Wired.com: Last week, Adm. Robert Willard, the head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), made an alarming but little-noticed disclosure. China, he told legislators, was “developing and testing a conventional anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21/CSS-5 [medium-range ballistic missile] designed specifically to target aircraft carriers.”
What, exactly, does this mean? Evidence suggests that China has been developing an anti-ship ballistic missile, or ASBM, since the 1990s. But this is the first official confirmation that it has advanced (.pdf) to the stage of actual testing.
If they can be deployed successfully, Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles would be the first capable of targeting a moving aircraft-carrier (.pdf) strike group from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. And if not countered properly, this and other “asymmetric” systems — ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, torpedoes and sea mines — could potentially threaten U.S. operations in the western Pacific, as well as in the Persian Gulf.
Willard’s disclosure should come as little surprise: China’s interest in developing ASBM and related systems has been documented in Department of Defense (.pdf) and National Air and Space Intelligence Center (.pdf) reports, as well as by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and the Congressional Research Service. Senior officials — including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair (.pdf) and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead — have pointed to the emerging threat as well.
In November 2009, Scott Bray, ONI’s Senior Intelligence Officer-China, said that Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile development “has progressed at a remarkable rate.” In the span of just over a decade, he said, “China has taken the ASBM program from the conceptual phase to nearing an operational capability.… China has elements of an [over-the-horizon] network already in place and is working to expand its horizon, timeliness and accuracy.”
When someone of Bray’s stature makes that kind of statement, attention is long overdue.
Equally intriguing has been the depiction of this capability in the Chinese media. A lengthy November 2009 program about anti-ship ballistic missiles (video) broadcast on China Central Television Channel 7 (China’s official military channel) featured an unexplained — and rather badly animated — cartoon sequence. This curious ‘toon features a sailor who falsely assumes that his carrier’s Aegis defense systems can destroy an incoming ASBM as effectively as a cruise missile, with disastrous results.
Likewise, Chinese media seem to be tracking PACOM’s statements about this more closely than the U.S. press. The graphic above is drawn from an article on Dongfang Ribao (Oriental Daily), the website of a Shanghai newspaper.
Beijing has been developing an ASBM capability at least since the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis. That strategic debacle for China likely convinced its leaders to never again allow U.S. carrier strike groups to intervene in what they consider to be a matter of absolute sovereignty. And China’s military, in an apparent attempt to deter the United States from intervening in Taiwan and other claimed areas on China’s disputed maritime periphery, seems intent on dropping significant hints of its own progress.
U.S. ships, however, will not offer a fixed target for China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles. Military planning documents like the February 2010 Joint Operating Environment (.pdf) and Quadrennial Defense Review (.pdf) clearly recognize America’s growing “anti-access” challenge, and the QDR — the Pentagon’s guiding strategy document — charges the U.S. military with multiple initiatives to address it.
In a world where U.S. naval assets will often be safest underwater, President Obama’s defense budget supports building two submarines a year and investing in a new ballistic-missile submarine. And developing effective countermeasures against anti-ship ballistic missiles is a topic of vigorous discussion in Navy circles. The United States is clearly taking steps to prevent this kind of weapon from changing the rules of the game in the Western Pacific, but continued effort will be essential for U.S. maritime forces to preserve their role in safeguarding the global commons.
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