In recent months, the United States Navy has been working at a fever pitch to find ways to bridge the operational gap between the anti-ship missiles fielded by near-peer competitors like China and the fuel ranges of America’s carrier-based aircraft. The effort has included adding supplementary fuel tanks to the fuselage of Super Hornets, developing procedures to “hot load” F-35s in field expedient, grass air strips inside enemy controlled territory, and the rapidly progressing MQ-25 drone refueler program.

The intent behind all of these efforts is simple: increase the range of America’s aircraft to exceed that of common anti-ship missile platforms, so the Navy’s fleet of Nimitz and Ford class carriers are not rendered useless in a potential conflict.

China, however, may already be working on a way to offset any progress the Navy might be making. New images have surfaced on Chinese social media, and they seem to show a People’s Liberation Air Force’s Xian H-6 bomber converted to carry one specific weapon: China’s formidable DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.

The DF-21D is among the platforms American defense officials are the most concerned about. Although little is known about the operational capabilities the DF-21D offers, the information we are able to glean is disconcerting.

A medium-range ballistic missile, the DF-21D was designed to house conventional (non-nuclear) munitions and be fired from mobile, ground-based launchers, and like other conventional ballistic missiles of its type, it follows an arcing trajectory that takes it into the earth’s atmosphere before closing in on its target at hypersonic velocities. There are a number of elements of the DF-21D’s design, however, that make it particularly difficult to intercept, even if you believe in the infallibility touted by the United States regarding their missile defense apparatus (though there is very little evidence to support that bravado).

In particular, the reentry vehicle on the DF-21D possesses the ability to maneuver dynamically to avoid intercept as it closes with its target at an extremely steep descent angle. It’s also, at least theoretically, capable of targeting large vessels in the vast expanses of the open sea. As large as an aircraft carrier may seem when you’re alongside one, even “4.5 acres of sovereign American territory” amounts to a pinhole of a target in the massive Pacific.

In effect, this missile creates an inaccessible area that extends approximately 900 miles from Chinese shores — at least 400 miles further than a carrier could launch aircraft from to engage Chinese targets.

The limiting factor of the DF-21D is really its targeting apparatus. It is assumed that the missile uses radar and potentially infrared to locate its target, but it would undoubtedly need support from external targeting assets like land based radar, manned or unmanned aircraft, and other ships in the vicinity. However, because the platform first became operational in 2010, it can be assumed that China has developed the capability to manage this network to a large extent, though it is currently believed that the missile itself has still yet to be tested on a target in the open sea.

Those aforementioned initiatives to extend the range of American aircraft, likely to engage anti-aircraft and anti-ship defenses to allow for a closer approach, are all moving forward with the area denial “bubble” afforded by the DF-21D in mind — hoping a combination of efforts will be enough to “pop” it — but this strategy could be significantly hampered by the use of aircraft-launched DF-21Ds, which could fly within that area denial bubble nearly continuously thanks to airborne refueling, and extend that bubble by as much as another 900 miles.

This image sourced from the Chinese internet, and first published by The Warzone, shows a DF-21D being carried under the belly of an H-6 bomber.

Although it’s an extremely old airframe that first saw use in the 1950s when the blueprints for the aircraft were sourced from the Soviet Union, China has continuously improved upon the construction of the H-6 bomber while upgrading older platforms, making it similar to America’s still-relied-on fleet of B-52 bombers. Also like the B-52, the H-6 boasts a massive payload capacity at somewhere around 80,000 pounds. At around 32,000 pounds each, the DF-21D should prove little issue for the modified H-6 bomber shown in the images, especially because it could feasibly carry less fuel thanks to being launched from a significantly higher altitude.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all, however, is the potential for this combination to be used as an offensive weapon rather than a defensive one. While it could be used to increase the area denial bubble around Chinese shores, the operational gap between the range of the DF-21D and America’s intercept fighters aboard carriers could also make an H-6 bomber armed with such a missile a serious threat as an aircraft carrier hunter. With a fuel range in excess of 3,700 miles, a modified H-6D bomber armed with a DF-21D missile could acquire targeting data from a network of drones, manned aircraft and satellite reconnaissance, pursue an American aircraft carrier and fire the missile all while remaining safely hundreds of miles outside of the carrier’s response range. In such an instance, the carrier would need to rely on intercept aircraft launched from other locations or carriers to shoot down the bomber before it was able to deploy the missile — once launched, there would be very little hope of intercepting the missile itself.

It’s clear that China recognizes the value of an anti-ship platform that prevents U.S. carriers from reaching operational range of their shores. The United States will continue to work to adapt old technologies and develop new ones and China will do the same, mounting to an unusual form of arms race, all aimed at keeping America’s Nimitz and Ford class carriers safely at arm’s reach. However, there may come a point when the range of the anti-ship missiles exceed that of any aircraft’s capabilities… and at that point the question may be: will there be anywhere left to safely park America’s carriers?

See a mock-up of how the DF-21D works:

Featured image courtesy of the U.S. Navy