China Tests Long-Range Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles As U.S. Spy Plane Watches It All

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force fired a number of ballistic missiles into the northern end of the South China Sea from locations in mainland China, simulating an apparent anti-ship strike as part of exercises in that region that is a clear signal aimed at the United States. A U.S. Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball spy plane, which is designed to collect various kinds of intelligence about ballistic missile launches, was observed on online flight tracking software flying into the area ahead of this particular phase of the Chinese drills. 

The South China Morning Post

reported that Chinese forces fired one DF-26B and one DF-21D on Aug. 26, 2020. An American defense official subsequently told Reuters that the United States had assessed that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) had fired four medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) – defined as ballistic missiles with maximum ranges between 621 miles and 1,864 miles – in total, but that analysis of the available intelligence was ongoing to determine what types were launched. The DF-21D is an MRBM, but the DF-26B is an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), a category consisting of notably longer-range weapons able to hit targets out to distances between 1,864 miles and 3,417 miles. 

Both the DF-21D and the DF-26 are both understood to have warheads with enough maneuverability to hit large, relatively slow-moving ships, such as aircraft carriers. Chinese media has specifically dubbed the DF-21D the “carrier killer.”

DF-21D medium-range ballistic missiles., Imaginechina via AP
DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles., Imaginechina via AP

Chinese forces reportedly fired the DF-26B from a site in Qinghai province in the northwestern portion of the country, while the DF-21D was launched from Zhejiang province on China’s eastern coastline, according to the South China Morning Post. The missiles landed in the South China Sea between the disputed Paracel Islands and China’s Hainan island

This all matches up with information in a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) that Chinese authorities had issued on Aug. 25. The two launch areas are within MRBM range of the South China Sea, but this does not necessarily mean that the weapons fired were actually MRBMs, but could explain the U.S. government’s present assessment. 

This apparent confusion over the total number and types of missiles fired is exactly why the Air Force would have sent the RC-135S to the area to at least observe the warheads crashing down into the South China Sea. The aircraft in question, which carries the serial number 62-4128, is one of just three Cobra Balls that are in service today. 

The RC-135S flew from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa into the northeastern portion of the South China Sea, before making a relatively hard u-turn and then heading back to base. This matches up with a known maneuver Cobra Ball crews use to capture imagery, telemetry, and other electronic intelligence on ballistic missile warheads returning to earth. The aircraft is also capable of similarly monitoring ballistic missile launches.

No matter how many missiles Chinese forces fired into the South China Sea, or exactly what types, the launches were clearly meant to send a message to the U.S. military. Long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles that the PLARF can fire at ships hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from the relative safety of the Chinese mainland are a significant addition to the country’s already impressive anti-access and area-denial capabilities in the region.

These launches, as well as the major naval exercise that they were a part of, following significant American military activity in the region, as well as elsewhere in the Pacific. U.S. allies and partners, such as Australia, Japan, and Taiwan, have also been active in recent months. Notably, in the context of these anti-ship ballistic missiles launches, in July, two U.S. Navy Nimitz class aircraft carriers, the first-in-class USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, took part in a large exercise in the South China Sea, the first of its kind in years.

This is not the first time that the Chinese have conducted an exercise like this, either. Last year, the PLARF also fired DF-26s and DF-21Ds into the South China Sea, but with the impact area, in that case, being much further south, near the contested Spratly Islands.

Chinese forces are also conducting other major naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Bohai, both of which are much further to the north. Another drill in the East China Sea recently wrapped up. All of this follows a steady stream of drills that the People’s Liberation Army has been conducting across the Pacific in recent months.

Especially with regards to the South China Sea and adjacent areas, these Chinese exercises have similarly prompted a noticeable uptick in U.S. military aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, beyond just the RC-135S observing today’s missile launches. Officials in China registered a formal complaint just yesterday after a U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane flew over one of the northern exercises areas, where Chinese warships have been conducting live-fire drills, which you can read about more in this recent War Zone piece.

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs dated Aug. 25 actually managed to catch what appears to a missile launch in the Yellow Sea, either from a surface warship or a submarine. This is indicative of just some of the Chinese activities that the United States is certainly looking to scoop up intelligence on at the moment. 

All of this comes amid a significant increase in geopolitical friction between Washington and Beijing in regards to the South China Sea, as well as a wide array of other issues ranging from the Chinese government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, authorities in Taiwan looking to distance themselves further from the mainland, international trade, and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic

There is a significant amount of overlap between many of these disputes, as well. On Aug. 26, the U.S. government sanctioned 24 Chinese companies specifically over their links to the expansion of the People’s Liberation Army’s presence on various man-made outposts in the South China Sea. This followed a decision by U.S. President Donald Trump’s Administration in July to formally adopt a policy position that China’s broad sweeping claims in the region are unlawful.

All told, it’s hardly surprising that the Chinese military is testing some of its most strategic capabilities in the South China Sea, which also demonstrated a clear challenge to its U.S. counterparts in the region.

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