What Do We Know About China’s Newest Missiles?
Much can be gleaned from open sources, from official announcements to commanders’ online bios.
As “great power competition” becomes the lingua franca of American strategy, U.S. policymakers and analysts must build a greater familiarity with the Chinese strategic systems that increasingly worry combatant commanders and which would play an essential role in any Indo-Pacific crisis.
The situation is analogous to the Cold War, when knowledge of Soviet ICBMs was not limited to Sovietologists. Yet unlike in the last century, an extensive amount of information about these systems lies in the open to be analyzed. Instead of awaiting Moscow May Day parades, we can glean a great deal about the systems and their deployments through everything from official announcements to social-media tracking to unit commanders’ bios.
Since 2017, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, the service responsible for China’s conventional and nuclear missiles, has added 10 brigades — more than a one-third increase — and deployed an array of formidable new weapons. These new systems include the intermediate-range DF-26 ballistic missile, DF-31AG and DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, CJ-100 cruise missile, and DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle. A new nuclear-armed DF-21 variant, speculatively referred to as the DF-21E, may have also been deployed but has not yet been officially unveiled.
We know the most about the DF-26, which is thought to be able to strike ground and naval targets out to about 4,000 kilometers. Publicly revealed in 2015, this IRBM has quickly become one of the PLARF’s most widely deployed systems, equipping at least five brigades so far. These brigades are widely geographically dispersed, with one each in northwest, northeast, and central China, and two more in the southeast, indicating the centrality of the DF-26 to a wide variety of theaters and missions. The DoD has reported both that the PLARF already possesses around 200 DF-26 launchers – a shockingly high figure – and that China continues to manufacture new ones. Hence, it is likely that the number of DF-26 brigades is set to grow still further.
One of the most notable aspects of the DF-26 is its ability to deliver nuclear or conventional warheads. At least one brigade is known to train for both missions. This mix complicates thinking about China’s nuclear deterrent. A U.S. strike on such a brigade risks hitting China’s nuclear arsenal. It is believed that the PLA sees this ambiguity as an advantage, in that it could deter such strikes. But it also risks miscalculation and escalation — which is why the U.S. and USSR kept conventional and nuclear missiles separated.
A fair amount is also known about the DF-31AG, an improved variant of the DF-31 ICBM. First shown in 2017, it has a range of over 11,000 kilometers. The missile is fielded with at least three brigades deployed in central China, and perhaps a fourth. Both the DF-31AG and its predecessor are mainstays of the PLARF’s strategic deterrence role, as outlined in China’s 2019 Defense White Paper.
The PLARF’s newest ICBM, the DF-41, was revealed in 2019. No brigades have been confirmed to have received this system, although the 644 Brigade located in Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province is strongly suspected to be the first. There is also evidence that the 662 Brigade may soon receive a silo-based variant of the DF-41 at the Sundian complex in Henan province, where open-source intelligence has shown updates being made to previously identified DF-4 ICBM launch sites.
Map of the Sundian complex in Hainan province. Courtesy Scott Lafoy and Decker Eveleth, Arms Control Wonk Blog.
Evidence of infrastructure buildout, possibly for a silo-based DF-41, has also been observed at Jilantai in Inner Mongolia.
Less is known so far about the CJ-100 ground-launched cruise missile, first revealed in 2019. It may be able to hit land and sea targets out to about 2,000 kilometers, which could complement the PLARF’s anti-ship ballistic missiles and further complicate an adversary’s missile defense efforts. Some evidence suggests that the first unit to deploy the CJ-100 will be the 656 Brigade, whose location in eastern China on the Shandong Peninsula would allow it to target much of Japan. If it has an anti-ship function, it could also hit ships in the East China Sea and beyond the first island chain.
The DF-17, the PLARF’s first hypersonic weapon, was first publicly revealed in 2019. It will be capable of reaching speeds of Mach 5 en route to targets some 1,800 to 2,500 kilometers away. Claims have also been made that it is accurate to “within meters.” Its high speed and ability to maneuver may flummox current air defense systems.
Details have finally begun to emerge about the DF-17’s deployment. The South China Morning Post reported last year that it had been deployed to southeast China—likely for use in a scenario involving Taiwan. This would make sense, as the PLA would presumably be eager to add its newest missile, with its touted superior accuracy and ability to penetrate missile defenses, to its substantial arsenal of conventional missiles already aimed at Taiwan. This appears to have been confirmed by a barrage of reporting in late 2020 indicating that the DF-17 had been delivered to the new 627 Brigade in eastern Guangdong Province, opposite southern Taiwan.
Reporting from the 2019 National Day Parade provides further hints. DF-17 personnel in the parade came from the PLA’s “first conventional SSM missile unit,” which could describe both the 613 Brigade in Shangrao, as well as Base 61, the primary PLARF base tasked with striking Taiwan. Media reporting showed that the DF-17 formation in the parade was led by Col. Lu Ercan. Lu is deputy commander of the 614 Brigade in Yong’an, Fujian, which is subordinate to Base 61 and which also reportedly received an unidentified new missile in 2018. All of this makes it likely that at least one DF-17 brigade will be stationed in southeast China under Base 61. Circumstantial evidence suggests Shangrao (613 Brigade) or Yong’an (614 Brigade) as possible other locations, but solid evidence remains elusive.
Finally, the newest DF-21 nuclear MRBM variant, tentatively designated DF-21E, has been reported to have been deployed in the DoD’s annual report to Congress. This report says the missile may have a range of about 1,750 kilometers, similar to the earlier DF-21A. However, it has not been publicly revealed in an official way by the PLA nor have there been any known public sightings to use in open-source intelligence.
Piecing together scattered Chinese media reports on recent brigade developments, it appears that at least three brigades are known to be equipped with previous variants of the DF-21: the 651 Brigade, equipped with the nuclear DF-21A, and both 624 and 653 Brigades, equipped with the conventional, anti-ship DF-21D. All may have received a new missile system in 2019 or 2020. This is particularly surprising in the case of the latter two brigades, which received their DF-21Ds less than ten years ago. 624 Brigade had recently moved to a new base on Hainan Island, presumably to provide the South China Sea with anti-ship ballistic missile coverage. While there is no firm indication of what new missile these brigades are equipped with, the DF-26 or the upgraded DF-21E are both distinct possibilities. If the latter, this would suggest that the DF-21E also features a swappable warhead capable of conventional and anti-ship missions, as it would seem likely that the Hainan-located brigade would retain its anti-ship mission.
The rundown of China’s latest missiles shows not just an immense gain in capability, but also how much can be gleaned about them from open-source intelligence. It is crucial to keep an eye on both in the years ahead.
Ma Xiu is an analyst currently researching the PLA Rocket Force at BluePath Labs, LLC.