Jeffrey LewisDF-21 Delta Confirmation

In October, I observed that the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile was probably styled the DF-21 Delta, making it the fourth mod of the DF-21. (A journalist had referred to it as the DF-21 Charlie, which I think is just the plain vanilla conventionally-armed DF-21 variant).

Looks like I was right. A senior defense official dropped “DF-21 Delta” in a press briefing for Chinese Military Power:

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Longer-range capabilities could include conventional ballistic missiles, both the short-range ballistic missiles like the ones that are deployed opposite Taiwan, but also longer-range, like conventional medium-range ballistic missiles, which is something that they’re working on, as well as the DF-21D, which is an anti-ship ballistic missile that they’re working on. That’s based on a CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missile air frame. Those are the types of things that we would consider, you know, disruptive in terms of longer-range capabilities.


  1. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I find this system particularly disturbing. Currently, there’s this thread amongst the Americans of playing with the idea of prompt replacement of lost satellites or a large network of satellites cross networked such that key capabilities cannot be knocked out in place of a dedicated American ASAT. If this system can be expanded to look thru a re-entry plasma sheet, placed on a DF-31, it could attack the US fleet on a global basis. Even in port. The U.S. will be compelled to develop a dedicated global ASAT capability in order to blind the eyes of any Chinese global maritime strike system.

    We could find ourselves in a real arms race for the first time in 20 years.

  2. Paul Ingram (History)

    “We could find ourselves in a real arms race for the first time in 20 years”. We will always be in an arms race whilst states attempt to ensure their own offensives capaibilities are impregnable at others’ expense. This technology is permeable and will proliferate… and sometimes other states develop their own capabilities independently of the US. The only solution lies with changing the nature of the game.

  3. Jochen Schischka (History)

    Now i’m somewhat confused: if the non-nuclear “carrier-killer” missile with the MaRV (presumably similar to that of the DF-15B – and that one obviously shares several design-features of the Pershing II-MaRV if you ask me…) is the DF-21 Delta, then what is the DF-21 Charlie?

    I mean, projecting a conventional payload of ~500kg (estimated area of effect against soft targets, if HE: ~35m or less) at a range of 2000+km (and thus, at a CEP/max deviation in the range of at least over hundred if not several thousand meters depending on the level of sophistication of the guidance-/separation-/post-boosting-/reentry-techniques implemented) simply doesn’t make sense to me without the additional precision of a MaRV. Not to mention that this would not at all be a cost-effective way to deliver such a negligible payload (unless you manage to demolish something really, really expensive with the first or only a few shots)…

    Is it possible that the DF-21C is instead identical with the ASAT-Missile “SC-19”/KT-1 (a DF-21 with an added third stage plus kill vehicle -> some sort of spin-off of the failed DF-23-ICBM-project), if the “carrier-killer”-variant should actually be the DF-21D?

    Or is the Charlie-MaRV GPS-guided only (and some sort of massively overpriced gold-plated high-precision-firecracker for folks with too much money) while the Delta-MaRV is radar-homing (which, if feasible, would make perfect sense for hitting a relatively small, precious and thus well-defended, but on the other hand not too well-armored, moving target in an uncluttered environment like an aircraft carrier while strictly avoiding the nuclear option)?

  4. Azr@el (History)

    The main problem with the East Wind 31 “deltas?” is not their maritime strike capability but rather their potential deployment as silo busters. In which case they become conventional first strike weapons or with a small tactical atomic munition; nuclear first strike weapons. By placing at risk silos and nuclear depots on airbases this destabilizes the strategic balance of power for those that adhere to the U.S. faith in the Triad.

  5. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    The open question is what does this system use to close the loop to allow the RV to close on the target? It can’t be the warhead itself. Between maneuvering system, fuel, and sensor, there’d be no room left for any kind of explosive. And you’d need explosives … right? What can 1X2m slug do to a large ship? So, is there a sensor warhead that communicates to the impacter? The US Naval Institute article talks about external radar and UAV’s networking in the South China Sea.

  6. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Is it possible that the DF-21C is instead identical with the ASAT-Missile “SC-19”

    That’s what I’m guessing.

