Much digital ink has been spilled on China’s DF-21D and DF-26, calling them killer missiles. How much of a threat are they?
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China’s ballistic missile program is known to be one of the best in the world.
Two launchers stand out – the DF-21 and DF-26. They are both dual use with the capability to deliver conventional and nuclear payloads that could potentially target Guam – a strategic base for the U.S. military in East Asia that China has long feared.
19FortyFive invited two military analysts on China’s armed forces to share their views about the dangers of Beijing’s ballistic missiles.
But first, here is more background about the missile systems that China features. The DF-21 and DF-26 are both road-mobile and shoot missiles that are powered by a two-stage solid propellent motor. Solid-fueled missiles can be fired more quickly than liquid-fueled missiles, enabling the truck that carries the launcher and missiles to quickly prepare for launch and then move to another location after firing.
More Details on the DF-21
The DF-21 dates back to 1991 and has been upgraded over the years to include several variants, including an anti-ship “carrier killer” model. The missile is 35 feet long and 4.6 feet in diameter. The payload weighs over 1,300 pounds and can deliver a 250- or 500-kiloton nuclear re-entry. Its range is 1,335 miles.
China has at least 80 nuclear-tipped DF-21s in service. This is a lowball number since it is based on an estimate conducted in 2016. China likely has many more. The DF-21D is the variant of this missile that is considered the ‘carrier-killer’ missile.
Could the DF-26 Be a Guam Killer?
The DF-26 is a longer-range missile that has the range (2,500 miles) to hit Guam. It is also dual-use, enabling a nuclear warhead that can fit into the missile’s nearly 4,000-pound payload. It was successfully tested in 2017 against a simulated American THAAD anti-missile battery. It also has anti-ship capabilities. The CSIS Missile Threat project believes it can “employ a ‘modular design,’ allowing operators to rapidly swap nuclear and conventional payloads in the field.” The DF-26 has an additional anti-ship variant.
Experts Speak Out on the Chinese Missile Threat
19FortyFive interviewed two Heritage Foundation scholars about the DF-21 and DF-26. Dean Cheng is the think tank’s former senior research fellow at the Asian Studies Center. Brent Sadler is the senior research fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology for the Center for National Defense.
Nuclear-capability Is Problematic
Cheng believes the dual use aspect is dangerous for the United States. “It’s also not clear that the nuclear variants are deployed separately from the conventional versions, and in fact, they may not be. In that case, the Chinese are almost daring us to strike at DF-21 and DF-26 bases, knowing there are nuclear weapons there.”
A Guam Attack Would Be Disastrous
Cheng also thinks that Guam is a cornerstone for U.S. strategy in East Asia. “It’s a ripe target with bombers, a submarine base, radars, communications arrays, etc. A massive strike involving warheads carrying submunitions rather than unitary warheads could be devastating.”
What About U.S. Missile Defense?
Sadler notes that Guam has THAAD and Patriot missile defenders to protect against a Chinese missile launch, but these defenses are not 100 percent effective. “By themselves [they are] likely to be overwhelmed by saturation attack, so layered defense [is] needed with point defense for AEGIS/SM-3 missiles, etc.”
More on Pelosi’s Trip to Taiwan
Sadler also stated that the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was a serious matter but not expected to change U.S. tactics and strategy. “China is playing up the Pelosi visit, and testing resolve and exercising its military at the same time – but I don’t see this as intended to be a precursor for something more serious than posturing on the Chinese part … US policy is not changing after all.”
Possibility of Arms Limitation Negotiations
With the dangers of China’s road-mobile ballistic missile program, could there be any hope of the United States and China entering into an arms control agreement – or at least hold talks?
Cheng responded that there are no prospects of arms control discussions. “The Chinese aren’t interested, he said, “and won’t be unless we have something significant that strikes fear into them.”
Sadler added, “We have nothing to trade to get them to the table. That said, it would be highly beneficial if China agreed to strategic nuclear escalation control dialogues to better understand each other’s understandings of nuclear deterrence, signally and escalation. We have history on these issues with Russia, zero with China and that poses added risk.”
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Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.