DF-21C Missile Deploys to Central China

China’s new DF-21C missile launcher shows itself in Western China.    Image: GoogleEarth

By Hans M. Kristensen

The latest Pentagon report on Chinese military forces recently triggered sensational headlines in the Indian news media that China had deployed new nuclear missiles close to the Indian border.

The news reports got it wrong, but new commercial satellite images reveal that launch units for the new DF-21C missile have deployed to central-western China.

New DF-21C Launch Units

Analysis of commercial satellite imagery reveals that launch units for the road-mobile DF-21C medium-range ballistic missile now deploy several hundred kilometers west of Delingha in the western part of central China.

Location of DF-21C Launch Units
For larger versions of the two middle satellite images, click here and here.  Images: GoogleEarth and chinamil.com.cn

In one image, taken by the GeoEye-1 satellite on June 14, 2010, two launch units are visible in approximately 230 km west of Delingha. The units are dug into the dry desert slopes near Mount Chilian along national road G215. Missile launchers, barracks, maintenance and service units are concealed under large dark camouflage, which stands out clearly in the brown desert soil.

The eastern launch unit (38° 6’37.75″N, 94°59’2.19″E) includes a central area with red barracks clearly visible below the camouflage, which probably also covers logistic units such as communications vehicles, fuel trucks, and personnel carriers. An 88×17 meter garage of brown camouflaged probably covers the launcher service area, with five 15-meter garages nearby probably housing the TELs. Approximately 130 meters north of the central area, brown camouflage and dirt barriers possibly house the unit’s remote fuel area. Two launch pads are visible, one only 180 meters from the main section, the other on the access road leading to national road G215.

The western launch unit (38° 9’32.82″N, 94°55’37.02″E) is located approximately 7 km further west about 2.4 km to the north of national road G215. The unit consists of four sections: personnel barracks (almost 100 with more possibly under camouflage); a logistic vehicles area; a launcher service area with a 90×33 meter camouflage and four garages; and what is possibly a remote fuel storage area. A launch pad is located along the access road close to G215.

The satellite image shows what appears to be a DF-21C entering or leaving the camouflaged launcher service area. The characteristic nose cone of the missile canister embedded into the rear of the driver cockpit is clearly visible, with the rest of launcher probably covered by a tarp.

This is, to my knowledge, the first time that the DF-21C has been identified in a deployment area. In 2007, I used commercial satellite images to describe the first visual signs of the transition from DF-4 to DF-21 at Delingha. A second article in 2008 described the extensive system of launch pads that extends west from Delingha along national road G215 past Da Qaidam.

There are five launch pads within five miles of the two launch units, with dozens other pads along and north of G215 in both directions.

More Invulnerable but with Limits

China’s ongoing modernization from old liquid-fuel missiles to new solid-fuel missiles is getting a lot of attention. The new systems are more mobile and thus less vulnerable to attack. Yet the satellite images also give hints about limitations.

First, the launch units are large with a considerable footprint that covers an area of approximately 300×300 meters. They are manpower-intensive requiring large numbers of support equipment. This makes them harder to move quickly and relatively easy to detect by satellite images.

DF-21C Launch Unit on the Move
The DF-21C medium-range ballistic missile may be more mobile and harder to target than older missiles, but it still relies on a large support unit that can be detected. Image: CCTV-7

Individual launchers of course would be dispersed into the landscape in case of war. But although the road-mobile launcher has some off-road capability, it requires solid ground when launching to prevent damage from debris kicked up by the rocket engine. As a result, launchers would have to stay on roads or use the pre-made launch pads that stand out clearly in high-resolution satellite images. Moreover, a launcher would not simply drive off and launch by itself, but need to be followed by support vehicles for targeting, repair, and communication.

Indian News Media (Mis)reporting

The deployment of DF-21 missiles caused constipation in Indian last month after the 2010 Pentagon report of Chinese military forces stated that China is replacing DF-4 missiles with DF-21 missiles to improve regional deterrence. The statement was contained in a section dealing with Chinese-Indian affairs and was picked up by the Press Trust of India, which mistakenly reported that the Pentagon report stated that, “China has moved advanced longer range CSS-5 [DF-21] missiles close to the border with India.” The Times of India even wrote the missiles were being deployed “on border” with India.

India News Media Makes a Bad Situation Worse
The India news media significantly misreported what the Pentagon report said about the Chinese DF-21 deployment. Not the finest hour of Indian journalism.

Not surprisingly, the misreporting triggered dramatic news articles in India, including rumors that the Indian Strategic Forces Command was considering or had already moved nuclear-capable missile units north toward the Chinese border in retaliation.

The Pentagon report, however, said nothing about moving DF-21 missiles close to or “on” the Indian border. Here is the actual statement: “To improve regional deterrence, the PLA has replaced older liquid-fueled, nuclear-capable CSS-3 intermediate-range ballistic missiles with more advanced and survivable solid-fueled CSS-5 MRBM….” The statement echoes a statement in the 2009 report: “The [People’s Liberation Army] has replaced older liquid-fueled nuclear-capable CSS-3 [DF-4 medium-range ballistic missiles] MRBMs with more advanced solid-fueled CSS-5 MRBMs in Western China.”

