AOL News: Major advances in China’s military prowess — specifically with powerful anti-ship missiles known as aircraft “carrier killers” — could threaten the U.S. Navy’s ability to maintain strategic dominance in the western Pacific and safeguard the independence of Taiwan.Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the daily Japanese newspaper Asahi that China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles have achieved “initial operational capability” — meaning they have apparently been tested enough to be used.
That development bolsters Beijing’s potential capability to attack from long range American forces in the western Pacific defending Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. These so called “anti-access” and “area denial” capacities are considered by the Pentagon to be one of the top goals of Chinese military planning.
“This kind of capability should be a concern to the region, and it poses a challenge to any naval or air operations that would be conducted in that area were it to be employed,” Willard said in an interview published Tuesday in Asahi.
The Defense Department’s latest annual report to Congress on China’s military and security developments, made public in August, said China is developing anti-ship ballistic missiles with a range of more than 900 miles that work with over-the-horizon radar and satellite targeting systems that could attack aircraft carriers and other ships.
But Willard said the missile system has now undergone “extensive testing,” and while more testing will continue, it can be considered operational.
China, financially empowered by its blockbuster economy, has also apparently accelerated development of a stealth fighter jet, though that appears to still be years away from deployment. And it may be close to finishing refurbishment of a former Soviet aircraft carrier bought from Ukraine more than a decade ago.
Reuters last week cited a person close to the Chinese leadership saying the carrier could launch as early as next year, though it could still be a considerable amount of time after that before the ship becomes militarily operational.
The Pentagon report said it could take four years before participants in an initial carrier pilot program began ship-borne flights off the carrier bought from Ukraine.
The bigger, more immediate issue is China’s ability to threaten U.S. aircraft carrier groups, which currently help the U.S. maintain air superiority in the international waters of the Taiwan Strait — a crucial tenet of the tacit American promise to protect Taiwan.
China’s anti-access/area denial strategy, which includes the buildup of hidden submarine pens, seems to be a key component of the People’s Liberation Army’s mission “to deter Taiwan independence or influence Taiwan to settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms while simultaneously attempting to deter, delay or deny any possible U.S. support for the island in case of conflict,” as described by the Pentagon.
Deterrence is as much about psychology as actual war. Beijing can gain some tactical advantage simply by making the U.S. Navy more skittish about deploying its carrier groups in certain waters — at least down the line.
In 1996, after China fired missiles over Taiwan amid elections on the island state, the U.S. sent two carrier battle groups to the strait. But some military experts question whether the U.S. could or would do that now.
“Is it affecting my operations today? Not at all,” Willard said. “Were it to pose a challenge to the United States, I’m confident that I have the capability to operate in that air space and water space.”
But asked whether the risks to carriers have become much bigger in the past 15 years, the admiral acknowledged that “the anti-access/area denial capabilities, fully employed, will present a challenge to military operations in the region.”
And that, he added, “will have to be overcome.”