China could strike far more than just flattops with its growing arsenal of 'carrier-killer' missiles, defense expert says

  • The US Department of Defense published its annual China Military Power Report last week.

  • In the update, the Pentagon assesses China bolstered its missile stockpiles, specifically its DF-26 supply.

  • If China has more DF-26s, called "carrier killers," it could easily threaten a variety of ships.

China has made major additions to its stockpile of an anti-ship ballistic missile sometimes referred to as a "carrier killer," indicating its role in a potential conflict would almost certainly be beyond just flattops, a defense expert noted following the release of a new Pentagon report.

Last week, the US Department of Defense released its annual China Military Power Report to Congress analyzing the People's Republic of China's growing military might and combat capability. The update includes estimates on Chinese missile stockpiles, which show significant increases across the board.

The report shows that in 2022, China increased the number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles from 300 in 2021 to 500.

China's DF-26 IRBM has an estimated range of 1,000-3,000 km, putting US forces in Guam within reach. The range earned the missile the nickname "Guam Killer" or "Guam Express" for its potential to hit US forces on the island with either nuclear or conventional payloads, but the weapon also has an anti-ship role, which is where the term "carrier killer" comes from. That anti-ship role could include more than carriers though.

With an increase in DF-26 stockpile over the past year, China is clearly investing in a capability that can defeat defenses and effectively batter a variety of targets. That could spell trouble for not only US aircraft carriers that the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) would target should the two titans go to war but also other American ships as well.

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Pacific Ocean.
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Pacific Ocean.U.S. Navy via Getty Images

There are about 250 launchers that are able to be reloaded, as there are an estimated two missiles for every launcher, meaning China could quickly overwhelm an adversary's defenses with a barrage of DF-26s, which China says is capable against large and medium-size ships.

"I've said for years that if each DF-26 launcher had just one reload, we could be facing 400+ missiles. Well, here we are…," Tom Shugart, a former US Navy submarine commander who's now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, wrote Monday on X, the social media platform formally known as Twitter.

"Numbers like that could change the DF-26 from a 'carrier killer' to just a 'ship killer,'" he said.

The DF-26 missile was first unveiled at China's 2015 parade commemorating the end of World War II and has quickly become one of the more concerning missiles in its inventory, as it allows China to keep the US Navy at arms length.

It's unclear exactly how effective the missile is and there's some question marks on testing. The Pentagon said that in 2020 China "fired anti-ship ballistic missiles against a moving target in the South China Sea, but has not acknowledged doing so."

In November 2021, satellite photos showed apparent full-scale outlines of US Navy aircraft carriers in the Ruoqiang area of Xinjiang's Taklamakan desert in northwestern China, an area that has reportedly been used previously for missile strike training. It makes sense for PRC to target US carriers, which regularly and routinely patrol waters and conduct exercises in the South China Sea and Western Pacific. DF-26s give China the opportunity to target those carriers from a safe distance, threatening the US presence in the Indo-Pacific region and specifically around Taiwan and Japan.

DF-26 missiles attend the military parade in Beijing, capital of China, Sept. 3, 2015.
DF-26 missiles attend the military parade in Beijing, capital of China, Sept. 3, 2015.Xinhua/Cha Chunming via Getty Images

If China is prioritizing bulking up its DF-26 stockpile, as the Pentagon report indicates, that could reveal more about PLARF's potential aims in a conflict.

As Shugart wrote in August 2021, "without doubt, in a war at sea the PLA, if it had the inventory to do so, would be perfectly happy to trade a missile (or several), costing perhaps in the order of US$20 million each, for a destroyer that would cost billions to replace."

And if China has that large of an inventory of anti-ship ballistic missiles, Shugart wrote, that "could broaden the PLARF's anti-ship mission from what has been thought of as a 'carrier-killer' role to a more generic 'ship-killer' mission" at sea.

That added strike capacity could be  an additional challenge for the US Navy in a conflict with China, which has a naval force that is already larger than the US Navy and continues to grow in size and capability.

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