In addition to its early nuclear-armed medium-range ballistic missiles such as the DF-3 and DF-21, the PLA is fielding an emerging class of conventionally-armed theatre ballistic missiles. Incorporated with terminal guidance and manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle (MaRV), these missiles are capable of engaging both land targets and naval ships in the western Pacific Ocean.

  • Background
  • DF-26
  • DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod 5)
  • DF-21C (CSS-5 Mod 4)
  • DF-21 (CSS-5)
  • DF-3 (CSS-2)

Background

Although the notion of using conventionally-armed land-based ballistic missiles for tactical and strategic roles was discussed within the PLA as early as the 1970s, no Chinese indigenous ballistic missile system could fulfil such roles at the time due to their limited accuracy. With their primitive inertial guidance, China’s first-generation Dongfeng series ballistic missiles could only achieve a circular error probable (CEP) of hundreds of metres – adequate for strategic nuclear strike roles but insufficient for any tactical mission.

This changed in the 1980s with the U.S. Army’s deployment of the Pershing II, a tactical ballistic missile system featuring an active radar-homing terminal guidance and a MaRV. Although the short-lived missile system was withdrawn only five years after its deployment, it has heavily influenced the thinking of Chinese military planners and analysts. As a result, preliminary researches on the relevant technologies were initiated in China in the 1980s to study the possibility of incorporating terminal guidance and MaRV into its Dongfeng ballistic missiles.

In the mid-2000s, the PLA fielded conventional medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), including not only conventional MRBM DF-21C designed to attack land targets such as air bases and command centres, but also the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) DF-21D intended to target large surface ships such as aircraft carriers. More recently, the PLA introduced the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), which is capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional payloads, and can be used to strike both land targets and naval ships.

Key drivers of this expansion in conventional missile forces have been a need for firepower support to compensate for limited PLAAF and PLAN long-range precision strike capabilities in potential conflict scenarios in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. In wartime, conventional missile force units would serve missions to provide preparatory or direct fire support to combat operations by the PLA to seize air, sea, ground and information superiority, either under the direction of a joint command, or organised into an independent missile strike campaign formation. In addition, in peacetime the conventional missile forces can also play a key role in strategic deterrence, particularly through offering a credible anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capability.

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DF-26

The DF-26 is a road-mobile, two-stage, solid-propellant intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) system capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional payloads. The missile was specifically designed to provide near-precision strike capability against both land targets and naval ships to a maximum range of 3,500—4,000 km. The DF-26 is China’s second operational ASBM system, and its introduction has extended the outer edge of China’s layered defence posture against potential offshore threats far beyond the previously estimated 1,450 km range offered by the DF-21D.

PLA designation.......Dong Feng-26 (DF-26)
NATO designation......?
Range.................3,500 to 4,000 km
Payload...............?
Stages................2
Propellant............Solid
Guidance..............Inertial + GPS + terminal radar
Warhead...............Single, nuclear or conventional
Deployment............Road mobile
R&D...................?
FSF...................?
IOC...................2015?

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DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod 5)

During the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the PLA fired a number of SRBMs into the international waters off the Taiwan coast. However, further Chinese military aggression was stopped by the U.S. deployment of two aircraft carrier battle groups towards the region—a move the the PLA could not counter at the time. This triggered a subsequent effort by the PLA to seek the so-called “assassin’s mace”—weapon systems that are asymmetric in nature and anti-access in focus, and can provide credible threaten in order to prevent the U.S. military forces from intervening in a potential conflict in China’s peripheral regions.

The effort has led to the PLA’s introduction of the DF-21D, the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) system capable of targeting a moving aircraft carrier strike group (CSG) from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. A U.S. Navy senior official revealed in December 2010 that the Chinese ASBM system had reached equivalent of “Initial Operational Capability” (IOC). According to limited public information sources, the DF-21D has a maximum range of 1,500—2,000 km.

In order to strike moving naval targets in the sea, the DF-21D will need to rely a system of systems consisting of land-based over-the-horizon radar as well as air- and space-based sensors to locate and track its target. Once the missile re-enters atmosphere, the MaRV will switch to its own optical/radar terminal guidance and approach the target at a terminal velocity of Mach 6 or above, making it highly difficult to be intercepted by enemy’s air/missile defence system.

A test launch of the DF-21D against a land target was reportedly conducted in the Gobi Desert in January 2013. Some analysts still have doubts over the effectiveness of the ASBM system against a moving target in the sea, and whether the missile’s ‘kill chain’ involving multiple land-/air-/space-based sensors can survive enemy countermeasures until the missile reaches its target.

PLA designation.......Dong Feng-21D (DF-21D)
NATO designation......CSS-5 Mod 5
Range.................1,500 to 2,000 km
Payload...............2,000 kg
Stages................2
Propellant............Solid
Guidance..............Inertial + GPS + terminal radar
Warhead...............Single, conventional
Deployment............Road mobile
R&D...................?
FSF...................?
IOC...................2010


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DF-21C (CSS-5 Mod-3)

The DF-21C is the conventional variant of the DF-21 (CSS-5) MRBM introduced in the 1980s. Compared with the DF-21, the DF-21C features a significantly reduced range (1,700 km as opposed to 2,150 km) as trade off for a larger payload (2,000 kg as opposed to 600 kg). The DF-21C carries a single conventional ING/GPS-guided re-entry vehicle, possible with a terminal guidance to achieve a CEP of 40 to 50 m.

PLA designation.......Dong Feng-21C (DF-21C)
NATO designation......CSS-5 Mod 4
Range.................1,700 km
Payload...............2,000 kg
Stages................2
Propellant............Solid
Guidance..............Inertial + GPS
Warhead...............Single, conventional
Deployment............Road mobile
R&D...................?
FSF...................?
IOC...................?


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DF-21 / DF-21A (CSS-5)

The DF-21 (NATO designation: CSS-5) is a two-stage, solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) system developed from the JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). China began to study the solid-propellant rocket technology in the late 1960s for its nuclear submarines, and by the 1970s the PLA became interested in a land-based version of the missile, with the two sharing the same airframe and rocket engines. The first successful flight of the DF-21 took place in May 1985, but the basic variant may not have entered batch production.

A programme was initiated in 1987 to develop the DF-21A, featuring 60% increase in its range. The improved DF-21A was first tested in 1995 and entered operational service with the PLA in 1996. The DF-21A has a maximum range of 2,700 km and an estimated CEP of 100 to 300m. The missile is believed to be configured for nuclear strike missions only. It was estimated that so far around 60 to 80 DF-21A missiles and 30 to 40 launcher systems may have been deployed by the PLA Rocket Force in 7 missile brigades. These missiles are generally deployed in areas closer to China’s borders to ensure adequate target overage of areas previously covered by the DF-3 MRBM, which has a longer range, but poorer accuracy.

PLA designation.......Dong Feng-21 (DF-21)
NATO designation......CSS-5
Range.................2,700 km
Payload...............600 kg
Stages................2
Propellant............Solid
Guidance..............Inertial
Warhead...............Single, 250 or 500 kT yield
Deployment............Road mobile
R&D...................1971
FSF...................1985
IOC...................1996

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