The DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, also known as the “Guam killer,” continues to be surrounded by great hype in China.

Chinese military experts cited by China Military, the People’s Liberation Army’s official English-language website, have emphasized that a recent live-fire test by the country’s rocket force has demonstrated the projectile’s capability to change direction in mid-flight and hit a moving warship. In their words, this is a response to Western doubts about its ability to strike an aircraft carrier or another type of vessel.

The DF-26 is evidently designed to inflict unacceptable damages on the US naval forces in the Western Pacific, but its capacity to sink a capital ship is questioned by many analysts. Sinking a carrier is indeed a tall order also for increasingly threatening Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) arms systems.

Public relations campaign

With a maximum range of 4,000 kilometers, the DF-26 would have the capability to strike US naval facilities and assets on the Pacific island of Guam. It is said that it can carry conventional and nuclear payloads, as well as strike targets on land and at sea.

According to Chinese media reports, the test of a DF-26 missile has been conducted “somewhere” in northwestern China. Using imageries from a China Central Television (CCTV) program aired on January 8, Hans M Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, has geolocated a convoy of seven DF-26 launchers to a highway in Inner Mongolia province, where the PLA Rocket Force has a missile training area.

Kristensen told Asia Times that it was difficult to assess whether Chinese claims about the DF-26’s anti-ship capabilities were credible, given that it is actually unknown what factors go into a Chinese hit-test of such a missile, and how realistic it is, as well as what capacities the US military has to disturb a DF-26 strike.

Kristensen is generally skeptical about public claims regarding weapons capabilities. He thinks they tend to be part of a public relations campaign intended to scare adversaries and reassure domestic audiences.

“A successful DF-26 strike against a moving ship depends on a lot of vulnerable links, some of which can probably be disturbed by US countermeasures or faced with unpredictable atmospheric conditions in a realistic battle,” he said.

Hard to sink

In an interview with Asia Times in November 2017, former US Navy Secretary John F Lehman downplayed the importance of anti-ship weapons. In his opinion, these arms systems could put an aircraft carrier out of action but not sink it – unless it is hit by a nuclear-armed missile.

Moreover, the US government has some concerns about the modern Chinese anti-ship weaponry. According to the US Missile Defense Review, released last month, China is improving its arsenal of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of precision strikes against US bases and naval assets in the Western Pacific region, including aircraft carriers.

Still, many see US President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend his country’s participation in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prevents the United States and Russia from producing and deploying ground-based medium-range and intermediate-range missiles, as a response to China’s strategic threat – the DF-26 exactly falls under the INF category.

“If the DF-26 could hit, there is no doubt a conventional warhead could inflict considerable damage on an aircraft carrier,” Kristensen said. “But aircraft carriers are extraordinarily hard to sink, a fact demonstrated by their performance during World War II and numerous serious accidents over the years.”

Nonetheless, the Danish scholar pointed out that a carrier would not necessarily have to be sunk, as it would be sufficient to cause enough damage to its flight deck that it would not be able to launch aircraft. “A nuclear warhead of course would change all that, but then precision [strike] would not matter that much,” he added.

Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, also believes that sinking a capital ship is not that easy. “A sufficiently accurate maneuvering weapon conceivably could penetrate the upper surface of a vessel and detonate below decks. Whether that would be suitable for sinking something as large as an aircraft carrier is a fair question,” he said.

However, in his view, this is likely a false problem, even as it is hard to know at the moment whether the DF-26 is designed to sink large vessels in its anti-ship mode or simply to disable them.

He noted that one or more airburst detonations, perhaps with submunitions, “could kill aircraft and personnel on the flight deck, damage the flight deck itself beyond usability, or damage the ‘island,’ the tower above the flight deck where the bridge and flight control are located.”

For the US analyst, airburst attacks aimed at crippling a carrier might even be more appealing than the attempt at sinking it – an action that could destroy a symbol of national pride and kill over 6,000 crew members.

The Cheonan case

Pollack insisted that there were too many variables (accuracy, payload, penetrating capability) for him to guess what the intended approach of the Chinese might be.

For instance, he said there was a technique for sinking surface ships by detonating explosives underneath them. “The shockwave can crack the ship’s keel, but worse yet, it is followed by a bubble of gas that rises to the surface and bursts, generating a violent upward jet of water that cuts through the ship from below,” he explained.

It has been speculated that the North Koreans used this method to sink South Korea’s Cheonan corvette in 2010. That said, Pollack noted that such an attack seemed to require a pretty accurate placement of the detonation. “I do not know whether a ballistic missile can deliver a successful attack against a moving target this way,” he admitted.

All in all, it seems Western observers believe the US Navy is well-equipped to deal with Chinese anti-ship systems. “Taking out a carrier, would not eliminate the US ability to strike targets in China or Chinese naval battle groups,” said Kristensen. “The US has many other strike weapons, and is fielding even more, capable of striking Chinese military targets at sea and on land.”

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