Is China’s ‘Guam killer’ ICBM really all that Beijing makes it out to be? U.S. Navy says ‘Probably not’

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.


U.S. Navy chief won’t rule out sending American aircraft carriers through Taiwan Strait

The U.S. Navy’s top admiral said Friday that he has not ruled out sending an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait despite increased riskS due to advanced Chinese military capabilities that now pose greater threats than ever before to American warships.

Adm. John Richardson said there are “no limits” on the types of warships the U.S. Navy could potentially operate in the region, despite China’s growing military capabilities.

The Navy has sent warships through the strategic waterway that divides China and Tawain three times in 2018 as part of its increased operational tempo in the region. However, the Navy hasn’t sent a carrier through the straits in a decade, Reuters reported.

In the ensuing years, China has substantially improved its anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile capabilities, as well as its own naval and air forces.

Nevertheless, Richardson said the U.S. Navy would not be deterred from operating in what are international waters.

“We don’t really see any kind of limitation on whatever type of ship could pass through those waters,” Admiral John Richardson told reporters in Tokyo, when asked if more advanced Chinese weapons posed a risk that was too great.

“We see the Taiwan Strait as another [stretch of] international waters, so that’s why we do the transits,” he added.

U.S. carriers are the pride of the Navy. With onboard compliments of about 80 aircraft and 5,000 sailors and Marines, they are the primary means of Washington’s power projection. That said, in recent years, some defense analysts have begun questioning the future of carriers as improvements in ballistic and hypersonic missiles by near-peer competitor nations evolve.

Richardson’s comments come after Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed earlier this month to use force to reunify the mainland and Taiwan if necessary — even if the U.S. were to intervene.

In October he ordered the military region responsible for monitoriing Taiwan and the South China Sea to “prepare for war.”

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, meanwhile, has called on the international community to defend the island democracy against Chinese aggression.

Top U.S. admiral warns on Russia, China: ‘Be ready to fight NOW’

The U.S. Navy’s top surface warfare officer has issued a call to action — or a warning — to his crews: They need to develop a “sense of urgency” regarding the Russian and Chinese navies.

In an address to the Surface Navy Association in Washington, D.C., this week, Vice Adm. Richard Brown said that U.S. warship crews, for the first time since the Cold War, must make ready for aggressive actions by adversaries with peer or near-peer capabilities at sea, such as when a Chinese navy destroy came within yards of ‘scraping paint’ off a U.S. destroyer last fall in the South China Sea.

Also, for the first time since World War II, junior officers and enlisted personnel may have to step in for senior leaders if they are cut off our killed outright during a surprise attack using sophisticated new weapons, Breaking Defense reported.

Brown painted a much different threat picture than what has existed for much of the past 25 years, when American naval commanders had little to worry about in terms of facing a real threat at sea.

The resurgence of Russia and China’s rise has changed that dynamic, however. Brown noted the next major war could well resemble what the U.S. faced in the South Pacific when battling Japan — a military with great skill and zeal that often overcame superior American technologies.

“You know, the Battle of Guadalcanal was a brutal campaign, but shows us what the next fight could be like,” Brown told an audience of naval officers and industry executives, Breaking Defense noted.

“The naval engagements went something like this: Usually at one or two in the morning, a sailor, either Japanese or American, saw a silhouette on the horizon, the search lights came on, and the opening salvos of 5- to 16-inch shells began slamming into ships at an average range of 3,400 yards. Usually, the CO (skipper), XO (executive officer) and senior officers – even admirals – were killed immediately – but what happened?” Brown said.

“Quartermaster[s] 3rd [class] took command of pilot houses and kept the ships in formation, engineers kept steam to the main engines and the screws turning, damage control teams kept the ships afloat, and ensigns and JGs (lieutenants, junior grade) put their gun mounts in local control and continued firing – continued firing – and we won,” he said.

Modern weapons preclude those kinds of scenarios — the distances are far greater and guns aren’t used much anymore — but the rapid decent into combat and the need to fill in for senior staff who are killed or wounded definitely exists, Brown emphasized.

“Most importantly, we must prepare for this great power competition by embracing the concept of Mission Command,” Brown said, a concept where superiors set clear objectives and that instruct subordinates how to step up and continue the fight when needed.

“Mission command requires innovation and creativity, experimentation and rapid learning,…. While we need to deliberately plan for large-scale fleet engagements– and we’re doing that — emphasizing mission command will prepare our commanders to react to an environment rife with the fog of war, loss of communications, and imperfect information, while still executing commander’s intent,” Brown said.

At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy had complete sea dominance. But over the past two decades, that’s changed, Brown noted. U.S. warships are shadowed by modern Russian and Chinese vessels and submarines. At the same time, highly advances weapons such as missiles and radar have eroded American superiority at sea.

As a way of training up surface fleet officers, Brown said he’ll rely heavily on the three-year-old  Surface & Mine Warfare Development Center, a kind of Top Gun school that teaches naval combat techniques, as well as a newly forming Surface Development Squadron, which will experiment with ways to integrate small, medium, and large unmanned surface vessels.