China’s Eagle Strike-Eight Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles: YJ-81, YJ-82, and C802
Part 2 of an in-depth series covering this greatly misunderstood family
With the growth of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the first carrier landings aboard the Liaoning (China’s first aircraft carrier), and the arguments over disputed islands and reefs in the South and East China Seas getting louder and louder, it is only natural there would be increased media coverage on the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military capabilities. Unfortunately, the confusing and often-inaccurate information on the technical aspects of China’s armed forces, and in this particular case the PLAN, makes meaningful debate difficult. One especially troublesome example is the inadequate reporting on China’s anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), and more specifically the Ying Ji-8 (YJ-8) or Eagle Strike-Eight anti-ship cruise missile family. The purpose of this series of articles is to conduct a critical review of the available evidence to sort out the correct identity of the members of this missile family, as well as providing accurate characteristics and performance data. In Part 1 of this three-part series, designation confusion, as well as the first two members of the family – the YJ-8 and YJ-8A – were covered.
The PLAN’s keen desire for an air-launched version of the YJ-8 drove a near simultaneous development and test program alongside the ship-launched missile. The YJ-81 is very similar to the YJ-8, but without the booster (see Figure 5). The shorter section aft of the wings, lack of a scoop, and an underbelly cable run, identify this as a rocket-propelled missile. Like the YJ-8 it has fixed wings, but there is a faired boattail cap over the rocket exhaust to help reduce the missile’s drag when carried on an aircraft’s pylon. The small size and low weight of the YJ-81 provided smaller tactical aircraft in the PLAN inventory with a standoff anti-ship strike capability for the first time.
The YJ-81 is reported to have begun flight-testing in the mid-1980s, and reached IOC in 1989. The missile was marketed as the C801K. The “K” reportedly means “Kongjun” or air force, indicating an aircraft launched missile. Iran purchased the C801K and began receiving shipments in the mid-1990s. The YJ-8K designator that has often been used is incorrect, but it is an understandable mistake. A knowledgeable outside source, which knew the proper designator for the ship version, merely added the “K” to distinguish the missile as an aircraft weapon. And while this is consistent with current PLAN practice (see the YJ-83 discussion) it either wasn’t accepted practice early on, or the policy wasn’t followed for this particular missile as the pictures in Figure 5 clearly illustrate.
Since the late 1970s, the PLAN had eagerly sought to develop a submarine-launched ASCM. But it wasn’t until the YJ-8 program got started that they finally had a weapon they could work with. The Styx-based missiles were far too big, and there were significant safety concerns with putting volatile liquid-fueled missiles on submarines. The small, solid rocket-fueled YJ-8 was exactly what the PLAN was looking for. Their first effort, however, was somewhat half-hearted.
In the fall of 1983, the PLAN accepted delivery of a modified Type 033 Romeo class submarine with six external missile tubes for launching the YJ-8. The new Type 033G submarine began test-firing trials in 1985, and while the launch system appears to have functioned adequately, there was one fatal flaw that effectively ended further development – the submarine had to surface to fire. With a range of only 42 km (22.7 nm), the submarine would be highly susceptible to detection by radar and engaged before it could get all its missiles off. According to one Chinese article, the six missiles could be launched in six to seven minutes after the submarine had surfaced. That’s an uncomfortably long time for a submarine to be on the surface, exposed, that close to a hostile surface ship. A submerged launch option had to be developed to enable the submarine to remain stealthy until it was time to fire, as well as giving it a chance of escape after launching its attack.
For reasons that haven’t been revealed, the Chinese chose a torpedo tube launched approach rather than the external tubes popular with Soviet submarines. This certainly alleviated many complicated submarine design issues, but this choice had problems of its own. In the late 1980s, there were only two ASCMs capable of being launched from a submarine torpedo tube, the French SM39 Exocet and the U.S. UGM-84 Harpoon. Both missiles were encapsulated in a sealed canister to protect the missile from the seawater, but they had very different ways of getting the missile out of the water and into the air.
