China — Dong Feng 21-D: A Game Changer?

The PLANs response to the coer­cive threat of the US Air­craft Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups came in the form of the Dong-Feng 21D Inter­me­di­ate range, con­ven­tion­al tipped, Car­ri­er Killer bal­lis­tic mis­siles. With their recent increase in accu­ra­cy and lethal­i­ty these Anti-Ship Mis­siles have emerged as a high­ly sig­nif­i­cant new threat to the Air­craft Car­ri­er Bat­tle Group. Though as yet untest­ed in com­bat, the DF-21 Mis­siles have sig­nif­i­cant­ly enhanced the threat to the car­ri­ers. Any Amer­i­can deci­sion to parade these car­ri­ers in any future con­fronta­tion over Tai­wan would be seri­ous­ly ham­strung by the fear of los­ing these car­ri­ers to a bar­rage of Dong-Feng 21Ds fired in mul­ti­ple salvos. The car­ri­ers could thus be sunk some 2–3,000 kms out at sea while their tac­ti­cal on-board air­craft and cruise mis­siles would be well out of range of the Chi­nese main­land. The enhanced accu­ra­cy of these inter­me­di­ate range Bal­lis­tic mis­siles has there­fore posed a seri­ous threat to the slow mov­ing Air­craft Car­ri­er armadas. How sig­nif­i­cant is this threat? Is it a game chang­er in the annals of naval war­fare that will ren­der this class of ships obso­lete? Is the long era of the Air­craft Car­ri­er final­ly over? Will the next major con­flict at sea see them go the way of the ear­li­er Bat­tle­ships? Is the Dong-Feng 21D there­fore a sig­nif­i­cant game chang­er? This mer­its seri­ous debate and analy­sis and in part explains China’s high­ly tru­cu­lent behav­iour in 2010.

The car­ri­er killer: DF-2ID mis­sile

To reca­pit­u­late, in 1995–96 Chi­na was forced to back off when the US dis­patched two Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups to the Tai­wan Straits at the height of the Chi­nese gen­er­at­ed cri­sis. The approach of the Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups forced Chi­na to back down. Chi­na had there­after toned down its rhetoric and tru­cu­lence for over 10 years. How­ev­er its mil­i­tary and naval brass was inten­sive­ly engaged in find­ing an answer to the chal­lenge of US Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups. The response has now come in the form of the DF-2ID Bal­lis­tic Mis­sile. This is a mobile land based mis­sile of 1,800–2,000 miles (approx 3,000 kms) range, specif­i­cal­ly designed to engage and destroy the giant nuclear pow­ered car­ri­ers. The DF-2ID has US naval strate­gists clear­ly wor­ried. The US Navy con­cedes pri­vate­ly that they have only the­o­ret­i­cal counter mea­sures against the DF-2ID because its tra­jec­to­ry and oth­er capa­bil­i­ties are large­ly unknown. As per US Naval Intel­li­gence sources the DF-2ID is near­ing oper­a­tional capa­bil­i­ty. It could rank as the worlds first mobile land based mis­sile capa­ble of hit­ting a mov­ing air­craft car­ri­er near­ly 2,000 miles away. The basic design of the DF-2ID is quite sim­i­lar to the US Per­sh­ing II Mis­sile of the cold war era. The mis­sile is a two stage sol­id pro­pel­lant mis­sile with a CEP of 100–300 meteres. It was devel­oped by China’s Chang Feng Mechan­ics and Elec­tron­ics Tech­nol­o­gy Acad­e­my (also called Sec­ond Space Acad­e­my). This mis­sile was devel­oped from the Julang (JL-1) sub­ma­rine launched bal­lis­tic mis­sile. How­ev­er it is a land based plat­form. Its pay­load and the capa­bil­i­ty of a bal­lis­tic mis­sile to redi­rect in mid-flight is what espe­cial­ly wor­ries US strate­gists. What dri­ves the recent aggres­sive assertive­ness of the Chi­nese navy? Is it its con­fi­dence that it final­ly has an answer to the US Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups? The US Navy 7th Fleet Com­man­der, Vice Adm John Bird was clear­ly wor­ried when he said, “We have some con­cerns over the very aggres­sive weapons the Chi­nese are pro­cess­ing”.

