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Could China's Aircraft Carrier Killer Missiles 'Sink' the U.S. Navy?

The Buzz

“The SM-3 has an exoatmospheric kill vehicle, meaning that it can only intercept the missile during mid-course, when it’s traveling through space, so an Aegis ship escorting the target would have to fire its SM-3 almost immediately in order to intercept the missile before it reentered the atmosphere, or else there would have to be an Aegis ship positioned right under the flight path of the missile. The DF-21D may be equipped with decoys that are deployed in mid-course, making the SM-3’s job harder. U.S. Aegis ships are also equipped with the SM-2 Block 4 missile, which is capable of intercepting missiles within the atmosphere, but the DF-21D warhead will be performing some high-G maneuvers, which may make it impossible for the SM-2 Block 4 to successfully intercept it.

How all this would work in reality is impossible to know in advance. Even after China has tested its missile against an actual ship, it won’t have tested it against one employing the full range of countermeasures that a U.S. ship would throw at it and, as you say, the U.S. Navy will never have tested its defenses against such an attack. Somebody is likely to be surprised and disappointed, but there is no way of knowing who.”

Indeed, as Cliff points out, U.S. carriers do have defenses, albeit against more traditional threats. However, it is important that we keep in mind that American carriers have been a target going back decades, and their defense has been something U.S. naval planners have been working on for many years.

Perhaps my favorite response to the DF-21D challenge is from the widely read blog Information Dissemination, that explains:

“Warships will continue to face new and challenging threats. If the past 125 years is a guide, naval weapon designers, and operational and tactical theorists will be ready to develop systems and operational and tactical measures to counter them. The DF-21D is a new threat, but it is not likely to be an operational and tactical surprise as were the Japanese A6M Zero fighter and the 24 cm Type 93 Long Lance surface torpedo to the U.S. Navy at the outset of World War 2. Open source reporting to date indicate the DF-21D has been tested against fixed land targets but not against a large moving target at sea. The U.S. Navy on the other hand has been working to counter the ballistic missile threat for over 20 years. There is certainly time to develop an effective counter to the DF-21D.”  

China’s “carrier-killer,” just like many of Beijing’s weapons systems must be thought of as part of a larger anti-access strategy. If a conflict with Washington or another great power ever occurred, China is betting on using such weapons platforms to make any sort of intervention in the Taiwan strait, East or South China Seas as painful as possible. With that said, there is much we don’t know about the DF-21D, or how well it would work in an actual shooting war.

In the end, the weapon might not be the great “game-changer” that many point it out to be, but a great complicator. Let’s just hope the only times we see this missile are on a parade route.  

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.

Image: Reuters. 

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What Will Be the Legacy of Xi Jinping's Power Play in China?

The Buzz

“The SM-3 has an exoatmospheric kill vehicle, meaning that it can only intercept the missile during mid-course, when it’s traveling through space, so an Aegis ship escorting the target would have to fire its SM-3 almost immediately in order to intercept the missile before it reentered the atmosphere, or else there would have to be an Aegis ship positioned right under the flight path of the missile. The DF-21D may be equipped with decoys that are deployed in mid-course, making the SM-3’s job harder. U.S. Aegis ships are also equipped with the SM-2 Block 4 missile, which is capable of intercepting missiles within the atmosphere, but the DF-21D warhead will be performing some high-G maneuvers, which may make it impossible for the SM-2 Block 4 to successfully intercept it.

How all this would work in reality is impossible to know in advance. Even after China has tested its missile against an actual ship, it won’t have tested it against one employing the full range of countermeasures that a U.S. ship would throw at it and, as you say, the U.S. Navy will never have tested its defenses against such an attack. Somebody is likely to be surprised and disappointed, but there is no way of knowing who.”

Indeed, as Cliff points out, U.S. carriers do have defenses, albeit against more traditional threats. However, it is important that we keep in mind that American carriers have been a target going back decades, and their defense has been something U.S. naval planners have been working on for many years.

Perhaps my favorite response to the DF-21D challenge is from the widely read blog Information Dissemination, that explains:

“Warships will continue to face new and challenging threats. If the past 125 years is a guide, naval weapon designers, and operational and tactical theorists will be ready to develop systems and operational and tactical measures to counter them. The DF-21D is a new threat, but it is not likely to be an operational and tactical surprise as were the Japanese A6M Zero fighter and the 24 cm Type 93 Long Lance surface torpedo to the U.S. Navy at the outset of World War 2. Open source reporting to date indicate the DF-21D has been tested against fixed land targets but not against a large moving target at sea. The U.S. Navy on the other hand has been working to counter the ballistic missile threat for over 20 years. There is certainly time to develop an effective counter to the DF-21D.”  

China’s “carrier-killer,” just like many of Beijing’s weapons systems must be thought of as part of a larger anti-access strategy. If a conflict with Washington or another great power ever occurred, China is betting on using such weapons platforms to make any sort of intervention in the Taiwan strait, East or South China Seas as painful as possible. With that said, there is much we don’t know about the DF-21D, or how well it would work in an actual shooting war.

In the end, the weapon might not be the great “game-changer” that many point it out to be, but a great complicator. Let’s just hope the only times we see this missile are on a parade route.  

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.

Image: Reuters. 

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