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.

3 Comments

  1. Bob Melley

    SJS:
    Nice reporting on the DF 21……..it sure sounds like a very dangerous anti-ship weapon….it also sounds like it is still in the development phase. Dealing with China, things are never what they seem to be…..
    Tincanman

  2. Ajax

    Good article and an interesting read. Any speculation as to what the EM transparent nose cone would be made of?

    • My understanding is a combination of fiberglass/ablative ceramic. Goodyear aerospace designed the radar and so I ass/u/me they also had a role in the design/manufacture of the nose cone.
      w/r, SJS

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