23 October 2013

Lifting the Veil on China’s “Carrier-Killer”

Harry Kazianis, “Lifting the Veil on China’s ‘Carrier-Killer’,” The Diplomat, 23 October 2013.

The good folks at the Jamestown Foundation here in Washington D.C. have produced what is clearly the world’s authoritative guide detailing the strategic rationale, development, and ramifications concerning a piece of Chinese military hardware Diplomat readers know all too well: The DF-21D, or the “carrier-killer” as it is known in the popular press.

Authored by what I would consider the world’s leading expert on the subject (the DF-21D is the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile or ASBM) and the first to recognize its importance in modern warfare, Dr. Andrew Erickson has developed a one of a kind assessment tracing the missiles’ origins, development, possible uses in combat conditions, as well as its overall implications for the U.S. Navy. Simply stated: the report is a must-read for China hands interested in Asia-Pacific security matters. …

In speaking to Dr. Erickson in a follow-up to the report, I asked him if he thought the DF-21D could be expanded to include a MIRV capability. In a response via email he explained: 

“The 2013 Department of Defense report on China’s military states that ‘China may also be developing a new road-mobile ICBM, possibly capable of carrying a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV).’ Such advanced technologies are designed to guarantee Beijing’s strategic deterrent. Open sources do not reveal conclusively what precise technical parameters are required for MIRVs, let alone which technologies China will be able to apply to which missiles by what time.

“But while technical feasibility and application remain unclear at the unclassified level, relative operational utility is already apparent. MIRVs offer a good way to hold multiple geographically-separated targets (with the relatively-large post-boost vehicle dispensing warheads appropriately) at risk with each ICBM, and to deploy sufficient warheads to overwhelm missile defenses even with a modest number of ICBMs. For China, this can allow a relatively small number of mobile launchers to strike multiple fixed targets separated by as much as hundreds of kilometers. By contrast, MIRVs would seem to have little real applicability to the anti-carrier mission, where the goal is instead to strike a single moving target, or at least a relatively small set of such targets. Presumably, China could launch several ASBMs, each with a single warhead, at each carrier it was attempting to target. From the perspective of operational utility, then, it is likely that China will rather attempt to develop multiple ASBM variants, tailored to varied mission parameters. The 2013 DoD report suggests that Beijing may build ASBMs of varying ranges. This will most likely include longer-range variants, designed to hold carriers back beyond their operationally-effective range. Since a likely U.S. response to China’s ASBM challenge is to develop longer-range carrier-based strike platforms, China’s corresponding goal will be to hold carriers back farther and farther until using them to conduct strikes on or near China becomes unfeasible.”

The DF-21D, as I have stated before, is more of a “great complicator” than a “game changer.” Scholars now have the definitive guide to understanding the world’s first ASBM and a weapon that U.S. naval planners will be forced to consider in their strategic calculus going forward. China hands, do yourself a favor, pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed. 



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



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



DF-21D ASBM Deployed, but China Daily Probably Incorrect in Claiming “2,700km Range”; Gen. Chen Bingde Never Said That

The 2011 ROC National Defense Report has confirmed that “a small quantity of” DF-21D ASBMs “were produced and deployed in 2010,” thereby (in the report’s view) “increasing the difficulty of military maneuvers in the region for the U.S. Army.”

Now a key question remains: what are the missile’s specific capabilities? Unfortunately, open sources do not yet offer conclusive information on this subject. In fact, a Chinese state media source has confused the situation with what appears to be mis-applied datapoint.

On 11 July 2011 PLA Chief of General Staff General Chen Bingde became the first Chinese government official to confirm publicly that China is developing the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). According to an English-language China Daily article, the missile has “a maximum range of 2,700 kilometers” (1,678 miles). Of note, General Chen did not in any way ascribe a range or other specific missile performance parameters at the press conference. Indeed, an official in his position would be unlikely to do so. This was the China Daily’s own (likely erroneous) inject. China Daily was probably citing the DF-21A’s range, whichSinoDefence and Wikipedia both list as 2,700 km. The reporters and editors at China Dailymost likely mistook the DF-21A range figure for that of the DF-21D.

