In 1999, the U.S. was engaged in an air and missile war with Serbia. As NATO bombs exploded around Belgrade — part of a campaign to force an end to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Serb forces — several U.S. missiles slammed into the Chinese embassy. It was the most controversial U.S. action of the war.

China’s leaders were outraged, but could do little in response. The result? The bombing became a pivotal moment in the decision to pursue a sophisticated weapons project: a ballistic missile that can knock out American aircraft carriers from 1,500+ kilometers away.

That’s the history according to a new book from Andrew Erickson, a specialist on the Chinese military at the U.S. Naval War College. The book has wonky title: Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) Development: Drivers, Trajectories and Strategic Implications. But it’s the most comprehensive overview of a weapon — the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile — that poses perhaps the greatest threat to American aircraft carriers that’s not a nuclear bomb.

“The bottom line is that the era of ‘ASBM denial’ is over,” Erickson writes. “China’s ASBM is not science fiction. It is not a ‘smoke and mirrors’ bluff. The DF-21D is not an aspirational capability that the United States can afford to ignore until some point in the future.”

Usually, carriers are incredibly tough to kill, sitting far off a coastline and outside the range of whatever most countries can throw at it. Escort ships are prowling for submarine threats, and air-defense missiles and carrier-borne fighter jets scan for enemy bombers that can launch sea-skimming cruise missiles. But a ballistic missile that can target ships can bypass all these defenses while being launched from land at the same time.

There’s still a lot of questions over how effective the DF-21D would be in an actual war — it takes more than just a missile to hit a target with a missile. The missile has been deployed with China’s Second Artillery, which oversees Beijing’s strategic missile arsenal. But Erickson details how China also need satellites, targeting sensors and the ability to defeat whatever electronic countermeasures the U.S. can throw in the missile’s path.

Little did U.S. commanders know at the time of the embassy bombing, however, that it would provoke the most serious arms race since the end of the Cold War.

Belgrade on fire. April 21, 1999. Tadija/Wikimedia photo

Roots in Kosovo

According to Erickson, there were two events that pushed Beijing to build its missile.

In 1995, Chinese leaders became very worried when then-Taiwan Pres. Lee Teng-hui prepared to visit the United States. The U.S. granted Teng-hui a visa, which provoked Beijing to carry out a series of missile tests and naval exercises in the Taiwan Strait.

The U.S. responded in kind by sending the Nimitz and Independence carrier battle groups towards China — an intimidating show a force China was unable to counter. According to Chinese military technical papers compiled by Erickson, the humiliation wrought by the carriers accelerated Beijing’s first steps towards an ASBM.

The Chinese navy was more or less useless. Beijing “could not build a steel Great Wall at sea to keep the enemy outside the nation’s door, and could only serve as an auxiliary of the ground forces in defending a trifling twelve nautical mile territorial water line,” China’s Global Times, which is published under the auspices of the People’s Daily, noted.

Then the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy.

Accidentally, it should be noted. During the 1999 Kosovo War against Serbia, NATO mistakenly believed the Belgrade building contained the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement — itself believed to be involved in purchasing military hardware. But accident or no, the Chinese embassy was bombed by U.S. aircraft; three Chinese journalists were killed.

Beijing’s generals were furious. But the generals were also anxious. The U.S. attacked Chinese interests without China being able to do anything about it. The embassy bombing was an accident, but what if the U.S. did it again, or somewhere else — and on purpose?

Worse, China’s military wasn’t a whole lot different — technologically speaking — than the Serb military at the time. And the Serb military was being bombed to pieces.

“[The forces of the] Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were always in the position of having to take a beating passively and completely lacked the power to fight back, [not only] because they lacked comprehensive and supporting weapons systems, but especially because they lacked ‘assassin’s mace’ weapons systems,” Zhang Wannian, a preeminent official in the Chinese Central Military Commission, said during a 1999 speech.

The solution, according to Wannian and other Chinese leaders including then-General Secretary Jiang Zemin, was to develop an overlapping defense of submarines, air defense radars and missiles, advanced fighter planes and lots of missiles for sinking American warships — including anti-ship ballistic missiles.

“By this time, it was startlingly clear to China’s leaders that they had to acquire a means of preventing the kind of airpower and accompanying firepower available during the Kosovo air war from being directed into or near China,” Erickson writes.

“Assassin’s mace” is a term used by the Chinese military to describe advanced weapons that match China’s weaknesses — like naval weaknesses — to the strengths of enemy forces.

But still, Navy officials say they can deal with the Chinese missile. The range of potential countermeasures, Erickson notes, are mainly focused around all the other steps a missile has to take before it can hit its target. For China, the missile itself is the easy part: “Physics, however, allows for an ASBM; physics is the same for the Chinese as it is for everyone else. We are witnessing the results today as well as the ability of China’s once-moribund defense industry to integrate existing technologies in innovative ways,” he writes.

But to hit a carrier, you first have to find it while it’s traveling hundreds of miles away from shore. Then you have to make sure the signal is really a carrier. Then you have to hold the radar signal long enough to direct the missile towards it. Finally, the missile itself has to come down from the atmosphere onto a moving target that will be doing everything in its power to confuse and spoof the signal.

There are several points here where everything can fail. Jam the targeting system? The missile will splash into the ocean. Throw up a cloud of smoke that confuses radar signals? Same result. Even better is to spoof the missile into thinking the carrier is somewhere else.

“Amid ongoing uncertainty, this much is clear: with the DF-21D ABSM, China appears to be intent on fielding a system that directly threatens U.S. carriers. If not countered properly, this could weaken the U.S. military alliances and reassurances that have helped maintain peace in the Western Pacific for nearly seven decades in part by preventing costly and dangerous arms races. The game and its governing rules are changing, whether Washington likes it or not.”

This article was updated to correct the (presumed) range of the DF-21 to 1,500 kilometers.

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