A Reminder – Pandas May Be Cute, But They Have Sharp Teeth and Claws…

The DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) is in play again in the press and implicitly linked in comments by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Staff that cancellation of at least one of the Ford-class carriers and retirement of some number of others is being considered by DoD ( would note, however, that to draw a straight line between the two is a little simplistic). Surfacing this discussion was the publication of an article in the Taipei Times (14 July edition) last week that led to a good bit of churn on this side of the Pacific:

“People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde confirmed earlier this week that China was developing the Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), the first Chinese official to publicly state that the missile is in development. His comments came as the English-language China Daily reported that the DF-21D had a range of 2,700km (ed. or about 1460 nm -SJS), well beyond assessments by the Office of Naval Intelligence last year, which put it at about 1,500km. The missile, which is capable of hitting moving targets at sea and is seen as a potential threat to aircraft carrier battle groups, would represent a powerful deterrent to the US Navy in the Pacific.”

One of the arguments about the very existence of the DF-21D was that while there is a surprising amount of information in scientific and technical journals hinting broadly at such a capability for the PLA, publicly, at least until now, there hadn’t been anything forthcoming from the PLA officially recognizing the existence of the program or stating a requirement. In fact, one of my erstwhile colleagues in my day job claims it is all maskirovka, in no small part, I am sure just to aggravate me, I think.

Well, no more. The PLA CoS’ very explicit comment, coming on the heels of ADM Mullen’s visit, ripped that bandage off, confirming that indeed, China was working to develop an anti-ship ballistic missile and that it was aimed primarily at deterring the use of US aircraft carriers in the Pacific. The joker in the deck, however, was the mention of the 2700 km range – well beyond the previous estimates of “in excess of 1500 km” in open sources such as the annual DoD report to Congress on China’s Military Power. As recent as late last year, ADM Willard, current CDRPACOM likewise indicated such when declaring his thought that the DF-21D had reached initial operational capability (IOC). In turn, this has left a number of Western analysts scratching their heads.

Figure 1. Comparative ranges of a 1500km DF-21D vs 2700km DF-21D

From a notional GEOLOC in the Guangdong province, the implications of Figure 1 ought to be pretty clear – a 2700km range would force carriers to operate outside not only the first island chain, but at or outside the second chain and thereby effectively nullify any operational employment in the contested area until the ASBM threat is neutralized. By extending that virtual umbrella of protective fire against the most versatile, flexible operational unit for wide area sea control, the aircraft carrier, the PLAN and PLA-AF would gain a greater degree of freedom to operate in critical areas such as the South and East China Seas with the greatest threat coming from US and allied subs – no mean threat, but more manageable without having to deal with carrier-based air. Presumably land-based air forces would be dissuaded or suppressed by the very large conventional ballistic missile striking force the Chinese are acquiring and deploying. One interesting possibility stemming from this condition is that China also gains a greater margin to operate its embryonic carrier force in a more effective manner against regional actors.

But few capabilities, if any, are ever so neatly packaged, and on closer examination there are some flies in the ointment. Further in the same article, Chen notes:

“…the DF-21D, which can be fired from mobile land-based launchers, was still in the research, development and testing stage, adding that such high-tech devices were difficult to bring to maturity. ‘The missile is still undergoing experimental testing and it will be used as a defensive weapon when it is successfully developed, not an offensive one,’ Chen told reporters. Its development ‘requires funding inputs, advanced technology and high-quality talented personnel … these are all fundamental factors constraining its development’ Xinhua news agency quoted Chen as saying, in comments that were ostensibly intended for a domestic audience.” (emphasis added)

