DF-21 (CSS-5)

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The DF-21 (Dong Feng-21, CSS-5) is a medium-range, road-mobile ballistic missile. In service since 1991, it was China’s first road-mobile missile to use solid propellant. China has developed new DF-21 variants, including a dual nuclear/conventional capable variant (DF-21C) and another designed as an antiship ballistic missile (DF-21D). In 2016, the U.S Department of Defense revealed a new nuclear variant, the DF-21E CSS-5 Mod 6).

DF-21 at a Glance

Originated From
Possessed by
China, Saudi Arabia
Alternate Names
DF-21A/B/C/D (CSS-5 Mod 2/3/4/5)
Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM)
Road-mobile transporter erector launcher
10.7 m
1.4 m
Launch weight
14,700 kg
600 kg
250 or 500 kT nuclear or conventional high-explosive
Two-stage solid propellant
2,150 km
In service

DF-21 Development

The DF-21 was China’s first solid-fuel road mobile missile, which entered service in 1991 to replace the obsolete Dong Feng-2 (CSS-1). 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

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 can be armed with a single reentry vehicle 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-21 Variants

Designation Mission / WarheadYear Deployed
DF-21 (CSS-5)Nuclear 1991
DF-21A (CSS-5 Mod 2)Nuclear 1996
DF-21C (CSS-5 Mod 4)Conventional 2006
DF-21D (CSS-5)Antiship / Conventional2006
DF-21E (CSS-5 Mod 6)Nuclear 2016
DF-21 Variants

DF-21A (CSS-5 MOD 2)

In 1996, China began replacing the DF-21 with an improved version of missile dubbed the DF-21A. The variant has a modified nose section, and measures 12.3 meters in length with a body diameter of 1.4 m, and a launch weight of 15,200 kg. The DF-21A has improved accuracy over the original DF-21, reportedly 50 m CEP. The first known flight test of the DF-21A was in 1991. It has since fully replaced the original DF-21A as the nuclear armed portion It was first tested in 1991 and became operational in 1996.6

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)

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.
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Missile Defense Project, "DF-21 (CSS-5)," Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 13, 2016, last modified April 23, 2024, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/df-21/.