DF-21 (Dong Feng-21 / CSS-5)

The DF-21 (Dong Feng-21, CSS-5) is a medium-range, road-mobile ballistic missile. It was the first road-mobile, solid propellant missile developed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and is a variant of the CSS-N-3 (JL-1) submarine-launched system that replaced the Dong Feng-2 (CSS-1) in the early 1980s. The Dong Feng 21’s solid-propellant system significantly increases its service life and mobility while decreasing its maintenance cost and launch time. The Dong Feng 21 represented a shift in the PRC away from liquid fueled designs.1

DF-21 at a Glance

Originated From: People’s Republic of China (PRC)
Possessed By: People’s Republic of China (PRC), Saudi Arabia
Alternate Names: CSS-5
Variants: DF-21A/B/C/D (CSS-5 Mod 2/3/4/5)
Class: Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM)
Basing: Road-mobile
Length: 10.7 m
Diameter: 1.4 m
Launch Weight: 14,700 kg
Payload: Single warhead, 600 kg
Warhead: 250 or 500 kT nuclear, HE, submunitions
Propulsion: Two-stage solid propellant
Range: 2,150 km
Status: Operational
In Service: 1991

Due to its solid propellant and Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) vehicle launch system. It can be easily transported and has a short launch time, allowing it to be deployed during a rapidly changing military situation, adding to its tactical effectiveness.2 The Dong Feng 21 can deploy a 600 kg payload with a minimum range of 500 km (311 miles) and a maximum range of 2,150 km. It carries a single warhead that can be equipped with a 250 or 500 kT yield nuclear device. It uses an inertial guidance system that is capable of striking with an accuracy of 700 m CEP. It has a length of 10.7 m, a diameter of 1.4 m and a launch weight of 14,700 kg. The missile uses a two-stage solid propellant motor.3

This missile started development in the late 1960s. The first Dong Feng 21 test launch occurred in 1985 and it became operational in 1991. China has since developed four modified versions of the DF-21 missile. Reports vary but there are likely 80 nuclear-tipped Dongfeng-21 missiles in service as of 20164

A January 2014 article in Newsweek magazine alleged that Saudi Arabia had purchased several conventional variants of the Dongfeng-21 in 2007.5

DF-21A (CSS-5 MOD 1)

Compared to the DF-21, the DF-21A has a modified nose section, a length of 12.3 m, a body diameter of 1.4 m, and a launch weight of 15,200 kg. This version is believed to have the ability to be fitted with an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warhead. Its accuracy is reportedly 50 m CEP. It was first tested in 1991 and became operational in 1996.6

DF-21 Conventional Variants

China employs two nonnuclear Dong Feng 21 variants, a land attack Dongfeng-21C and the anti-ship Dong Feng 21D. Deployment numbers are difficult to verify, and estimates range from as low as 50 to as many as 200.

DF-21C (CSS-5 MOD 4)

dong feng 21

The DF-21C is a conventional variant of the DF-21. The accuracy is reportedly 40 to 50 m CEP, with a likely range of 2,150 km. This missile likely entered service in 2006 along with the DF-21D.7 A DOD report in 2010 stated that China deployed several DF-21C launchers in its western provinces near Ka Aaidam and Delingha, causing considerable alarm in India.8

DF-21D (CSS-5 MOD 5)

The DF-21D is a conventionally armed DF-21 variant designed to attack ships at sea. Sometimes dubbed the “carrier-killer,” U.S. reports suggest a range a 1,450 to 1,550 km. Similar to the DF-21B, the warhead is likely maneuverable and may have an accuracy of 20 m CEP. This missile entered service in 2006 along with the DF-21C. In 2013, the missile was tested against a ship target that was roughly the same size as contemporary U.S. aircraft carriers.9

    1. “DF-21,” in IHS Jane’s Weapons: Strategic 2015-2016, ed. James C. O’Halloran (United Kingdom: IHS, 2015), 15-17.
    2. Ibid.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2016,” Bulletin of American Scientists, Vol. 72, Issue 4, 2016, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2016.1194054.
    5. Jeff Stein, “Exclusive: CIA helped Saudis in Secret Chinese Missile Deal,” Newsweek, January 29, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/exclusive-cia-helped-saudis-secret-chinese-missile-deal-227283.
    6. “DF-21,” in IHS Jane’s Weapons: Strategic 2015-2016, 15-17.
    7. “DF-21,” in IHS Jane’s Weapons: Strategic 2015-2016, 15-17.
    8. Hans Kristensen, “DC-21C Missile Deploys to Central China, Federation of American Scientists, September 28, 2010, http://fas.org/blogs/security/2010/09/df21c/.
    9. “DF-21,” in IHS Jane’s Weapons: Strategic 2015-2016, 15-17 “DF-21 / DF-21A (CSS-5) / DF-21B,” Army Recognition.