Sat­telite sup­port sys­tem

Chi­na has built the rec­ce sup­port sys­tem for its Anti- ship Mis­siles in terms of an elab­o­rate Satel­lite sys­tem and ground based Over the Hori­zon radar facil­i­ties. On 05 March 2009 the Chi­nese launched Yan­gon-1X Naval Ocean Sur­veil­lance Satel­lite (NOSS). This is equiv­a­lent of US White Cloud NOSS and con­sists of three small satel­lites that orbit in close for­ma­tion and are ded­i­cat­ed to the task of detect­ing ene­my Air­craft Car­ri­ers. It is a first gen­er­a­tion Chi­nese Sur­veil­lance sys­tem with mil­lime­ter wave Radars to help stay in good orbital for­ma­tion. Infra red sen­sors help spot the ships and anten­nae pick up elec­tron­ic emis­sions. This has seri­ous impli­ca­tions for US Air­craft Car­ri­ers due to their poten­tial abil­i­ty to find and track them. Chi­na launched two oth­er such satel­lites in Decem­ber 2009 (an elec­tro-opti­cal satel­lite and a syn­thet­ic aper­ture satel­lite) to com­plete the detec­tion tri­ad that will work togeth­er to locate and track US Air­craft Car­ri­ers. The advent of the Chi­nese NOSS how­ev­er is a water­shed in terms of actu­al, pre­cise and real time tar­get­ing capa­bil­i­ty. Chi­na is like­ly to have some 80 DF-21D type ASBMs by 2015.

“Indi­vid­u­al­ly”, said Paul Gia­r­ra (a for­mer Navy Cdr and now a Defence Dept Ana­lyst) “the tech­no­log­i­cal capa­bil­i­ties are not unprece­dent­ed but it is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­bi­na­tion of capa­bil­i­ties”. The mis­sile would be for­mi­da­ble dur­ing bat­tle and its con­se­quences go beyond any hypo­thet­i­cal cat­a­clysmic wars. The Chi­nese would use the mis­sile as lever­age to try to weak­en US Secu­ri­ty pledges to Tai­wan and oth­er Asian allies, estab­lish­ing vast no-go zones in the West Pacif­ic.

An active Dong-Feng 21D Mis­sile arse­nal could prove to be a sig­nif­i­cant threat to the mas­sive nuclear pow­ered air­craft car­ri­ers. This “car­ri­er killer” could ush­er in a major rev­o­lu­tion­ary change in naval war­fare which had moved from the era of Bat­tle­ships to the era of Air­craft Car­ri­ers in World War II. The DFs mark a sig­nif­i­cant par­a­digm shift that could make the strat­e­gy of send­ing giant Air­craft Car­ri­ers more dan­ger­ous because it could give Chi­na the option of fir­ing warn­ing shots if the US ships sail too close for Chi­nese com­fort says Toshi Yoshi­wara, Prof of Strat­e­gy and Pol­i­cy at the US Naval War Col­lege.

A small dose of well placed mis­siles they believe might per­suade the ene­my to back down or cease and desist. Such esca­la­tion could lead to mis­cal­cu­la­tion. If fired upon, the US might per­ceive what is intend­ed as a warn­ing shot or demon­stra­tion of resolve — as a pre­lude to all out attack.

The DF-21D there­fore con­sti­tutes the high end Chi­nese asym­met­ric threat. US Admi­ral Robert Willard said in a tes­ti­mo­ny to the US Con­gress that such a mis­sile could change the strate­gic equa­tion and dra­mat­i­cal­ly dimin­ish Amer­i­can pow­er pro­jec­tion.

