How China Got There First: Beijing’s Unique Path to ASBM Development and Deployment

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 12

China’s deployment of the world’s first operational anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) has just been confirmed with unprecedented clarity by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The ASBM’s development path was unusual in many respects, but may increasingly represent the shape of things to come for China’s defense industry. In explaining these critical dynamics, this article builds on an occasional paper just published by the Jamestown Foundation that represents the most comprehensive open source analysis to date on China’s ASBM program [1].

To purchase the full report, China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development: Drivers, Trajectories and Strategic Implications, click HERE.

A Clear Step Forward

On May 6, 2013, DOD published its latest annual report to Congress on China’s military [2]. The report contained the most comprehensive authoritative statement to date concerning the status of China’s DF-21D ASBM. China began deploying the 1,500+ km-range DF-21D (CSS-5) medium-range ballistic missile, with its maneuverable warhead, in 2010. DOD assesses that it “gives the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean” (CMPR 2013, pp. 5–6, 38). In related comments, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey explained that “deployment…implies a limited operational capability”[3]. As for the missile’s targeting, DOD states “The PLA Navy is also improving its over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting capability with sky wave and surface wave OTH radars, which can be used in conjunction with reconnaissance satellites to locate targets at great distances from China (thereby supporting long-range precision strikes, including employment of ASBMs)”(CMPR 2013, pg. 42).  Helvey added that while their degree of completion remains unclear at the public level, “the pretty significant number of space launches that China conducted over the past year… help put elements of” space-based “architecture in place” to facilitate ASBM mid-course and terminal guidance [4].

DOD’s statements related to the annual reports build on 2013 testimony by other U.S. military officials. On April 9, 2013, Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee “There are a number of notable examples of China’s improving military capabilities, including five new stealth and conventional aircraft programs and the initial deployment of a new anti-ship ballistic missile that we believe is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers" [5]. On April 19, 2013, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, stated that China is “augmenting the over 1,200 conventional short-range ballistic missiles deployed opposite Taiwan with a limited but growing number of conventionally armed, medium-range ballistic missiles, including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile” [6].

Blazing a New Technological Trail

China’s ASBM development displays three major dynamics. Heretofore rarely seen, they are likely to become increasingly common in the future as China’s defense industry continues to improve. It offers an example of China developing and deploying a unique weapons system. It also represents an instance of Chinese researchers deemphasizing Soviet/Russian models in favor of U.S. examples. China did so through an eclectic “architectural innovation” approach in which it imported, developed indigenously and combined existing technologies in new ways to produce what might be termed a “Frankenweapon.”

Soviet Union Not a Model

The considerable Soviet military industrial infrastructure, systems and expertise that China received in the 1950s—a process continued on a more limited commercial basis with Russia beginning in the early 1990s—has strongly influenced many Chinese weapons programs. Major examples include aircraft, cruise missiles, torpedoes and naval mines. Yet no evidence is available to suggest that the Soviet Union’s abortive ASBM program was a model for China. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, as U.S. aircraft carriers ranged Soviet targets with nuclear weapons, Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau (SKB-385) was developing the R-27 (4K18)/SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Moscow formally approved development of an ASBM variant, the R-27K/SS-NX-13, that year. Visually identical to its simpler progenitor, the 900 km-range R-27K’s second stage had a liquid propellant KB-2 engine designed by the Aleksei Mihailovich Isayev design bureau. It obtained targeting data pre-launch from the Legenda ocean reconnaissance satellite system (RORSATs) and Uspekh-U radars on the Tu-20 Bear-D aircraft [7]. Its 0.65 MT nuclear warhead could home in on targets within a 27 NM (50 km) “footprint” with 370 m accuracy [8]. Soviet aerospace engineer Boris Chertok credits the R-27K with “a homing system for striking pinpoint targets on the shore and surface ships” [9]. Beginning in December 1970, system tests yielded only four failures in 20 launches. December 1972 saw the first submarine-launched test from the Project 605/Golf K-102 submarines outfitted with the Record-2 fire-control system and Kasatka B-605 satellite-tracking target acquisition system, yielding 10 of 11 launches succeeded [10].

