Chinese missile could shift Pacific power balance

Nothing projects U.S. global air and sea power more vividly than
supercarriers. Bristling with fighter jets that can reach deep into
even landlocked trouble zones, America’s virtually invincible carrier
fleet has long enforced its dominance of the high seas.

China may soon put an end to that.

U.S. naval planners are scrambling to deal with what analysts say is a
game-changing weapon being developed by China — an unprecedented
carrier-killing missile called the Dong Feng 21D that could be launched
from land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even the
most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 1,500
kilometers (900 miles).

Analysts say final testing of the missile could come as soon as the end
of this year, though questions remain about how fast China will be able
to perfect its accuracy to the level needed to threaten a moving
carrier at sea.

The weapon, a version of which was displayed last year in a Chinese
military parade, could revolutionize China’s role in the Pacific
balance of power, seriously weakening Washington’s ability to intervene
in any potential conflict over Taiwan or North Korea. It could also
deny U.S. ships safe access to international waters near China’s
11,200-mile (18,000-kilometer) -long coastline.

While a nuclear bomb could theoretically sink a carrier, assuming its
user was willing to raise the stakes to atomic levels, the
conventionally-armed Dong Feng 21D’s uniqueness is in its ability to
hit a powerfully defended moving target with pin-point precision.

The Chinese Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to the AP’s request for a comment.

Funded by annual double-digit increases in the defense budget for
almost every year of the past two decades, the Chinese navy has become
Asia’s largest and has expanded beyond its traditional mission of
retaking Taiwan to push its sphere of influence deeper into the Pacific
and protect vital maritime trade routes.

“The Navy has long had to fear carrier-killing capabilities,” said
Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at
the nonpartisan, Washington-based Center for a New American Security.

“The emerging Chinese antiship missile capability, and in particular
the DF 21D, represents the first post-Cold War capability that is both
potentially capable of stopping our naval power projection and
deliberately designed for that purpose.”

Setting the stage for a possible conflict, Beijing has grown
increasingly vocal in its demands for the U.S. to stay away from the
wide swaths of ocean — covering much of the Yellow, East and South
China seas — where it claims exclusivity.

It strongly opposed plans to hold U.S.-South Korean war games in the
Yellow Sea off the northeastern Chinese coast, saying the participation
of the USS George Washington supercarrier, with its 1,092-foot
(333-meter) flight deck and 6,250 personnel, would be a provocation
because it put Beijing within striking range of U.S. F-18 warplanes.

The carrier instead took part in maneuvers held farther away in the Sea of Japan.

U.S. officials deny Chinese pressure kept it away, and say they will not be told by Beijing where they can operate.

“We reserve the right to exercise in international waters anywhere in
the world,” Rear Adm. Daniel Cloyd, who headed the U.S. side of the
exercises, said aboard the carrier during the maneuvers, which ended
last week.

But the new missile could undermine that policy.

“China can reach out and hit the U.S. well before the U.S. can get
close enough to the mainland to hit back,” said Toshi Yoshihara, an
associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He said U.S. ships
have only twice been that vulnerable — against Japan in World War II
and against Soviet bombers in the Cold War.

Carrier-killing missiles “could have an enduring psychological effect
on U.S. policymakers,” he e-mailed to The AP. “It underscores more
broadly that the U.S. Navy no longer rules the waves as it has since
the end of World War II. The stark reality is that sea control cannot
be taken for granted anymore.”

Yoshihara said the weapon is causing considerable consternation in
Washington, though — with attention focused on land wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq — its implications haven’t been widely discussed in public.
Analysts note that while much has been made of China’s efforts to ready
a carrier fleet of its own, it would likely take decades to catch U.S.
carrier crews’ level of expertise, training and experience.

But Beijing does not need to match the U.S. carrier for carrier. The
Dong Feng 21D, smarter, and vastly cheaper, could successfully attack a
U.S. carrier, or at least deter it from getting too close.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of the threat in a speech last September at the Air Force Association Convention.
“When considering the military-modernization programs of countries like
China, we should be concerned less with their potential ability to
challenge the U.S. symmetrically — fighter to fighter or ship to ship —
and more with their ability to disrupt our freedom of movement and
narrow our strategic options,” he said.

Gates said China’s investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare,
anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, along with ballistic missiles, “could
threaten America’s primary way to project power” through its forward
air bases and carrier strike groups.

The Pentagon has been worried for years about China getting an
anti-ship ballistic missile. The Pentagon considers such a missile an
“anti-access,” weapon, meaning that it could deny others access to
certain areas.

The Air Force’s top surveillance and intelligence officer, Lt. Gen.
David Deptula, told reporters this week that China’s effort to increase
anti-access capability is part of a worrisome trend.

He did not single out the DF 21D, but said: “While we might not fight
the Chinese, we may end up in situations where we’ll certainly be
opposing the equipment that they build and sell around the world.”
Questions remain over when — and if — China will perfect the
technology; hitting a moving carrier is no mean feat, requiring
state-of-the-art guidance systems, and some experts believe it will
take China a decade or so to field a reliable threat.

Others, however, say final tests of the missile could come in the next year or two.

Former Navy commander James Kraska, a professor of international law
and sea power at the U.S. Naval War College, recently wrote a
controversial article in the magazine Orbis outlining a hypothetical
scenario set just five years from now in which a Deng Feng 21D missile
with a penetrator warhead sinks the USS George Washington.
That would usher in a “new epoch of international order in which Beijing emerges to displace the United States.”

While China’s Defense Ministry never comments on new weapons before
they become operational, the DF 21D — which would travel at 10 times
the speed of sound and carry conventional payloads — has been much
discussed by military buffs online.

A pseudonymous article posted on Xinhuanet, website of China’s official
news agency, imagines the U.S. dispatching the George Washington to aid
Taiwan against a Chinese attack.

The Chinese would respond with three salvos of DF 21D, the first of
which would pierce the hull, start fires and shut down flight
operations, the article says. The second would knock out its engines
and be accompanied by air attacks. The third wave, the article says,
would “send the George Washington to the bottom of the ocean.”