How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love China's Carrier Killing Missile


A big part of the U.S. military - that would be the Navy - is working itself into knots over the “anti-access” challenge, potential enemies possessing large arsenals of long-range, precision guided missiles, stealthy submarines and over-the-horizon radars. In fact, the Navy, with the Air Force in tow, is thinking through a new warfighting doctrine known as AirSea Battle intended to come up with ways to counter enemy missile magazines and allow ships freedom of access in offshore waters (we wrote about it a few weeks back).

The biggest, baddest threat in the anti-access arena is China’s DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), ominously known as the “carrier killer.” The DF-21 is not fully operational. That China has been working on such a missile for some time is well known. In testimony before (.pdf) the House Armed Services Committee last week, the head of Pacific Command, Adm. Robert Willard, said China is “testing” the weapon. A soft kill terminal guidance warhead is thought to be in the works that would detonate above a carrier and riddle its deck with thousands of steel flechettes.

Defense Tech friend Craig Hooper has a new piece out in the April issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings that says hyping China’s ASBM threat has done little but upset America’s regional allies and legitimized an unproven weapon. “This self inflicted blow to U.S. stature in the region requires an adroit diplomatic response.”

First off, the defense community must stop assuming American flattops are the only or even primary target of such weapons. Chinese ASBMs pose a far greater threat to regional allies, such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, each of which is developing smaller “pocket-carriers,” that can operate helicopters and STOVL aircraft. “Modern Asian navies are becoming important co-guarantors of stability in the Pacific Basin… Asia’s growing fleet of tiny flattops is far more vulnerable to ASBM strikes than any U.S. carrier.”

By focusing solely on the threat to the U.S. Navy’s supercarriers, the defense community forfeited an opportunity to frame ASBMs as a regional challenge and develop a regional response. He points to the Cold War example when Russia’s medium range missiles were portrayed as a European-wide threat. “A review of Cold War history might inspire American strategists to get off the fainting couch and confront China’s ASBMs directly, on almost a missile for missile basis.”

A conventionally armed Trident intercontinental ballistic missile, along with submarine launched intermediate range ballistic missiles, would be just the ticket to hold Chinese missiles at risk and extend an umbrella over regional allies. These missiles, along with the Air Force’s new long range strike initiative, fall under the prompt global strike (PGS) concept, one Congress has been reluctant to fund because of worries over misinterpretation of a conventionally armed ballistic missile launch.

The “confirmed entry” of Chinese ASBMs into the Pacific could pressure Congress to fully fund a range of PGS efforts. Reaching back again to Cold War history, Hooper says as the deployment of the Pershing II in Europe changed Soviet behavior on missile basing, “a comparable U.S. step in the Pacific might set the stage for an Asia-focused dialogue on limiting ballistic missiles.”

-- Greg

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