DF-26 missiles at a military parade in Tiananmen Gate in Beijing

Chinese state media on Sunday revealed features of a “new-generation” medium-range ballistic missile that can manoeuvre in flight to accurately attack aircraft carriers at sea. According to China's Ministry of National Defence, the DF-26 can carry nuclear or conventional warheads.

The report on state-run Global Times came days after the Chinese government released footage of a new test of the DF-26 ballistic missile, which was first shown to the public in 2015. The report comes in the wake of growing rhetoric from China on its ability to sink aircraft carriers of the US Navy. The purported capabilities of the DF-26 are likely to be noticed by the likes of the US, India and Japan, all of which are developing aircraft carrier capabilities to counter China.

The Global Times report shows images of a DF-26 ballistic missile sporting four 'fins' on its nose cone. The fins can act as control surfaces to enhance the manoeuvrability of the DF-26 as it re-enters the atmosphere to hit its target.

The Global Times report quotes Song Zhongping, a former official of the People's Liberation Army, who explains that the features provide the DF-26 missile “increased targeting capability, speed, and stealth, making it more difficult to intercept.”

Since the turn of the millennium, there have been reports that China was working on ballistic missiles capable of hitting aircraft carriers, the US Navy's main weapon in the event of a conflict with Beijing.

Most current anti-ship missiles, such as the Indo-Russian BrahMos or US-built Harpoon, are cruise missiles that travel in the atmosphere. Compared with cruise missiles, ballistic missiles—which rely on a ballistic trajectory—are much faster and more difficult to shoot down, though they are generally less accurate. The complications of using ballistic missiles against ships are exacerbated by difficulties in accurately finding moving targets in the expanse of the sea.

There was speculation that Beijing had deployed a variant of the DF-21 missile that could target an aircraft carrier. The DF-26 is thought to have twice the range of the DF-21, which was estimated to have a range of around 2,000 km.

The renewed claims of the capabilities of the DF-26 missile come in the wake of comments by a Chinese official that Beijing could force the US to accept its control of disputed waterways in the South China Sea by “sinking two US aircraft carriers”. Rear Admiral Lou Yuan, deputy head of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, made the statement at a military summit in late December.