There is a considerable level of effort to translate plans and parts associated with the now decommissioned Pershing II, ostensibly the basis of the DF-15 and land attack variants of the DF-21 family (see Fig. 2), into a system that marries sensors, C2 and “shooter” (aka missile) designed to take out a mobile platform in the broad ocean area. Recall that the Pershing II added a MaRV that married a 5-80kt warhead (with an earth penetrating option) with terrain-scene matching radar to give this relatively low yield weapon a remarkable hard-kill capability owing to a CEP inside of 30 meters. From bases in West Germany, the flight time of the Pershing II to Moscow was on the order 10-14 minutes – and drove the Soviets to the brink as they considered it a first strike weapon in a larger strategic exchange with the US. The fact that its deployment was a reaction to their own deployment of the game-changing road-mobile SS-20 and in all likelihood, was targeted against the operational and support elements for that missile system was conveniently overlooked. It is, however, instructive for our purposes here to note that the manner in which the Pershing II’s range and payload were upgraded and enhanced – through a lighter structure, enhanced propellants and advanced onboard flight and terminal guidance, would likewise be applicable to the DF-21 family. It is altogether conceivable and in keeping with the Chinese design, development and deployment of a range of missile families and capabilities that a similar process was followed to reach the DF-21D.

Figure 2. (l to r) Pershing II, DF-15/CSS-6 with MaRV, DF-21/CSS-5

However, color me skeptical about the 2700 km claim. Time and again more than one nation – ours included, has learned that you just can’t keep scaling up on a “Tim Allen” design basis (“more power”) and expect everything to work. As range increases, the loads (aerodynamic heating, gravity, etc) on the reentry vehicle correspondingly grow, but not at a 1:1 pace. For example, at 200,000 ft (the point at which re-entry begins) thermal loading on an ICBM-class RV will cause the tip to experience temperatures in excess of 3,500 deg.F – the most minute differentiation in the rate of ablation near the tip will cause the RV to at best, modify its ballistic flight profile, affecting accuracy or at worse, adjust so dramatically that airframe body breakup is incurred. To avoid this occurrence, RVs are spin stabilized before re-entry to ensure uniform ablation, but that incurs another series of events to be dealt with, and so on. This, in large part, is one reason why the leap from a space launch vehicle (SLV) to IR/ICBM class weapon is not as clear or fast as the reverse (IR/ICBM → SLV), and should give pause to assessments over the alleged development of ICBM capabilities by some countries.

The Pershing II was classified with a 1,770 km range. A reading of the development of the MaRV for the Pershing II in William Yengst’s monograph, “Lightning Bolts: First Maneuvering Reentry Vehicles” is instructive in the challenges presented by the flight, re-entry and post re-entry aerodynamic loading on the airframe, developing a nose cone that was sufficiently ablative to withstand reentry yet transparent electromagnetically enough for the terrain scene matching radar and developing a guidance and maneuvering system that would survive reentry and be robust enough for terminal maneuvers approaching 8-gs in the target area. No small leap for 1978 and similarly today when looking at an alleged 2700km missile. An alternate explanation would be either a deliberate falsification as part of a larger strategic communications ploy (surprise) or just a simple transpose of a “2” where a “1” for a 1700 km vice 2700 km missile would be much more believable. To be sure, an extra 1,000km range would open up a wide range of possibilities for the PLA, not least of which would be greater strategic depth to afford protection against future counter-ballistic missile threats (either ascent-phase interceptors – still very much the stuff of PPT dreams or VLO/UCAV-Ns, less PPT, but years away from a notional weapons capability) while maintaining coverage out to the first island chain and expanding its fleet of open ocean sensors and platforms feeding the reconnaissance-strike complex supporting the DF-21D.

The simple fact of the matter is that DF-21D is out there and constitutes some quantifiable level of threat to our deployed carrier force. That in turn has engendered a certain degree of hand-wringing, but simply cancelling programs and cutting force structure on the basis of a weapon itself and its supporting C2ISR infrastructure allegedly still in the throes of development would seem a bit hasty. To be sure, fiscal prudence demands close scrutiny – of all programs, especially in the current and near-future fiscal climate. Yet there is a strategic imperative at play and it goes to what form our forces will take after we have disengaged from protracted conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Increasingly there is talk of “off-shore balancing” and while that is still a somewhat amorphous form, what is clear is that under such a concept, expeditionary forces supported by naval and air forces will be more relevant than those configured for long-term engagement in continental land-wars and nation building. Prudence, again, dictates a thoughtful examination of the configuration of those naval forces, the flexibility inherent in well designed, time-tested platforms (like the CVN and DDGs) but ensuring there is capacity for growth and adaption to mission changes.