On August 15, 1975, therefore, the R-27K and its K-102 trial submarine “were accepted for operational service.” Yet, “because the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements of the 1970s would count every SLBM tube as a strategic missile regardless of whether it held a land-attack or anti-ship (tactical) missile,” according to Norman Polmar, “the R-27K missile did not become operational” [11]. Moreover, Soviet satellite targeting was not ready to support precise terminal homing, and the program was competing with more mature solutions to specific problems (e.g. the Skhval torpedo) [12]. Instead, the program was terminated in December 1975 [13]. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff subsequently stated that the SS-NX-13 ASBM “has not been tested since November 1973 and is not operational. However, the advanced technology displayed by the weapon is significant and the project could be resurrected” [14].

Russia and the United States undoubtedly would have developed their own ASBMs before China had they not signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This 1987 agreement prohibits them from possessing 500–5,500 km-range ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.

American Model Incomplete

Recent insistence by Beijing officials that China develops its own advanced military technologies is accurate but incomplete. While many of its indigenous capabilities are already extremely impressive and China’s talented engineers can exploit the same laws of physics as anyone else, China regularly incorporates foreign technologies and ideas into its weapons systems. With regard to the ASBM, such incorporation appears to have included, at the very least, concepts from the U.S. MGM-31B Pershing II theater ballistic missile fitted with maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRV). The Pershing II’s example was undoubtedly a great help to Chinese engineers, but they have had to go far beyond it in developing and deploying a true ASBM.

A profusion of writings tracking the development, successes and failures of the Pershing II missile system shows the close attention paid to the system by Chinese specialists. The articles appeared as early as 1976 and continued through 1994—three years after the last Pershing II missile had been destroyed. Possible explanations for subsequent lack of coverage in serious technical publications include efforts to avoid attention to any Chinese acquisition and applications of such technology.

Chinese sources have credited the Pershing II with influencing the development of China’s DF-15C and -21 (as well as the rumored “DF-25”) ballistic missiles. Following the Pershing II’s deployment, initial “research work” reportedly was completed in the early 1990s and incorporated into China’s Dongfeng (DF) missiles via a “warhead that possesses terminal homing guidance and maneuvering control capability” (, 1999). At the 1999 military parade commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, DF missiles—albeit with no evidence of MaRV capabilities—were on prominent display, leading some to credit emulation of the Pershing II for their rapid advance. “When they saw the new-type intermediate-range missile in China’s ‘Dongfeng’ family during the latest military parade held on the National Day, people would certainly like to compare it with the ‘Pershing II’ missile, wouldn’t they?” stated an article in a mainland-owned daily newspaper with recognized access to Chinese sources. China’s “new-type ‘Dongfeng’ intermediate-range missile has attained the level of the ‘Pershing II’ missile in terms of size, weight, launch mode, and so on. …it is believed that it is not much inferior to the ‘Pershing II’ missile” (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], October 2, 1999).

Visual analysis further suggests Pershing II influence in China’s ASBM. Chinese sources also state that the DF-15/CSS-6 missile is based on the Pershing II, which has adjustable control fins for terminal maneuver on its reentry vehicle (RV). While some DF-15 versions lack RVs with control fins, one with an RV virtually identical to the Pershing II’s may be found on the China’s Defence Today website (, October 3, 2009). Unfortunately, positively identified photos of a DF-21 outside its canister are not known to exist. Pictures of the DF-15’s RV, however, do bear a striking resemblance to the Pershing II. If the DF-15 resembles the Pershing II, it is reasonable to suppose that the related DF-21 does as well, and that both employ similar adjustable fins that permit terminal maneuver. As Internet photos of the DF-15 indicate, China has such an RV, which could easily be mounted atop the DF-21 booster and thereby produce part of the basis for an effective ASBM. RV control fins have been depicted in a schematic diagram of ASBM flight trajectory with mid-course and terminal guidance published by individuals affiliated with the Second Artillery Engineering College and a Second Artillery Base in a Chinese technical journal [15].