The sentence appears to describe the apparent near-completion of China’s replacement of DF-4 missiles with DF-21 missiles, probably at two army base areas in Hunan and Qinghai provinces, a transition that has been underway for two decades. The two deployment areas are each more than 1,500 kilometers from the Indian border.

Range Confusion

The unclassified ranges of Chinese DF-21 versions published by the U.S. intelligence community are 1,770+ km (1,100+ miles) for the two nuclear versions (DF-21, CSS-5 Mod 1; and DF-21A, CSS-5 Mod 2). The DF-21A appears to have an extended range of 2,150 km. The dual-capable “conventional” DF-21C has a maximum range of 1,770 km, and the yet-to-be-deployed DF-21D anti-ship missile has a shorter range of 1,450+ km. Private publications frequently credit the DF-21D with a much longer range (CSBA: 2,150 km; sinodefence.com and Wikipedia: 3,000 km).

DOD maps are misleading because they depict missile ranges measured from the Chinese border, as if the launchers were deployed there rather than at their actual deployment areas far back from the border. The 2008 report, for example, includes a map essentially showing China’s border extended outward in different colors for each missile range. The result is a DF-21 range of about 3,000 km if measured from the actual deployment areas.

DF-21 Range According to 2008 Pentagon Report
The 2008 Pentagon report on China’s military forces misrepresents missile ranges.

The 2010 report is even worse because it shows the ranges without the border contours as circles but measured from the most extreme border position. The result is a map that is even more misleading, suggesting a DF-21 range of as much as 3,500 km from actual deployment areas. The actual maximum range is 2,150 km for DF-21A (CSS-5 Mod 2), and 1,770 km for the DF-21C.

DF-21 Range According to 2010 Pentagon Report
The 2010 Pentagon report on Chinese military issues greatly exaggerates the reach of the DF-21 by drawing a ring around China that doesn’t reflect actual deployment areas.

Although a DF-21 launcher could theoretically drive all the way up to the border to launch, the reality is that DF-21 bases and roaming areas are located far back from the border to protect the fragile launchers from air attack. DOD maps should reflect that reality.

Additional Resources: earlier China blogs; Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

8 thoughts on “DF-21C Missile Deploys to Central China

  1. Interesting article. Can you please attach a link for the enlarged pic comparing satellite image and ground pic of “Nose of DF-21C launch canister”?

    Reply: I didn’t produce a large version of that image, only of the two middle ones. One of the two includes an enlarged insert of the launcher. HK

  2. [Edited] It baffells me why China will incur so much range penalty by putting their DF-21 missile so deep in their territory as their range according to author will barely reach outside their own country (the black circle above). I think the Chinese are intelligent enough to know the launching position of their missiles so that it can be useful for their purpose. So it might be that their missile regiments are highly mobile and move to launching position very quickly or probably the range cited is for max payload so with lesser one the range could always increase. I’d like to know the author’s thought on this. The logic that Chinese are placing the missile deep in their territory for the safety of the arsenal holds very little water in my view.

    Reply: I don’t think of the missiles as locked in placed. As road-mobile, a DF-21 launcher can, of course, in principle deploy to wherever it is sent. And they would certainly disperse in a conflict. From the Da Qaidam and Delingha areas I have identified, the DF-21a is within range of several northern Indian and southern Russian cities. The DF-21C would need to travel a few hundred kilometers to reach. From another deployment area near Kunming, both versions would be well within range of north-eastern Indian targets. The introduction of the DF-31 will bring all of Russia and India within range. Whether it is a logic or not, it is a fact that the Chinese nuclear missiles are based inland. Shorter-range DF-11 and DF-15 are closer to the Taiwan Strait. HK

  3. [Edited] HK, thanx. I found the large version of your image [of the DF-21C]. It matches other satellite images of DF-21C linked here.

    Reply: Thanks. Yes, numerous images of the vehicles that participated in the 2009 parade were published by PLA and later picked up and “copyright’ed” by various private web sites. The DF-21C satellite image you mention was taken by the GeoEye-1 satellite on June 23, 2009, and can be found on Google Earth at 39°47’59.36″N, 116°42’38.65″E. HK

  4. I think, DF-21, the so called anti-ship ballistic missile is overhyped. First by western media and then by Indian media. I don’t know about western media, but Indian media always gets it wrong (even about Indian missiles). Indian government uses media for a different purpose (related to CTBT and Fissile cut off treaty agreement) to downplay Indian missile range and capabilities.

    1. DF-21 is a ballistic missile – It can be easily intercepted by US navy SM-3 missiles. I guess US navy wants more funding or something. No wonder western media exaggerated DF-21 threat.

    2. India has more sophisticated Hypersonic boost glide missiles called Shourya with a range of 750 to 2,200 km at different payloads. Shourya cannot be intercepted because of its sustained hypersonic speed and it is also highly maneuverable.

    Reply: Note that the anti-ship version of the DF-21 is known as the DF-21D. It is not operational.

