China Channels Billy Mitchell: Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Alters Region’s Military Geography

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 5

DF-21 Transporter-Erector Launcher

China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is no longer merely an aspiration. Beijing has successfully developed, partially tested and deployed in small numbers the world’s first weapons system capable of targeting the last relatively uncontested U.S. airfield in the Asia-Pacific from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. This airfield is a moving aircraft carrier strike group (CSG), which the Second Artillery, China’s strategic missile force, now has the capability to at least attempt to disable with the DF-21D in the event of conflict. With the ASBM having progressed this far, and representing the vanguard of a broad range of potent asymmetric systems, Beijing probably expects to achieve a growing degree of deterrence with it.

None of this should be surprising. Numerous data points have been emerging from Chinese sources as well as official statements and reports from Washington and Taipei for years now, available to anyone willing to connect them. They offer an instructive case study not only to military analysts, but also to anyone conducting analysis under conditions of imperfect information. For instance, relevant Chinese publications multiplied throughout the late 1990s, dipped in a classic “bathtub-shaped” pattern from 2004 to 2006 at a critical point in ASBM development and component testing, and rose sharply thereafter as China headed towards initial deployment beginning in 2010. China is always more transparent in Chinese, and analysts must act accordingly.

The Ghost of Billy Mitchell

What is perhaps most surprising is the foreign skepticism and denial that has accompanied China’s ASBM. Again, however, this sort of disbelief is nothing new. At the close of World War II, the following editorial appeared: “The ghost of Billy Mitchell should haunt those who crucified him a few years back when he so openly declared that no nation could win the next war without air superiority and advocated that the U.S. move at once to build a strong air force. Billy Mitchell was merely far ahead of his time and it is regrettable that he didn’t live to see his prophecy come true” (Prescott Evening Courier, May 7, 1945). Mitchell’s legacy stems from his willingness to push for such revolutionary approaches as the July 21, 1921 test-bombing of captured German battleship Ostfriesland, even at the cost of his career.

Consider the reported reaction of then-Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to Mitchell’s proposal: “Good God! This man should be writing dime novels! … That idea is so damned nonsensical and impossible that I’m willing to stand on the bridge of a battleship while that nit-wit tries to hit if from the air!” Needless to say, Daniels was nowhere near Ostfriesland when army aircraft sunk it with two bombs (New York Times, July 22, 1921) [1].

The test’s efficacy was hotly contested by the U.S. Navy and remains debated to this day. Theodore Roosevelt, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was decidedly unimpressed:  “I once saw a man kill a lion with a 30-30 caliber rifle under certain conditions, but that doesn’t mean that a 30-30 rifle is a lion gun” [2]. Yet the fact of a hit, however manipulated and revealed, changed the strategic equation. It altered service budgets immediately and helped catalyze development of what later became the U.S. Air Force.

The future is difficult to predict. While it is certainly hubristic to insist that it will unfold in a certain way, it is equally hubristic to insist that it will not.

No Need for a “Lion Gun”

As with anti-carrier aviation, physics allows for an ASBM, and is the same for China’s burgeoning defense industry as for any of its foreign counterparts. Like the Martin bombers that assaulted Ostfriesland with their 2,000 pound bombs, the DF-21D is not a novel idea or technology, but rather an architectural innovation, or ‘Frankenweapon,’ involving a novel assembly of existing systems to yield a new use with unprecedented maneuverability and accuracy. The United States and Russia could have developed an ASBM before China, but are proscribed from doing so by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty they ratified in 1988. Still, military capabilities are determined by effectiveness with respect to objectives, not technological sophistication for its own sake. To paraphrase Secretary Roosevelt, you do not need to invent a “Lion Gun” if a 30-30 rifle can be rigged to do the job. China frequently pursues an “80 percent solution” that may be just good enough to further, or even realize, many of its objectives. In light of sequestration, this approach should inform Pentagon deliberations surrounding prioritization and efficiency.