The French SM39 capsule had a small rocket motor that propelled it out of the water, and once airborne, launched the missile. The U.S. Harpoon employed an unpowered buoyant capsule that used stabilizing fins to guide the capsule upward after being ejected from the tube. As soon as the missile broached the surface, a pressure sensor in the capsule’s nose would detect atmospheric pressure and initiated a small charge that would blow the nose cap off. A split-second later, the booster was ignited and the missile would rise skyward.
Obtaining either missile would have been difficult. France and the U.S. had been slowly warming to China, but it was problematic whether either country would be willing to sell the PRC advanced anti-ship missiles – at least at a price the Chinese were willing to pay. And after the Tiananmen Square incident in June 1989, it became even harder as an arms embargo was soon put in place. But China did have a growing relationship with a country that had access to the U.S. missile.
Pakistan is the most likely source of submarine-launched Harpoon technology that was transferred to China. The two nations were drawing closer to each other diplomatically and militarily due to their mutual concern over India, and the Pakistani Navy’s Agosta and Daphne class submarines had been modified to launch Sub-Harpoon missiles between 1984 and 1986. An additional motivating factor was China’s considerable technical assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. A quid pro quo arrangement for Chinese engineers to exam and/or dissect a Sub-Harpoon missile would not have been an outrageous request.
Western reporting put the first test firing of a YJ-82 in 1997 from the lead Song (Type 039) class submarine. Limited information suggests the initial flight tests didn’t go well. It wasn’t until 2004, at the Zhuhai Airshow China exposition, that the first photo of a model YJ-82 was seen in a CPMIEC brochure. The photo showed a YJ-8 type missile, without a booster, in an unpowered capsule that is an almost exact duplicate of the U.S. Sub-Harpoon system (see Figure 6). Subsequent Internet photos of encapsulated YJ-82 missiles are consistent with the brochure model, and the length of these capsules is virtually the same as the 6.1-meter submarine-launched encapsulated Harpoon missile. Photos of actual launches show a YJ-8 type missile, sans booster, rising from the ocean surface, very similar to submarine-launched Harpoon firings.
Figure 7 is a photo of an actual YJ-82 missile, and it has all the features of a rocket-propelled missile. The section aft of the wings is short, there isn’t a turbojet scoop, and while the underbelly cable run can’t be seen from this angle, the missile model in Figure 6 does show it. This finding conclusively counters one of the most popular myths propagated in the Western press and on many Internet sites; the YJ-82 cannot be the indigenous version of the export C802 – the two missiles are launched from very different platforms and have radically different propulsion plants. Furthermore, the designation C801Q starting showing up in Western articles and Internet blog sites around the same time and was described as a submarine-launched missile. Reportedly the “Q” means Qian, or submarine. The YJ-82 is most definitely a C801 type missile that is submarine launched, hence the C801Q designation undoubtedly represents the export version.
As for the other related designator, YJ-8Q, this falls into the same category as the YJ-8K. A knowledgeable outside source added the “Q” behind the YJ-8 designation to distinguish it as a submarine-launched weapon. This was probably a well-intentioned attempt to help reduce the confusion, but nonetheless, it is still inaccurate.
Even as the YJ-8 was undergoing flight tests, the Chinese knew they had to find a way to extend the missile’s range. While it is unknown as to when their deliberations actually began, the Chinese eventually decided on an air breathing solution and reached out to Microturbo SA in France sometime during the mid-1980s. Microturbo SA’s TRI 60 series small turbojets had been widely used in drones and missiles, to include the British Sea Eagle and the Swedish RBS-15 ASCMs. With a diameter of 0.33 meters, the small turbojet was just the right size for a YJ-8 type missile. By 1987, the year the YJ-8 reached IOC, Microturbo SA had delivered the first shipment of TRI 60-2 turbojets. According to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report, up to 150 TRI 60-2 turbojet engines would eventually be purchased through the mid-1990s. Shortly after this first shipment was received, the Chinese began a crash program to reverse engineer the turbojet engine and produce it themselves. But in the meantime, they could still offer an extended range missile on the arms market using the French supplied turbojets.
