As “great-power competition” has become a common language of US strategy, US policymakers and analysts should build greater knowledge of the Chinese strategic systems, which increasingly worry military leaders, and that would play a fundamental role in any crisis in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The situation is similar to the Cold War, when knowledge of Soviet ICBMs was not limited to Soviet scientists. However, unlike in the last century, a large amount of information about these systems is open for analysis. Since 2017, the People’s Liberation Army missile force, which is responsible for China’s conventional and nuclear missiles, has added 10 brigades (more than a third), and deployed a massive array of advanced new weapons. These new systems include the DF-26 medium-range ballistic missile, DF31AG missiles, DF41 ICBMs, the CG 100 cruise missile, and a very advanced launch vehicle.
A new version of the DF-21 nuclear missile may also have been published, but it has not been officially disclosed yet. We know more about DF-26 missiles, which are believed to be capable of hitting land and sea targets up to 4,000 km away. In 2015, medium-range ballistic missile systems were publicly disclosed and quickly became one of the most popular systems, with at least five brigades being equipped so far.
These brigades are geographically widely spread, with one in the northwest, northeast and central China, and two others in the southeast, indicating the importance of this missile system. The US Department of Defense was informed that the Chinese system already possesses about 200 advanced ballistic missile launchers, which is a shockingly high number, and that China continues to manufacture new launchers. Consequently, it is likely that the number of DF-26 brigades will increase further.
One of the most prominent features of the “DF 26” is its ability to carry nuclear or conventional warheads. At least one brigade is known to train on both missions. This combination complicates the understanding of China’s nuclear deterrence. And an American strike on such a major threatens to target the Chinese nuclear arsenal. The People’s Liberation Army is believed to see this ambiguity as an advantage, as it can deter such strikes, but Beijing, too, risks miscalculations and greater escalation, which is why the United States and the Soviet Union kept conventional and nuclear missiles separate.
So far, much is known about the surface-launched “CD-100” cruise missile, which was first detected in 2019. It may be able to hit land and sea targets of up to 2000 km, which could complement the arsenal missiles. Anti-ship ballistic, which could further complicate the enemy’s missile defense efforts.
Some evidence indicates that the first unit to deploy the “CD-100” will be the “Brigade 656”, whose location in eastern China, on the Shandong Peninsula, will allow the targeting of a large part of Japan. If it had an anti-ship function, it could also hit ships, in the East China Sea, and beyond the First Island Chain.
The DF-17, China’s first hypersonic weapon, was revealed publicly in 2019. It will be able to reach speeds of 6,200 kilometers per hour, on its way to targets around 1,800 to 2,500 kilometers away. Evidence was also presented that it was accurate with a margin of error “within meters”. Their high speed and maneuverability could overwhelm existing air defense systems. Details finally began to emerge about the publication of “DF17”. The “South China Morning Post” reported, last year, that these missiles had been deployed in southeast China, most likely for use in a scenario involving Taiwan.
This would be logical, as the Chinese military should be keen to add its latest missiles, with extreme accuracy, and the ability to penetrate missile defenses, to its large arsenal of conventional missiles already directed at Taiwan. This seems to have been confirmed by many reports, in late 2020, that indicated that the DF17 had been handed over to the new 627 Brigade, in eastern Guangdong Province, opposite southern Taiwan.
Media reports showed the presence of “DF-17” in a recent military parade, within the 614th Brigade, organized in Yongan, and all this makes it likely that at least one brigade of these missiles will be stationed in southeast China.
Finally, the latest version of the F-21 missile was reported in the annual report of the Department of Defense submitted to Congress. This report indicates that the missile’s range may be about 1750 km, similar to the previous model. However, it was not disclosed publicly, in an official way by the People’s Liberation Army, and there were no known public sightings of its use in the open source intelligence.
Not only have Chinese missile systems made enormous gains in capabilities, but they also show just how much open-source intelligence information can be learned from them, and it is crucial to monitor developments in this context over the coming years.
• 200 advanced ballistic missile launchers currently possessed by China.
• 6200 kilometers per hour is the speed of the DF-17 missile, and it has a range of 2,500 kilometers.
• Much is known, so far, about the “CD-100” cruise missile, which is launched from the ground, which was revealed for the first time in 2019. It may be able to hit land and sea targets of up to 2000 km, which could complement the missiles. The anti-ship ballistic arsenal, which could represent a further complication of the enemy’s missile defense efforts.
Peter Singer is a New America strategist and author of several books on technology and security
Ma Shio – analyst specializing in missile systems
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