fifteen years the U.S. military has been taking China’s ASBM potential seriously and developing countermeasures. Despite rapid ongoing progress, China’s reconnaissance-strike complex, the vast network of sensors and data processing necessary to attack a distant moving target, continues to exhibit significant limitations. However, the missiles themselves work and China has clearly fielded purpose-designed ASBMs of some potential capability. Their parade appearance suggests that Beijing considers them to be minimally operational and capable of achieving a measure of deterrence.

As peacetime conditions and weapons systems’ growing complexity render the line between ongoing development and operational capability ever blurrier and more uncertain in actual employment, this book offers a study in using available information to understand the broad outlines of one of the world’s great technological endeavors—and its meaning in China, and beyond. In addition to its compelling strategic history, it offers a model for conducting and evaluating Chinese-language open source research concerning Beijing’s many military megaprojects to come.


I. Executive Summary 1
II. Key Judgments 4
III. Current Status of the DF-21D ASBM 10
IV. Background and Motivations for the ASBM Program 27
V. Discussions of ASBMs in the Chinese Literature 52
VI. Constructing a System of Systems 81
VII. Conclusion 116
VIII. Appendix A: Knowledge Gaps and Key Questions 133
IX. Appendix B: Post-1996 ASBM Publication Boom 139
X. Appendix C: Chinese Analysis of the Pershing II 142
About the Author 147
Acknowledgments 148


Table 1: Potential Indicators of Chinese ASBM Innovation……..26
Table 2: Chinese ASBM Development Timeline………………….41
Table 3: Principal Chinese Generalist Publications Surveyed…..55
Figure 1: ABSM Publications by Year, 1996–2009………………74
Table 4: Yaogan Satellites Launched to Date…………………93
Table 5: Beidou Satellites Launched to Date…………………99


“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.”

—Vice Premier Zhang Chunqiao addressing the Central Military Commission (1972)

“Whatever the enemy fears most, that is what we should develop.”

—President Jiang Zemin as quoted by General Zhang Wannian (1999)

“When many carrier-borne aircraft are used in continuous air strikes against our coast, in order to halt the powerful air raids, the enemy’s core carrier should be struck as with a ‘heavy hammer’.”

Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (2004)

“Since the introduction of nuclear weapons, all the major nuclear powers have developed ballistic missile warning systems against possible nuclear attacks, and there has not been a single precedent of a major nuclear power attacking another with ballistic missiles.”

—Huo Fei and Luo Shiwei, Modern Ships (2008)

“The queen of the American fleet, and the centerpiece of the most powerful Navy the world has ever seen, the aircraft carrier, is in danger of becoming like the battleships it was originally designed to support: big, expensive, vulnerable—and surprisingly irrelevant to the conflicts of the time.”

—Captain Henry J. Hendrix, U.S. Navy (2013)


“Very insightful and easy read.”

Carl O Schuster, “Five Stars,” 5-Star Review, Amazon.com, 11 February 2015.

“Andrew S. Erickson is a leading authority on Chinese naval developments. His research and linguistic abilities are matched by his careful, systematic analysis. In this work Erickson thoroughly surveys the existing literature in English and Chinese addressing Beijing’s efforts to deploy antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) able to strike large warships at ranges of more than a thousand miles …a thoughtful evaluation of current Chinese efforts to defend the homeland and exert control over the waters Beijing believes vital to national-security interests. Also impressive is Erickson’s appreciation of the possibility of “deeply destabilizing” strategic effects of successful Chinese maritime control strategies on the Asian political situation—that is, a successful ASBM will not simply be a tactical weapon. This is a book that every naval officer and civilian analyst must read.”

Prof. Bernard D. Cole, Ph.D., National Defense University, review in Naval War College Review 67.2 (Spring 2014): 134-35.

“Andrew Erickson offers a thoughtful counterbalance to the official dogma that we have a technological lead sufficient to ensure that our aircraft carriers remain relevant even against the broad and deep efforts of other nations to render them quite vulnerable. If we don’t seek and incorporate disconfirming advice such as his into our assessments, we may have a strategic surprise which clarifies the situation – but on terms unhelpful to us and our allies.”

Greg LeGore, “Uses Original Sources to Offset Our Smug Over-Confidence,” 5 Star Rating, Amazon.com, 30 March 2014.