No Need for a Chinese Mitchell

China may never have had its own Mitchell, but it did not need one. Chinese prioritization of ballistic missile development dates to the 1950s, creating both strengths and institutional interests. Nobody risked court martial for suggesting that carriers could be attacked in a new way. Rather, following the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crises and 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing, China’s top leaders—starting with Jiang Zemin—ordered and funded megaprojects to achieve precisely such effects.

ASBM development fits perfectly into Beijing’s far broader effort to further still-contested island and maritime claims in the Near Seas (Yellow, South China and East China Seas). The DF-21D epitomizes Sun Zi’s universally-relevant injunction: “In war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak.” Together with China’s other ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarines and electromagnetic weapons, it targets specific physics-based limitations in U.S., allied and friendly military forces to increase the risk to them of intervening in crises on China’s periphery. Even among these other potent systems, however, the ASBM is distinguished by its ability to be fired from mobile, highly-concealable platforms toward moving targets hundreds of kilometers from China’s shores.

No Longer a “Dime Novel”

On March 16, 2011, Taiwan National Security Bureau Director-General Tsai De-sheng restated a previous claim from August 2010 that the PLA already had tested and was deploying the DF-21D (“Taiwan’s Intelligence Chief Warns about the PLA’s Growing Strategic Weapon Systems,” China Brief, March 25, 2011). The 2011 ROC National Defense Report confirmed that “a small quantity of” DF-21D ASBMs “were produced and deployed in 2010” [3]. In December 2010, then-Commander of U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Robert Willard asserted “The anti-ship ballistic missile system in China has undergone extensive testing. An analogy using a Western term would be ‘Initial Operational Capability (IOC),’ whereby it has—I think China would perceive that it has—an operational capability now, but they continue to develop it. It will continue to undergo testing, I would imagine, for several more years” (Asahi Shimbun, December 28, 2010).

As for supporting infrastructure, on January 3, 2011, Vice Admiral David Dorsett stated that the PLA “likely has the space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), command and control structure, and ground processing capabilities necessary to support DF-21D employment…[and also] employs an array of non-space based sensors and surveillance assets capable of providing the targeting information” (Bloomberg, January 3, 2011). Two days later, Dorsett added “The Chinese have tested the DF-21D missile system over land a sufficient number of times that the missile system itself is truly competent and capable. …they have ISR, they have sensors onboard ship that can feed into the targeting aspect of it. So could they start to employ that and field it operationally? Yes, I think so” (Air Force Magazine, January 5, 2011).

Willard’s carefully-chosen words reflect the difficulty in equating Chinese and U.S. development benchmarks. The U.S. Defense Acquisition University defines IOC as “attained when some units and/or organizations in the force structure scheduled to receive a system (1) have received it and (2) have the ability to employ and maintain it” (, April 19, 2005). Essentially, China’s ASBM is not fully operational or necessarily fully tested, but is available to be used in some fashion. In a broadly analogous example, the E-8 Joint STARS aircraft did not achieve IOC until June 1996, when the U.S. Air Force received its first aircraft. According to the official history section on the Air Force’s website, however, two developmental E-8 Joint STARS were employed operationally as early as 1991 in Operation Desert Storm even though the aircraft was still in test and evaluation.

Analysts will be hard-pressed to identify a sharp red line between IOC and full operational capability for China’s ASBM. This is part of a larger analytical challenge in which Chinese “hardware” continues to improve dramatically, but the “software” supporting and connecting it remains uncertain and untested in war. Multiple trials have already validated DF-21D components, but Beijing’s ability to employ it against a moving, uncooperative sea-surface target remains unproven. Such confidence almost certainly requires additional testing. Lack of demonstrated progress in this area may be explained by concern that failure might undermine deterrence accrued thus far while alarming China’s neighbors—yielding “the onus without the bonus.” Limitations in jointness, bureaucratic-technological coordination and integration as well as data fusion—pervasive in the PLA more generally—represent larger challenges.