Here is a translation of General Chen’s statement:

Q: “I’m with the Associated Press and I have a question for General Chen. …There’s been much speculation about the operational readiness of the Dong-Feng 21-D, the so-called “carrier-killer” missile…. Can you give us some up-to-date information about these programs….”

GEN. CHEN: “Thank you for – (inaudible) – your questions to me. As for DF 21-D, in our meeting, Admiral Mullen talked about it. As for this type of weapons system, it is still under research-and-development process. It is not equipped yet. Even though we – if – even though if, in the future, we are successful in research and development of this kind of weapons system, it will, and remain, be a system for defense. And I expect that Chinese scientists will make some contributions in this aspect. 

However, for all kinds of high-tech weapons systems, as far as the research and development is concerned, that is not an easy thing to do, because it requires a huge amount of resources, timings, technologies and so on. …


General Chen addressed the topic of Chinese ASBM development by telling Chinese reporters that it was one of the issues that he had discussed with Admiral Mullen. He took pains to emphasize, however, that China’s ASBM is “still in the research stage” (还处于研究阶段), and “has not yet achieved operational capability” (尚未形成作战能力). Specifically, “the DF-21D is undergoing research, development, and testing, has not developed into an operational capability [or developing into capability is not an issue at present]” (东风21D正在研究, 正在科研, 在试验之中, 还没有形成能力问题). Xinhua paraphrases General Chen as explaining that he “hopes Chinese experts can contribute in this regard, but this sort of high-technology advanced weapon is very difficult to bring to maturity” (希望中国的专家们能在这方面有所贡献, 但是这种高新技术的尖端武器很难成熟). It quotes him directly once again as stressing that doing so “requires funding inputs, advanced technology, and high-quality talented personnel; these are all fundamental factors constraining its development” (要经费投入, 要先进的技术, 还要有高素质的人才, 这都是制约它发展的根本因素). The English-language China Daily article renders this as “It is a high-tech weapon and we face many difficulties in getting funding, advanced technologies and high-quality personnel, which are all underlying reasons why it is hard to develop this.” Specific documentation for these and other quotations is provided in the articles appended below.

Additionally, in YouTube and other footage of the 11 July 2011 press briefing with his closest American counterpart, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which General Chen takes questions from reporters, it appears that he also uses the phrase “numerous difficulties” (困难重重) to describe the course of the missile’s development. This tone could be interpreted to reflect a high level of uncertainly and ambivalence about the missile’s immediate prospects, directed at a Chinese audience through Chinese media. Viewed in this light, the three factors General Chen outlines (funding, technology, talent) may be viewed as serious constraints, even bottlenecks, in the challenging task of successfully maturing and integrating an ASBM system of systems.According to Aviation Week’s Bradley Perrett, “Chen’s comments imply that any DF-21Ds that have been deployed are not regarded as properly developed.”

However, it is unclear why General Chen would choose a prominent venue to raise the issue of such a controversial and provocative a weapon as China’s ASBM only to say something that might undermine deterrence credibility—the equivalent of having ‘the onus without the bonus.’ As Perrett correctly points out, “The appearance of his statement in the China Daily is itself meaningful. The English-language newspaper’s special role is to act as a government mouthpiece directed at the outside world. Its reports on sensitive subjects often show signs of being carefully written to deliver a message for Beijing. The DF-21D is one such sensitive subject.”

As for the definition of “operational,” it seems likely that the U.S. and Chinese militaries have different definitions of what it means for a weapon to be operational, with the PLA’s definition in this case being more stringent, at least in certain respects. This would explain why Admiral Robert Willard, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, stated in December 2010: “I would gauge it as about the equivalent of a U.S. system that has achieved [Initial Operational Capability] IOC.” Perhaps also whereas Admiral Willard was speaking of the U.S. concept of IOC, General Chen is alluding to a Chinese benchmark closer to the U.S. concept of Full Operational Capability (FOC)—a much higher standard to meet, and one that no U.S. official has claimed publicly that China’s ASBM has achieved. In any case, this apparent discrepancy highlights the pitfalls of using U.S.-specific terms to describe foreign systems and capabilities. But it is worth revisiting Admiral Willard’s own statement of December 2010, which is not necessarily so different from General Chen’s: “The anti-ship ballistic missile system in China has undergone extensive testing. An analogy using a Western term would be ‘initial operational capability,’ whereby it has—I think China would perceive that it has—an operational capability now, but they continue to develop it. It will continue to undergo testing, I would imagine, for several more years.” As in so many other areas, authorities on the respective sides of the Pacific may be talking past each other when in fact they are saying broadly similar things. It would be a mistake to let semantic issues obscure real Chinese progress with real strategic implications.