    BTW, does anyone know of other SC- designators? SC looks like a standard WSSIC facility designator for a developmental system, where SC comes from Shuangchengtzu. But it’s curious that SC-1 through -18 seem to be missing from the open literature.

  7. raghar (History)

    It’s nice to have an official confirmation. DF-21D is actually quite important for Chinese defense, to protect against carrier group attacking Chinese soft underbelly.

    Re Azr@el
    I doubt Chinese have identical strategy as US. Some countries don’t own nuclear weapons for deterrence.

    Considering even artillery ammo has terminal guidance, it’s only reasonable when Chinese SRBM/MRBM flat trajectory missiles would have a reasonable terminal guidance to be able to kill that airport or naval port.

  8. Azr@el (History)

    The PRC may deploy their conventional ICBM’s as coffee tables; it will still be destabilizing based on their potential to be retasked as silo busters. The 2nd and PLAAN have less then a hundred nuclear ICBMs/SLBMs combined. Imagine adding a few hundred DF-21’s tasked as flattop scratchers. Regardless of it’s intended targets, U.S. and Russian strategist would be negligent not to take into account a potential Chinese Nuclear strategic breakout based on either adding a nuclear payload to anti-aircraft carrier DF-21’s or simple using them as first strike conventional weapons.

  9. Jochen Schischka (History)

    To raghar:

    But that is exactly the point i have difficulties to understand: with such a small payload, you can’t “kill that airport or naval port” with one or some shots (like a SDB, GMLRS or an Excalibur-shell does with small, highly localized targets)! You’d need many, many, many shots to hit for a noticable effect on such widespread area-targets, and this is where the “cost-effective” thing comes into play (i estimate a cost per shot of ~2.5+ million dollars in case of the ~15t DF-21 – compare this to the less than 100.000 dollars of delivering a GBU-32 at a target in ~2000km distance via supersonic aircraft – which can also deliver more than one hit per mission and, what is more, is capable of performing such a mission more than once…)!

    BTW, i think Andrew Tubbiolo mentioned an important fact: the internal volume and mass of a MaRV available for the actual payload (explosives) gets diminished significantly by indispensable additional equipment (guidance system, steering elements, energy source, perhaps also fuel or homing sensors), so the ~35m-soft-target-figure i mentioned should be considered rather optimistic (actually, this refers to a non-terminally-guided-warhead) – and the radius of effect against hardened targets would anyway only be a small fraction of that value, so i’d advise against betting on the “non-nuclear-silo-buster” theory.

    Besides, which fixed, hardened, well-defended (particularly against aircraft) and highly valuable targets exactly would the Chinese aim at in ~2.000-2.500km distance (the most distant part of Taiwan is only ~400km away from the chinese coast, so the much smaller and cheaper MaRVed DF-15B would seem to be ideally suited for that theater of operations)?

  10. Allen Thomson (History)

    As long as we’re talking about such things, let me solicit the opinion of the readership concerning this set of apparent target/test facilities way out in western China:

    What’s going on there?

  11. Jochen Schischka (History)

    To Allen Thomson:

    What’s going on there is quite easy to answer:

    This is obviously some sort of live-fire shooting range with realistic structures for studying damage effects (i think examples of similar facilities can be found all over the world).

    A much more difficult (and interesting) question is:

    What type of weapons exactly is getting tested there?

    There seem to be traces of cluster-submunitions onsite, but whether these were caused by free-fall aircraft bombs, artillery rockets or missile-warheads (i’m thinking especially of the short-range DF-11/M-11 in this context) i cannot say without further information.

    Is there any concrete indication that this particular site is connected to the DF-21-upgrade-program (BTW, i have doubts about the feasibility of a cluster-warhead at ~2000km-range…we’re talking about reentry speeds in excess of Mach 6, isn’t it)?

