A weapon so secret China would not reveal it for years made its first public appearance in a military parade on Thursday as China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war.
The Dongfeng (East wind) 21D “carrier-killer” missile, which threatens to reshape the balance of power in the western Pacific, has been the subject of much speculation after a stray mention last week in a Communist party newspaper ignited excitement among China defence watchers.
The defence ministry in Beijing has been notably silent on the missile, other than to confirm in 2011 that it was in development. Western defence experts estimate that it has a range of 1,550km and that it may be able to travel at up to 10 times the speed of sound — faster than anything that could intercept it.
Like an intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-21D goes into orbit, but after re-entering the atmosphere it manoeuvres on to a target, making it theoretically capable of landing a large warhead on or near a moving ship. China can also make about 1,200 of them for the price of a single aircraft carrier, meaning the missiles could easily overwhelm defensive countermeasures.
Some analysts say such missiles threaten to consign aircraft carriers — which form the basis of current US naval strategy — to the dustbin, just as aircraft carriers themselves did to battleships with Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
“There is more potent symbolism in this missile than any other weapon in the Chinese arsenal,” said Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. “This is the missile that really does potentially encroach on US capability to deploy military power close to Chinese shores. It significantly raises the risks and costs.”
The US and China are increasingly at odds over China’s efforts to assert its claim on territorial waters in the South China Sea. The missile is a stern reminder to Washington, ahead of a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping later this month, that America’s undisputed maritime power may be under threat.
However, Richard Fisher, a missile expert at the US-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, pointed to another anti-ship missile recently developed by China, a supersonic air-launched cruise missile carried by the H-6K bomber. “You begin to see that decades of Chinese military investment are resulting in capabilities that are changing the balance of power in Asia against the United States,” Mr Fisher said.
Chinese authorities did not confirm in advance what weaponry would be in Thursday’s parade, other than to say 84 per cent would be new or never unveiled in public. However, many experts took note last week when the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, quoted Shao Yongling, a colonel from the People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Command College, saying that in a parade rehearsal held in Beijing last month the DF-21D “was seen for the first time, without concealing its model number”.
Col Shao later took to Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, to say she was “stunned” that the paper had quoted her. “Even though I know what will be shown, I had no idea that they would say that,” she said. “This is so unlike the government, which has a cautious and discreet personality.”
Col Shao did not respond to an interview request.
Other experts said the manner in which the missile was mentioned in an establishment newspaper followed by social media speculation may be part of a “soft launch”, where Beijing releases significant developments in its defence industry in deniable fashion, so as not to be accused of provocation or sabre-rattling.
A recent example of such a tactic involved March media reports that China was building a second aircraft carrier.
A few days before she revealed the missile would take part in the parade, Col Shao had written on her Weibo feed: “Does the DF 21 exist or is the US just imagining it? Does the second artillery have other anti-aircraft-carrier methods? We will find out on the morning of September 3.”
Whether the DF-21D is indeed the fearsome scourge of US maritime power is debated in the defence community. It has never been tested against the full range of countermeasures that a modern aircraft carrier could be expected to deploy. And while such a missile would be difficult to bring down, the vast array of sensors, radar, satellites and other equipment it would need to lock on to a target would be vulnerable to attack.
Additional reporting by Ma Fangjing
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