There is a school of thought that is quick to draw parallels between the emergence of the carrier and demise of the battleship as highlighted at Pearl Harbor, but I would point out that was as much to do with the inherent lack of adaptability of the ships on Battleship Row that Sunday morning in December as the added dimension to naval warfare demonstrated by the Kido Butai. I would also note, that the same capability brought to bear against the BBs was also applied at Coral Sea, Midway and Santa Cruz, but there were no calls for ceasing production of CVs after Lexington, Yorktown, Hornet and Wasp were lost to air- and submarine attacks. Indeed the carriers showed their adaptability and flexibility in the utility of their main battery, carrier-based air wings that were composited based on mission, in flexing from sea control to war at sea, to strike support and long-range AAW. And when a new weapon, the kamikaze appeared later in the war we changed tactics, adapted current and emerging technologies (networked fires, improved C2, long-range CAP, attack operations, airborne- and distant surface radar pickets) and even began looking at the potential of emerging technologies like surface to air missiles as a solution set. To be sure, we were still taking grievous losses (witness Okinawa and the beating the DDRs and USS Franklin endured), and the emergence of atomic weapons again proved a challenge. My intent isn’t to rehash the long history of carrier aviation and its adaptability in the face of emerging threats, that has been done much more ably elsewhere. It is rather, to thoughtfully consider the challenge presented, examine all avenues of countering, realizing that frankly, while the DF-21D presents a very high profile threat, the reality of the tactical scenario is that there are a great many more sub- and supersonic cruise missiles, launched from a variety of platforms that are increasingly proliferating around the world and present a far greater threat to all naval platforms.

And that demands a degree of perspective be employed by force planners and naval leaders.

Crossposted at steeljawscribe.com

Posted by SteelJaw in Foreign Policy, History, Navy
Tags: , ,

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Mike M.

    Concur 100%. The DF-21 has become the new naval boogie-man, an omnipotent threat used primarily to justify cuts already decided on.

    The technical problems are significant…and the operational problems are even more daunting. The kill chain is complex on a good day – and the CVBG will be doing its utmost to interfere with it.

    This is a threat to be countered, not a cause for panic.

  • Jerry Hendrix

    Don’t worry, Japanese torpedo bombers can’t attack us in Pearl Harbor, the water is too shallow, and not to mention our air defenses are more than adequate to defend the fleet at anchor. Trust us, battleships will reign supreme for decades to come. Pacific Fleet Command Staff – 1941

  • Byron

    CAPT. Hendrix: Nice to hear from a sea-going professional.

  • Rich B.

    What is just as concerting is the current state of our surface to surface weapon systems. Harpoon is atrophying with no funded replacement, while our near peer competitors further expand their capability. Guns and SM2s does not give you a viable surface warfare capability in a world of Sizzler’s, Exocets and C-802s.

    The problem with a “global force for good” the small boy is not always operating with carrier support and even during modern deployments the battle for vital air assets between strike, surface and air arenas does not guarantee the response you may desire or require for the tactical situation.

    Plan for the next war; not the last.

  • Derrick

    How long has the US known of the ASBM development by the Chinese? Haven’t countermeasures already been developed?

    Also, has the US officially stated that attacking an aircraft carrier would be considered equivalent to the use of weapons of mass destruction against US soil? I think that’s an important line in the sand to draw…that if a carrier is hit by an ASBM, the US will respond with nuclear armament.

  • @Derrick:
    1. Without getting into specifics – we have known about the DF-21D’s development and a range of responses are in play.

    2. For a variety of reasons, including the standing under international law of sovereign vessels, threatening a nuclear retaliation to an ASBM strike has questionable credibility. If a cruiser was sunk by an SS-N-27 attack, with the loss of all or most of the roughly 400 crew do we respond with a nuke? What about an LHA that strikes a mine and loses half it’s embarked Marines? Are we reserving the nuke response solely for the means of delivery of attack (ASBM)? And that doesn’t even begin to look at what you wuold target. There are plenty of other, conventional and asymmetric responses that would directly and materially impact the Chinese government and give pause in their decisionmaking process. It all depends on your (their) desired end state.
    w/r, SJS

  • Diogenes of NJ

    And Hop Sing got that technology – how?

