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DF-26: China’s New Missile Plan to Kill a Navy Aircraft Carrier from Distance

Image of US Navy Aircraft Carrier Under a Simulated Attack in Chinese Desert Mockup.

Much has been written for years now about China‘s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, or what most media outlets call the ‘carrier-killer’ for the threat it presents to U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. But there is a more potent missile, the DF-26, that seems to have even more deadly uses besides ‘killing’ carriers: As China continues its ongoing military buildup, one of the areas of most concern to the United States military has been the continued development of its Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) strategy. China’s A2/AD strategy combines a range of military capabilities, from improved air defense systems and advanced fifth-generation fighter aircraft to more capable warships, in an effort to limit the U.S. military’s ability to effectively operate within East Asia.

China is pursuing its A2/AD strategy through the development of military capabilities able to both directly target U.S. ships and warplanes operating the theater as well as the critical facilities such as ports and air bases upon which they rely. By excluding the U.S. military from the region in this manner, China may succeed in both reducing the United States’ influence in the region during peacetime while also significantly degrading its ability to effectively carry out military action in support of its allies and partners in the region should hostilities break out.

Enter The DF-26 IRBM

A central element of China’s A2/AD strategy is its development of increasingly capable ballistic missile systems. One such system is the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), which is capable of striking targets as far away as Guam and gives China the ability to target most U.S. military facilities in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

The DF-26 IRBM was first publicly unveiled during a military parade in Beijing in 2015, and was first fielded by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units in 2016. The first dedicated DF-26 missile units were established in 2018, and the United States Department of Defense has estimated that the PLA Rocket Force may be operating as many as 200 DF-26 launchers.

The Tech

The DF-26 is a two-stage, solid-fueled and road-mobile missile that is likely a larger variant of China’s DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM). The DF-26 has an estimated maximum range of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 kilometers, which puts Guam and other U.S. regional military facilities in range. The DF-26 is China’s first conventionally armed ballistic missile capable of striking Guam, a fact that has earned the DF-26 its nickname of the “Guam Killer.” The missile is both transported and fired with the use of the Chinese-built HTF5680 12 x 12 Transporter-Erector Launcher (TEL).

The DF-26 is believed to have a maximum payload capacity of between 1,200 and 1,800 kilograms and is capable of mounting both conventional and nuclear warheads. The DF-26 appears to be unique among Chinese ballistic missile systems in that the weapon may have been designed in such a way as to ensure that it was “hot-swappable” and capable of quickly switching between nuclear and conventional payloads.

The DF-26 also appears to have served as the basis for the development of a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) variant. Speculation already existed that the DF-26 could be used to strike targets at sea, and this speculation only intensified after a 2017 test of a missile that was fired into the Bohai Sea close to the Korean Peninsula, which some believed involved the use of a DF-26 or a new variant of it.

Since then, the PLA has tested both the DF-21D – believed to be China’s first ASBM model – as well as what some have now labeled the DF-26B. In August of 2020, a test of both weapons demonstrated that they may be capable of hitting moving targets at sea. If true, these weapons would present a major threat to U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the region.

Eli Fuhrman was an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.




    May 8, 2022 at 8:47 am

    In the early 1990s Chinas ballistic missiles were extremely inaccurate and not that much of a threat. And then the Clinton administration came to power.

  2. dan

    May 8, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    You have to wonder if the carrier has been rendered obsolete by modern missile technology. Large slow moving surface vessels may have seen their day.

    • sferrin

      May 9, 2022 at 3:27 pm

      Wait. You mean to tell me the carrier has NEVER been threatened before? What about all those carriers sunk in WW2 by torpedoes and bombs? War is dangerous. You adapt.

  3. TrustbutVerify

    May 9, 2022 at 7:13 am

    These articles always talk about the missiles and not the kill chain to HIT the moving aircraft carrier. Those carriers, and our Navy, are not just going to be sitting around hoping. They will interdict multiple levels of the kill chain to keep from being hit – if they can even find the carrier group. Going to send out drones to track the carrier, or shipping vessels or a sub? Only going to work if you launch a sneak attack, maybe, and then just once because then we will sink and splash every Chinese or unknown craft anywhere around the Carrier group.

    And the last sneak attack didn’t turn out too well for the attacker.

  4. sferrin

    May 9, 2022 at 8:13 am

    Jesus. “Carrier killer” is the worst kind of click-bait. ANY kind of weapon aimed at a carrier is a potential “carrier killer”. Even the lowly dumb bomb has killed carriers. Pathetic.

  5. Bill Hocter

    May 9, 2022 at 12:31 pm

    Let’s name our first hypersonic missile “The Three Gorges Killer” just for fun. Not a moving target either.

