At least some of the ballistic missiles that China’s People’s Liberation Army fired into the South China Sea during an exercise earlier this year, which you can read about more in the War Zone‘s initial story on those drills, reportedly hit a moving target ship. If true, this would be the country’s first known demonstration of an actual long-range anti-ship ballistic missile capability, which could significantly change the operational calculus for any potential opponent, including the United States, in the disputed maritime region and elsewhere in the Pacific.
The South China Morning Post reported last week that Wang Xiangsui, a retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer, had said that one DF-26B intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and one DF-21D medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) had struck the target vessel as it sailed near the Paracel Island chain during the August exercise. Wang, who has been described as “well-connected” in the past, is best known as one of the co-authors of the 1999 book Unrestricted Warfare, which covered various asymmetric means to undermine and defeat countries that were technologically superior to China. It has become a highly influential text, and general concept, in national security circles.
“We launched the DF-21 and DF-26, and the missiles hit a vessel sailing south of the Paracel Islands,” Wang said during a closed-door gathering in China’s eastern Zhejiang province in October, according to the South China Morning Post. “Shortly after that, an American military attaché in Geneva, [Switzerland] complained and said it would lead to severe consequences if the missiles hit an American aircraft carrier. They see this as a show of force. But we are doing this because of their provocation.”
Wang does not appear to have given any details about the target ship, its construction, how fast it might have been moving, or how the PLA may have cued the missiles their target.
It remains unclear exactly how many missiles the PLA fired during the exercise on Aug. 26. South China Morning Post‘s initial report had indicated that two weapons had been launched, one DF-26B and one DF-21D, from sites in China’s northwestern Qinghai province and in Zhejiang, respectively. A subsequent report from Reuters said that the U.S. government had assessed that the Chinese had fired four ballistic missiles, in total.
“The Department of Defense is concerned about the People’s Republic of China (PRC) recent decision to conduct military exercises, including the firing of ballistic missiles, around the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on August 23-29,” the Pentagon said in a statement on Aug. 27. “The PRC’s actions, including missile tests, further destabilize the situation in the South China Sea.”
The statement did not say anything about how many missiles the Chinese had fired in total or what types they had employed in the drill.
The DF-26B and the DF-21D are both understood to have maneuvering reentry vehicles capable at least of hitting large ships, such as aircraft carriers or large amphibious assault ships. The DF-21D has a maximum range in excess of 932 miles (1,500 kilometers), according to the Pentagon, while DF-26-series missiles can reportedly strike targets out to 2,500 miles.
Chinese media outlets, including the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, refer to the DF-21D, specifically, as a “carrier killer.” The longer-range DF-26 is nicknamed the “Guam Express or Guam Killer,” a reference to the strategic U.S. island territory in the western Pacific, which is home to major air and naval bases, but the B model with its maneuverable warhead also often gets referred to as a carrier killer missile, as well. Guam would be an important target for Chinese forces during any large-scale conflict.