Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?


DF-21 and DF-26: Can the U.S. Military Stop a Chinese Missile Attack?

Modular Radar
A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block 1B interceptor missile is launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70) during a Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy test in the mid-Pacific. The SM-3 Block 1B successfully intercepted a target missile that had been launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands in Kauai, Hawaii. Lake Erie detected and tracked the target with its on board AN/SPY-1 radar. The event was the third consecutive successful intercept test of the SM-3 Block IB missile. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

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? 

(Subscribe to Our YouTube Channel Here. 19FortyFive publishes original videos every day.)

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.”

Houthis North Korea

THAAD Missile Defense Battery Firing. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

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.”

US Navy Missiles

070426-N-0000X-001.PACIFIC OCEAN (April 26, 2007) – A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is launched from the Aegis-class guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70), during a joint Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Navy ballistic missile flight test. Approximately three minutes later, the SM-3 intercepted a unitary (non-separating) ballistic missile threat target, launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii. Within moments of this launch, the USS Lake Erie also launched a Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) against a hostile air target in order to defend herself. The test was the eighth intercept, in 10 program flight tests. The test was designed to show the capability of the ship and its crew to conduct ballistic missile defense and at the same time defend herself. This test also marks the 27th successful hit-to-kill intercept in tests since 2001. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)

ATLANTIC OCEAN (May 26, 2021) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Ignatius (DDG 117) launches an SM-3 during a live-fire exercise during exercise At-Sea Demo/Formidable Shield, May 26, 2021. Exercise At-Sea Demo/Formidable Shield, conducted by Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO on behalf of U.S. 6th Fleet, is a live-fire integrated air and missile defense (IAMD) exercise that improves Allied interoperability using NATO command and control reporting structures. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan T. Beard) 210526-N-QI061-0033.

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.”

MORE: Donald Trump Just Destroyed His 2024 Changes

MORE: The F-15EX Is No F-35

MORE: The One GOP Candidate Worse Than Donald Trump

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.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New 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.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *