China is hardly a stranger to developing medium- and intermediate-range anti-ship ballistic missiles with maneuvering warheads to help exert authority over its broad territorial claims and deny opponents access to wide areas during potential regional conflicts. Now the Chinese have unveiled a new, short-range ballistic missile that could arm shore batteries, its future Type 055 destroyers, and make its way onto the export market as well.
The state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) publicly unveiled the new missile, called the CM-401, at the biennial Zhuhai Airshow, which officially kicked off on Nov. 6, 2018, and also serves as a general arms expo. CASIC had two launch platforms on display at the event, an 8×8 truck-mounted type with two missiles inside self-contained launch canisters and what appeared to be a deck launcher for ships, also with two self-contained missiles.
There are few detailed specifics about the weapon and its launchers so far, but observers believe that the missile itself has a maximum diameter of approximately 2.8 feet. This is similar to that of the Russian Iskander-M quasi-ballistic missile. The CM-401’s general shape looks similar to Russia’s missile, but it appears to be smaller overall.
Per CASIC’s display, their new missile has a minimum range of around nine miles and a maximum range of just over 180 miles. This puts it firmly in the short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) category, which typically refers to any such weapon with a range of fewer than 620 miles. The U.S. military also uses the term “close-range ballistic missile” (CRBM) to cover weapons with a range of fewer than 186 miles.
Graphics associated with the CM-401 suggest it has a “porpoising” or “skip-glide” trajectory that involves the warhead abruptly pulling up at least once as it begins the terminal stage of its flight. This maneuver could extend the range of a ballistic weapon, but has only ever been used to give the warhead a much more irregular flight path and allow it to adjust its course.
This, in turn, makes it harder for an opponent to try and intercept the warhead. The CM-401’s terminal speed, which CASIC says is between Mach 4 and 6, would also help it break through enemy defenses to reach its target. The launch platform reportedly has the ability to fire its two missiles on different trajectories against either one or two targets at once, again increasing the difficulty for the defender to respond to the incoming threat.
This maneuvering capability is also what allows the warhead to engage large, relatively slow-moving targets, such as aircraft carriers and other major surface combatant and logistics ships. A cutaway of the mockup CM-401 missile that CASIC showed off at Zhuhai shows what appears to be a phased array radar in the nose so that the warhead can actively home in on those types of targets during its terminal phase.
CASIC says that the CM-401 has a secondary land attack function that could benefit from its defense-breaking maneuvering capability, as well. This could be particularly beneficial for ship-launched versions, giving the weapon added flexibility over existing, dedicated anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles.
The display at Zhuhai suggested the missile could be a future part of the arsenal on board China’s Type 055 destroyers, which are already a modern and capable design that you can read about in more detail here. There is no indication about how many two-missile launchers each ship might carry or whether the vessels might employ an entirely different launch system, such as a vertical launcher.