Countermeasures…and a Moving Target

The operational equation is certainly incomplete without considering U.S. countermeasures. In 2011, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead stated, “even though the DF 21 has become a newsworthy weapon, the fact is our aircraft carriers can maneuver, and we have systems that can counter weapons like that” (Navy Times, March 16, 2011).

Nonetheless, Chinese capabilities also represent a moving target. Beijing will not slow progress to accommodate U.S. sequestration. Backed by an economy that the U.S. National Intelligence Council predicts will surpass U.S. GDP in any major measure by 2030, China is already pursuing an array of weapons programs only equaled by the U.S., and utterly unmatched in dynamism and flexibility of resource allocation.

Changing East Asia’s Military Geography

Just as U.S. development of long-range precision strike from aircraft carriers enabled it to win the Pacific War by penetrating Japan’s previously impregnable homeland, Chinese development of long-range precision strike, exemplified by the ASBM, threatens the sanctuary of the aircraft carriers that have long served as well-defended platforms from which to launch strikes on sea and land. By threatening U.S. carriers at a greater distance than their aircraft’s range, this alteration of the ways of war could be every bit as momentous as the one that Mitchell identified.

As China’s ASBM becomes more effective operationally, it may reinforce China’s continentalist approach to defense, “using the land to control the sea.” To further its Near Seas interests, Beijing’s focus on developing a partially shore-based, missile-centric “Anti-Navy”  to deter foreign navies’ intervention is a far more efficient approach than pursuing a blue water navy of its own. Here, China’s institutional predilections serve it well, and permit it to challenge U.S. forces severely, even as it spends far less on its military than does the United States.

China appears to be already seeking to leverage the DF-21D for strategic communications about deterrence and the reliability of U.S. assistance to regional friends and allies. This is part of a larger trend in which a more capable and confident Beijing is becoming increasingly “translucent,” if still not fully transparent, regarding selected capabilities in order to enhance deterrence.

Don’t Ignore Mitchell Twice

As Washington flirts with sequestration, its leaders will have to decide quickly how important it is to sustain the Asia-Pacific role that their predecessors expended so much blood and treasure to establish. To maintain this powerful legacy, the U.S. must address such emerging challenges as the political-military effects of a working ASBM with respect to reassuring allies and deterring China.

U.S. advantages undersea—which are already proven in contrast to the advanced aerial vehicles that should also be developed—must be maintained. It would be a grave error to allow numbers or deployments of nuclear attack or guided missile submarines to erode in the Asia-Pacific.

Calibrated transparency about countermeasures is needed to demonstrate that U.S. aircraft carriers can continue to operate successfully in relevant East Asian scenarios. Washington must communicate convincingly with audiences outside the U.S. and Chinese militaries. U.S. taxpayers must be persuaded that investments are needed. Allied citizens must be reassured. Chinese citizens must be disabused of simplistic notions of U.S. weakness. All information should not be hoarded for a conflict that fortunately likely will never come; some should be used to win hearts and minds and prevail in peacetime.

Conversely, failure to maintain and demonstrate adequate countermeasures to asymmetric weapons such as China’s ASBM while pursuing Asia-Pacific rebalancing would create the worst of both worlds, in which China’s leaders feel targeted by rebalancing, but are emboldened by its hollowness.

Billy Mitchell—to whom U.S. leaders owe so much for their influence in the Asia-Pacific today—would turn in his grave if he found that his prophetic vision had been ignored not once, but twice.


  1. Emile Gauvreau and Lester Cohen, Billy Mitchell: Founder of Our Air Force and Prophet without Honor, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1942, pp. 41, 48.
  2. Ibid.
  3. National Defense Report Editing Committee, Ministry of National Defense, 2011 ROC National Defense Report, Taipei: Ministry of National Defense, August 2011, p. 71.