  12. Azr@el (History)

    The DF-21 can hit speeds of Mach 11, a properly designed reentry vehicle, with active cooling as opposed to aerodynamically chaotic ablation, could retain the bulk of that speed and contribute less to plasma formation around the RV. Properly coated nails deployed at the last instant before impact by a burster charge should be sufficient to the task of shredding the deck and radar mast of a flattop. At say Mach 8 or so each nail would have a kinetic energy equivalent to it’s mass in high explosive. All the PRC has to do is figure out how to put an antenna probe outside of the reentry body to maintain some type of uplink or locational nav link for the final terminal plunge. Let’s say the PRC spends usd 10 million on each DF-21?D?, task a hundred or so to a single carrier battle group and the cost minus the support network would be about a billion, fairly cheap bargain to scratch one flattop and it’s escorts for the duration of a crisis and who knows, the softkill mode of operation may even serve to prevent escalation.

    P.S. I’m relieved no one has made the silly fanboy argument that a carrier can outrun a ballistic missile.

  13. raghar (History)

    In comparison to cruise missiles, MRBMs are much harder to shot down. So while US is using cruise missiles for attacks against defended static targets, China might prefer SRBM/MRBM with terminal guidance. In addition, China looks like to have much higher area of expertise in the ballistic weapons technology, than in cruise missile technology.

    It looks like China would like to use DF-21 as a common launcher, which would decrease manufacturing costs quite a bit.

    While a single bomb and an aircraft could appear as a cheaper alternative, both the bomb and the aircraft would be shot down by a prepared opponent. They’d need a whole strike package, which isn’t cheap anymore.

    BTW how large payload would have a DF-21 variant with range 1,700 km?

  14. Steeljaw Scribe (History)

    I think a point many commentators on the DF-21/CSS-5 ASBM miss is that they focus on the need to sink the carrier when in fact, all that may be necessary is a (temporary) mission kill. Consider – the flightdeck fires on the Forrestal and Enterprise set off some pretty enormous conventional explosions on deck (a few thousand pounders IIRC) putting some major holes in the deck and rendering them incapable of flight ops for some period of time until repairs could be effected. If one’s intention is to dissuade another from deploying assets without significantly ratcheting up tensions in a stand-off, then a “soft kill” of a CVN by taking out a good portion of its airwing and launch & C2 capabilities would seem to accomplish that mission without the attendant baggage of sinking a ship with loss of life measured in the thousands… – SJS

  15. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Steel Jaw Scribe

    Thanks for bringing in the oft-forgotten, but very important, concept of mission kill.

  16. Jochen Schischka (History)

    Good point, Steeljaw Scribe!

    And that is exactly why i have no doubts about a conventional “carrier-killer” variant (if the Chinese manage to get their MaRV to work sufficiently) – these things are vulnerable albeit perhaps well-defended (mostly against air- and sea-threats, but let’s not forget about the SM-3…) and hard to sink (especially with such a small payload).
    And a radar-homing MaRV not only offers adequate precision to hit something of this size (~70m x 330m), but also the possibility of hitting a moving target (at ~30kt, so the carrier moves ~10+km in the ~15 minutes the missile needs to bridge that range – so much for inertial guidance only).

    But the same does not hold true in respect to land targets (especially hardened bunkers); Even other “vulnerable” targets as airports are a lot less endangered by a DF-21D, because they are much more wide-spread (characteristically over several square-kilometers), better “armored” (especially military ones) and much easier/faster to repair than an aircraft carrier at sea.

    To answer raghar’s question: i’d expect the maximum warhead-size at the suggested 1.700km-range to be ~750kg (and thus, also 50% larger in volume, so the resulting missile would be somewhat longer!), which would translate into a radius of effect of approximately 40-45m (against soft targets) – still insignificant without the precision of a MaRV – so i allow me to be rather skeptical in respect to a non-MaRVed conventional land-attack DF-21 (not to mention the lack of cost-efficiency again)…and if MaRVed, what would be the difference to the DF-21 Delta?

  17. Steeljaw Scribe (History)

    There are, of course, a number of other critical points that need to be completed regarding OTH-T of CVBG’s and the like. Open ocean surveillance is a tough problem and one the Soviets spent an awful lot of time/effort to solve – and from personal experience I know of several instances where a Nimitz-class CVN managed to successfully evade a major search/track/target evolution by combined Soviet forces in the latter days of the Cold War.
    Of course a lot has changed since then, but the challenges of detection, localization, tracking, etc. remain – and OTHB radar isn’t a cure-all… – SJS

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