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China to Test Carrier Killing Missile On Fourth of July?

Chinese media reports that beginning today the People’ Liberation Army (PLA) will hold six days of military exercises in the East China Sea, a message, analysts say, to the U.S. Navy not to steam its carrier battle groups too close to Chinese shores.

While a Chinese military official said the drills are routine, observers say the anti-carrier exercise is intended to pressure the U.S. Navy not to hold joint exercises with the carrier USS George Washington and South Korean ships in the Yellow Sea.

Respected China analyst Andrew Erickson says the live fire training aims to demonstrate China’s ability to attack a U.S. carrier strike group and may include the first test of China’s long talked about anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). He sees hints that China’s Second Artillery, a powerful organization within the Chinese military which operates the country’s missile force, may be at a point where it’s ready to test an ASBM.

Recent indications include the reported completion of a DF-21D rocket motor facility in 2009 and the recent launch of 5 advanced Yaogan satellites, three of which were apparently placed in the same orbit on 5 March–thereby perhaps offering better coverage of critical areas along China’s maritime periphery. Another possible indication is a recent news release attributed to China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation (CASIC) citing Wang Genbin, Deputy Director of its 4th Department, as stating that the DF-21D can hit “slow-moving targets” with a CEP (circular error probable, meaning half of missiles fired will strike within) of dozens of meters.

I attended Erickson’s presentation at a recent National Defense University conference on Chinese naval modernization and he said China is rapidly putting into place the component parts of an advanced reconnaissance-strike complex, including launching a series of ocean observation satellites and electro-optical military satellites. An actual live-fire test of a missile would of course be a big step in ASBM development, he says.

The U.S. military has the advantage of its GPS constellation, in addition to a fleet of electro-optical satellites, to provide precise targeting for its guided weapons. Analysts believe China would use ocean-surveillance satellites to get the initial bearing and distance to an approaching carrier strike group and then launch missiles towards the target that would rely on active-radar or radar-homing to hit a carrier (that’s how the Soviets planned to do it in the Cold War days with their missile launching Backfire bombers and Oscar class subs).

Erickson says Chinese tactics would aim for “multi-axis saturation” of a carrier strike group’s missile defenses by combining swarms of missile boats (such as the Houbei Type 022 fast missile catamaran), missile launching submarines and land based ballistic missiles.

He surmises that the Chinese might be tempted to carry out a test on 4th of July because much of official Washington and the press would be busy with backyard BBQs.

-- Greg Grant

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