    Sorry to bring that up – my bad.

    – Kyon

  • How? In part, through the time-honored practice of rummaging through your rival’s trash
    w/r, SJS

  • CDR Tom O’Malley, USN (Ret)

    The write-up certainly should give enough pause to our naval planners so they will look at the threat to all of our naval assets and not just the carriers. W cannot and should not shrink back because of a “possible” development by Chinese. I also subscribe to the “plan for the next war” not the last plan.

  • SwitchBlade

    I’m still having trouble getting worked up about this missile’s reported capabilities. There is either more to the story, or many people are planning based on what the Chinese are stating instead of what has been demonstrated. Besides the limitations stated in the above report on the problems with extending the range, there are the normal problems the missile has in hitting an aircraft carrier or any other ship.

    How is the missile going to target the carrier? Without getting into the problems the Soviet Union had, the only really feasible way is to tail the carrier with a sub. We would most likely know the sub is there and reporting. If it’s already a hot war – the sub would be a better platform to attack if it can get within range. Otherwise, it’s going to be targeted while the missile is going through it procedures.

    The missile is fired and then has to hit the carrier. It needs to detect the correct ship, locate with accuracy, and hit the CV with it’s warhead. It reportedly has a CEP of 100 – 500M. And that is likely at a fixed land target.

    So, when the missile(s) launch is detected, the CV goes EMCON and shuts down everything. The AEGIS CG(s) and DDGs target the incoming missile. The CV maneuvers, etc. The missile warhead has to find the CV, get through the SMs and HIT the maneuvering CV. I don’t see it happening.

    Frankly a few subs with ASCMs are a much bigger threat.

  • Diogenes of NJ

    My dear SwitchBlade,

    Q) How is the missile going to target the carrier?

    A) According to open source information, Chinese have OTH Radar (something with which our Navy is not unfamiliar). Most likely that would be used to determine the location of the CVBG and the principle target for an ASBM line of launch. An ASBM has a maneuvering RV with an active seeker not unlike an ASCM. Prudent design criteria would dictate that the acquisition basket would exceed the target’s maneuver capability for a given time of flight.

    If the Chinese plan to attack the US Navy, it will most certainly be a hot war. There will be more than a few DF-21’s launched; along with ASCM’s, manned attack aircraft and even a few torpedoes unleashed in as coordinated a fashion as the Chinese can muster. The weakness on any defense is the ability of the enemy to saturate its capability.

    It is unknown what the US’s retaliatory capability will be a few decades hence. In times gone by the question asked was: “Where are the carriers?” The question I pose today is: “Where are the tenders?”

    I fear that we are seeing in this enemy a replay of the buildup on the Imperial Japanese Naval forces prior to World War II. I sincerely hope that the 21st century Pearl Harbor does not occur in Yokosuka.

    – Kyon

  • Derrick

    If it’s already a hot war…the CVBG should be able to blind some of the Chinese’s targeting satellites and OTH radar with lasers. F-35s from the CVN should be able to assist in the shooting down of incoming ASBM and ASCM. No need to wait for the missiles to come into AEGIS range.

    I thought there was a public demo by the US Navy weapons lab of a ship mounted laser shooting down a small missile…it won’t be too long before ship-mounted lasers will be able to shoot down ASBMs…

    However, a hot war against a country whose conventional military has an overwhelming numerical advantage will quite quickly become a nuclear one…is China willing to sacrifice a good portion of its limited wealth just to use military force in Southeast Asia? Probably not.

  • SwitchBlade

    TO: Diogenes of NJ

    Don’t be patronizing.

    OTHR is not that discriminating. Targeting a specific ship is much more difficult than you are making it sound.

