MELBOURNE, Australia — The U.S. Navy is facing growing asymmetric threats, not least of which is from China, and more specifically its anti-access/area denial strategy.

The Pentagon’s annual report on China’ military strength from 2019 describes the A2/AD strategy as a means to “dissuade, deter, or, if required, defeat third-party intervention against a large-scale, theater-wide campaign” mounted by China’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA. In short, it appears Beijing’s aim is to prevent American and allied military forces from operating freely in the A2/AD airspace and maritime “bubble” around China’s coastline.

China has in recent years worked to extend the range of this bubble beyond the so-called first island chain and into the Western Pacific. The key to this effort is not just longer-range missiles, but also a growing number of space-based sensors.

The U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists reported that as of 2016, China had 192 satellites in orbit, a number that has since increased, with nearly all of these belonging to organizations or companies with close ties to the government and having dual roles to for civilian and military use.

Some of China’s satellites include several payloads that are almost certainly for military purposes, such as electro-optical sensors, synthetic aperture radar and electronic intelligence technology. The country also uses a constellation of Naval Ocean Surveillance System satellites providing persistent coverage of water surrounding China. These capabilities can also support targeting for China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, and with sufficient numbers and integration, they could provide real-time target triangulation data to build up a robust picture of a target’s location to ultimately generate a targeting approach.

Meet the DF-21D

The long-range, conventionally armed ballistic missile DF-21D is meant for attacking moving ships at sea, most notably the U.S. Navy’s showpiece nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The theory behind its creation is that a missile speeding down to sea level on a ballistic trajectory at speeds of Mach 5 or higher would prove extremely difficult to counter.

The road-mobile anti-ship ballistic missile system is mounted on a wheeled transporter erector launcher to improve survivability against enemy counter-strikes. Said to have a range of about 780 nautical miles, the DF-21D is a version of the DF-21 family of two-stage, solid-fueled, single-warhead conventional or nuclear medium-range ballistic missiles in use by the PLA Rocket Force.

The U.S. Defense Department suggests that the DF-21D reached initial operating capability with the PLA in 2010, with the system thought to employ maneuverable reentry vehicles with a terminal guidance system assisted by China’s network of satellites, such as the Jianbing-5/YaoGan-1 and Jianbing-6/YaoGan-2 that provide targeting data in the form of radar and visual imaging, respectively.

There are, however, questions about the missile’s effectiveness. China has reportedly tested the DF-21D against fixed land targets, but it’s unknown whether it was tested against a moving target. This makes it difficult to accurately assess the capability of the weapon, particularly from a maturity and efficacy standpoint. It also brings into question whether China’s sensor technology can generate the kind of real-time, highly precise data required to enable the DF-21D to accurately target an aircraft carrier maneuvering at 30 knots.

But the missile and its sensor net could be used to keep watch on and provide deterrence at maritime chokepoints among the first island chain, specifically the Miyako Strait between Okinawa, Japan, and Taiwan as well as the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines. This would theoretically reduce the demand on a less-than-mature sensor net and kill chain to limited geographic areas through which potential targets would have to sail.

Considering the limited combat radius of carrier-borne aircraft without large-scale support from aerial refueling tankers, the ability to keep an American carrier battle group at arm’s length may be all that China’s A2/AD capability requires.

An attack with anti-ship ballistic missiles can be used in conjunction with other anti-ship missiles and timed to simultaneously arrive at a target. Such an attack could be mounted from longer-range anti-ship missiles like the YJ-12 and YJ-18. Both are Chinese improvements of Russian designs, derived from the Kh-31 air-to-surface missile and the 3M-54 Klub cruise missiles, respectively.

Both are capable of supersonic speeds, with the anti-ship YJ-18A variant attaining its maximum speed of about Mach 2 in its terminal attack phase following subsonic cruise. The YJ-12 can fly at speeds of between Mach 2 and Mach 4, depending on launch and cruise altitudes.

Both can also reach long ranges. The YJ-12 is widely believed to have a range of between 108 and 216 nautical miles, while the YJ-18 is believed to possess a range of 290 nautical miles. The YJ-12 can be launched from wheeled transporter erector launchers as well as from vertical launch cells on ships like the Type 052D or Type 055 destroyers. The YJ-12 can also be launched from aircraft, like the Xian H-6 bomber, the JH-7 fighter bomber and possibly the Shenyang J-11/15/16, Chinese derivatives of the Russian Sukhoi Flanker family.

Is a new long-range air-to-air missile on its way?

China’s indigenous Flanker derivatives are also expected to the primary carrier platform for a new long-range air-to-air missile reportedly in development.

Expected to be used to target an adversary’s high-value airborne assets such airborne early warning and control systems and tanker aircraft, the missile has been given the temporary designation “PL-XX.” Observers believe the eventual in-service designation will be PL-20.

The new missile was first observed in 2016 carried by a Shenyang J-16 multi-role fighter, however it almost certainly was an inert mock-up. It was seen earlier this year on a Xian JH-7 fighter-bomber.

On display during a parade by the People's Liberation Army Air Force are Shenyang J-16s, foreground, and J-11Bs, background. (China's Ministry of National Defense)
On display during a parade by the People's Liberation Army Air Force are Shenyang J-16s, foreground, and J-11Bs, background. (China's Ministry of National Defense)

By comparing the known sizes of the parent aircraft and its hardpoints, it’s been estimated the missile is about 5.8 metres (20 feet) long and about 300 milometers (1 foot) in diameter, which is significantly larger than typical medium-range air-to-air missiles, like the American AIM-120. Four rear-mounted fins bestow maneuverability and control for the missile.

There is little verifiable information about the new missile’s performance; however, a public schematic of how China would use the weapon shows the ramjet or solid fuel-powered missile can attain a straight-line range of 300 kilometers (188 miles).

After launch, most likely with preliminary targeting data provided by a friendly airborne early warning and control aircraft, the missile would fly a parabolic trajectory on its way to its target, attaining an altitude of approximately 100,000 feet from a launch altitude of 50,000 feet, before plunging toward the target.

A mixture of GPS, inertial navigation systems and space-based radars are expected to provide launch and mid-course guidance, before an active electronically scanned array radar takes over at the terminal phase.

If China succeeds in putting such a weapon into service, the PLA Air Force will then be able to compel an adversary’s vital force-multiplier aircraft to operate farther away, or risk being shot down. This would reduce their effectiveness and that of the tactical aircraft they are supporting in the event of a conflict.