A few hours after U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Taiwan after her controversial visit to the island, the PLA Navy encircled Taiwan in what is considered the biggest ever Taiwan-focused exercise by China’s military. The drills started around midday on Thursday August 4 and China’s state broadcaster CCTV said the drills will end on midday on Sunday August 7.
The highly provocative exercise set a precedent for how close to Taiwan the PLA Navy’s warships could operate without getting fired upon, and greatly escalated the risk of someone making a catastrophic mistake.
The drills included live firing of a number of Chinese missiles, mostly from the PLA Rocket Force’s Dong Feng series of ballistic missiles. The escalating tensions puts renewed focus on the Dong Feng 21D (DF-21D) missile, which is considered to be one of the biggest game-changing weapons to be added to China’s arsenal lately. Here’s why:
These days, if you’re serving on a U.S. aircraft carrier you would be looking straight up a lot more than before. That’s because China’s relatively new “carrier killer” missiles are designed to shoot up into space and slam down from the darkness above.
However, there are many reasons why these missiles could turn out to be highly ineffective in real combat situations.
In August 2020 China announced that it had launched a DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) into the South China Sea, saying that it was in retaliation for a US surveillance plane flying over its airspace. China said it had simultaneously launched a DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), hinting at the fact that it had re-fitted some of these nuclear-tipped missiles with conventional warheads and maneuverable reentry vehicles, turning them into longer-range ASBMs.
Dubbed the “carrier killer”, the DF-21D has a range of 1,550 km and is considered to be the world’s first ASBM. If the DF-26 has indeed been re-fitted with the same maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) warhead — which would be required to hit a moving ship — then it would be the world’s second ASBM, but with a much extended range of 4,000 km.
The Missile Threat website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the DF-21D is a conventionally armed variant of the DF-21 that has been specifically designed to attack ships at sea. The DF-21 is a medium-range, road-mobile ballistic missile. U.S. reports suggest the DF-21D has a range of 1,450 km to 1,550 km. Missile Threat says the warhead is probably maneuverable and may have an accuracy of 20 m CEP. CEP stands for Circular Error Probability, and a CEP of 20 m means that if multiple missiles are fired at the same point, 50% of those missiles should hit within 20 m of the target point.
The good news for U.S. carrier groups is that the CEP of 20 m only applies to static targets, whereas in real combat the warhead would be falling back into Earth’s atmosphere many minutes after launching, at which time the target ship would have moved far away from the point originally targeted by the missile. Assuming the DF-21D and DF-26 have maneuverable warheads, this maneuverability would also be limited by the high speeds and physics of reentry.
Also limited would be the warhead’s ability to find its target, given the change in fleet position since it received its original targeting data. The bigger the warhead’s on-board targeting radar, the less space it would have for explosives, and a smaller radar would have less chance to overcome the target fleet’s radar jamming capabilities.
Then there is the target fleet’s surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to contend with. Each U.S. carrier is surrounded by multiple cruisers and destroyers. Combined, these warships carry hundreds of sophisticated missiles designed to attack and destroy incoming anti-ship missiles. The effectiveness of these SAMs are strengthened by the sophisticated radar and targeting control systems that form part of the Aegis Combat System that is built into every modern U.S. warship.
In short, even if China fires many of its limited supply of ASBMs at U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific, the reentry vehicles of these missiles would be tracked and engaged as soon as they drop in from space. Their onboard guidance systems would have to re-acquire targets that have moved far away, and their radars would be assaulted by a barrage of jamming signals. The targeted fleet would also fire chaff canisters into the sky around them, which would explode and spread clouds of decoy chaff around each ship. On top of that, multiple SAMs would be launched at each warhead, making it highly likely that each warhead would either be destroyed during its descent, or impact the ocean far from its target.
China released a propaganda video that shows one of its ASBM reentry vehicles doing fantastical maneuvering while detecting and sidestepping oncoming SAMs at the last moment. In reality it would be virtually impossible for such a vehicle to carry the equipment needed to detect oncoming SAMs, so that capability would probably only exist in the realm of computer animation. The video also shows the warhead hitting two carriers sailing side by side before exploding in a nuclear mushroom cloud. Of course, in reality you’ll never see two carriers sailing side by side, and the use of nuclear warheads would be a serious escalation of any conflict — effectively sparking a global nuclear war.
Image Credit: IceUnshattered