    Regardless of the targeting method, the “Active Seeker” you write of hasn’t been demonstrated. There are significant problems in adapting a seeker from a sub-sonic or even MACH 2-3 missile to a reentry vehicle. That’s why they are referred to a “Ballistic” missiles – they are targeted to a specific point in the earths surface.

    Until ANY ballistic missile of 1500+ nm range demonstrates an ability to hit any moving target, I question the capability.

    Saturation attacks are only relevant if they can hit the target.

    As I stated – it’s not a weapon to be concerned about until more capability is demonstrated!

    WRT the hot war – If Japan is not neutral, Yokosuka will be taken out. And if Japan is neutral, we won’t be able to use it.

  • @switchblade:
    for reference, the Pershing II, developed in the mid-70’s had an active radar used in the terminal stage of flight, giving the P-II a CEP of 30m and a very effective hard/deeply buried kill capability with a warhead that ranged from 5 to 30kt. It drove the Soviets absolutely nuts because of that capability and was one of the driving reasons behind the INF Treaty. Other, ICBM level RVs have used RADALTs to determine altitude for airbursts. Both technologies have been around forvthe better part of 30-40 years, so don’t think the Chinese, with almost unfettered access to Western and former Soviet technology haven’t been able to access and use the same to contract development times.
    That said, and mindful of my own long experience working against an open ocean surveillance system, feeding significant A2AD forces, I’m well aware of the challenges faced on both sides – again, as the Chinese no doubt are too. Make no mistake, they have studied, are learning and working very hard to close the gap from desired to reality. Still dome time away from doing so, but the DF-21D will be a very significant part of that architecture. As will air – and sub-launched cruise missiles and massed raids of ballistic missiles against theater infrastructure.
    So yes, significant threat, but still one in being – and for which counters are being developed, but we too have a ways to go in that regard.
    W/r, SJS

  • @Derrick
    What lasers? No program of record for that – the free electron program along with electromagnetic rail gun have been zeroed out. Don’t hold your breath on F-35s shooting missiles down in ascent phase either – outside of a very scripted demo in a highly permissive environment thats more of a PPT CONOPS than a POR.
    w/r, SJS

  • Looks like my embed above didn’t work. Here’s the link I embedded A couple of comments earlier:

    w/r, SJS

  • Diogenes of NJ

    The motion of a CVBG is a sufficient discriminator (especially when launching and recovering aircraft) to allow an OTH radar to identify the targets against background shipping.

    In most cases you don’t know if a maneuvering RV is going to miss until it is too late to shoot at it. The DF-21D’s would no doubt be launched in conjunction with similar (less talented) missiles; of which the enemy has no shortage. If one also include penetration aids (which we won’t get to see until the war starts), the Aegis ships would be presented with many tens if not hundreds of targets for SM-3. I don’t see sufficient magazine capacity when one must also contend with ASCMs and attack aircraft.

    The purpose of the first attack may be to get the fleet to expend ammunition (we’ve all read Tom Clancy). Therefore, I contend that saturation attacks are relevant regardless of how many targets are hit (please don’t feel patronized). If the attack comes, the enemy has a plan to deal with and/or absorb full retaliation. It is as foolish to dismiss the enemy’s capability by speculation as it was to speculate that Bismarck was a shallow draft vessel.

    To return to my first post, more was obtained by the enemy via illicit means than can be collected from a garbage can. This is the unfortunate situation we are faced with. Wishing will not make it go away.

    – Kyon

  • Derrick

    Also, can the US make a comparable weapon to the DF-21D ASBM at a cheaper cost than China?

    I mean, might as well deny their naval assets access to the South China Sea too…that way there won’t be a need to send in a CVBG into a danger zone.

    Also, do ASBM interceptors have to be with the CVBG? Can we not position several hundred in Japan and South Korea? Would that give us a better shot at intercepting?

  • As long as the US remains signatory to the INF treaty – no, the US cannot make a “cheaper” version of the DF-21D.

