Asia Defense

What Iran’s Attacks on American Bases Tell Us About China’s Missile Program

For American strategic planners the false belief that Chinese missiles are numerous, but inaccurate, is likely over.

By Christopher K. Colley for
What Iran’s Attacks on American Bases Tell Us About China’s Missile Program
Credit: Pixabay

The Iranian missile attack on the American bases in al-Asad and Erbil on January 8 surprised many security experts because of their reported accuracy. Until now, the poor accuracy of Iranian missiles was considered by some to be a major deficiency in Iran’s conventional arsenal. The missiles’ circular error probable (CEP – the radius within which half of all missiles launched will fall) of most Iranian missiles was believed to be several hundred meters. In other words, these were dangerous weapons, but they lacked the pinpoint precision necessary to hit specific targets on land or at sea. But reports indicate that the latest attacks may have had a CEP as low as 5-10 meters as they succeeded in six direct hits on empty aircraft hangers. 

While the advances in Iranian missile accuracy are a worrisome development for the United States and its allies and partners in the Middle East, another key question is what this tells us about the accuracy of China’s ballistic missiles. It is public knowledge that China shared missile technology with Iran for several decades. The Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the late 1980s in the Arabian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war were attributed to Silkworm missiles that Iran purchased from China. A 2012 Rand report stated that China played a “crucial” role in establishing Iran’s military-industrial sector and is suspected of helping Iran with its ballistic missile technology.

Considering China’s previous assistance to Iran’s missile programs, a reasonable assumption can be made that if Iranian missiles are capable of successfully hitting targets within a few meters, Chinese missiles should be able to equal, if not surpass, Iranian accuracy.

The much-hyped Chinese ballistic missile Dong Fang 26 (DF-26) has been described as a threat to U.S. aircraft carriers and the American base on Guam. Importantly, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Defense Project, the DF-26 is believed to have a CEP of between 150-450 meters. While this may put bases and population centers at significant risk, it casts doubt on its ability to successfully strike a moving carrier that has an attached battle group designed to protect it. 

The reportedly more accurate DF-21D (frequently referred to as the “carrier killer”) is stated to have a CEP of 20 meters. This is a significant upgrade from the older DF-21, which had a CEP of 700 meters, and the DF-21C, which was estimated to have a CEP of 40-50 meters. These low levels of accuracy on the older DF-21s mean that in the event of a shootout, many if not most of them would fail to score a direct impact on their intended moving targets. (This assumes that the missile does not break up into multiple warheads, which can increase the probability of hitting a warship.)

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If such levels of precision on the DF-21D are correct, this means that a volley of 10-20 of them fired in tandem with anti-ship cruise missiles launched from ships, fighter-bombers, or submerged Chinese submarines, would have an extremely high chance of scoring several direct hits on an American carrier, or its accompanying warships. This scenario is not new and has been studied by the Pentagon for decades; however, the likely increase in accuracy is new.  

Chinese maritime strategists are keen observers of the effects missiles have on naval warfare and on keeping a more powerful force at a safe distance. They have studied in-depth historical cases ranging from the Falklands to the Iran-Iraq War to the 1967 War between Israel and the Arab States, where the Egyptian navy utilized Styx anti-ship missiles to sink an Israeli destroyer. Considering that for several decades Chinese analysts have discussed the possibility of “saturation attacks” of up to 20 missiles at a time, if these missiles are as accurate as Iran’s, the probability of a direct hit on an American carrier is unacceptably high. 

The geographical advantage China has over the United States in East Asia compounds the challenges Washington would confront. The Pentagon has reportedly lost 18 of the last 18 simulated war games it played involving conflict with China in the Taiwan Strait. The fact that according to the Pentagon’s most recent assessment of the Chinese military, Beijing has between 980 and 2,110 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles does not bode well for American surface combatants entering a combat zone with China. 

Of course, extrapolating the accuracy of Chinese ballistic missiles based on the recent Iranian attack on American forces is not an exact science. The precise CEPs of Chinese advanced missiles is not publicly disclosed, and short of their actual use in combat, their accuracy may never be known. What is important is the fact that a much weaker and technologically inferior Iranian force was able to demonstrate a high level of accuracy with its own ballistic missiles. Considering the fact that Tehran has received military and technological assistance from Beijing in the past, it is reasonable to assume that Chinese ballistic missiles should at a minimum be able to match their Iranian counterparts in terms of accuracy.  

The implications for the United States and its allies are clear. In the event of conflict between the U.S. and China, the likelihood of Beijing being able to accurately target American surface combatants and score direct hits is very real. Interestingly, while Washington is aware of this, American leaders are actually allowing one of their most potent weapons against China to decline in numbers over the next decade. The American nuclear attack submarine force, currently numbered at 52 vessels, is scheduled to decline to 42 vessels in 2024, and will only increase to 53 submarines in 2034. 

Ultimately, the accuracy and success rate of ballistic missiles can only truly be tested in combat. Given the surprising accuracy of Iran’s missiles, Chinese leaders can take comfort in knowing they have created a durable and formidable deterrent to the American navy’s ability to operate within 500 to 1,000 miles of China’s coast. For American strategic planners the false belief that Chinese missiles may be numerous, but are inaccurate, is likely over. The prospect of waves of Chinese ballistic missiles with CEPs of 5-20 meters represents a clear warning that American surface combatants would need to stay in the rear in any initial kinetic action between China and the United States.                     

Dr. Christopher K. Colley is an Assistant Professor of Security Studies at the National Defense College of the United Arab Emirates. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the National Defense College, or the United Arab Emirates government.