Let’s look at China’s Intermediate and Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs and MRBMs). The range of an IRBM is typically between 3,000 and 5,500 kilometers, making it a strategic weapon. In contrast, the range of an MRBM is typically thought of as being between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometers, making it a ballistic missile used in the theatre of operations.
DONG FENG-3 (DF-3/DF-3A) (CSS-2) IRBM
According to Riki Ellison’s Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance’s fact page, written by David Webb: “Designed to be China’s first modern missile, the DF-3 has a range of up to 3,000km and was deemed operational in 1971.
The IRBM missile is Silo-based, single-stage, and uses liquid propellant and an inertial guidance system. The DF-3, and its upgraded variant, the DF-3A, have been largely superseded by the DF-21 and it is suspected that only minimal numbers of DF-3 missiles exist today. Many outdated DF-3 missiles have also been outsourced to Saudi Arabia.”
In 2007, Saudi Arabia bought the DF-3 due to fear of Iran, which seems odd now, given the current military collaboration between Iran and the PRC.
The DF-3 and DF-3A are single-stage, liquid-propelled missiles launched from underground silos. They have a range of 3,000 kilometers and can deliver a 2,000-kilogram conventional or nuclear warhead yielding 700 kilotons. The missile does not have Multiple Independent Target Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) capabilities.
East Germany had also operated several S-300s, but they were returned to the Soviet Union prior to the unification of Germany in 1990.
IRBM DONG FENG-26 (DF-26)
In 2015, during its Victory Day parade, the PLA showcased and commissioned this weapon. According to the MDAA, “the DF-26 is the first conventionally armed IRBM capable of reaching the US territory of Guam, which is home to Anderson AFB.”
In fact, American analysts have dubbed the missile the “Guam killer.” This capability could prove decisive in a regional conflict, as China could attack the US base with conventional warheads without actually using nuclear weapons.
The DF-26’s ASBM capability would also endanger US aircraft carriers in the region.” The DF-26 is a solid propellant multistage missile that can travel between 3,000 and 4,000 km.
It can carry a 1,800-kilogram nuclear or conventional warhead with an explosive yield of 5 to 10 kilotons. It does not have MIRV capability. It can be launched from both mobile and surface-to-surface platforms.
DONG FENG-21 (DF-21) (CSS-5) MRBM
The DF-21 debuted in 1991. Although it is an MRBM and not an IRBM, it is considered the replacement for the DF-3/DF-3A. It is a two-stage, single-warhead, solid-propulsion missile deployed on a semi-trailer erector launcher with a maximum range of 1,800 km.
It can transport a nuclear or conventional warhead weighing up to 600 kilograms (or 300 kilotons in power). It can’t send or receive MIRV signals.
According to David Webb, “Conventionally armed DF-21s will enable the PLA to open or escalate theatrical-range ballistic missile strikes intended to counter an adversary’s encroaching forces and infrastructure.
Furthermore, China could launch long-range preemptive, opportunistic, or suppressive strikes, potentially disrupting enemy efforts to organize an operation.
The DF-21A and DF-21B’s nuclear strike capability provides a further deterrence to regional foes like Japan, Korea, Russia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
DONG FENG-21D DF-21D (CSS-5)
The DF-21D is the first ballistic missile designed specifically to target ships at sea. Hence it warrants its own listing on the MDAA website despite being a version of the DF-21.
What is particularly disturbing about this weapon system is that it is the fastest MRBM to date – reaching speeds of up to Mach-10 during the terminal phase – and can outperform existing US missile defense systems, such as the missile defense system AEGIS sea-based anti-ballistic missile, which in turn means that US carrier strike groups operating within the DF-21D’s 2,000km range would be highly vulnerable to depredations from the missile.
The DF-21D entered service in 2012. Like previous variants, it carries a 600 kg conventional or conventional nuclear warhead with a payload of 200 to 300 kilotons. It does not have MIRV capability.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
In the next installment of our Chinese ballistic missiles series, we’ll look at the PLA’s short-range and short-range ballistic missiles. Stay tuned, dear readers.