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A reminder for America? What is behind China’s launch of a DF-26 long range ‘Carrier ᴋɪʟʟᴇʀ’ ballistic missile

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force launched a DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile, with the launch reportedly taking place on August 5th amid growing tensions between Beijing and Washington.

The launch followed the deployment of two U.S. Navy Nimitz Class nuclear powered supercarriers to the South China Sea for major military exercises widely seen to be aimed at China, which were perceived as a serous provocation.

It also follows a declaration by Washington, and by its close ally Australia, that it views Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea as illegitimate – although U.S. had previously recognised these claims until the 1970.

The period of high tensions comes as the U.S. approaches a presidential election, leading multiple analysts to speculate that the Donald Trump administration could be prone to making rash or unexpected policy decisions to boost approval ratings domestically – where a hard line against the East Asian state has been popular. The launch of the DF-26 can thus be interpreted as a counter show of force against the U.S. to emphasise the vulnerability of its assets across the Western Pacific region.

The DF-26 entered service in the PLA Rocket Force in 2016, and is a solid fuelled platform which deploys from mobile transporter erector launchers – ensuring a short launch time and making very difficult to neutralise on the ground.

The platforms have a 4000km range and carry very large ᴡᴀʀheads estimated at 1500-1800kg, with a normal payload size for tactical ballistic missiles being around 500-750kg.The missiles can deploy both conventional and nuclear ᴡᴀʀheads, and it was revealed in 2018 that they are capable of targeting ᴡᴀʀship at sea and were designed with strikes on American supercarriers in mind.

The missiles followed on from the shorter ranged DF-21D, which was previously also dubbed a ‘carrier ᴋɪʟʟᴇʀ’ and is in many ways highly complementary to its new heavier counterparts. A number of U.S. experts have highlighted not only the vulnerability of carrier strike groups to Chinese ballistic missile attacks, but also the ability of these missiles to effectively neutralise U.S. military bases across the Pacific from a ᴡᴀʀ’s early stages without necessary requiring China to escalate to a nuclear or strategic level of ᴡᴀʀfare.

Missile attacks will be complemented by strikes by other assets, such as H-6 bombers deploying cruise and ballistic missiles for both air to ground and standoff anti shipping roles, with the PLA deploying over 270 of these aircraft, as well as long range cruise missiles launched by Chinese surface destroyers and submarines across the region.
The test firing of the DF-26 is likely to be seen as a reminder of China’s capabilities, and a warning to Washington against possible military actions in the Western Pacific.