Recent developments in Chinese ballistic missile and warhead technology indicate that China not only has a missile warhead that is maneuverable but can, when mounted on new, longer range missiles, can hit U.S. carriers or small land targets over 3,000 kilometers away. The various components of such a system began to surface over a decade ago. By 2010 the U.S. believed that China had a version of their DF-21 ballistic missile with a conventional warhead that could hit a moving American carrier at a distance of 1,500 kilometers. There was no proof that such a system actually existed in a workable form. But over the last few years the necessary pieces of this mystery weapon began show up in working condition. The latest threat is not just to carriers at sea but to major American bases in the Pacific, particularly Guam.
This situation got serious in 2014 when China revealed (apparently by accident) the existence of the DF-26 IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile.) This one had a range of 3,500 kilometers and was based on the earlier DF-21. There had been reports of such a missile since 2007 and the DF-26C appears to have entered service sometime after 2010. The DF-26C is notable because it has the range to hit American military bases on the Central Pacific island of Guam. Armed with a maneuverable conventional warhead a DF-26 could take out key American military installations on Guam if enough of them were used at the same time. That would overwhelm existing American anti-missile systems there. .
In early 2016 China revealed that they had perfected the technology for a maneuverable ballistic missile warhead. This came a little after it was revealed that since 2014 China had conducted six tests of a maneuverable gliding warhead for ballistic missiles. Five of the six tests were successful and this “hypersonic glide vehicle” is officially known as the DF-ZF. In effect this hypersonic glide vehicle is a warhead that can glide rather than simply plunging back to earth and is maneuverable enough to hit small moving targets in space or down on the surface. The DF-ZF was initially developed as China sought to perfect a version of the DF-21 ballistic missile that could hit moving warships at sea. DF-21 is a 15 ton, two stage, solid fuel missile that is 10.7 meters (35 feet) long and 140cm (4.6 feet) in diameter. The DF-21D (the carrier killer version) missile using the DF-ZF warhead is also more difficult for anti-missile missiles to hit and can also be used against low orbit satellites as well as land targets and moving warships.
As far back as 2008 there were rumors that the Chinese had reverse engineered, reinvented or stolen the 1970s seeker technology that went into the U.S. Pershing ballistic missile maneuverable warhead. This 7.5 ton U.S. Army missile also had a range of 1,800 kilometers and could put its nuclear warhead within 30 meters of its aim point. This was possible because the warhead was maneuverable and had its guidance system using radar. This kind of accuracy made the Russians very uncomfortable as it meant many of their command bunkers were suddenly very vulnerable. The Russians eventually agreed to a lot of nuclear and missile disarmament deals in order to get the Pershings decommissioned in the 1980s.
Until 2013 there was no evidence that the DF-21D system had been tested using a maneuverable warhead. Then satellite photos showed a 200 meter long white rectangle in the Gobi Desert (in Western China) with two large craters in it. This would appear to be a “target” for testing the DF-21D, and two of the inert practice warheads appear to have hit the target. American carriers are over 300 meters long, although the smaller carriers (amphibious ships with helicopter decks) are closer to 200 meters long. It appeared China was planning on using the DF-21D against smaller warships, or perhaps they just wanted to see exactly how accurate the missile could be. Then in 2014 an even more maneuverable and gliding version of the carrier killer warhead appeared in the form of the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle.
Russia and the United States have also developed this technology but neither has deployed it in the form the Chinese appear to favor. The original work in this area was by the Germans during World War II. The U.S. and Russia both investigated the concept more during the Cold War but never deployed anything. In the 1990s the United States proposed reviving work on hypersonic glide vehicle for its Prompt Global Strike system. This would put hypersonic glide vehicle warheads, using high-explosive and not nuclear explosives, on ICBMs producing a very expensive weapon that could hit a target anywhere on earth in less than an hour of the order being given. In any event the United States successfully tested its version of the hypersonic glide vehicle in 2011 but with the defense budget shrinking the project was halted. This was encouraged when a 2014 hypersonic glide vehicle test failed. Meanwhile Russia has resumed hypersonic glide vehicle development in 2013 but financial problems are preventing much progress.
The U.S. Navy has to take these trends seriously, even though there is no proof, yet, that such a system has been tested at sea against a large, moving ship or a small target on a distant land area. Such a test could be undertaken using a remotely controlled commercial ship headed for recycling in a Chinese facility specializing in taking apart retired ships. Some of the ships sent to the breakers recently have been as large as an American carrier. But it is known that China has a lot of the necessary components and the U.S. Navy has to plan for the sudden appearance of a carrier killer ballistic missile, one that could also wreck U.S. military facilities on Guam.