Should the U.S. Navy Feel Threatened by China's DF-100 Missile?

James Holmes

Key Point: Land-based missiles to counteract the U.S. Navy will be the Chinese form of sea power.

So China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unveiled new weaponry during its October 1 military parade? Color me gobsmacked. If China’s rise to martial eminence has shown one thing, it’s that PLA commanders and their political overseers delight in surprising and trolling Western observers. They excel at developing new hardware in secret, then springing it on the world and watching the ensuing gabfest consume the China-watching community.

And sure enough, launchers bearing “DF-17” and “DF-100” missiles—weapons both supposedly capable of superfast speeds yet hitherto unknown to outsiders—rumbled through Tiananmen Square to help commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. (The DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile also made its public debut on October 1, but Westerners have known about that one for some time.) Alternatively, foreign intelligence services knew about these “birds” but opted not to disclose it in open sources for fear of revealing how they came by the information.

It’s unclear whether the DF-100 is a cruise or ballistic missile. The “DF” nomenclature seems to indicate it flies a ballistic trajectory, while Jane’s depicts the bird as a supersonic cruise missile. It may straddle the difference between ballistic and sea-skimming missiles, arcing high into the atmosphere but following a flatter trajectory than a ballistic missile. It would come at U.S. Navy task forces from yet another axis, augmenting anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles and undersea munitions such as torpedoes or sea mines. Whatever the case, the new anti-ship missile purportedly reaches hypersonic velocity, meaning five or more times the speed of sound, during at least part of its flight. That boosts its chances of getting through U.S. Navy defenses. Defenders would have little time tor more than snap shots.

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