Access vs. anti-access: China, US posture in anti-ship missile face off

The People’s Liberation Army last month disclosed new details about its new intermediate-range anti-ship ballistic missile known as the DF-26.

The missile can be armed with nuclear or conventional warheads and supplements the shorter range DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile that along with the DF-26 are elements of a military strategy of building arms designed to force the US military to operate further away from Chinese shores.

China's DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile

China’s DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile

First displayed in September during the high-profile military parade in Beijing, the DF-26 is known by the Chinese as the “Guam killer” because it gives PLA war planners the new capability of targeting the major US military hub in the south Pacific island – out of range for most of the short- and medium-range missiles.

Two military analysts from the China Academy of Military Sciences revealed new details about the missile they described in a news article as a two-for-one weapon.

“The DF-26’s distinct characteristic of being nuclear and conventional all in one; that is, one missile body can carry a nuclear warhead for a nuclear strike against the enemy, or it can carry a conventional warhead for conventional firepower attack against the enemy,” Wang Changqin and Fang Guangming stated in the Nov. 30 issue of China Youth Daily.

“That ‘change the warhead, not the missile’ feature provides a rapid switch between nuclear and conventional.”

The conventional DF-26 system extends the striking range from the 620-mile DF-21D anti-ship missile to 2,485 miles.

The missile system also is based on a road-mobile launcher, making it difficult for U.S. intelligence assets to find and track – and counter with US sea-based Aegis missile defenses or, as on Guam, with long-range THAAD anti-missile interceptors.

“Thus it further upgrades joint land, sea, and air firepower attack capability,” the analysts said. “In particular, it can, along with forward deployed surface and underwater attack forces and ship borne, shore-based, and air war forces, execute long, medium, and short-range integrated attacks against large vessels at sea, and integrated, land, sea, and air attacks.”

The authors describe the key feature of the solid-fueled DF-26 as being fast – with the rapid switch from conventional to nuclear warheads; quick launch preparation time; and fast road withdrawal after firing.

Its modular features allow for the use of several types of warheads, including two types of nuclear re-entry vehicles, and several conventional warheads each with differing destructive capabilities, such as area attacks for use against airfields and ports, ground penetrators for buried targets, and fuel-air explosives for use against electronic targets.

The authors regard the DF-26 as a state-of-the-art missile and China’s prize possession to support what they said is the military concept of “use offense to assist defense.”

“Against time-sensitive targets such as surface ships in particular, [the DF-26] can attack at the last minute as soon as information on a ship’s movement is acquired, meaning the ship cannot get away,” Wang and Fang state.

Artist image of DF-26 attack on US carrier

Artist image of DF-26 attack on US carrier

The weapon is clearly directed at the United States, a country the authors say is taking steps to build up forces in Asia and “hype” the threat from China.

They accuse the United States of using the renamed Air Sea Battle Concept called Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons to split the region and disrupt stability.

America “has stepped up relevant preparations” for military action in the region, they say.

For these reasons, the authors argue, the DF-26 is one of the PLA’s most important weapons, despite the complexity of the its use that will require networked “combat chain” of data from numerous sensors and other systems used for targeting and attack.

China’s new weapons like the DF-26 have ended a decades-long period when the US military projected power will little or no risk. “That era is gone,” Thomas Mahnken, a US Naval War College expert on the Chinese military, said last week during a conference hosted by the Heritage Foundation.

Today, the US military is developing asymmetric responses to Chinese weapons like the DF-26 that the Pentagon calls “anti-access, area denial” arms, and that China calls “counter-intervention” weapons.

“China really has been at the forefront of pursuing some of these counter-intervention capabilities that pose a significant challenge,” Mahnken said.

“China is deploying capabilities to deter the United States and its allies from taking action close to China,” he added. “Those deployments are imposing considerable costs to us collectively and they have given Beijing momentum.”

The Pentagon’s response to these new Chinese weapons has been modest, in part due to defense budget shortfalls and demands for military support in the Middle East against Islamic State terrorism.

The US buildup in Asia so far has included the deployment of several thousand troops to Australia, the deployment of Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore, and an additional attack submarine and regular rotations of B-52 and B-2 bombers to Guam.

Plans call for deploying a second aircraft carrier strike group to the region in the future.

A Pentagon policymaker outlined some steps the US military is taking to assure its forces and allies can gain access to the sea lanes and ports of the Asia Pacific in the face of the Chinese missile buildup and assertiveness.

Abraham M. Denmark, deputy assistant defense secretary for East Asia, bluntly stated last week that US forces will not be forced to retreat in the face of China’s new arms.

“I want to reiterate the US commitment to the Asia Pacific region should not be underestimated,” Denmark said. “There should be no question that the United States retains a decisive military edge today, and we are taking action to preserve and enhance our conventional deterrence for the long term.”

The immediate shift to Asia includes the best and newest weapons, he said, along with bolstering allies by providing arms and intelligence support.

Denmark did not provide details of the new capabilities planned for Asia. But he asserted that US military forces are being increased both qualitatively and quantitatively.

The plans call for trumping China’s high-technology weapons with new arms and military capabilities that will nullify the growing advantages.

For the DF-26, the Pentagon plans to disrupt the missile’s complex system for long-range strike capability through such things as cyber attacks on weapons and sensor systems. The electronic and other non-kinetic attacks will be aimed at disrupting this so-called “kill chain,” — the difficult task of finding, tracking, targeting and guiding missiles – before they can strike ships and other targets.

“We’re making heavy investments in forces for military operations in the Asia Pacific, including subsurface warfare, electronic warfare, space, cyber, missile defense, and more,” he said.

How much new military power will be added to Asia will depend on China’s behavior, Denmark said.

“How China rises and relates to the principled order that has undergirded regional peace, stability and security since the end of World War II will be a defining variable of the future security architecture of the Asia Pacific,” he said.

The recent disclosures about the DF-26 and Pentagon’s planned report shows that US-China big power rivalry is showing signs of increasing, despite the close economic and trade relations between the two states.

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books. Contact him on Twitter at @BillGertz

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