Like the C801, the C802 was advertised years before it was ready. It was first presented at ASIANDEX 1988, with a follow-on showing at the Paris Air Show in 1989. The C802 missile was 0.58 meters longer than the C801. The extra length was added aft of the wings, to accommodate the turbojet and it’s inlet duct, along with a short, flat-faced inlet scoop nestled between the lower wings. Figure 8 shows a mockup of a C802 missile with the longer aft section, scoop inlet, and flank-mounted cable runs.
The C802’s speed remained in the high-subsonic range, as the TRI 60-2 turbojet has a maximum rated speed between Mach 0.7 and 0.9. The warhead, navigation, and radar homing seeker subsystems remained essentially unchanged from the C801. CPMIEC brochure data, however, suggests that additional electronic counter-countermeasure features were added to the C802 seeker, but this would have had limited impact on the missile’s design. But by far and away the biggest selling point of the new C802 was the 120 km range – nearly three times that of the C801 – a characteristic that caught Iran’s attention. By 1990, Iran was in serious negotiations with China to purchase approximately 200 missiles, 100 or so each of the C801 and C802. These negotiations appear to have been successfully concluded in 1992, however, there would be additional discussions to hammer out disagreements up through the fall of 1994.
There are no known reports in the open press as to when the C802 began flight-testing. A review of news articles indicates the Iranians began receiving C801 missiles in 1993, and C802 missiles in late 1994 or early 1995, suggesting flight tests had to have been completed by 1993 or 1994. The first solid piece of evidence indicating the C802 had reached IOC was in late November 1995, when a C802 missile was launched during the Iranian Saeqa-4 (Thunderbolt-4) exercise.
In examining the designators for the C802, there is a unique aspect to this missile; it can’t be directly linked back to one used by the PLAN. The YJ-82 designator was discussed in the previous section, but the YJ-82K designator, signifying the air-launched variant, has also been used to refer to the export C802K. This designator is incorrect as well, as it presumes the YJ-82 and C802 are directly related, which they are not.
Many Western sources have also used the YJ-2 designation for the domestic version of this missile. Like the YJ-1 designation, this is an early-1990s creation that has its basis in speculation. However, unlike the YJ-1, there isn’t a missile in the PLAN inventory with the YJ-2 designator stenciled on its side to concretely disprove the claim. On the flip side, the lack of any evidence of a missile with the YJ-2 designator doesn’t bolster the other argument either. According to recent technical journal articles, the YJ-8A was the primary PLAN ASCM during most of the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Indeed, there are numerous Internet photos of PLAN ships with double, triple, and even quadruple launchers, which first appeared in 1997-98 on the Luhai (Type 051B) class destroyer, launching YJ-8A rocket-propelled missiles. Just as compelling is the complete lack of photos of a C802 being handled by PLAN sailors or launched from PLAN surface combatants during the 1990s. The lack of any kind of evidence whatsoever makes it very difficult to conclude the C802 was ever adopted by the PLAN.
Furthermore, all the C802 missiles that were delivered in the mid-1990s were manufactured with Microturbo SA supplied turbojets. The Chinese military rarely accepts a weapon into wide scale use unless its industrial base can produce it. The arms embargo after the Tiananmen Square incident drove that lesson home. And it wasn’t until late 1995, or early 1996, that Chinese engineers mastered the production of an indigenous version of the TRI 60-2 engine. Western news articles only started reporting on China’s negotiations with the Iranians to produce the turbojet in Iran during the 1996-97 timeframe. All this supports the conclusion the C802 missile was an export weapon only, a means to provide funds to pay for the development of the ASCM the PLAN really wanted, the YJ-83.
Christopher P. Carlson is a co-designer of the Harpoon tactical naval wargame and a bestselling author.