China Rapidly Expands “Carrier Killer” Missiles To Keep US Navy At Bay; A Look At Beijing’s Deadly ASMs

In a tale of two superpowers and their smaller counterparts, the world watches with bated breath as Russia wages war against Ukraine and China escalates its military posturing towards Taiwan.

The latest chapter unfolded with China’s “Joint Sword – 2024A” exercises, a bold move just days after Lai Ching-te’s inauguration as Taiwan’s President, a man Beijing brands a “separatist.”

Warships prowled the waters off Taiwan’s coast, a stark warning of the potential invasion that could disrupt the technology supply chain, trigger an economic crisis, and ignite a hot war between the United States and China.

Beijing justified the drills as “punishment” for Lai’s defiant declaration that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are “not subordinate to each other.” Meanwhile, Taiwan’s defense forces tracked a formidable armada of 49 Chinese aircraft, 19 naval ships, and 7 coast guard vessels lurking near its territorial waters, a reminder of the growing threat. The ships primarily consisted of frigates and corvettes, which are smaller and carry lighter weapon loads.

As the chess pieces move across the board, the United States prepares for a potential conflict. In response to China’s extensive military drills around Taiwan, a visiting delegation of US lawmakers has expressed support for the island.

In April 2024, Rear Adm. Mike Studeman, a former admiral in charge of US Navy intelligence, warned that Chinese military forces are preparing for an invasion or blockade of Taiwan, potentially within the next decade.

China maintains that nations cannot maintain official relations with both China and Taiwan, leading to Taiwan having formal diplomatic ties with only a handful of countries. The United States is Taiwan’s most crucial ally but, interestingly, does not recognize Taiwan as a country adhering to the one-China principle.

Comparison Of Naval Capabilities

As of 2024, the Chinese Navy is the second-largest in the world by total displacement, behind only the United States Navy, and it has the largest number of active service ships.

According to a report by ‘the US Congressional Research Service,’ China’s navy is by far the largest of any country in East Asia. Between 2015 and 2020, it surpassed the US Navy in the number of battle force ships. China’s navy is now the largest in the world, boasting a battle force of over 370 platforms, including major surface combatants, submarines, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships, aircraft carriers, and fleet auxiliaries. This count excludes approximately 60 HOUBEI-class patrol combatants equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). The overall battle force of China’s navy is projected to grow to 395 ships by 2025 and 435 ships by 2030.

The Chinese navy currently has two aircraft carriers in service — the Liaoning and the Shandong. In addition, in May 2024, China’s third and most advanced aircraft carrier, the Fujian, embarked on its first sea trials.

In comparison, as of January 29, 2024, the US Navy comprised 292 battle force ships. The Navy’s FY2024 budget submission anticipates a fleet of 290 battleforce ships by the end of FY2030.

In a naval conflict, China would need to shift military assets to its eastern coast and undertake visible preparations for an invasion while keeping US warships at bay. Chinese anti-ship firepower would play a crucial role in such a scenario.

China’s arsenal of anti-ship weapons is formidable and, in many respects, superior to that of the United States. These weapons and the tactics that employ them are central to China’s strategy to deny US forces access to the Western Pacific.

According to the US Department of Defense, China conducted more than 135 ballistic missile live firings for testing and training in 2021, surpassing the rest of the world combined, excluding conflict zones.

China has significantly expanded its stockpile of anti-ship ballistic missiles, sometimes referred to as “carrier killers.”

China’s Anti-Ship Missiles ASM)

According to a report by the Center for International Maritime Security, China has developed an extensive array of anti-ship missiles and naval forces to generate mass firepower. The main anti-ship missiles in China’s arsenal include the YJ-12, YJ-18, YJ-83, DF-21, and DF-26.

