Allegedly, the target was in disputed waters south of Hainan Island and north of the Paracel Islands. The exercise was presumably overseen by the PLA’s Southern Theater Command.
It is unclear why China took so long to make such a claim about hitting a mobile at-sea target, but it is surely related to bolstering Chinese propaganda. The source of the claim was Wang Xiangsui, a former senior colonel of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who now holds a professorial tenure at Beihang University in Beijing.
At the time of August’s missile firings, it was obvious to most that Beijing was sending “warning shots” via the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) against an ongoing American presence in international waters, amidst strategic friction between the two nations.
Indeed, a day earlier the US military had flown a U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane near a Chinese naval live-fire drill in the Bohai Sea off China’s northeast coast. The previous month, the US Navy (USN) had sailed two aircraft carrier strike groups (USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan) in the South China Sea “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific“.
Concerning the former, China had declared a no-fly zone in international airspace above the Bohai Sea, meaning its declaration had no legal merit. That is why the US said the flight was “within the accepted international rules and regulations governing aircraft flights”, and that the air force would “continue to fly and operate anywhere international law allows, at the time and tempo of our choosing”.
Wang, speaking in a closed meeting of the Moganshan Forum in Zhejiang in October, reportedly claimed, “So several days later [after the aircraft carrier manoeuvres], we launched the DF-21 and DF-26, and the missiles hit a vessel sailing south of the Paracel Islands.”
Wang added, “Shortly after that, an American military attache in Geneva 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.” He underscored, “This is a warning to the US, asking it not to take any military risks. Such actions mark the bottom line of Sino-US confrontation.”
Of course, Wang’s comments make a mockery of Wu Qian, spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, who said at the time that the missile drills were not aimed at any particular country. However, he added, “China opposes and is not afraid of US provocation … We urge some US politicians to assess the reality objectively, stop provocation and pull Sino-US relations back to a normal track.”
Back in August, the US Department of Defense (DoD) said Beijing’s “actions, including missile tests, further destabilize the situation in the South China Sea”. Interestingly, an American RC-135S Cobra Ball spy plane flew from Okinawa into the South China Sea area at the time of this drill. The platform, able to collect imagery, telemetry and electronic intelligence on ballistic missiles, was presumably gathering data on the missile drill.
What about the missiles fired on August 26? The DF-26B was launched from Qinghai Province in northwest China (approximately 2,500 km away), and the DF-21D ASBM from eastern China in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province (a distance of 1,600 km).
The DF-21D “carrier killer” has a range of approximately 1,800km. The DF-26 IRBM, on the other hand, has a 4,000km range and it can carry either a nuclear or conventional warhead. The nomenclature of “DF-26B” is intriguing, as it is unknown what improvements this missile possesses over its predecessor.
The DF-21D and DF-26 are in categories banned under the Russia-US Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which the US withdrew from in 2019. China was never a signatory, and Washington cited China’s possession of such weapon categories as one justification for its INF withdrawal.
Quite apart from the direct challenge to the US military, the PLARF’s firing of these missiles against moving targets is a technological milestone. Indeed, the South China Morning Post quoted Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the PLA’s former Second Artillery Corps, as saying, “To hit a moving object is not an easy task, especially for ballistic missiles, which normally hit a stationary target. The mission shows Chinese missiles are a real deterrent against US warships.”
One expert on China’s naval prowess is Doctor Andrew Erickson, Professor of Strategy at the US Naval War College. In an interview with Harry J. Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest, Erickson said he was not surprised at the speed of China’s ASBM development.
The DoD’s 2020 report on China’s military development stated, “The PLA has fielded approximately 200 IRBM launchers and more than 200 missiles.” Erickson elaborated, “To me, this is the single most important sentence in what I believe is the best-written report to Congress yet in the two decades that the Pentagon has been issuing them. Reported ranges for systems currently in the PLA Rocket Force inventory suggest that these 200 IRBMs are DF-26s, with some number of the DF-26B ASBM variant among them.”
Erickson continued: “The DF-26’s dominance of China’s arsenal within that set of operationally important range parameters suggests great confidence in this particular missile for two major reasons: (1) extraordinarily fast production and deployment in high numbers of a modern weapon system; and (2) no apparent need to hedge with multiple missile types with broadly overlapping capabilities.”