    Also, I would caution about believing too many rumors about the so-called Shourya missiles at this point. First, the rumors about the missile largely go back to a few news paper articles and statements by anonymous DRDO officials. Second, it is not mentioned in the 2009 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report from the U.S. Air Force intelligence agency. Third, I’m skeptical about how a basic ballistic missile such as Sagarika (K-15) with a limited payload and a range of 300+ km can suddenly transform into a sophisticated hypersonic boost glide missile with a nuclear warhead and a range of 750-2,200 km. It has taken the much larger boosters of Agni I and Agni II to get to those ranges.

    As for the “sophisticated hypersonic boost glide,” all payloads launched by a ballistic missile to a range that brings the payload outside earth’s atmosphere will reenter the atmosphere at hypersonic speed (in excess of Mach 5). To the extent anything is “boost glide,” it is more likely limited to the reentry vehicle having fins and some basic course adjustment capability. HK

  5. [Edited] Sorry, I should have provided the source.

    1. Shourya – Hypersonic boost glide missile is the land version of K15/Sagarika (naval version) Hypersonic boost glide missile. DRDO test fired K15 almost 5 times since 2006, before Shourya test firing (sixth test) made the headlines in 2008. It is underproduction by BDL since 2009, according Frontline magazine’s article.

    2. I can provide you the best source on the internet to learn more about Shourya’s capabilities: Shourya/Sagarika missile by Arun Vishvakarma. Payload vs Range graph would help you to understand what’s really going on.

    3. India has variety of nuclear warheads. I would like to mention the most credible ones.

    800 to 1000 kg FBF [Fusion Boosted Fission] warhead – Yields 200 kilotons
    550 kg FBF yields 150 kilotons
    340 kg FBF yields 50 kilotons
    180 kg FBF yeilds 17 kilotons (Field tested)

    Shourya’s missile range is same as Sagarika/K15’s range at different payloads: 2000 km range (180 kg FBF warhead)

    Even if you come up with an argument that only 180 kg FBF with 17 kilotons is field tested. In the place of 2 missiles, India would launch 10 or more missiles to cause more than enough destruction.

    US is also working on this Hypersonic boost glide technology for its “Prompt Global Strike” long range weapon (Conventional warhead). Shourya hypersonic boost glide missile can also be armed with conventional warheads to take out Rail supply lines, Mobile launchers (of course with proper detection capabilities), Huge Aircraft carriers. See: “Missiles for Peace” by Henry Sokolski.

    I would worry more about India’s Shourya Hypersonic boost glide missile than DF-21 or DF-21D or whatever.

    Shourya test firing video.

    We can all wait for Shourya II version with more range and speed (most likely powered by Scram jet engine). Then we have to call it a Hypersonic cruise missile, is it not?

    Reply: Thanks for the additional information. I don’t want to sound disrespectful to the people who write some of these articles, but I’m concerned about circle-referencing, unsubstantiated claims, rumors, and an element of hype about the capabilities of Indian nuclear forces. It’s an astounding demonstration of very detailed weapons information from a country that is notoriously secretive and vague about its nuclear capabilities. It is that gap between the little the Indian government is officially saying and showing and the extraordinary details and claims of the materials engineers and researchers are publishing that concerns me. India has a thermonuclear warhead? I think the understanding of India’s emerging nuclear capabilities would be enhanced by relying on more official sources and cautious assessments. HK

  6. 2 questions:

    1: Can the DF-21 be transported by rail? Does road-mobile implies rail-mobile in the case of the DF-21?
    2: Why are the launch units so close to the road (2 km)?

    Reply: There are rumors about a rail-version of the DF-31, but haven’t seen anything about a rail-mobile DF-21. That obviously doesn’t mean anything, except that I haven’t seen it. 🙂

    As for the proximity to the road, I guess 2-4 kms take them far enough back from the road to offer some seclusion but still have quick access in case they need to disperse. The sandy slopes in the area might limit how far some vehicles can go, but you can see that some individual launch pads are even further from the road. They’re probably focused on establishing routines and fixing technical issues. HK

  7. If the range estimate is correct, the only logical conclusion is that these paper tigers are really for training purposes, under the eyes of various satellites. The canvas is mostly to shield dust and sunlight. There is the Great Wall project, which can be extended to other parts of China if needed. The TEL does not have to travel on open roads or railroad.

  8. How fast could those launchers deploy to within range of India and launch? Seems like there would be significant lag time.

    Reply: Probably within several days, but there’s really no public data on this. Assuming one or two days to pack the launch unit and one or two days to set up camp, driving south could probably reach 200-300 km in one day. China’s nuclear posture is not geared for quick launch but for responding to a serious crisis that is followed by a nuclear threat against China. At that point, the launch units would presumably be equipped with nuclear warheads and dispersed. A nuclear DF-21/DF-21A would be able to reach New Delhi from the Delingha/Da Qaidam launch pads you see on the images, but a conventional DF-21C would need to drive a few hundred miles south or west to reach New Delhi. There are rumors of a new DF-21C training unit forming at Qakilik about 600 km west of the launch units I describe in this blog. HK

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