China has been developing its DF-26 intermediate-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for years now, hyping it alternately as a “carrier killer” or, more recently, the “Guam killer,” the latter a reference to the U.S.-managed base on the small island in the South Pacific.
Recently, Chinese military experts quoted by an official English-language website managed by the People’s Liberation Army claimed that a recent test of the missile by its rocket forces proved its ability to adjust its trajectory during flight and strike a moving warship.
The experts said the demonstrated capability was aimed at putting to rest any doubts in the U.S. and the West about the DF-26’s ability to hit a moving aircraft carrier or other warship.
As noted by the Asia Times, the missile has ostensibly been designed to cause unacceptable damage to U.S. Navy capital warships like carriers and other vessels operating in the Western Pacific. However, that capability has increasingly come under scrutiny by military analysts who know that developing a capability to target and sink a U.S. aircraft carrier is an extremely difficult task, even for advancing Chinese A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) weapons systems.
Asia Times notes:
With a maximum range of 4,000 kilometers, the DF-26 would have the capability to strike US naval facilities and assets on the Pacific island of Guam. It is said that it can carry conventional and nuclear payloads, as well as strike targets on land and at sea.
According to Chinese media reports, the test of a DF-26 missile has been conducted “somewhere” in northwestern China. Using imageries from a China Central Television (CCTV) program aired on January 8, Hans M Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, has geolocated a convoy of seven DF-26 launchers to a highway in Inner Mongolia province, where the PLA Rocket Force has a missile training area.
Kristensen told Asia Times that it was difficult to assess whether Chinese claims about the DF-26’s anti-ship capabilities were credible, given that it is actually unknown what factors go into a Chinese hit-test of such a missile, and how realistic it is, as well as what capacities the US military has to disturb a DF-26 strike.
He said he remains skeptical about China’s public claims regarding the missile’s capabilities.
“A successful DF-26 strike against a moving ship depends on a lot of vulnerable links, some of which can probably be disturbed by US countermeasures or faced with unpredictable atmospheric conditions in a realistic battle,” he told the news site.
U.S. Navy experts have their own take on China’s anti-ship capabilities. For instance, former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman told the news site last fall that current Chinese systems may be able to cripple a carrier but not sink it. And that’s even if a missile can strike a carrier.
“If the DF-26 could hit, there is no doubt a conventional warhead could inflict considerable damage on an aircraft carrier,” Kristensen said. “But aircraft carriers are extraordinarily hard to sink, a fact demonstrated by their performance during World War II and numerous serious accidents over the years.”
“The accuracy of the DF-26 is uncertain, with speculators estimating the [circular error probability] at intermediate range between 150 to 450 meters,” or around 500 to 1,500 feet, said the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in an analysis.
Even so, Kristensen added, taking out a U.S. carrier wouldn’t stop the Pentagon’s ability to reach out and destroy Chinese military assets throughout the South China Sea and on the mainland.
As for the DF-26, while U.S. military experts continue to question its accuracy, the Defense Department isn’t taking any changes. The National Interest reports that additional missile defenses have been deployed to Guam and aboard warships to intercept incoming enemy missiles. Also, new technologies such as directed-energy (laser) weapons are also being developed.
For instance, U.S. destroyers and cruisers are equipped with SM-6 missiles, which have a range of about 130 miles and theoretically could intercept a DF-26 in its boost phase. Meantime, the Missile Defense Agency is preparing to test the SM-3 Block IIA in action against an ICBM-type target in 2020 in conjunction with a $230 million effort to build new anti-missile capabilities. Analysts say if the Block IIA can hit its ICBM-type target, it can destroy an incoming DF-26.
One way the DF-26 is able to maneuver is via built-in radar, but the missile also receives targeting data possibly from satellites but also from ground- and naval-based radar, Chinese experts told the PLA-run Global Times. But the Pentagon is stepping up its electronic warfare capabilities which would presumably disrupt communications the DF-26 relies on to receive targeting information.
Whether the missile is as accurate as China claims or whether it’s hype, Pentagon leaders say they are both aware of the threat and well-positioned to meet and defeat it.