It was the Communist Party’s 73rd anniversary of founding the People’s Republic of China. And it was no coincidence that its arsenal of offensive “carrier-killer” missiles took pride of place in its inevitable military posturing.
China’s state-controlled CCTV-1 broadcast service aired new footage of the country’s most powerful long-range nuclear and conventional explosive missiles. And that’s rare, given the secret nature of these weapons.
But National Day is a matter of pride. Especially when it comes just days before Chairman Xi Jinping hopes to entrench his position as “leader for life” at a five-yearly Communist Party convention.
“Showcasing Dongfeng series strategic weapons is a subtle warning to the United States, which is instigating other countries to put pressure on Beijing over the Taiwan issue, as the fierce Ukraine war also poses a dilemma for China,” the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (now subject to strict Chinese national security laws) quoted a Communist Party analyst as saying.
“The PLA Rocket Force’s strategic weapons were supposed to be displayed in National Day military parades,” Song Zhongping added, “but China organises such big events only once a decade or once in five years, which makes such video footage another option for the PLA to show its muscle to its American counterpart.”
Heavy missiles that can quickly cross half the Pacific and strike a moving ship have the potential to destroy any attempt to defend Taiwan before it even begins.
Beijing claims to have such weapons.
The National Day parade included examples of the Dongfeng series – the DF-21D and DF-26B intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) and new-generation DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).
The DF-21D and DF-26B are boasted to be “anti-aircraft carrier” weapons.
Twelve of the new DF-26B launchers were in the parade.
This is the equivalent of an entire missile brigade – the standardised military unit operating such weapons. They can deliver a hypersonic conventional or nuclear warhead 3500km from the Chinese mainland.
What sets both the DF-21D and the DF-26B apart from previous generations of IRBMs is their reported ability to accurately locate, track and strike a moving warship.
“When dealing with US warships, conventional warheads on the dual-capable DF-21D and DF-26 missiles are powerful enough to deter them from entering Chinese waters because of their precision strike capability,” Song is quoted as saying.
Behind the times
Once, warships could ply the oceans to deliver their weapons wherever and whenever needed. Once over the horizon, they were out of sight. But never out of mind. And the ability of aircraft carriers to launch surprise attacks from beyond that horizon changed the world during World War II.
But times are changing. Again.
Warships are more vulnerable than they have ever been.
They can’t run. Their ability to hide has been dramatically reduced. And they have little capability to defend themselves from IRBM hypersonic warheads.
Australia’s Hobart class frigates are fitted with just one 48-cell Vertical Launch System (VLS). These would need to be filled with the newer model Standard 3 (RIM-161) missiles to intercept IRBMs. But even if they were, they would likely be rapidly used up running the gauntlet of a long Pacific or Indian Ocean voyage.
Then the warship would have to travel thousands of kilometres back to a port capable of replacing them. If it was still afloat.
“Losing surface combatants is unacceptable for three reasons: It would cost hundreds of precious lives; it would cost billions in lost assets, including any high-value assets the ship was escorting; and any ship losses would cripple the RAN’s ability to continuously deploy surface combatants at distance from the Australian mainland,” risk analyst Dr Sam Goldsmith says.
But questions remain as to the effectiveness of the DF-21D and DF-26B.
The challenge for such warheads to fly at hypersonic speeds, manoeuvre, locate and track a target is an immensely difficult one.
When the PLA Rocket Force launched two “carrier-killer” missiles at a moving target in the South China Sea in August 2020, they declared the test a complete success. But the United States claimed at least one of the missiles missed by tens of kilometres.
South China Sea turmoil
The seas around Taiwan appeared to return to a somewhat “normal” level of confrontation in September after US House of Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit.
Beijing-based think-tank, the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), claims the number of US surveillance aircraft sorties halved to just 28, down from 46.
US and Canadian warships, however, pointedly passed through the Taiwan Strait to emphasise its status as an international waterway. Naturally, the Chinese military tracked them closely.
But this week, the Philippine Coast Guard reported the return of Chinese Coast Guard vessels to the contested Scarborough Shoal.
“Two Chinese fishing militia vessels were also observed outside the said vicinity waters. There was no challenge made between the PCG and the CCG during the aerial surveillance,” a Philippines Coast Guard statement reads.
Meanwhile, the rusting hulk of a World War II vintage landing ship – used by Manila as an outpost to stake its claim on the Spratly Islands – was successfully resupplied on Monday. This comes after repeated attempts by Chinese vessels to prevent similar efforts.
A Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in 2016 rejected China’s claims over the Philippine territories in 2016. Beijing insists the judgement is irrelevant.
But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged friendly ties with Manila after the election of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr earlier this year.
Because of the region’s “uncertain, unstable and complex regional and international dynamics, it is even more important for China and the Philippines – as two close neighbours – to join hands to further enhance mutual trust and expand mutually beneficial co-operation,” Wang said at the time.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel