In early 2019 China announced that it had moved some of its road-mobile DF-26C ballistic missiles to Western China (the Gobi Desert near Tibet) and had, during the first week of the year put them on alert for possible use against American warships, which were at that time preparing to conduct a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in the South China Sea that would take a U.S. destroyer through waters claimed (illegally) to be part of China. It was also revealed that the DF-26Cs had been moved 2,000 kilometers inland so they could not be intercepted as they launched (the boost phase). Boost phase is when a missile is more vulnerable to interception because it is moving more slowly.
The DF-26C is a 20 ton two stage IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) that has a range of about 4,000 kilometers and was based on the earlier DF-21. According to China, the DF-26C uses a larger version of the maneuverable warhead used in the DF-21. Or so it is claimed. China has never tested either missile against a static or moving target at sea. Such a test could easily be arranged, using a large (carrier size) retired tanker or container ship, moving and maneuvering under remote control in a designated (to keep any ships and aircraft out of harm’s way) portion of the ocean. Other nations could use their photo satellites to observe. Either the DF-26C maneuverable warhead hits the target or it doesn’t. So far China has not conducted such a test. That said, such ballistic missile maneuverable warhead technology is possible and had already been used.
While the DF-26C officially entered service in 2018, in 2016 China indicated that it had equipped a larger ballistic missile (the DF-26) with this warhead technology and that it could 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 earlier. By 2010 the U.S. believed that China had a version of their smaller 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 previous few years, the necessary pieces of this mystery weapon began to show up in working condition. The DF-26 was not only a potential threat to carriers at sea but was most definitely a threat to major American bases in the Pacific, particularly Guam.
This all began in 2014 when China revealed (apparently by accident) the existence of the DF-26. There had been reports of such a missile since 2007 and the DF-26C appeared to be available for testing 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. Current ballistic missile guidance technology makes it possible for warheads (nuclear or conventional) to land less than a 100 meters from a specific location. This is the CEP (circular error probable), the distance from the aiming point that at least 50 percent of warheads will land. American ICBMs have long had 90 meter CEPs plus shorter-range ballistic missiles with CEPs of 50 meters. Russian missiles had CEPs of about 200 meters. A maneuverable warhead gives you a CEP of a few meters against a static target but a much larger CEP against a moving target that the warhead guidance can track during its final phase. That is the technology China claims to have developed but, apparently never tested.
In early 2016 China revealed that they had perfected this 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 merely 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. China has to take into account anti-missile defenses because the U.S. navy has about 40 warships equipped with this Aegis-based technology ABM (anti-ballistic missile) technology and has tested it successfully many times. Yet without more data on how the Chinese maneuverable warhead actually performs (especially its incoming speed) the American SM-3 ABM interceptor might have problems intercepting the Chinese anti-ship warheads.
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 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 own targeting 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. China has not tested or claimed to have a hypersonic glide vehicle type warhead for use against ships.
Russia and the United States have also developed hypersonic glide vehicle technology but neither 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. 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. Over the last year China has admitted that it has such technology but without realistic testing, they cannot be certain it will actually work. For the moment China is content to possess the threat of having such technology.