Cur­rent US defen­sive mea­sures

The cur­rent US mis­sile defence sys­tems are based on the US Aegis class cruis­ers / destroy­ers that form part of an Air­craft Car­ri­er Bat­tle Group. These car­ry the SM-3 inter­cep­tor mis­siles. How­ev­er Gia­r­ra not­ed that the inter­cep­tion capa­bil­i­ty of Aegis equipped ships is not enough to reli­ably defend against a vol­ley of well placed Anti-ship mis­siles. The US option there­fore would be to rely more upon sub­marines or else keep its sur­face ships out of mis­sile range. This seems to explain the sur­pris­ing rise in Chi­nese naval assertive­ness. B Raman has right­ly point­ed out that Chi­na seems to be assert­ing itself more and more with respect to the kinds of ter­ri­to­r­i­al claims. They seem to be tak­ing a much more aggres­sive approach to near sea areas recent­ly. This has seri­ous impli­ca­tions for the free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion on the high seas. It vir­tu­al­ly amounts to the enforce­ment of mar­itime exclu­sion zones. What is high­ly sur­pris­ing is what pre­cise­ly impelled Amer­i­ca to back down and hold its Naval Drill in the Sea of Japan, instead of the Yel­low Sea. Was it the threat of the DF-21D? A Chi­nese mil­i­tary ana­lyst wrote late­ly that “The rise of Chi­nese Naval Pow­er is unstop­pable. Instead of try­ing to counter it the US should accom­mo­date itself with it by accept­ing the new real­i­ty in the West­ern Pacif­ic as a result of the rise of the Chi­nese Navy”. Bei­jing now has an expand­ed list of core sen­si­tiv­i­ties that go far beyond Tai­wan and Tibet.

Admi­ral Mike Mullen’s con­cern

Dur­ing his vis­it to India in ear­ly 2010, US Chair­man Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admi­ral Mike Mullen clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed his grow­ing con­cern over China’s recent Naval assertive­ness and mus­cle flex­ing. Beset with a finan­cial cri­sis and bogged down with ongo­ing insur­gen­cies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Oba­ma Administration’s first impulse after com­ing to office, was to seek accom­mo­da­tion with Chi­na at the glob­al lev­el and alliance with Pak­istan at the region­al scale. India was com­plete­ly mar­gin­alised from its world view and pil­lo­ried to make peace with Pak­istan. Obama’s vis­it to Chi­na how­ev­er was a sig­nif­i­cant come down. Chi­nese assertive­ness in the cli­mate change nego­ti­a­tions fur­ther con­vinced the Amer­i­cans that Chi­na only respect­ed strength. They retal­i­at­ed by pro­vid­ing US$ 6 bil­lion worth of arms to Tai­wan. This entrained a neg­a­tive cycle that is now man­i­fest­ing in the cri­sis in East Asia and the increas­ing naval mus­cle flex­ing by Chi­na.

Things changed sud­den­ly in 2010. With the Bei­jing Olympics Chi­na threw its com­ing of age par­ty. The glob­al finan­cial cri­sis found Amer­i­ca con­sid­er­ably weak­ened. Chi­na sensed its break out oppor­tu­ni­ty and in 2010 there has been a dra­mat­ic turn around from its “Hide your capa­bil­i­ties bide your time” phase. Its mil­i­tary build-up has giv­en new con­fi­dence and assertive­ness to the PLA, the PLAN and the PLAFF. The DF-2ID seems to have exor­cised the threat of Amer­i­can Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups and intro­duced a sig­nif­i­cant game chang­er in the naval are­na of the West­ern Pacif­ic Ocean. Chi­na is now flex­ing its mus­cles. China’s recent attempt to vir­tu­al­ly enforce mar­itime exclu­sion zones in the South Chi­na Sea, East Chi­na Sea and the Yel­low Sea forms a very dis­turb­ing prece­dent. It has obvi­ous impli­ca­tions for the free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion on the high seas. This obvi­ous­ly wor­ries the USA and it equal­ly has impli­ca­tions for India.

The Glob­al Finan­cial Cri­sis is being seen by the Chi­nese as a sig­nif­i­cant game chang­er that has has­tened its com­ing of age par­ty. The pat­tern shift in Chi­nese state behav­iour has seri­ous impli­ca­tions for Asia and the World in gen­er­al and India in par­tic­u­lar. Indi­an Nation­al Secu­ri­ty experts need to take seri­ous note of these tec­ton­ic plate shifts and speed up our inor­di­nate­ly delayed mil­i­tary build-up. We can­not afford to post­pone the com­ple­tion of our mil­i­tary build-up to 2025. The cri­sis sit­u­a­tions are build­ing up far quick­er than antic­i­pat­ed in Asia. We can­not afford to be over­tak­en by events once more. The Amer­i­cans are clear­ly con­cerned and Admi­ral Mullen artic­u­lat­ed this con­cern unam­bigu­ous­ly dur­ing his vis­it to India. He stat­ed inter alia “I have moved from being curi­ous about what they are doing to being con­cerned about what they are doing”. He elab­o­rat­ed “I see a fair­ly sig­nif­i­cant invest­ment in high end equip­ment, satel­lites, ships and anti-ship mis­siles and high end air­craft. They are shift­ing focus from ground forces to a focus on their navy and air force”. He also stat­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly that “Chi­na is mass­ing expe­di­tionary mar­itime and air capa­bil­i­ties which seem odd­ly out of step with their stat­ed goal of ter­ri­to­r­i­al defence”.