Executive Summary:

China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is no longer an aspiration. Beijing has successfully developed, tested and deployed the world’s first weapons system capable of targeting a moving aircraft carrier strike group (CSG) from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. The Second Artillery, China’s strategic missile force, already has a capability to attempt to use the DF-21D against U.S. CSGs in the event of conflict, and therefore likely expects to achieve a growing degree of deterrence with it.

None of this should be surprising. Numerous ASBM data points have been emerging from Chinese sources as well as U.S. official statements and reports for years now, available to anyone willing to connect them. They offer a useful case study not only to those involved with Sino-U.S. strategic relations, but also to anyone conducting analysis under conditions of incomplete information.

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.

It may seem a cliché to cite Sun Zi’s maxim that “in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.” This universally-accepted approach, however, does seem to correspond to China’s military planning, particularly such developments as its ASBM program—one of several weapons designed to exploit relative Chinese military strengths against relative U.S. military weaknesses. An ASBM system of systems, if developed and deployed successfully, would be the world’s first weapons system capable of targeting a moving CSG from long-range, land-based mobile launchers.

This could pose a new type of threat to the U.S. Navy. For the past several decades, the U.S. Navy has used aircraft carriers to project power around the world, including in and around the Taiwan Strait. Since the 1920s, the U.S. Navy has built its carrier forces around the idea that the air group represents the first and best line of defense for the carrier. The ASBM potentially bypasses the air group and removes it from the defensive equation. Only one other major system has ever offered the possibility of doing this: the submarine. While China is developing a potent fleet, it cannot today effectively conduct advanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW), while the U.S. can—using carrier-based aircraft. Defense against missiles, by contrast, is potentially an extremely difficult problem for any military.

China is developing increasingly formidable naval platforms, aircraft and missiles that could hold U.S. Navy platforms and their supporting assets at risk in the Western Pacific. Central to maximizing Chinese ability to employ these systems—and hence to consolidating China’s emerging aerospace combat capabilities over the Near Seas (the Yellow, East China and South China Seas)—are its emerging command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. These systems will enable the Chinese military to strengthen cueing, reconnaissance, communications and data relay for maritime monitoring and targeting as well as for the coordination of Chinese platforms, systems and personnel engaged in these roles. Particularly important will be effective use of ISR, the collection and processing of information concerning potential military targets and the transmission of that information to both those who would make relevant decisions and those who would actually launch the ASBM.

The successful achievement of high-quality, real-time satellite imagery and target-locating data and fusion as well as reliable indigenous satellite navigation and positioning would facilitate holding enemy vessels at risk via devastating multi-axis strikes. As Chinese planners conceive of them, these strikes would involve precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles launched from a variety of land-, sea-, undersea- and air-based platforms in coordinated sequence. Emerging space-based C4ISR capabilities, therefore, could increase greatly China’s capacity to use military means to assert its interests along the contested Near Seas. Beijing has a clear strategic rationale for mastering the relevant components, particularly for what it calls “active defense” and “counter-intervention” operations, and the U.S. terms “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) operations, in and around the Near Seas. Doing so could finally enable the PLA to translate its traditional approach of “achieving military superiority in a specific time and area even in a context of overall inferiority” into the maritime dimension.

The bottom line is that the era of “ASBM denial” is over. China’s ASBM is not science fiction. It is not a “smoke and mirrors” bluff. The DF-21D is not an aspirational capability that the United States can afford to ignore until some point in the future.

Key Judgments:

  • The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) has reached the equivalent of Initial Operational Capability.

The era of ASBM denial is over: China’s DF-21D exists and has been deployed in small numbers. Additional challenges and tests remain before the DF-21D reaches its full potential; however, senior U.S. and Taiwan officials in the last two years have confirmed separately that the ASBM is in the field. Additionally, the basic support infrastructure is already sufficient to provide basic targeting capabilities against U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the Western Pacific (if countermeasures are not considered).

  • Analysts will not be able to identify a sharp red line between Initial Operational Capability and the full operational potential of the DF-21D.

