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New Chinese Antiship Ballistic Missiles May Undercut U.S. Naval Supremacy

A military vehicle carries a Chinese DF-21D ballistic missile toward Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for a parade rehearsal in 2009. Deployments of the weapon might limit the potential movements of U.S. aircraft carriers, according to experts on China’s armed forces (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel). A military vehicle carries a Chinese DF-21D ballistic missile toward Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for a parade rehearsal in 2009. Deployments of the weapon might limit the potential movements of U.S. aircraft carriers, according to experts on China’s armed forces (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel).

The United States' naval might faces a new challenge in the form of Chinese antiship ballistic missiles that could endanger the U.S. fleet of aircraft carriers that have enabled Washington for decades to project maritime force around the world without serious challenge, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Dec. 8, 2011).

In the decades following World War II, the United States has enjoyed unrivaled naval supremacy in the western Pacific, due significantly to its aircraft carriers -- a current fleet of 11 97,000-ton ships that come with large crews and an assortment of airplanes, helicopters and weapon systems. 

However, Beijing's new Dongfeng 21D ballistic missile, developed with the ability to hit vessels at ranges of up to 1,700 miles, could mean an end to the U.S. Navy's ability to sail its ships into waters that China considers too close for comfort, military specialists on China say. Having to keep aircraft carriers at a distance would limit the U.S. military's ability to send fighter planes over China in the event of armed hostilities between the two nuclear powers.

Beijing says the Dongfeng 21D missiles have yet to be fielded.

Experts in the United States say the antiship weapon's flight trajectory after re-entering the atmosphere is too elevated to be countered by weapons intended to eliminate low-flying cruise missiles but also not high enough to be targeted by ballistic missile interceptors. In the event that antimissile units could eliminate multiple incoming DF-21Ds, China could still destroy a U.S. carrier if it simultaneously launched a large number of missiles.

The People's Liberation Army has seen its budget significantly increased in recent years and is rapidly moving to augment its ability to project naval force. Beijing in 2007 also showed off  its growing military capabilities by eliminating an expired orbiting satellite with a missile. Such technology could be used against U.S. armed forces orbiters that allow sea vessels and airplanes to pass information to each other.

The U.S. Defense Department is responding to China's missile buildup by pursuing next-generation technology including unmanned long-range aircraft that could be flown longer than manned planes and could be launched from ships sailing at great distances from potential land-based threats. The Air Force is also seeking a new long-range drone bomber plane.

Though military analysts previously believed Taiwan would be the most probable reason for an armed conflict between the United States and China, at present there are a number of matters that could lead to an outbreak of hostilities, according to the Journal. These include growing antagonism between China and Japan over both sides' assertion of ownership of islands in the East China Sea and a significant amount of valuable gas and oil that is thought to be beneath the South China Sea.

While in past years, Washington might have sought to address tensions between China and U.S. allies in the region by deploying one or several aircraft carriers near the scene of the dispute, that tactic might be less attractive if Beijing deploys its DF-21D missiles as well as submarines designed to target the carrier ships.

"This is a rapidly emerging development," RAND East Asia security analyst Eric Heginbotham said. "As late as 1995 or 2000, the threat to carriers was really minimal. Now, it is fairly significant. There is a whole complex of new threats emerging."

The United States generally seeks to play down the potential for conflict with China, though officials with the U.S. armed forces regularly discuss a potential fight in the Pacific without citing China as the anticipated foe.

"You can't say China's a threat," said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "You can't say China's a competitor" (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4).

 

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