DF-26B and DF-21D missiles launched in August struck moving vessel close to Paracel Islands, former senior colonel Wang Xiangsui says. ‘This is a warning to the US, asking it not to take any military risk,’ he says

The two “aircraft-carrier killer” missiles that China launched in August travelled thousands of kilometres and hit their designated target, a moving ship, near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, according to a Chinese military expert.

This is the first time the Chinese side has revealed details of the missile launches, which were first reported by the South China Morning Post in August. The news was later confirmed by the US military. After the launches it was reported that the missiles fell into the South China Sea, but Wang Xiangsui, a former senior colonel who now works as a professor at Beihang University in Beijing, said they hit a ship, their intended target.

One of the missiles, a DF-26B, was launched from the north-western province of Qinghai, while the other, a DF-21D, lifted off from Zhejiang province in China’s east. The launches came a day after Beijing said a US U-2 spy plane entered a no-fly zone without permission during a Chinese live-fire naval drill in the Bohai Sea off its northern coast. The US Navy had earlier sent two aircraft carrier strike groups into the South China Sea.

“So several days later [after the aircraft carrier manoeuvres], we launched the DF-21 and DF-26, and the missiles hit a vessel sailing south of the Paracel Islands,” Wang said at a closed-door meeting in Zhejiang last month. The details of his speech were published for the first time on Wednesday.

“Shortly after that, an American military attaché in Geneva complained [to us] and said it would lead to severe consequences if the missiles hit an American aircraft carrier. They see this as a show of force. But we are doing this because of their provocation,” Wang said.

His remarks were made during the four-day Moganshan forum to discuss domestic and international issues and China’s new five-year plan. The event was organised by the National Development and Reform Commission and attended by 80 economists, former government officials and entrepreneurs.

“This is a warning to the US, asking it not to take any military risks,” Wang said. “Such actions mark the bottom line of Sino-US confrontation.”

The missile launches came at a time of high tensions between Beijing and Washington over the disputed South China Sea.

The US Navy said on July 4 it had deployed two aircraft carrier groups, led by the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, to conduct tactical air defence exercises in the disputed waters “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific”. Beijing blasted the manoeuvres, describing them as provocative, while the US said China’s missile launches were reckless and destabilising.

Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery Corps, said 
the mission was evidence that China could carry out long-range precision strikes against medium to large surface vessels.

“To hit a moving object is not an easy task, especially for ballistic missiles, which normally hit a stationary target,” he said. “The mission shows Chinese missiles are a real deterrent against US warships.”

Michael Raska, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said China was developing advanced combat systems capable of negating the United States’ traditional military superiority.

“The key problem for the US is to sustain its long-term deterrence, particularly in contested areas, while simultaneously mitigating risks,” he said. According to a report published by the US defence department in September, China may have already overtaken America in the area of missile development and shipbuilding, and is set to double its nuclear warhead stockpile over the next decade.

The PLA has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges of up to 5,500km (3,400 miles). The US has a single type of conventional ground-launched ballistic missile, with a range of 70km to 300km, the report said.