3 Chinese Weapons of War the U.S. Navy Should Fear

Fire from all directions awaits the U.S. Navy in a conflict with Beijing. 

The U.S. Navy has a problem. The amount of threats it faces when it comes to ensuring the global commons remain open and free keep multiplying. Most of them come from what we have dubbed anti-access/area-denial strategies and weapons systems. Nations like China, Iran, Russia and in some respects North Korea and various non-state actors all want to raise the costs for Washington’s naval assets to operate near their coasts in the event of a crisis or war. And with the diffusion of cheaper weapons that only American and its allies held years ago-- such as various types of cruise and ballistic missiles, mines, subs, and other weapons-- Washington is working hard to find ways to negate such challenges.

But let there be no doubt, the greatest challenge to the U.S. Navy when it comes to A2/AD weapons platforms comes from China. Beijing has developed a sophisticated arsenal of weapons that would likely create lots of interesting dilemmas for the U.S. Navy in the event of a conflict or war. Below I present three of the most deadly that Washington needs to give careful consideration to--in no particular order, but all nerve wracking to say the very least:

The DF-21D: The Carrier Killer:

While China was clearly set upon a path to develop a more advanced military after the conclusion of the First Gulf War (see Robert Farley’s excellent discussion of this), an event much closer to home only helped to reinforce Beijing’s worst fears--which drove China to develop what many of us in the press have named “the carrier-killer” or DF-21D.

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The 1995-1996 crisis over Taiwan clearly demonstrated Beijing’s predicament at the time: when faced with a superior military power with technologically advanced weapons China would have no ability to compete in the near future. It is largely because of careful analysis of this crisis that Beijing would fear the power of American Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) and their ability to negate China’s military power and influence in the near seas and especially around Taiwan. The crisis would also guide China’s thinking on the development and acquisition of new weapons systems that could provide an asymmetric advantage and negate America’s technological edge.

America’s actions during the crisis would have tremendous repercussions for China’s future military doctrine and force structure. The U.S. would deploy two CBGs in a show of support for Taiwan—an important symbol of American power and deterrence. The long-term ramifications of the crisis are clear: PLA planners began an important effort to blunt the advantages of American CBG’s. To do this, they looked to an existing technology they already possessed: cruise and ballistic missiles.

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While media reports of advanced missiles with the ability to strike carriers maybe in the news today, there is a clear line from the 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis and China’s deployment over the last several years of a missile-centric A2/AD strategy. One important example is from the testimony of Larry Wortzel to the U.S. Congress in 2009,

I was the Army Attaché in Beijing in 1995 to 1997, 98, and the first time a senior Chinese military officer of the General Staff Department mentioned ballistic missiles attacking carriers was after our two carriers showed up, and he put his arm around my shoulder and said we're going to sink your carriers with ballistic missiles…

China would henceforth embark on a program to develop what is referred to as the DF-21D (for the only history on the DF-21D see Andrew Erickson’s monograph on the subject), the first deployed medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile (commonly referred to as an ASBM) with the capability to strike a moving capital ship on the high seas. With a range of approximately “1500+km”, such a weapon would be the first ballistic missile with the accuracy to—at least in theory—deliver a mission kill to a capital ship.

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The weapon is launched from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere. Presumably aided by over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles each providing guidance to the weapon. It also incorporates a maneuverable warhead to help find its target and negate countermeasures. Assuming a targeted vessel was at the presumed maximum range of the missile, it would only take ten minutes to reach its destination.

But the real question is this: Just how good is it? The real and most honest answer is that no one really knows for sure--well, at least not in an open-source, nonclassified way. When I put the question to Roger Cliff , a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council back in 2012, he gave what I consider still the best answer on the subject:

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