The ASBM’s physical threat to U.S. Navy ships will be determined by the development of associated information processing systems and capabilities. This is part of a larger analytical challenge in which Chinese “hardware” continues to improve dramatically, but the caliber of the “software” supporting and connecting it remains uncertain and untested in war. The missile components of the DF-21D already are proven through multiple tests, but China’s ability use the missile against a moving target operating in the open ocean remains unproven. The supporting command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) technologies probably still lag behind the requirement to identify and track a U.S. aircraft carrier in real time under wartime conditions. Improving C4ISR capabilities, however, is a high priority in China’s military modernization program. U.S. countermeasures are another matter entirely: there is every reason to believe that they are already formidable.

  • Beijing is developing and deploying ASBMs as part of a far broader effort to assert influence over its still-contested Near Seas island and maritime claims.

The DF-21D targets specific physics-based limitations in U.S. and allied military platforms, adding to China’s growing complement of submarines, other ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and electronic warfare tools to restrict an adversary’s ability to operate on China’s periphery. The missile stands out from the already-potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) effort—what the Chinese call “counter-intervention”—because it draws on over half a century of Chinese experience with ballistic missiles, may be fired from mobile, highly concealable platforms and has the range to strike targets hundreds of kilometers from China’s shores.

  • The 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crises drove the development of the ASBM program; however, it is a program with long historical roots.

Chinese ASBM development dates at least to the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crises, which underscored Chinese feelings of helplessness against U.S. naval power. Broad-based Chinese ASBM development effort since then suggests China will continue to make progress with the missile and its supporting infrastructure. Chinese leaders and strategists have been thinking of using land-based missiles to hit threatening targets at sea for over three decades. Beginning in the late 1970s, Chinese experts studied the U.S. Pershing II theater ballistic missile fitted with maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRV), and appear to have incorporated, or at least emulated, some of its key technologies. China’s space program has furthered overall capabilities that are useful to its ASBM program, including the missile’s supporting architecture.

  • The ASBM is an organic extension of, and an innovation involving, existing Chinese technologies.

The DF-21D is not a novel idea or technology, but rather what Tai Ming Cheung terms an “architectural innovation,” involving a novel assembly of existing systems to yield a new use with unprecedented maneuverability and accuracy. The U.S. and Russia could have developed an ASBM before China, but remain proscribed from doing so to this day by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty they signed in 1987, at which time they lacked the need for such a weapon. Still, military capabilities are determined by effectiveness with respect to objectives, not technical sophistication for its own sake. China’s ASBM ‘Frankenweapon’ is an exemplar of the kind of innovation that is potentially unpredictable and disruptive, especially as China’s defense industry becomes more capable of meeting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s needs across a variety of technical fields.

  • Open source discussions have consistently provided important insights into the ASBM program throughout its life cycle, including its technical challenges, potential integration into war fighting and operational scenarios.

Despite the sensitivity of China’s ASBM program—which has only recently been explicitly acknowledged by Chinese officials—and the resulting gaps in publicly-available information, open sources have provided clues to Chinese intentions throughout the lifespan of the ASBM program. As the PLA has modernized its technology and doctrine, these changes spurred an outpouring of professional, technical, and generalist publications to debate and critique how the PLA should fight and with what equipment. The ASBM was no different, except during a two-year period (2004–06) when related publication dipped dramatically in a classic ‘bathtub’-shaped pattern. Chinese engineers were probably testing specific aspects of the ASBM then, heightening its sensitivity.

  • As the ASBM becomes more effective operationally, the capability may reinforce China’s land-centric approach to defense.

The idea of developing ASBMs clearly appeals to the interests of many institutions—including the Second Artillery—and its deployment may reinforce visible strands of PLA thinking, including the following: reinforcement of continental approaches to maritime security (“using the land to control the sea”); consolidation of centralized approaches to command; further emphasis on multi-axis saturation attacks (e.g. combining ASBMs and anti-ship cruise missiles); and greater confidence in China’s ability to threaten and discourage U.S. Navy operations and to control escalation without matching U.S. capabilities at sea. To further its Near Seas interests, China’s focus on developing an “Anti-Navy” based on such A2/AD weapons as ASBMs is a far more efficient approach than pursuing a blue water navy. Here, China’s institutional predilections serve it well, and permit it to challenge U.S. forces severely, even as it spends far less on its military than does the U.S.

  • The DF-21D probably requires additional testing before Chinese leaders can be confident of its effectiveness under wartime conditions.