Regarding the news that these missiles hit a moving ship target, Erickson assessed: “With its recent ASBM tests, reportedly against moving targets, Beijing seeks to demonstrate a maturing capability and enhance deterrence. It seeks to overawe audiences limited in access to technical details and limited in understanding of basic technical principles – and thereby to generate deference that it has not earned operationally
“But however sophisticated and successful, these tests are but one element in a far greater equation. First, ASBMs’ effectiveness in practice hinges on a comprehensive reconnaissance and targeting architecture.”
The American acknowledged that China is working diligently to develop such architecture, “But it remains a work in progress that has not been validated concretely in critical respects. Second, growing American countermeasures make this at least a two-sided contest.”
Should countries like the USA be concerned with China’s ASBM development? Erickson responded, “The US Navy has taken this threat very seriously, both in terms of hard-kill and soft-kill systems. There is certainly more work to be done, but America is pacing the threat with manifold potent countermeasures.” American countermeasures thus far include Aegis ballistic-missile defense, SM-6 missiles and electronic warfare systems that can confuse incoming ASBMs with false targets.
Another naval expert is Collin Koh, Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, part of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Concerning Wang’s claims, Koh advised exercising “some caution and seek to ascertain its veracity,” even though authoritative confirmation from either the Chinese government or Pentagon may be hard to come by.
Koh pondered: “Let’s assume the PLA has, over the years, honed its ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities focusing on the near seas … There’s, after all, the possibility that the PLA manages to minimize the intervening physical factors to an accurate shot. We aren’t too sure how many times has the PLA validated the capability to ensure the ISR and kinetic systems work in a seamlessly integrated fashion, especially how midcourse targeting works in this scenario, nor how many times this ASBM complex has been tested on moving targets.”
Koh continued, “The question is then if the missile indeed hit the target, is it a fluke shot? Though of course that still counts as a hit anyway to brandish as a colourful report card to domestic audiences and the Americans.”
The other obvious question is how many targets were there? If only one, as Wang implied, what was the extent of damage, and why was it not sunk after the first successful hit?
Koh did not expect transparency from China in any case. Amidst the current “Wolf Warrior” diplomatic environment, it would be well-nigh impossible for a missed target to be reported. Additionally, “The PLA has every incentive, if pushed, to support Wang’s assertion, even if it’s not true. You may even argue that the Pentagon has reason to magnify this claim as well if it means justification for more funding to acquire countervailing capabilities.”
Furthermore, questions need to be asked about the source of the solitary claim to date. “Wang himself is known to make some outlandish claims. Just earlier this year in a TV program he claimed that should a cross-strait war erupt, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen can easily be captured within a night. No context or supporting material to back this assessment.”
Koh assessed: “Conclusion: sans independent verification, and if we only have PRC and US info to utilize, there’s no way for sure to probe deeper into this claim, and all we are left is a black box of info, from which we can only speculate, keep guessing and make certain assumptions. This black box thus contributes to the shaping of perceptions and feeds into this security dilemma since either party has to, in the face of inadequate info, assume and prepare for the worst. Unfortunately, this is how we got to this current stage and the situation won’t improve.”
Chinese ambiguity over its missiles is contributing to regional consternation. The Singaporean thus adjudged, “The reality now is that the enigma surrounding the ASBM contributes to strategic ambiguity and helps bolster PLA deterrence. Though of course, we can expect the US, not least the navy, to remain unfazed and still persist in traversing the South China Sea just to make the point.”
In fact, August 2020 was not the first time China fired ballistic missiles into the South China Sea. It did so in mid-2019, with what are presumed to have been DF-21D and/or DF-26 missiles. At that time, Doctor Bates Gill, professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in Australia, told ANI: “This is a very big deal. It is not only because they were fired over contested waters and islets. It is also important because this would be the closest the PLA has ever come to the real thing.”
The fact that the PLARF’s DF-26 can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads muddies the issue, raising the stakes for miscalculation. When a DF-26 missile is launched, how can a potential target know what kind of warhead is fitted? It may therefore retaliate in a way that escalates the situation.
Both China and the US will continue to use each other’s actions in the South China Sea as raison d’etre for deploying medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Of course, this also raises the chance of misunderstanding. China’s latest missile launch into the South China Sea, where US warships are conducting freedom of navigation operations at a relatively frenetic pace, will raise American mistrust of Chinese intentions.
China’s ability to fire such missiles from deep in the mainland also represents a potent threat to foreign warships. The presence of longer-range missiles adds depth to China’s defensive layer, plus they are less vulnerable to hostile attack. Nevertheless, launching ballistic missiles at warship targets still requires a reliable chain of surveillance and guidance technologies, which remain untested in combat conditions.