Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

DF-ZF (formerly WU-14)
WU-14 Dong Feng-21D (DF–21D) /
CSS-5 Mod 5
Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM)

China is fielding a limited but growing number of conventionally armed, medium-range ballistic missiles, including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). The DF-21D is based on a variant of the DF-21 (CSS-5) medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and gives the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean. The DF-21D has a range exceeding 1,500 km and is armed with a maneuverable warhead.

New Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems include the WU-14 DF-21D “Carrier Killer" long range ballistic missile which has the capability to disrupt and/or deny US forward airbases and aircraft carrier capabilities. The Dong Feng-21D (DF–21D) antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) warhead dives towards its target at speeds of up to Mach 10, equivalent to over 12,000 km per hour. The DF–21D, which has a range exceeding 810-900 nm, provides Beijing with the ability to threaten large surface ships, such as US Navy aircraft carriers, throughout the Western Pacific. China is fielding additional DF–21D missiles and may be developing a longer-range variant.

An increase in the number of stealth UCAVs with reduced electronic size (reduced radar cross-section) is likely, possibly to cue long-range, land-based missiles such as the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.

The 2004 publication of the PLA Second Artillery book, Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, described the ASBM as an “assassin’s mace" against aircraft carriers. The DF-1D is anticipated to cover a range of 2,000 kilometers and operate at a speed of Mach 10. The threat is also capable of maneuvering both during the midcourse and terminal flight phases for the purposes of guidance, target acquisition, and countermeasures. A 2006 unclassified assessment by ONI stated that “China is equipping theater ballistic missiles with maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRVs) with radar or IR [infrared] seekers to provide the accuracy necessary to attack a ship at sea."

China's DF-21D ASBM threatens US and allied surface warships in the Western Pacific. While the Missile Defense Agency has exo-atmospheric targets in development, no program currently exists for an endo-atmospheric target. The endo-atmospheric ASBM target is the Navy’s responsibility, but it is not currently budgeted. The Missile Defense Agency estimates the non-recurring expense to develop the exo-atmospheric target was $30 million with each target costing an additional $30 million; the endo-atmospheric target will be more expensive to produce according to missile defense analysts. Numerous Navy acquisition programs will require an ASBM surrogate in the coming years, although a limited number of targets (3-5) may be sufficient to validate analytical models.

A September 2009 report by Mark Stokes on China’s ASBM program estimated that:

  • The initial phase of the program was intended to have a rudimentary 1,500 to 2,000 kilometer range ASBM capability by the end of the 11th Five-Year Plan in 2010.
  • A second phase would seek to extend these capabilities out to a range of 3,000 kilometers and enhance aerodynamic maneuvering capabilities by the conclusion of the 12th Five-Year Plan in 2015.
  • A third phase would focus on extending conventional precision strike capability out to 8,000 kilometers (intercontinental) before the end of the 13th Five-Year Plan in 2020.
  • A final phase would involve global precision strike capability by the conclusion of the 14th Five- Year Plan in 2025.

The Chinese army is researching a new type of conventional missile that is set to be weaponized and entered into active service within five years, military sources revealed to Global Times in February 2011. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), the nation's largest missile weaponry manufacturer, is set "to complete research, production and delivery of this new generation of missile by 2015," the China NewsService reported.

The new missile would be part of a network forming a solid defense system allowing for total coverage in both defense and attack, and capable of dealing with various threats from land, sea, air, space as well as cybernetic attacks, according to the report. The report, however, did not provide any further details of the new missile.

A military source close to the development, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to the Global Times that "The subject under development is a medium- and long-range conventional missile with a traveling distance of as far as 4,000 kilometers." "The research is going smoothly, and the missile will be produced and ready for service in five years," he said, noting that the project would also entail a three-year evaluation period. "It extends the range of China's missiles and will therefore greatly enhance the national defense capabilities," the source said.

A Game Changer

Peter M. Bilodeau noted in 2011 that "The DF-21D, if fully operational, could reach all current forward bases in the region with the exception of perhaps Guam. Therefore, the US must consider all current forward bases vulnerable to attack.... the US is forced to operate from longer distances. Increased distances, such as missions from Guam, will drive increased sortie durations thus resulting in reduced available sorties over a given period of time. A nominal daily sortie rate for a 500nm combat radius is 3.94 sorties per aircraft per day. If the combat radius increases to 2250nm, the rate drops to 1.79 sorties per aircraft per day."

Gregory R. Bamford noted in 2012 that "The loss of a Nuclear Powered Carrier (CVN) and its associated airwing or an Amphibious Assault Ship (multi-purpose) LHD with its Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) components due to PRC use of the DF-21 ASBM would be a significant strategic defeat for US naval forces in the region. The use of the DF-21, combined with the use of intra-theater ballistic missiles against aircraft, surface units and their associated logistical support bases, could close the South China Sea that would allow the PRC to control a major portion of the SLOCs in East Asia."

"The WU-14 will become China's global strike weapon that would cause a great threat and challenges to the US," said Professor Arthur Shu-fan Ding, the secretary general of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. A successful model of the vehicle would boost China’s defense, and possibly render existing US missile-defense systems obsolete, according to the professor. China currently has approximately 100 teams of experts working on the project, a hypersonic expert told the South China Morning Post.

Maybe Not a Game Changer

A March 2013 report by Ronald O'Rourke, the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) specialist in naval affairs, suggests China's anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) can be countered, and is not, necessarily, the "game-changer" many defense analysts predict. O'Rourke argues that the DF-21D ASBM can be defeated by "employing a combination of active and passive measures"along the ASBM's "kill chain."

