Key Point: The U.S. Navy faces a growing array of Chinese weapons platforms that could sink some of its most powerful warships.
The U.S. Navy has a serious 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.
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:
...The thing to keep in mind is that, in order for China to successfully attack a U.S. navy ship with a ballistic missile, it must first detect the ship, identify it as a U.S. warship of a type that it wishes to attack (e.g., an aircraft carrier), acquire a precise enough measurement of its location that a missile can be launched at it (i.e., a one-hour old satellite photograph is probably useless, as the ship could be 25 miles away from where it was when the picture was taken), and then provide mid-course updates to the missile. Finally, the warhead must lock onto and home in on the ship.
This complicated “kill chain” provides a number of opportunities to defeat the attack. For example, over-the-horizon radars used to detect ships can be jammed, spoofed, or destroyed; smoke and other obscurants can be deployed when an imagery satellite, which follows a predictable orbit, is passing over a formation of ships; the mid-course updates can be jammed; and when the missile locks on to the target its seeker can be jammed or spoofed. Actually intercepting the missile is probably the most difficult thing to do. 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…
But if the weapons works as advertised, and keep in mind U.S. officials already declared the DF-21D had reached initial operational capability (IOC) by the end of 2010, Beijing has had a number of years to develop this important A2/AD weapon. My advice: it might not be perfect but it could still posse some serious headaches for U.S. military planners if fired in follies (see below for more on this). Remember, just one hit to a carrier or cruiser would be more than enough to take it out of action and cost hundreds of sailors their lives.
A Bloody Saturation Strike:
So, to be fair--it is not a weapon itself. However, if Beijing were to leverage the various types of cruise and ballistic weapons it has in its arsenal in a massive strike the impact could be quite devastating.
While there has been numerous scholarly articles written over the last several years that depict what a Chinese strike using A2/AD strategy would encompass none is as authoritative as the work by the U.S. Naval War College over the last seven or so years. One particular scholar, Dr. Toshi Yoshihara, explains the deadly potency of how Chinese A2/AD missiles could be grouped together in deadly saturation strikes negating U.S. and allied missile defenses:
ASBMs (anti-ship ballistic missiles) may not need to produce mission kills against the surface fleet to complicate U.S. plans. They only need to reach the fleet's defensive envelope for the Aegis (U.S. sea-based missiles defenses) to engage the incoming threats, thus forcing the defender to expend valuable ammunition that cannot be easily resupplied...Even inaccurate ASBMs, then, could compel the Aegis to exhaust its weapons inventory...Used in conjunction with conventional ballistic missile strikes against U.S. bases and other land targets across Asia — strikes that would elicit more intercept attempts — ASBM raids could deprive the United States and its allies of their staying power in a sea fight. Beijing could then multiply the U.S. Navy’s problems by launching…attacks from the air and sea. The PLA could unleash air-launched saturation attacks followed by undersea and seaborne cruise missile salvos to wear down the fleet...