TAIPEI — China showcased its growing capability to deny the US Navy access to the maritime domain of both the East China Sea and South China Sea during a celebratory parade Thursday commemorating the 70th anniversary of its victory over imperialist Japan.
Parade officials commented that 80 percent of the weapons on display had never been exhibited to the public before, and all the equipment was Chinese-made and operational. Though this is a fair statement, three fighter aircraft that took part in the parade are actually pirated copies of foreign fighter aircraft, including the J-11B (Sukhoi Su-27), carrier-borne J-15 (Su-33) Flying Shark, and the J-10 (Israeli Lavi).
The parade showcased for the first time a variety of ballistic missiles under the command of the Second Artillery Corps. Mark Stokes, a China ballistic missile specialist at the Project 2049 Institute, said that leading each parade formation were corps leader grade officers – chief of staff, chief engineer or deputy commander.
"It appears that each of the six missile bases were represented with a new missile system," he said.
The ballistic missile line-up was impressive: DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missile, DF-15B short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), DF-16 medium-range ballistic missile, DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile with ASBM capabilities, and the DF-31A ICBM.
The DF-5B is believed to be China's first nuclear-armed ICBM with multiple independent re-entry vehicles. Officially, the DF-5B can carry only three nuclear warheads, but there are suspicions it can carry as many as five.
The parade in Beijing comes roughly 20 years after the Taiwan Strait missile crisis (July 1995 to March 1996). China's decision to conduct missile drills with SRBMs was in part an effort to disrupt Taiwan's first democratic presidential elections. The US deployed two aircraft carriers to monitor the crisis. In total, China fired 10 DF-15A SRBMs around the island. China took offense to the positioning of US aircraft carriers, and began to develop a means to hold at risk US carriers in future scenarios.
This has led to the development of the first ASBM ever deployed. The DF-21D ASBM, dubbed the "carrier killer," was on parade for the first time, along with a surprise statement by Chinese commentators that the DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile was also an ASBM.
Though the DF-26 has been dubbed the "Guam Killer" by some Western analysts, the announcement during the parade that the missile also had anti-ship capabilities came as a chill to some analysts.
"The nickname 'Guam Killer' is obviously a misunderstanding because China has had the capability to 'kill' Guam for many decades with other ballistic missiles, but it is the first ballistic missile that is capable of targeting Guam with conventional warheads," said Hans Kristensen, director, Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists.
"That is important because it would enable China to damage or disable Andersen AFB [Air Force Base] in a war without resorting to use of nuclear weapons."
"The most interesting possibility from the parade is that China debuted not one ASBM, but two," said Andrew Erickson, now a research associate at Harvard University's John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. The DF-21D and DF-26 were both described during the parade as ASBMs, he said.
Furthermore, the parade announcer said the DF-26 was able to hit medium and large size ships.
"If that is the case, and Chinese surveillance capabilities are capable of providing sufficient intelligence and guidance at long distances, then it would allow Chinese military planners to hold at risk US aircraft carriers at twice the range of the DF-21D," Kristensen said.
"Striking ships with ballistic missiles at long range is technically challenging and there are many weak links in the chain of necessary sensors that are vulnerable to interdiction," Kristensen said. "A good indicator would be to see how much effort US missile defense systems will spend on the DF-26 and DF-21D." The 16 launchers on parade indicate the DF-26 is operational, he said.
This makes the DF-26 a second-generation anti-access weapon that carries strike capability far into the second island chain, said Richard Fisher, senior fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center. "This is important because the United States has barely started to respond to China's first generation anti-access ensemble targeting the first island chain, like the DF-21D ASBM."
Fisher believes that the DF-26's ASBM capability is another sign that China is winning the "anti-access" versus "access" arms race with the US.
China also paraded two supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles: the DF-10A (formerly CJ-10) and the air-launched YJ-12. Erickson said that while China may not have progressed as far as it wants with DF-26 targeting support, "it probably already has sufficient surface wave stations to enable the DF-10 to cover the approaches to the Taiwan Strait."
During the parade the Chinese Air Force flew its upgraded H-6K medium-range bomber, which can now carry six YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missiles, and China has already indicated it plans to outfit its Song, Yuan and Shang-class attack submarines with the new YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship missile, Fisher said.
The fact that China showcased new anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles together at the parade underscores arguments that China plans to overwhelm the US Navy with saturation strikes during a war, Fisher said.