For more than a century, surface warships have been struggling to survive against mines, submarines, aircraft and, more recently, cruise missiles. Now China’s rapid development of a sophisticated anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) raises the threat to a new level.
The U.S. Navy, mindful of the threat and no less focused on advancing its technologies to protect its fleet, remains confident in its ability to project naval power globally on the surface as well as under water. But for less technologically advanced navies of the Asia-Pacific region, it is becoming difficult to see how in the decades ahead they can stand up to an opponent that can target surface ships with hypersonic homing warheads that can range more than 1,500 km (900 mi.)—and perhaps much farther.
China Daily is citing a range of 2,700 km for the revolutionary missile, the DF-21D, presenting the crucial data point in a report based on comments by the chief of the Chinese general staff, Gen. Chen Bingde. The Pentagon said last year the DF-21D’s range is “in excess of 1,500 km.”
If not a journalistic error, the statement means that U.S. aircraft carriers launching strike missions while keeping clear of DF-21Ds would need aircraft with even longer ranges than thought. It means that the DF-21Ds can be safely kept further inland. And, for Asian navies, it means the whole South China Sea can be covered from Guangdong, a Chinese province where DF-21Ds are based.
China’s second key revelation about the DF-21D is that it is still in development, though the U.S. has said it is in service.
“The missile is still undergoing experimental testing and will be used as a defensive weapon when it is successfully developed, not an offensive one,” says Chen. “It is a high-tech weapon and we face many difficulties in getting funding, advanced technologies and high-quality personnel, which are all underlying reasons why it is hard to develop this.”
Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in December that the DF-21D had reached the equivalent of initial operational capability. Taiwan has also said China has begun to deploy the missile. Yet Chen’s comments, made after a meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Adm. Michael Mullen, imply that any DF-21Ds that have been deployed are not regarded as fully developed.
“It’s possible that an initial ASBM variant could be more basic,” says Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, an Asia-focused think tank in Arlington, Va. “Then maybe a follow-on variant could integrate some of the more sophisticated technologies, such as a high-altitude radar system.”
U.S. Naval War College Prof. Andrew Erickson says the tone of Chen’s remarks “could be interpreted to reflect a high level of uncertainly and ambivalence about the missile’s immediate prospects, directed at a Chinese audience through Chinese media.
“Viewed in this light, the three factors Gen. Chen outlines—funding, technology, talent—may be viewed as serious constraints, even bottlenecks, in the challenging task of successfully maturing and integrating an ASBM system of systems.”
China’s idea of “operational” may be closer to the U.S. concept of full operational capability, adds Erickson.
The appearance of Chen’s statement in China Daily, an English-language newspaper acting as a government mouthpiece directed at the outside world, is itself meaningful. The paper’s reports on sensitive subjects often appear to be carefully written to deliver Beijing’s message.
The DF-21D is one such sensitive subject, as the U.S. considers how it would counter Chinese attempts to dominate nearby seas and forcibly regain control of Taiwan. In the view of some analysts, surface warships—above all, aircraft carriers—are fundamentally too vulnerable to such a weapon, because their signatures are so large and the missile is very difficult to intercept.
In the May 2011 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute journal Proceedings, two Pentagon strategists, Navy Capt. Henry Hendrix and Marine Corps Lt. Col. Noel Williams, urge immediate cessation of U.S. aircraft carrier construction. Noting such threats as the DF-21D, they write, “the march of technology is bringing the supercarrier era to an end, just as the new long-range strike capabilities of carrier aviation brought on the demise of the battleship era in the 1940s.”
Skeptics respond that the DF-21D’s kill chain can be broken in several places—for example, in target detection and tracking before launch, communication of targeting data or final homing descent. Still, considering the crews and costs of surface ships, especially carriers, the stakes are high.
“Yes, the [U.S.] Navy would want to have a high degree of confidence that they could break a link in the kill chain, but there are no certainties here,” says Eric Hagt of the World Security Institute. “It’s a game of measures, countermeasures, counter-counter-measures, et cetera. Having said that, the U.S. remains a superior, technologically capable fighting force, so it stands to reason they are able to conceive of and develop sophisticated countermeasures to the ASBM.”
However, there are no guarantees, he stresses, adding that the real mission of the DF-21D is deterrence. “It could and probably will give the U.S. Navy much more pause for concern when getting involved in any potential scenario in the western Pacific closer to China’s shores.”
The views from China’s neighboring countries and Australia are even more sobering. From there, attacking the DF-21D kill chain must look like a challenge ranging from enormous to unthinkable. Over the past few years, the Asia-Pacific-region navies have increasingly shifted their resources to submarines. Japan intends to enlarge its submarine fleet to 24 from 18 and Australia, to 12 from six.
The range of 2,700 km has previously been attributed to earlier DF-21s built to attack fixed targets, raising the possibility that the figure has appeared in the paper only as a result of sloppy journalism. That would be quite an error, however, considering that the report was supposed to convey a message abroad.
China’s military, with a seemingly atavistic aversion to public statement, tends to reveal its capabilities by just letting the world see them. Examples include its demonstration of anti-satellite technology in 2007, when it blasted away an old weather spacecraft, and the seemingly casual rolling out of the so-called J-20 fighter prototype in view of an airfield fence at Chengdu in December 2010.
“My impression is that an ASBM range requirement is driven by the maximum range of U.S. weapon-delivery platforms associated with a carrier battle group,” says Stokes. “The 2,700-km requirement seems a bit more than what’s needed.”
Nonetheless, it is clear that extra range, whether immediately available or in a future version of the DF-21, would give China greater flexibility in basing and targeting. Hagt notes that fixing targets becomes more difficult and increasingly reliant on vulnerable satellites as the range rises.
In the same report, China Daily says the incomplete carrier China bought from Ukraine in 1998, Varyag, “is expected to serve primarily as a training vessel for pilots and deck crews.” Such training has always been assumed as the initial role of the ship, since China has little or no experience in the difficult business of operating fixed-wing aircraft at sea.
“China is a big country and we have quite a large number of ships, but they are only small ships,” Chen says. “This is not commensurate with the status of a country like China.” The U.S. is “a real world power” because it has 11 aircraft carriers, he adds. The general also says much Chinese military technology is at the level of U.S. equipment used 20-30 years ago.