    • Ken Heins

      May 10, 2022 at 2:42 pm

      I’m betting those coordinates are already set.

  6. Allen Goins

    May 9, 2022 at 1:25 pm

    Easy to say “Carrier Killer”, hard to do. Striking a piece of sand in the Gobi Desert is one thing, finding a carrier and striking it in the Pacific Ocean is a whole other ball game. In 1986, we made an entire Battle Group Transit from San Diego to the Philippines in EMCOM (using 5 watt radio’s on the flight deck only), and the Russians with their RORSATs were always several hundred miles behind us. Never did locate us until we radiated just before the P.I. It’s hard to do folks.

  7. The Gaffer

    May 9, 2022 at 5:09 pm

    If it’s going to be used against a carrier at sea the warhead will be a tacnuke. PLAN studied old Soviet anti-carrier war tactics and merely substituted an ASBM for the Backfire/AS-4. They will apply the same math and number of nukes per anti carrier strike.
    US estimates of the number of nukes in Chinese military have been laughable for decades.

    • sarsfield

      May 9, 2022 at 8:44 pm

      yo Gaffer not so fast – nukes up the ante and not sure CH would do that early in a conflict – but, a time on target attack on a CBG using supersonic ASMs and sub launched SSMs, coupled w/ a ballistic missile attack (all conventional) might really test the defenses.

      • The Gaffer

        May 10, 2022 at 10:22 am

        I wasn’t giving a knee jerk response.

        A. China has largely adopted the Soviet mindset wrt theatre/strategic operations. Nukes are a tool to be used if the correlation of forces requires.

        China’s ‘no first use’ statement permits initial use if defending PRC territory. They claim Taiwan is their territory. Read the small print – they mean it.

        Carriers will either be held by PACFLT so distant from the SCS/Taiwan area they will be irrelevant – or subject to two or more ASBM delivered tacnukes each and sunk.

        B. Xi can, and will, use tacnukes at sea against US carriers knowing that we know he credibly holds US cities at risk. What do you think Xi’s assessment of Biden is?

        C. China has been at ‘war’ against the US since at least the late 90’s. In case you missed it they’ve been winning. The ‘assassins mace’ has already been used – to great effect.

        The attitude illustrated in, and inspiring the tactics explained in, “Unrestricted Warfare” leaves little doubt they want to set right the position of China relative to the US. Seeing how they’ve realized much of Unrestricted Warfare since 1997, they likely will.

  8. 1KoolKat

    May 10, 2022 at 6:06 am

    The keywords in this article are “plan to kill”, meaning the PLA Navy is working on it, so always assume your adversaries will eventually get the capability they seek. Why are the Chinese building the biggest peace time military in history, and what’s all this leading to?

    • The Gaffer

      May 10, 2022 at 11:48 am

      “…what’s all this leading to?”

      If your neighbor is buying buffalo guns and ammo (anti-carrier missiles) – and you’re the only buffalo …

  9. Michael Ysrael

    May 10, 2022 at 8:30 am

    The carrier role has to adjust. For offense smaller faster “drone carriers” equipped with drones should carry the fight to enemy shores. The “Ford carrier” should sit further back and provide defensive cover for the drone carriers. Ford carriers have pilot aircraft, especially radar and electronic jamming which are more suited for defense role.

  10. EasyEight

    May 10, 2022 at 12:58 pm

    Not new. The DF26 is an upgrade to the DF-21 “carrier killer” missile the PRC announced nearly a decade ago, and seen at a Chinese military parade in 2015. This is the same missile with supposedly enhanced targeting and maneuvering capabilities. The US has not stood still since then, and has fielded the RIM-174 SM-6 anti-aircraft and ballistic missile defense system on all of its warships. US satellites would spot a ballistic missile launch from China, with projected trajectory, and feed that info to a Carrier Battle Group, giving it time to maneuver and defend against a DF26 attack.

    This grand announcement is more of a saber rattling PR move than anything else.

  11. truthalwayswinsout

    May 11, 2022 at 1:37 am

    Look. Until Ukraine it was Russia, Russia, Russia. Now after there is no doubt about the Russian abilities it is now China, China, China.

    If you look at the geography Taiwan gives them open access. Otherwise all their supplies have to go through easy to shut down choke points. That means in 4 months Communist China starves to death.

    The strategy that will work is getting Taiwan to spend 4% of its GDP on enough manpad type weapons and training that any take over of Taiwan would be a Pyrrhic victory such that the Communists would lose control of the mainland.

    That is all it takes. We should not even hint at defending Taiwan until they start to defend themselves. With proper weapons and distributed defense, Taiwan can cause enormous damage to Communist China.

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