China appears to have threatened to use anti-ship ballistic missiles against American warships after a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed past disputed islands in the South China Sea. This is the latest in a string of increasingly aggressive actions and rhetoric from the Chinese government and is another signal that the country is looking to more actively assert its claims to the contested region of the Pacific Ocean.
On Jan. 8, 2019, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) reported that unspecified units of the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force (PLARF) armed with DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) had mobilized in the country’s far western Gobi Desert and Tibetan Plateau regions. This was in direct response to the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS McCampbell conducting a so-called Freedom of Navigation Patrol (FONOP) near the Paracel Islands, which the Chinese government claims as its sovereign national territory, according to the CCTV broadcast.
The DF-26 is a road-mobile IRBM and officially entered service in 2018. There are conflicting reports as to whether these missiles have a conventional or nuclear warhead, or if it has the capability to one or the other depending on the target set.
By 2017, the Chinese had also reportedly fielded a variant with maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MARV) warhead, giving it an anti-ship capability. Most public reports give the DF-26 a range of between 1,864 miles and 2,485 miles, with an extreme maximum range of almost 3,000 miles. It is unclear whether or not this latter range figure applies to missiles with the anti-ship warhead.
The video below from CCTV shows the mobilization of DF-26 units in Western China in January 2019.
The lower end of the DF-26’s reported range would still allow the missiles to engage targets in the Paracels from China’s western regions. With the road-mobile transporter-erector-launchers, crews could conceivably reposition them further east relatively easily, if necessary, as well.
Launching the missiles from deep inside China’s interior would make them less vulnerable to any attempts to destroy them either before launch or during their vulnerable boost phase when they are moving slow and generating a large infrared signature. It could also make it harder for ground-based sensors associated with enemy ballistic missile defense systems to spot, track, and provide accurate fire control data for an intercept during the missile’s mid-course flight phase. In addition to allowing it to hit slow-moving targets, the MARV’s ability to alter its course during the terminal flight phase also makes it less predictable and harder to intercept, as well.
At the same time, from the publicly available information, China has tested other anti-ship ballistic missiles against static, aircraft carrier-shaped targets in the Gobi Desert, but there is no indication that it has demonstrated any such capability against a representative moving target at sea. It’s also not clear if China has a robust enough sensor infrastructure to reliably target ships in the South China Sea or the networks to then communicate that information to DF-26 units thousands of miles away.
A map showing the ranges of various Chinese Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) and Intercontinal Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). The range given for the DF-26 here is 4,000 kilometers, or 2,485 miles, and from the range ring’s center point in central China, this would give the DF-26 more than enough range to strike any target in the South China Sea.
Beyond that, firing the DF-26s from so far away would simply increase the time it takes for the missile to reach the target area after launch. This could give an opponent added opportunities to try to change direction or otherwise mitigate the threat.
This doesn’t mean that the missiles don’t still pose a threat to American interests in and around the South China Sea. The DF-26’s range has led some to dub it the “Guam Killer,” as it can hold America’s highly strategic military facilities on that island at risk.
An aircraft carrier-sized target with multiple large craters from missile impacts on a test range in the Gobi Desert.
“China continues to have the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world,” the U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center wrote in an unclassified review of ballistic and cruise missile threats in 2017. “Missiles such as the … DF-26 are key components of the Chinese military modernization program, specifically designed to prevent adversary military forces’ access to regional conflicts.”
On top of that, China has a variety of other, shorter-range shore-based anti-ship missiles deployed in and around the South China Sea on a constellation of increasingly militarized man-made island outposts. The country is in the process of developing faster, less vulnerable types and ground-launched anti-ship missiles, too, all of which would present a challenge to American naval forces in the region during a crisis.
In a talk regarding U.S.-China relations in December 2018, People’s Liberation Army general officer Lou Yuan said that China’s anti-access posture in the region was designed around the goal of being able to sink multiple American aircraft carriers, at least in part. Lou is the Deputy Head of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences and has a long history of making controversial comments.
“What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” he said, suggesting the fear of the possible loss of approximately 10,000 personnel could effectively keep the U.S. military out of a fight in the South China Sea. “Attack wherever the enemy is afraid of being hit.”
Whatever the exact capabilities of the DF-26 are and how exactly it fits in with China’s overall anti-access concept of operations, publicly announcing the mobilization of those missiles in response to an American FONOP is a major development in of itself. The Chinese government routinely protests these patrols as violations of its sovereign territory, despite a broad international consensus that Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are overly broad and do not conform to international law and norms.
But a threat to respond militarily in a way where the goal would be to sink the American ship, rather than chase it off, seems unprecedented. This reaction to McCampbell’s patrol comes less than four months after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) Type 052C Luyang II-class destroyer Lanzhou nearly collided with the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Decatur during a FONOP near Gaven Reefs.
A video still showing the Chinese destroyer Lanzhou, at right, cutting in front of the USS Decatur on Sept. 30, 2018. At one point the two ships were dangerously close, coming within 45 yards of each other.
Gaven Reefs, which is home to one of China’s man man-made island military bases, is in the Spratly Islands chain, which is situated further south in the South China Sea from the Paracels. This appeared to be the first time a Chinese warship had ever sought to physically drive off an American naval vessel in the South China Sea.
“Both countries warships definitely have to come into close proximity and it’s easy for there to be a misunderstanding or an error of judgment, even a collision,” Zhang Junshe, a researcher at the PLA’s Naval Military Studies Research Institute, said of the 2018 incident in a discussion with reporters on Jan. 9, 2019. “If there is a collision, the root cause is the United States.”
An annotated satellite image showing China’s man-made outpost in Gaven Reefs.
The increasingly assertive attitude among Chinese authorities and official media outlets extends beyond the South China Sea to other hotspots, such as Taiwan and the East China Sea, too. In the last 18 months, the United States has also accused China of harassing its military aircraft in the South China Sea, as well as off the coast of the country of Djibouti in East Africa, where the PLA recently established a major overseas base.
“All military units must correctly understand major national security and development trends, and strengthen their sense of unexpected hardship, crisis and battle,” China’s President Xi Jinping said in at a meeting with the country’s top Central Military Commission on Jan. 5, 2019. “Preparation for war and combat must be deepened to ensure an efficient response in times of emergency.”
This had followed a New Years address from Xi to commemorate the 40th anniversary of China’s 1979 Message to Compatriots in Taiwan. The new speech included, among other things, an assertion that the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland was inevitable. Xi also reiterated his past position that the Chinese government could use force, if necessary, to speed that process along.
Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his address on Taiwan on Jan. 2, 2019.
When it comes to U.S.-Chinese relations specifically, the DF-26 threat also comes as President Donald Trump’s administration and Xi’s regime remain locked in strained negotiations over how to end an ongoing trade war. In the past 18 months or so, the two countries have also sparred over American support to Taiwan, Chinese intellectual property theft and industrial espionage, and host of other issues.
The incident with Decatur near Gaven Reefs in 2018 already indicated that China might be increasingly willing to take riskier and more forceful action against the United States, as well as any other potential opponents, to assert its territorial claims and otherwise advance its national interests. This new threat, no matter how veiled, to attack those ships with ballistic missiles certainly suggests that the Chinese government isn’t rushing to deescalate the situation.
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