The debut of the Dongfeng-26 ballistic missile in the 3 September parade exceeded the expectations of Chinese and foreign media.
The DF-26 is a development of the DF-21 with range increased to 3,000 km (1,900 mi) to 4,000 km (2,500 mi); its existence was confirmed in the mid-2010s but it had already been in service for several years.
Official commentary elaborated that the DF-26 is “capable of targeting large- and medium-sized targets on water” (打击大中型水面目标). This “Guam Killer” missile is credited with 3,000-4,000-km (1,800-2,500 mile) range, sufficient to strike U.S. bases on Guam. The set of sixteen DF-26 missiles was further described as the “Conventional-/Nuclear-capable formation. The DF-26 can perform medium-to-long-range precision attack on both land and large-to-medium-sized maritime targets. A new weapon for strategic deterrence” (核常兼备导弹方队, 东26能对陆上重要目标和海上大中型舰船实施中远程精确打击, 是我军战略威慑力量体系中的新型武器).
王长勤 方光明 [Wang Changqin and Fang Guangming], 军事科学院 [Academy of Military Science], “我们为什么要发展东风-26弹道导弹” [Why We Had to Develop the Dongfeng-26 Ballistic Missile], 中国青年报 [China Youth Daily], 30 November 2015, 9.
The debut of the Dongfeng-26 ballistic missile in the 3 September parade exceeded the expectations of Chinese and foreign media. Quite a few concerned figures followed up with the question, having already successfully researched and developed the Dongfeng-21D, which has been dubbed the “carrier killer,” why did China go on to develop the Dongfeng-26?
Nuclear and Conventional All-In-One, Mobile Launch
In contrast with the DF-21D is the DF-26’s distinct characteristic of being nuclear and conventional all in one; that is, the one missile body can carry a nuclear warhead [singular or plural not indicated] for a nuclear strike against the enemy, or it can carry a conventional warhead [singular or plural not indicated] for a conventional firepower attack against the enemy. That “change the warhead, not the missile” feature provides a rapid switch between nuclear and conventional. For China that is of great strategic importance, because our country follows an active defense policy, its policy is no first use of nuclear weapons and no use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country, it possesses nuclear weapons in no great numbers and for the purpose of self-defensive counterattack, and yet China faces all sorts of security threats.
First of all, given that China has only a limited number of nuclear weapons, and as a medium range ballistic missile, by changing to a nuclear warhead at the last minute it [the DF-26] can as needed form up a nuclear deterrent and nuclear counterattack capability linking long and short ranges and strategic and campaign roles.
Second, given that China follows a path of peaceful development and does not engage in an arms race with powerful enemies, as a conventional ballistic missile, it [the DF-26] can be launched on the move with no support in conventional firepower attacks from within a large scope of the interior of the country against an invading enemy’s fixed targets on land and moving targets at sea. Thus it further upgrades joint land, sea, and air firepower attack capability. In particular, it can, along with forward deployed surface and underwater attack forces and ship-borne, shore-based, and air war forces, execute long, medium, and short-range integrated attacks against large vessels at sea, and integrated, land, sea, and air attacks.
Compared with silo launched and site launched ballistic missiles, another distinct characteristic of the DF-26 is that it can be launched on the move with no support. Land-based mobile launches in the past, whether with movement by rail or by road, all required a launch site prepared in advance. Although movement over a large area could be accomplished before or during a war, the destination of the move was always a prepared launch site. Because prepared launch sites are limited in number and easily exposed, destruction of a launch site could result in the bad situation of having missiles but not being able to launch them. Also, that sort of missile requires quite a lot of time to set up and get ready in a prepared launch site, which puts it at a great disadvantage against an encroaching enemy with strong mobility and a fast tempo of operation in its “combat chain.”
But the DF-26 does not rely on a site for mobile launching. It can move fast, and it has no strict demands for where it is launched. So that is helpful to movement of missile forces all over and in concealment, and it is helpful to the rapid deployment, rapid launch, and rapid displacement of combat elements. That means a boost to the missile force’s survivability and to its attack ability. Against time-sensitive targets such as surface ships in particular, it [the DF-26] can attack at the last minute as soon as information on a ship’s movement is acquired, meaning the ship cannot get away.
