US admiral says China fired its carrier killer missiles last summer to send an ‘unmistakable message’

China military missile Dong Feng DF-21D
Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, potentially capable of sinking a US Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in a single strike, travel past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing, September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Andy Wong/Pool
  • China fired off multiple mid-range missiles into the South China Sea in August.
  • The head of INDOPACOM said Tuesday that China fired off DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles.
  • He said the move was intended to “hone PLA warfighting skills and send an unmistakable message.’
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The top US admiral in the Indo-Pacific region told lawmakers Tuesday that the Chinese military fired multiple carrier killer missiles into the South China Sea last year to send an “unmistakable message” about its ability to threaten American aircraft carriers.

Last summer, the Chinese armed forces fired off four mid-range ballistic missiles into the South China Sea during a training exercise. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, which first reported the launches, identified some of the missiles as DF-21D anti-ship missiles.

Adm. Philip Davidson, the combatant commander currently leading US Indo-Pacific Command, provided additional clarity on Chinese activities on Tuesday, explaining to the Senate Armed Services Committee that last August, “the [People’s Republic of China] conducted coordinated DF-21D missile launches into the South China Sea.”

Commonly referred to as “carrier killer” missiles, “these mid-range, anti-ship ballistic missiles are capable of attacking aircraft carriers in the western Pacific,” he said

Davidson told lawmakers that China’s use of such weapons “during a large-scale [People’s Liberation Army] exercise demonstrates the PLA’s focus on countering any potential third-party intervention during a regional crisis.”

The commander said that the PRC “is not merely developing advanced weapons systems but is increasingly employing them in training and exercise scenarios to hone PLA warfighting skills and send an unmistakable message to regional and global audiences” about China’s capabilities.

Davidson characterized China’s actions, specifically the incorporation of advanced assets into realistic training scenarios, as “critical steps as the PLA prepares for modern warfare.”

There are still a lot of unknowns about the military exercise last summer in which Chinese forces fired off multiple anti-ship ballistic missiles, but in November, Wang Xiangsui, a retired Chinese military officer, claimed that the anti-ship missiles struck a moving training vessel, SCMP reported.

The retired officer, whose knowledge of the exercise is unclear, reportedly described the exercise as a “show of force” and a reaction to American provocations in the region.

The US Navy deploys carrier strike groups into the contested waters of the South China Sea regularly. It sometimes conducts dual carrier operations, as it did most recently in February.

Last July, as the Navy’s Ronald Reagan and Nimitz carrier strike groups conducted joint operations in the disputed waterway, China’s state-affiliated tabloid Global Times wrote that “China has a wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like DF-21D and DF-26 ‘aircraft carrier killer’ missiles.”

The tabloid, citing unnamed analysts, wrote that the “South China Sea is fully within the grasp of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and any US aircraft carrier movement in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA.”

The US Navy responded to the Global Times article on Twitter, writing that the carrier strike groups operating in the international waters of the South China Sea “are not intimidated.”

The DF-21D is a conventionally-armed variant of the DF-21 intermediate-range missile specifically designed for targeting ships, particularly the aircraft carriers that have long served as key elements of US power projection.

The missiles have an estimated range of around 1,609km and are an important part of China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy.