Russia's Sarmat ICBM. Photo: Russian Defense Ministry

This week, China and Russia conducted separate missile tests in what analysts saw a thinly-veiled warning to the US and its allies.

For its part, China tested its YJ-21 hypersonic missile from a Type 055 Renhai cruiser. Little is known about the YJ-21 and there was no official notice of the test launch. However, video footage of the missile test shows that it is a cold-launched anti-ship ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). It also has small control surfaces, which means that it is not a surface-to-air missile.

According to naval expert H I Sutton, the YJ-21 “outwardly resembles the CM-401 design, with the addition of a large booster phase. The CM-401 is roughly analogous to the Iskander missile although its diameter is only 600mm. It is possible that the new missile is related to the older CM-401 family, although the resemblance may be coincidental. And it may have a smaller diameter.”

If these observations are correct, the YJ-21 could make China’s Type 055 one of the heaviest-armed warships in the world. The class is equipped with the Type-346B AESA radar, which is analogous to the AN/SPY-6 on Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyers. It features an integrated mast and sleek superstructure for reduced radar and infrared signatures.

The class is also armed with 128 VLS cells arranged in two silos of 64 each, a H/PJ-38 130 mm main gun, H/PJ-11 30 mm close-in weapons system (CIWS), Yu-8 anti-submarine rockets and Yu-7 lightweight torpedoes launched from two triple torpedo tubes.

Meanwhile, Russia tested its Sarmat-2 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) this week, coinciding with its renewed military offensive in eastern Ukraine. The Sarmat is considered Russia’s heaviest and most powerful nuclear-armed ICBM. It weighs 220 tons, carries up to 10 or more warheads and can fly over the North and South poles to strike targets anywhere in the world.

In response to Russia’s Sarmat ICBM test, in a rare maneuver, the US flew two RC-135S surveillance planes near Russia’s east coast, presumably to glean as much data as possible from Russia’s first-of-its kind ICBM test. The US may have deployed two surveillance planes to better monitor the Sarmat at different altitudes to cover the missile’s re-entry, or to test classified equipment.

The Russian missile was revealed in 2018 as one of Moscow’s six “superweapons” that include the Avangard HGV, Poseidon nuclear-armed underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV), Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic missile, and Tsirkon ship-launched hypersonic missile.

Images of the launch of a YJ-21 missile emerged online, prompting warnings from analysts. Image: Twitter

China’s successful missile test aboard its Type 055 cruiser may be a portent of its asymmetric strategy to offset US naval superiority. While China may have the world’s largest navy, most of its naval vessels are smaller craft, and the US still has a qualitative and quantitative lead in terms of large surface combatants.

That said, the YJ-21 may be incorporated into future Type 055 units and other Chinese large surface combatants such its Type 52 destroyers, giving a few major Chinese surface combatants an effective weapon to offset US naval strength in the Pacific.

The YJ-21’s shipboard test also puts China ahead of the US in terms of ship-launched hypersonic weapons. Likewise, Russia has already successfully tested ship and submarine-launched hypersonics, further putting the US on the back foot when it comes to naval applications of such weapons.

In contrast, the US intends to equip its three Zumwalt-class destroyers with hypersonic missiles, with the upgrades to be implemented by 2025.

Russia’s move to place its nuclear forces on high alert and its subsequent Sarmat ICBM tests may signal a new era of wars of aggression fought under the cover of nuclear threat and escalation. In practice, Russia’s threats severely curtail what the US and NATO could and would do to assist Ukraine.

Even if Ukraine manages to hold its ground to a military stalemate, the war would still be a win for Russia in the sense that it has achieved its strategic goal to prevent Ukraine’s further drift to the West.

Likewise, China may resort to nuclear saber-rattling to dissuade or severely limit the US’ options to intervene or assist Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Such does not bode well for other US allies in the Pacific, as such a dynamic potentially undermines the value of the extended deterrence of the US alliance network in the region.