The Bane of US Carriers in the West Pacific

In response to U.S. carrier strike group activity in the Western Pacific, the Chinese military has been actively developing a medium-range ballistic missile capable of reaching targets 1,500 to 3,000 kilometers away. The anti-ship missile, dubbed the Dong-Feng, or “East Wind” 21D, is compatible with China’s BeiDou or “Big Dipper” Satellite Navigation System and is capable of detecting and tracking targets, changing course and penetrating defenses to hit moving targets at sea in multiple waves, inflicting heavy damage. As the world’s only anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D has already become one of the most important weapons in China’s arsenal as it implements its “anti-access strategy” and will turn the tide on the advantage held by U.S. carrier strike groups in the Western Pacific.

A Threat to U.S. Military Global Superiority

The missile has already been officially commissioned. It has been deployed to the Second Artillery Corps base in the Guangzhou Military Region where the land-based mid-range missile will primarily be used to deter U.S. carriers from encroaching upon the Western Pacific region within a radius of approximately 1,700 kilometers. Following the launch of 16 second-generation BeiDou satellite systems providing positioning, navigation and timing data, the People’s Liberation Army can already effectively cover all of Asia and the Pacific as well as provide precise positioning and navigation services for the DF-21D. It has become the bane of any U.S. carrier strike group in the Western Pacific.

In light of the People’s Liberation Army’s development of the anti-ship missile, the U.S. military is paying close attention to several key points, including: first, which base(s) will house the missile; second, their launch capabilities, warhead stockpile and pace of production; third, the strategic guidelines for using the missile; fourth, the targeted classes of ships and payload size, as well as tactics and methods of attack; fifth, how the PLA will integrate the warfighting power of anti-ship and cruise missiles; and sixth, the level of precision that the PLA’s over-the-horizon radar and satellite detection, navigation and positioning systems will be able to provide for effective utilization of the missile.

A Russian military-industrial website has pointed out that the PLA has tested the DF-21D missile in the Gobi Desert when it accurately hit its target and penetrated six decks [of the simulated ship] with a warhead traveling at Mach 5. In the meantime, however, there are still issues, including how the Chinese military will direct the warhead to hit a moving carrier, connection issues as the warhead enters the atmosphere at Mach 10 and how end-stage course alterations will be handled. Because of this, Switzerland’s Center for Security Studies in Zurich has indicated that the DF-21D “carrier-killer” is, in fact, extremely prone to suffering a loss of accuracy through electronic attacks or interference. The key question lies in whether or not the U.S. is willing to make long-term investments in electronic warfare to counter the threat from the PLA’s anti-ship missile. In addition to this, one of the primary directives of the U.S. carrier-based X-47B attack drones is to destroy bases where the DF-21D is stationed.

A Contest over Air and Sea

Observing the PLA’s active efforts in recent years to develop high-tech weaponry together with China’s appointment of top air force official Xu Qiliang as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, seem to confirm an objective which appears to be to enhance its ability to seize control of sea and sky, as well as distant theaters and outer space. China has continued to accelerate the process of modernizing its arms and equipment to serve as the basis upon which it will compete militarily with the U.S. for the top spot in Asia and the Pacific. The PLA has already moved the focus of its military development onto research and development of new information-based warfighting platforms and precision-guided weapons. It is seeking to strengthen the long-range and rapid precision strike capability that the DF-21D, specifically designed to counter U.S. carriers, exemplifies.

In an effort to halt U.S. advancement on the strategic chessboard of Asia and the Pacific the PLA is actively developing high-tech weapon systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, new nuclear missile submarines and more. Until 2020, China’s military strength will likely fall short of making it a truly global military power. However, the developmental pattern of continued double-digit increases in its military budget suggests that China’s military strength will be sufficient to shift the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region over the coming decade and directly challenge U.S. dominance over the Western Pacific.

The author is an adviser for the National Policy Foundation’s National Security Division.

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