He was of the view that “Every nation has a right to defend itself and spend as much as it deems fit for that pur­pose. But a gap as wide as what seems to be form­ing between China’s stat­ed intent and its mil­i­tary progress, leaves me more than curi­ous about the end result”.

Par­a­digm shift in naval war­fare

The Dong-Feng 2ID Bal­lis­tic Mis­sile as a car­ri­er killer could gen­er­ate a naval RMA. It could have a huge impact on the way navies fight. India has invest­ed in a major way in acquir­ing tac­ti­cal to mid­sized air­craft car­ri­ers. It must fac­tor in the impact of the DF-2ID threat to its CBGs. India has devel­oped con­sid­er­able exper­tise in devel­op­ing autarky in mis­siles. The DRDO must rapid­ly pro­duce such Car­ri­er Killer Bal­lis­tic Mis­siles as also defen­sive sys­tems against such attacks on our own CBGs. It is ush­er­ing in a new era in naval war­fare and we can­not afford to be left behind. The Car­ri­er Killer Bal­lis­tic Mis­sile is a sig­nif­i­cant game chang­er. It is also cheap and afford­able and the ear­li­er we acquire this capa­bil­i­ty the bet­ter it will be for us. We also need to invest in coun­ter­ing this new threat — oth­er­wise our own CBGs will have to be con­fined to har­bours in future naval bat­tles. The rate and pace of change is accel­er­at­ing in our times. We have no option but to keep pace.

Though as yet untest­ed in com­bat, the DF-21 Mis­siles have sig­nif­i­cant­ly enhanced the threat to the car­ri­ers. Any Amer­i­can deci­sion to parade these car­ri­ers in any future con­fronta­tion over Tai­wan would be seri­ous­ly ham­strung by the fear of los­ing these car­ri­ers to a bar­rage of Dong- Feng 21Ds fired in mul­ti­ple salvos. The car­ri­ers could thus be sunk some 2–3,000 kms out at sea while their tac­ti­cal on-board air­craft and cruise mis­siles would be well out of range of the Chi­nese main­land. The enhanced accu­ra­cy of these inter­me­di­ate range Bal­lis­tic mis­siles has there­fore posed a seri­ous threat to the slow mov­ing air­craft car­ri­er armadas. How sig­nif­i­cant is this threat? Is it a game chang­er in the annals of naval war­fare that will ren­der this class of ships obso­lete? Is the long era of the Air­craft Car­ri­er final­ly over?

About the Author
Maj Gen (Dr) G D Bak­shi SM, VSM (retd) — The writer is a com­bat vet­er­an of many skir­mish­es on the Line of Con­trol and counter-ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions in Jam­mu and Kash­mir and Pun­jab. He sub­se­quent­ly com­mand­ed the reput­ed Romeo Force dur­ing inten­sive counter-ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions in the Rajouri-Poonch dis­tricts. He has served two tenures at the high­ly pres­ti­gious Direc­torate Gen­er­al of Mil­i­tary Oper­a­tions. He is a pro­lif­ic writer on mat­ters mil­i­tary and non-mil­i­tary and has pub­lished 24 books and over 100 papers in many pres­ti­gious research jour­nals. He is also Exec­u­tive Edi­tor of Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA) mag­a­zine.

Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA
Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA) mag­a­zine is the only ISO 9001:2008 cer­ti­fied, pre­mier world class, new wave month­ly mag­a­zine which fea­tures par­a­digm chang­ing in-depth analy­ses on defence, secu­ri­ty, safe­ty and sur­veil­lance, focus­ing on devel­op­ing and strate­gic future sce­nar­ios in India and around the world.