Using speed to get the upper hand is one of the fundamental mechanisms by which to secure victory in modern integrated joint operations. The DF-26 has numerous “fast” features such as fast switch between nuclear and conventional, fast road movement, fast launch preparation, and fast displacement and withdrawal. Those features suit that mechanism for victory. And because of that, the DF-26 has greater deterrence and real-war power.
Solid Propulsion, Modular Design
The reason the DF-26 has those “fast” and “flexible mobility” features is due to a lot of new scientific and technological support.
First is solid propulsion. Liquid and solid are the two forms of missile propellant currently in use. The technology for producing and storing liquid propellant is more mature. Liquid propellant is used more for strategic and campaign ballistic missiles. But liquid propellant is very corrosive, and not suitable for keeping in a missile body for a long time. A liquid propellant missile relies on a site for pre-launch fueling, so a liquid propellant missile requires more complicated support and a longer preparation time. Although the industrial technique of processing and producing solid propellant involves strict demands, the resulting product can be preloaded into a missile body. That simplifies launch preparation, and launch can take place in either a hastily prepared site or with no site at all. That means a missile in good technical condition stays combat ready for longer.
Second is modular design. The DF-26 is a new derivative of the Dongfeng series of missiles. Apart from overall optimization of the warhead and carrier, the propulsion system, and the guidance system to meet the demands of modern warfare, emphasis was put on improving reliability, maintainability, and supportability, with a modular design of the missile’s structure. Significant is a carrier to which several types of warhead can be fitted, including two types of nuclear warhead and several types of conventional warhead which use different destructive mechanisms to attack specific targets. For example, penetration warheads would be used to damage area type targets such as airfields and ports, piercing and exploding warheads would be used to destroy hardened targets such as bunkers and cave depots, and fuel-air explosive warheads would be used against electromagnetic targets such as command organizations and computer centers. Such a “one carrier, many warheads” design enables the DF-26 to execute long and medium-range precise strikes against many kinds of targets.
Use Offense to Assist Defense, Meet Challenges
With the development of anti-identification, anti-interception, and highly integrated technology, the mobility, the ability to penetrate defenses, and the precision of strategic, campaign, and tactical missiles have all improved. By way of technical upgrades and merging into integrated, joint operations networked information systems, the DF-26’s overall tactical and technical performance has continually improved to where it can be considered a prized possession that “uses offense to assist defense, meets challenges.”
So analysts have pointed out that the range of the DF-26 is twice that of the DF-21D, and the scope of its attack can extend to the second island chain. Some have even given the DF-26 the fanciful name of the “Guam Express” in association with the U.S.concept of “Air-Sea Integrated Battle.” In that regard, it is true that the DF-26 prompts a reasonable expectation of a boost in China’s military capability, but the fundamental goal of China’s research and building of limited offensive weapons including the DF-26 remains to better protect peace and development. The Chinese Government and people are deeply aware that if you want to be fee of worry you must be prepared, and you must be capable of waging war if you hope to prevent war. Without military power commensurate with the pattern of the evolving shape of war, no matter how sincere the cherished aspiration for peace and development, no matter how optimistic you are about the course of peace and development, it is extremely likely that those hopes will be cruelly dashed because you cannot stop war.
But “spear” and “shield,” “offense” and “defense,” inevitably have a process that is antithetical, evolving, and iconoclastic. As with any other weapon, the DF-26’s technical features dictate that it will have its limitations in operational use. For example, it cannot be reused after delivering a warhead, its one-time use is expensive, and it can only be used against high value targets; carrier, propulsion, guidance, and warhead are integrated, the cost of building a single item is high, and the total number that can be kept is limited; operating the combat chain of reconnaissance, control, attack, and evaluation relies on other forces to provide information on targets to attack and the effect of those attacks, and the degree of completeness of the combat operations system and the degree of merging of launch elements greatly affect the effectiveness of an attack. Despite that, some elements of the foreign media spread “China threat theory” asserting that the DF-26 “changes the rules of the game in warfare.” Although that is a natural expression of a desire to poke at a sore spot while fearing to stab deep, even more so it is a case of “flogging with a stick” not working and instead attempting to “destroy by heaping excessive praise.”