In "China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities," O'Rourke noted there are several areas in the sequence of events (the "kill chain") where active and passive measures can be taken to stop the missile. These include when the target ship is detected and identified, when that data is transmitted to the ASBM launcher, firing the ASBM, and when the ASBM re-entry vehicle finds the target ship. The Navy could acquire systems for disabling or jamming China's long-range maritime surveillance and targeting systems, destroy ASBMs in various stages of flight, and decoy and confuse ASBMs as they approach their intended targets.

  1. The U.S. Navy could do more to control electromagnetic emissions or using deception emitters.
  2. Options for destroying ASBMs in flight include developing versions of the SM-3 Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) interceptor missile, including the planned SM-3 Block IIA.
  3. The U.S. Navy could accelerate the procurement of the Sea-Based Terminal interceptor, which is the planned successor of the SM-2 Block IV terminal-phase BMD interceptor.
  4. ASBMs could be defeated as they approach their intended targets by equipping ships with electronic warfare systems or systems for generating radar-opaque smoke clouds that confuse an ASBM's terminal-guidance radar.

More could be done to develop an ASBM endo-atmospheric target, which currently appears dead in the Pentagon. Despite dire warnings by a variety of defense analysts that the U.S. risks losing an aircraft carrier to a Chinese ASBM, O'Rourke concluded that the U.S. Air Force had already "taken [China's] kill chains apart to the ‘nth' degree."

"It's necessary for China to boost its missile capabilities, because the PLA's [People’s Liberation Army] weapons are weaker than the US' shields, which are deployed everywhere in the world," Xudong Wang, a satellite adviser to China’s central government, was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post. "All missiles launched by the PLA, if there was a military conflict, would be intercepted by the US' defense systems before entering the atmosphere," Wang added.

In written testimony to the US China Commission, Dennis Gormley, senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, raised additional technical questions regarding China’s deployment of the DF–21D such as "whether or not China has truly mastered the terminal guidance and maneuvering capability needed to successfully attack a moving aircraft carrier. Particularly demanding is the development of sensors and warheads that can survive the rigors of atmosphere reentry, including high speeds and temperatures, without adversely affecting required seeker and warhead performance.:" The ability of the Second Artillery to strike its intended target is significant because PLA doctrine appears to consider the possibility of using the DF–21D for precision strikes as well as warning shots. In a tense wartime situation an error in DF–21D targeting, therefore, could mean the difference between deescalation and escalation.

Flight Tests

In December 2010, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard, announced that China’s Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D/CSS-5) ASBM had reached initial operational capacity, suggesting a rapid advancement in China’s command of missile and guidance technology over the past decade. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead stated in a January 14, 2011, interview that “[i]t would not surprise me that in the next couple of years that the capability will be in play."

Amy Chang wrote in April 2012 that "China has tested the DF-21D missile system over land but not over water against maneuvering targets. Nevertheless, China has extensively researched terminal guidance technologies, possibly to include the guidance employed by the U.S. Pershing II theater ballistic missile with a maneuverable reentry vehicle."

The first test carried out by China’s People’s Liberation Army on 05 January 2014, was successful according to the National Defense Ministry. The United States is the only other nation developing a similar technology.

A Chinese hypersonic vehicle designed to deliver weapons at high speeds failed in its second test launch, the South China Morning Post reported. The vehicle, dubbed the WU-14 by the Pentagon, was launched in Shanxi province on 07 August 2014, breaking apart soon afterwards.

China reportedly conducted a third flight test for its new ultra-high speed strike vehicle in December 2014. The test flight, monitored by US intelligence services this week, was the third in a series of tests of the Wu-14 hypersonic glide vehicle—a high-accuracy, high speed projectile, reports the Washington Free Beacon. A Pentagon representative confirmed the test to the WFB, but declined to provide further comment. “We are aware of reports regarding this test and we routinely monitor foreign defense activities," Marine Corps Lt. Col. Jeff Pool said. “However, we don’t comment on our intelligence or assessments of foreign weapon systems."

On 07 June 2015 China conducted the fourth successful test of a new hypersonic vehicle. The test of the Wu-14 hypersonic strike vehicle was launched atop a ballistic missile fired from a test facility in western China. The vehicle executed "extreme maneuvers" that intelligence officials say are meant to test the ability to dodge US anti-missile defense systems. This marked the fourth test in 18 months, after previous flights in January, August and December, 2014.

China successfully carried out a flight test of its state-of-the-art high-speed maneuvering warhead on 122 April 2016, sources in the Pentagon said. The trial took place just days after a hypersonic glider was reportedly tested by Russia. The DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle was launch by a ballistic missile fired from the Wuzhai site in central China, unnamed US military officials told the Washington Free Beacon website.

The maneuvering glider was tracked by American satellites as it was traveling at the speed of several thousand kilometers per hour along the edge of the atmosphere towards an impact area in the west of the country, the sources said. It was the seventh flight test of the Chinese glide vehicle, with six previous tests conducted in 2014 and 2015 also having been successful.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, US intelligence believes that Beijing may use DF-ZF (formerly codenamed WU-14 by the Pentagon), capable of reaching speeds of over 11,000 kilometers per hour, to deliver nuclear weapons bypassing even the most complex of missile defense systems. The glider could also become a part of a conventional strategic strike weapon that would enable China to hit targets anywhere in the world within just an hour.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list