Should America Fear China's "Carrier-Killer" Missile?

How worried should the U.S. Navy be when it comes to the much-discussed DF-21D? 

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Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including: Asia’s Greatest Fear: A U.S.-China War, Will the F-35 Dominate the Skies?, Five Best Bombers of All Time, and The Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time.

The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) has generated a tremendous amount of interest over the past five years. If it works, it poses a very serious threat to U.S. Navy (USN) carriers, as well as to the other advanced warships of the USN, of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, and others.

An anti-ship ballistic missile is more than just a missile; it requires a broad, sophisticated support system. Unlike a missile launched at static targets, a carrier-killing ASBM requires terminal guidance, as it must revise its flight path after reentering the atmosphere. From launch to strike, the flight of an ASBM can take fifteen or so minutes, at which time the carrier in question will have more than likely moved its position on the open ocean. The missile thus needs to be adjusted remotely or needs to have the capacity to identify the carrier on its own. Both of these processes depend on the operation of a sophisticated set of sensors, as well as a communication system capable of integrating these sensors and transmitting information to shooters. As Andrew Erickson emphasizes, “the successful achievement of high-quality, real-time satellite imagery and target-locating data and fusion as well as reliable indigenous satellite navigation and positioning would facilitate holding enemy vessels at risk via devastating multi-axis strikes .”

The USN is very concerned about the DF-21D, which is one reason it’s working so hard on ship-borne anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology. The USN is also working on other countermeasures, including strikes on DF-21 launch sites at the onset of war (potentially delivered from nuclear cruise missile submarines (SSGNs), and electronic warfare.

This is why it’s so important to emphasize the importance of the ancillary ISR and communication system that make the DF-21D possible. The US doesn’t need to destroy ever launcher, or shoot down every missile in flight. Both of those represent important capabilities, but the key task is to disrupt the system that supports the missile, making it hard for China to identify, target, and strike US carrier groups.

No one knows what would happen if the Second Artillery launched a salvo of DF-21Ds at a US carrier battle group. Some percentage (depending on reliability) would invariably go astray without US help. US escorts would shoot down some percentage with ship-board ABM systems. Electronic disruption would cause some to plunge harmlessly into the ocean. And finally, some might hit a carrier, or hit carrier escorts. A successful hit will almost certainly result in at least a “mission kill,” disabling a US carrier for the remainder of the conflict.

Anti-Access System of System

It bears emphasis that Chinese carrier-killing capabilities constitute a system of systems, not dependent upon any particular weapon. The rest of China’s system of systems includes nuclear and conventional submarines, medium and long range strike aircraft, surface warships, and land-based cruise missile installations. These platforms can launch a wide array of weapons, most importantly China’s vast arsenal of cruise missiles.

In sufficient numbers, all of these can threaten to kill a carrier. In a shooting war we could expect China to use all of these systems, or to graduate their use depending on political and military developments. Some of these are more easily countered than others, while some pose greater costs to the Chinese. For example, any surface ship launching a cruise missile at a USN carrier group can likely expect quick destruction. Similarly, both aircraft and submarines would face a high rate of attrition while making attacks on US ships and installations.

ASBMs have some obvious advantages over these other systems. Operating from land bases, the DF-21D can strike carrier groups at greater range (1000+ miles) than any cruise missile. US air defense systems were designed to defend against Soviet cruise missile attacks, but a ballistic missile attack is a different prospect entirely. While the US can strike land bases, China can defend these targets more heavily through active and passive measures that it can protect relatively fragile ships and aircraft.

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