The YJ-12 is primarily deployed by bombers and coastal launchers, the YJ-18 is a key weapon for submarines and large surface warships, and the YJ-83 is used by multirole aircraft and surface warships smaller than destroyers. The DF-21 and DF-26 ballistic missiles are China’s longest-ranged land-based anti-ship weapons.

Source: Center for International Maritime Security

The YJ-83

The YJ-83, a relatively modern addition to China’s anti-ship arsenal in the past 10-15 years, is widely deployed across its surface and air forces. It’s a smaller, shorter-range missile that isn’t compatible with vertical launch cells.

Typically, it’s deployed in box launchers aboard Chinese frigates, corvettes, and small missile boats. Additionally, multirole aircraft can carry and utilize this missile, making it the primary anti-ship weapon for non-bomber PLA aircraft, including land- and carrier-based aviation.

The YJ-18

The YJ-18 is a Chinese cruise missile designed for both anti-ship and land-attack roles. It entered service around 2014 and is derived from the Russian 3M-54E “Klub” missile.

File Image: China’s YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missile.

It’s the only widely deployed anti-ship missile in China’s arsenal that can be launched from vertical launch cells. This missile is installed on China’s large surface combatants, such as the Type 52D destroyer and Type 55 cruiser. Additionally, a version compatible with torpedo tubes is deployed on PLA submarines.

The YJ-12

The YJ-12 is compatible with various launch platforms, including coastal launchers and bombers. This versatility allows it to play a significant role in China’s capability to engage warships from long distances on the mainland.

Both the YJ-12 and YJ-18 possess terminal sprint capability, a crucial advantage lacking in US anti-ship missiles. Accelerating to speeds of approximately Mach 2.5-3.0 after emerging over the horizon of a warship, these missiles significantly reduce the target’s reaction time compared to subsonic weapons.

The DF-26

The DF-26, China’s Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), provides crucial asymmetric advantages due to its high speed and long range. It plays a significant role in China’s capability to concentrate firepower against warships, earning it the nickname “carrier killer,” although its targets may extend beyond carriers.

The DF-21D

The DF-21 is a medium-range, road-mobile ballistic missile introduced in 1991, marking China’s first use of solid propellant in such missiles. Variants include the DF-21C, which is dual nuclear/conventional capable, and the DF-21D, designed as an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). In 2016, the US Department of Defense revealed a new nuclear variant, the DF-21E CSS-5 Mod 6.

Operational since 2012, the DF-21D is the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), specifically targeting ships at sea. It reaches speeds of up to Mach 10 during the terminal phase, making it the fastest MRBM to date.

It can overcome existing US missile defense systems like the sea-based AEGIS ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. In 2013, successful tests against targets simulating US surface ships demonstrated its effectiveness.

With these Dragon’s Teeth missiles pointing from its coastal batteries, China is positioning itself to deny US warships access to the region. This strategy of asymmetric warfare leverages Taiwan’s proximity’s geographic advantage to offset American naval predominance.

File Image: launch of DF-21 Missile

Taiwan Geographic Position

The escalating tensions between the US and China over Taiwan seem to be reaching a boiling point. With China rapidly building up its naval forces and deploying advanced anti-ship missile systems, it presents a serious challenge to American power projection in the Pacific.

As tensions escalate, Taiwan’s strategic position within the “first island chain” becomes a focal point. Controlling this vital link could bolster China’s influence in the western Pacific, challenging US dominance and granting Beijing control over Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing industry, a linchpin of the global economy.

At the same time, given the island’s crucial geographic position astride maritime trade routes and its role as a semiconductor superpower, neither Washington nor its allies can afford to let Taiwan fall into Beijing’s orbit.

  • Shubhangi Palve is a defense and aerospace journalist. Before joining the EurAsian Times, she worked for E.T. Prime. In this capacity, she focused on covering defense strategies and the defense sector from a financial perspective. She offers over 15 years of extensive experience in the media industry, spanning print, electronic, and online domains.
  • Contact the author at shubhapalve (at) gmail (dot) com