    BMD is all about geometry and being in the right position. For reference, look at BURNING FROST which demanded a sea-based interceptor to ensure a hit over the broad ocean area and had the flexibility to position to ensure the largest possible window for such a shot. So no, ASBM interceptors would most likely *not* be positioned with the CVBG if going for a mid-course intercept.

    w/r, SJS

  • Diogenes of NJ


    I commend you sir, on you comprehensive understanding of the issues related to BMD.

    Please allow me to simplify some of the BMD issues. In the Navy BMD business, there are two places to be: 1) “the lookin’ place” and 2) “the shootin’ place”.

    The particulars are such: 1) the pointy end is hard to see, so it helps to be off to the side. 2) SM-3 ain’t gonna catch nuthin’. The best you can do with SM-3 is to get in the way. What helps is that after burnout, a simple ballistic missile can’t get out of its own way.

    In the rocket business, size matters. To that end, if you can’t move your interceptor to a good shootin’ place; it is necessary to have a big missile that stands a chance of catching the target.

    In the case of BURNT FROST (a.k.a. Stellar Reaper). The intercept was planned to allow the sensors at PMRF to observe, in order to determine the extent of success. Contrary to certain uninformed opinion, this was not a BMD event. The only thing it had in common with BMD is that a modified SPY-1 radar and SM-3 were adapted to accomplish the mission.

    I should like to point out that a satellite is even less adept at getting out of its own way, however it is moving considerably faster than a BM. One other thing relating to magazine capacity, SM-3 has no endoatmospheric capability whatsoever.

    – Kyon

  • Diogenes of NJ


    The above term: “uninformed opinion” should in no way be construed to pertain to any of your posts in this thread. You sir, have an exceptionally superior grasp of the issues.

    – Kyon

  • Headman56

    The DF-21D has never been full-up, operationally tested by firing it well out to sea and trying to hit a manuevering target. Not once…much less numerous times. The very idea that a very complicated system like this, that is absolutely dependent upon such daunting C4ISR capabilities, would be considered anywhere close to fully operational without a single full-up, live fire test is simply ludicrous. Those requirements start before launch with respect to target acquisition, and extend right through to terminal targeting after re-entry.

    Now, having said that, an opertion that is meant to pose the possibility of such a threat (while working to develop it) can be very effective. And THAT is exactly what is happening here in terms of AD. The PRC understands the culture of the west, and particularly its current concern about almost any casualites. So, despite never having been tested, if they can get enough credible people worrying about what it “might” do, they can give pause to powerful forces, and the very strength of the opposition, without ever firing a shot…even in testing.

    And that, IMHO, is what is happening with the DF-21D.

    ..and that is classic Sun Tzu strategy, plain and simple. And it is working fairly well to this point.

    As for me, and based on my own engineering and weapons system work, until the PLAN proves to themselves and the rest of the world that their technology for these daunting capabilities actually works by reliably hitting maneuvering targets 1,000 km at sea and more, and doing it numerous times…the project is an untested, unproven project. Full stop, end of story.

    All the excuses, apologies, reasoning, in the world will not change that. Anyone who has ever worked on an actual complicated weapons system that must be proven in the elements where it intends to operate, knows what I am saying is true.

    It would be like sending the Chinese carrier, the Liaoning, CV-16, out to sea with a deck load of J-15 aircraft, where not a one of those aircraft had ever actually landed on, or taken off from the moving carrier at sea, and saying it was operational anyway…and ready to send out strikes at sea against OPFOR carriers.

    Ask yourself. Is that what the PLAN is doing? Of course not.

    They have to make sure those compicated naval air systems will work in the environment they were designed for, and reliably so, by testing them, constantly improving them, training all of the parts together, over and over again…before ever committing them to operational duties or battle. The risk of having them fail precisely when they are needed would otherwise simply be far too great.

    In numerous ways the C4ISR capabilities required for the DF-21D are even more daunting than those necessary for a carrier strike at sea scenario. There is no way of reliably knowing it is going to work without testing and improving it through numerous such tests…which have simply not happened to date.

  • Pingback: Tit-for-Tat Weapons Procurement: You’re Doing it Wrong | Steeljaw Scribe()