The Pershing II, however, probably could not have been a true ASBM. It had a W-85 5–50 kiloton yield nuclear warhead. Its 50 meter Circular Error of Probability (CEP) hinged on radar terrain correlation—a homing method not usable for striking a carrier at sea (Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems, October 13, 2011). Here China had to make its own architectural innovations. Having prioritized missiles since the late 1950s and space systems soon thereafter, however, China’s defense industry was up to the challenge. In 2010, DOD judged that “China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world. It is developing and testing several new classes” (CMPR 2010, p. 1). In 2011, DOD added, “Some [Chinese weapon] systems, particularly ballistic missiles, incorporate cutting-edge technologies in a manner that rivals even the world’s most modern systems” (CMPR 2011, p. x).

Future Trajectory

Wording in the DOD report suggests that China may develop ASBMs with different ranges from the DF-21D, including longer-ranges: “Beijing is investing in military programs and weapons designed to improve extended-range power projection… Key systems that have been either deployed or in development include ballistic missiles (including anti-ship variants)….” Now that the initial challenge of deploying an operational ASBM is completed, China has the option of developing other variants with different, likely complementary, characteristics. As China slowly builds the intelligence infrastructure to guide ASBMs toward their targets, future variants can be integrated more quickly into the force at higher levels of readiness. The advanced nature of ASBM development may become less the exception than the rule for future Chinese weapons programs.


  1. Andrew S. Erickson, Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development: Drivers, Trajectories, and Strategic Implications, Jamestown Occasional Paper (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation, 2013).
  2. Office of the Secretary of Defense “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, May 2013, Available online <>. Hereafter, the report and its annual iterations will be cited in-text as (CMPR [Year], p. #).
  3. Department of Defense Press Briefing on the 2013 DOD Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, Washington, DC, May 6, 2013, Available online <>.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, “U.S. Pacific Command Posture,” Senate Armed Services Committee, Washington, DC, April 9 2013, Available online <>.
  6. Michael T. Flynn, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army, Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, “Annual Threat Assessment,” Statement Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, United States Senate, April 18, 2013, Available online <>.
  7. For details, see Yu. V. Appal’kov et al., Otechestvennyye ballisticheskiye rakety morskogo bazirovaniya i ikh nositeli [Domestic Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles], St. Petersburgh: Galeya Print, 2006, Available online <>.
  8. Norman Polmar, Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines, Washington, DC: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004, pp. 179–81.
  9. Boris Chertok, Rockets and People: Volume 4—The Moon Race, Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2011, p. 30.
  10.  Author’s correspondence with Asif Siddiqi, April 2013.
  11. Norman Polmar, Letter to the Editor, “World’s First ‘Carrier Killer’ Ballistic Missile,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring 2013, pp. 138–39,  Available online <>.
  12. Author’s correspondence with Reuben Johnson, April 2013.
  13. Author’s correspondence with Asif Siddiqi, April 2013.
  14. General George S. Brown, U.S. Air Force, United States Military Posture for FY 1978, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, January 20, 1977, p. 16.
  15. Tan Shoulin and Zhang Daqiao [Second Artillery Engineering College]; Diao Guoxiu, [PLA Unit 96311], “Dandaodaodan daji hangkongmujian mozhidao youxiaoqu de queding yu pingu [Determination and Evaluation of Effective Range for Terminal Guidance Ballistic Missile Attacking Aircraft Carrier], Zhihui kongzhi yu fangzhen [Command Control & Simulation] 28, No. 4 (August 2006), p. 7. Republished in China Military Power Report 2009, p. 21.