03 September 2015

Is China’s “Carrier-Killer” Really a Threat to the U.S. Navy?

Harry J. Kazianis, “Is China’s ‘Carrier-Killer’ Really a Threat to the U.S. Navy?The National Interest, 2 September 2015.

… When looking at this weapon, there are really two basic questions I have been asking for years: How capable is it? And if capable, can U.S. Navy vessels defend against it?


First, to its capabilities. According to the most-recent and up-to-date open-source materials I can find, the weapon indeed has been tested, however, never against an ocean-going, noncooperative target. As frequent TNI contributor Andrew Erickson pointed out in his 2013 study of the DF-21D (the best open-source resource on the “carrier-killer” to day):

“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).”

As Erickson also noted, from the same text:

“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 to 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.”

With the above analysis done in 2013, we have every reason to assume that China has worked hard to perfect this weapon. In multiple conversations I have had with U.S. defense officials over the last year, most are working under the assumption that the DF-21D would in wartime conditions be able to at least initially target an ocean-going vessel and track such a vessel through its course to the target.

Can America Defend Against the DF-21D?

Assuming the DF-21D is ready for battle, can America defend against China’s mighty missile?

While opinions are clearly mixed—in speaking to many sources over the last several years on this topic—it seems clear there is great nervousness in U.S. defense circles. However, as time has passed, initial fears have turned towards a more optimistic assessment. …

… In the end, the weapon might not be the great “game-changer” that many point it out to be, but a great complicator. Let’s just hope the only times we see this missile are on a parade route.  


Andrew S. EricksonHow China Got There First: Beijing’s Unique Path to ASBM Development and Deployment,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief 13.12 (7 June 2013).

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

Andrew S. Erickson, “China Channels Billy Mitchell: Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Alters Region’s Military Geography,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief 13.5 (4 March 2013).

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “China Deploys World’s First Long-Range, Land-Based ‘Carrier Killer’: DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) Reaches ‘Initial Operational Capability’ (IOC),” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 14 (26 December 2010).

Andrew S. Erickson, “Take China’s ASBM Potential Seriously,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 136, No. 2 (February 2010), p. 8.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Ballistic Trajectory—China Develops New Anti-Ship Missile,” China Watch, Jane’s Intelligence Review 22 (4 January 2010): 2-4.

Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, “Using the Land to Control the Sea? Chinese Analysts Consider the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile,” Naval War College Review 62.4 (Autumn 2009): 53-86.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Chinese ASBM Development: Knowns and Unknowns,” Jamestown China Brief 9.13 (24 June 2009): 4-8.

Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, “On the Verge of a Game-Changer,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 135.3 (May 2009): 26-32.

Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) Reaches Equivalent of ‘Initial Operational Capability’ (IOC)—Where It’s Going and What it Means,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 12 July 2011.

Andrew S. Erickson, “China Testing Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM); U.S. Preparing Accordingly–Now Updated With Additional Sources,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 25 December 2010. 

Andrew S. Erickson, A Statement Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “PLA Modernization in Traditional Warfare Capabilities” panel, “China’s Military Modernization and its Impact on the United States and the Asia-Pacific” hearing, Washington, DC, 29 March 2007, 72-78; published in 2007 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 110th Congress, 1stSession, November 2007, 91.