There may be other factors at play as well: General Chen may be downplaying Chinese capabilities to attempt to minimize foreign development of countermeasures to them. At the same time, the PLA may feel the need to meet a higher standard of testing before it can be confident of a novel weapon’s effectiveness because it lacks the U.S. military’s years of experience in high-intensity combat, sophisticated testing, and simulation. But it would be a mistake to assume that China’s DF-21D ASBM lacks what the U.S. military would consider to be lower-end “operational” capabilities just because it apparently does not yet meet General Chen’s definition. Here an American example may be relevant. The U.S. Air Force did not receive its first E-8 Joint STARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System), an airborne battle management, command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, until June 1996—meaning that the aircraft officially did not achieve IOC until then. However, two developmental aircraft were employed operationally as early as 1991 in Operation Desert Storm even though it was still in test and evaluation at the time.

Definitional issues aside, the bottom line is that General Chen would likely not be mentioning China’s ASBM in public if the PLA were not confident that it was maturing effectively and already had reached the necessary development level to begin to credibly shape regional strategic thinking in Beijing’s favor. China seeks not to wage war, but to have to have an effective conventional deterrent capability; and, in a worst case scenario, to have a strike capability if deterrence failed. This is why, General Chen is quoted as stressing in the English-language China Daily article, China’s ASBM “will be used as a defensive weapon when it is successfully developed, not an offensive one.” The goal is to push foreign aircraft carrier groups away from sensitive areas in the event of a crisis or conflict, and to influence the perceptions of people in Taiwan, Japan, and other parts of the region about the likelihood, and likely effectiveness, of U.S. intervention therein. From a Chinese perspective, this appears inherently defensive; from the perspective of the U.S. and other regional actors, it may not appear “defensive” at all. Herein lies a substantial challenge for Sino-American strategic relations even as the two great powers move to explore possibilities for mutually beneficial security cooperation in the future.

This will bear close study as further data points become available. Stay tuned!

Press Availability with General Chen Bingde,” Transcript of Remarks by Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and General Chen Bingde, Beijing, China, 11 July 2011.


For the latest official analysis from Taipei on the status of Chinese ASBMs, see “English-Language Version of 2011 ROC National Defense Report Confirms: ‘a small quantity of’ DF-21D ASBMs ‘were produced and deployed in 2010, increasing the difficulty of military maneuvers in the region for the U.S. Army.’

For a link to, and a rough translation of, the Chinese-language edition of this report, see “Taiwan 2011 National Defense Report: DF-21D ASBMs ‘have been produced and deployed in small numbers in 2010’.”

Comments on China’s ASBM by a Pentagon spokeswoman are available in “Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg: ‘China Has “Workable” Anti-Ship Missile Design, Pentagon Says’.”

For recent analysis and sources on Chinese ASBM development, see “China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) Reaches Equivalent of ‘Initial Operational Capability’ (IOC)—Where It’s Going and What it Means.”

Detailed analysis by top subject matter experts of Chinese ASBM development and strategic implications is offered in five dedicated chapters in Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, eds.Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).

For an explanation of Chinese ASBM development and its larger implications, see the China Maritime Studies Institute Lecture of Opportunity, “Chinese Sources Discuss the ASBM Threat to the U.S. Navy,” that I presented at the Naval War College on 21 March 2011.

For detailed analysis of Admiral Willard’s statement regarding China’s ASBM reaching IOC, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe 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).

For further background on Chinese ASBM development, see also “China Testing Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM); U.S. Preparing Accordingly–Updated With Latest Analysis & Sources.”



Alexa Olesen, “China Says U.S. Spends Too Much on Military,” Navy Times, 11 July 2011.

… During their talks earlier Monday, Chen said he and Mullen also discussed China’s development of a new missile system, the Dong Fang 21D. Analysts have said the “carrier killer” missile might threaten U.S. warships and alter the regional balance of power.

Chen told reporters the DF 21D system was “not operational yet,” and was intended for defenses purposes only. …