China must have conducted a rigorous program of tests sufficient to demonstrate that the DF-21D ASBM is mature enough for initial production, deployment, and employment. This likely would have entailed a variety of flight tests, albeit not yet fully integrated over water—perhaps because of a desire to avoid embarrassing failures in view of worried citizens of East Asia and a U.S. military increasingly refocused on the region.

  • Bureaucratic and technical pitfalls related to data fusion, coordination and “jointness” may limit the DF-21D’s utility.

Progress aside, however, Chinese ASBM development nevertheless faces manifold challenges that may limit the missile’s tactical and strategic effectiveness. Data fusion, bureaucratic coordination and “jointness” remain key limitations. A variety of organizations across the PLA, including the three services and one branch, as well as the General Staff Department control, task and exploit the sensors used the generate the ASBM’s targeting information.  How this information is integrated, including how different sensors are used to compensate for shortfalls in real time, remains both a concern for the PLA and a gap in the literature.

  • The ASBM poses a direct threat to the foundations of U.S. power projection in the Asia-Pacific, potentially undermining U.S. influence there.

While U.S. airbases around China already are vulnerable to Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles, the ASBM targets the last relatively uncontested airfield without requiring China to develop the naval resources necessary to challenge the U.S. Navy directly at sea. For the first time since the 1920s, the United States faces a direct threat to the platform that has represented the core of its naval power projection: the aircraft carrier strike group. U.S. policymakers must face the possibility that Beijing might decide to use ASBMs in the event of conflict, and that the PLA might be able to strike and disable one or more aircraft carriers if countermeasures proved inadequate.

  • Beijing may be seeking to leverage the ASBM capability for strategic communication about deterrence and the reliability of S. assistance.

Beijing is most likely using the existence and deployment of the ASBM to shape foreign perceptions of conflict scenarios involving China. By developing such abilities to hold U.S. and allied military platforms at risk, Beijing hopes to deter them from intervening in areas of sensitivity to China in the first place, and to persuade Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other regional actors that U.S. assistance will be neither dependable nor forthcoming. The significant and growing amount of Chinese ASBM literature appears to be part of a larger pattern in which Beijing is becoming increasingly “translucent” (if still not fully transparent) regarding selected capabilities in order to enhance deterrence.

  • The United States will need measures to reassure allies and to deter China in order to control the political-military effects of a working ASBM.

Washington has two basic strategic options for managing the political-military consequences of a deployed weapon capable of threatening the foundations of U.S. power projection in East Asia: one, offering calibrated transparency about countermeasures that reassures allies that U.S. aircraft carriers can operate successfully within the range of the DF-21D while retaining the value of the countermeasures; and, two, shifting combat power to undersea and advanced long-range aerial vehicles that present less of a target to Chinese missiles.

The U.S. already enjoys proven undersea preponderance. While nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are not directly relevant to the regional balance of power given their deterrence mission, which is not geographically-specific, it would be a grave error to allow numbers or deployments of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) or the equivalent capabilities of nuclear-powered guided missile submarines (SSGNs) to erode. Doing so while pursuing Asia-Pacific rebalancing would create the worst of both worlds, in which China’s leaders feel targeted by rebalancing, but are emboldened by its hollowness.


Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). He helped to establish CMSI and to stand it up officially in 2006, and has subsequently played an integral role in its development. Erickson currently serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. Since 2008 he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Erickson is also an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report (中国实时报). Erickson is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2012, the National Bureau of Asian Research awarded him the inaugural Ellis Joffe Prize for PLA Studies. During academic year 2010-11, Erickson was a Fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program in residence at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies. From 2008-11, he was a Fellow in the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program, and served as a scholar escort on a five-Member Congressional trip to China. In 2014, Erickson helped to escort the Commander of China’s Navy and his delegation on a visit to Harvard. He subsequently helped to establish, and to escort the first iteration of, NWC’s first bilateral naval officer exchange program with China, which he continues to support. Erickson has taught courses at NWC and Yonsei University. He advises a wide range of student research and theses at NWC, Harvard, and other institutions; and provides curricular inputs to NWC and other schools. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson has briefed the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, his Executive Panel, the Secretary of the Navy, and U.S. naval leadership throughout the Asia-Pacific; as well as the Deputy Secretary of Defense, other Executive Branch officials, and multiple Members of Congress. He has testified before the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees. Erickson received his Ph.D. and M.A. from Princeton University. He blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com.

The views expressed in this book are solely those of the author and in no way represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.