China’s big challenge to the US Navy

Posted by: Phineas on January 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm

**Posted by Phineas

For the last 70 years, the centerpiece of US naval strategy –and, indeed, essential for the projection of American power around the globe– has been the aircraft carrier. Born of necessity after the disaster at Pearl Harbor decimated our battleships, the carrier battle group has been an effective tool of hard power for American presidents of both parties when the time came to show a foe we were serious. They provide the United States with a flexible and rapidly deployed instrument, and any plans to challenge us must find a way to neutralize them.

Something the Chinese may be on the verge of doing:

The Chinese have made significant progress on a missile system designed to sink a moving aircraft carrier from nearly 2,000 miles away, according to the top U.S. commander in the Pacific.

China’s anti-ship missile system has reached the rough equivalent of what the U.S. military terms as “initial operational capability,” Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said in an interview with Japan’s Asahi newspaper Tuesday.

At the heart of the system is the Dong Feng 21D, a mobile, land-based missile that is projected to strike a carrier from between 1,200 and 1,800 miles, depending on its payload and other factors.

Willard said that the “component parts of the anti-ship ballistic missile have been developed and tested,” according to Asahi.

The missile has not yet been flight-tested over water, Willard acknowledged.

A report at Fox News relays opinions from experts that the Chinese are a decade away from developing the guidance systems need to give the Dong Feng 21D the needed accuracy, but we all know how perceptive outside observers were about developments in the Indian nuclear program. (Hint: we were caught completely by surprise.) We shouldn’t rest easy.

What makes a weapon like this all the more threatening is that, being land-based and mobile, they can be very hard to find and put out of action. Our experience hunting missile launchers firing at Israel in Gulf War I bears witness to that.

The possibility of deployed Dong Feng 21Ds will have to factor into any actions we take during periods of tension or crisis in East Asia. Both Korea and Taiwan are potential flash-points for conflict, as are Chinese claims to international waters. Whenever there has been friction with China involving any of these, we have deployed carriers to the area to demonstrate our resolve. The new Chinese missile threatens to make that a much riskier proposition.

Of course, military technology is a game of call-and-raise. Whenever someone has developed a new offensive weapon, the other guy has found a way to counteract it — and vice-versa. Sword met shield, armor met gun, and radar met stealth. One can bet that the US Navy is looking for ways to parry the Dong Feng 21D before it’s even deployed.

We’d better hope they find them.

RELATED: A very interesting article at The Diplomat on China’s risky bet against history, with a comparison to Germany prior to World War I.

(Crossposted at Public Secrets)

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5 Responses to “China’s big challenge to the US Navy”


  1. Carlos says:

    Since the best and brightest in our schools today are either Asian or, more likely, contemptuous of America and its greatness, I wonder if we’ll be able to continue preparing for enemy innovation before it’s complete, or will have to play catch-up for their technological advances in weaponry?

  2. Good stuff, Sister! I’m happy to see you recognize this threat. Military affairs aren’t something you usually blog about, but the rise of Chinese military power is something we should all definitely take note of.

    After having looked into the matter, the chances of them hitting a carrier with the DF-21 are very slim, for a lot of complicated reasons it would take me too long to explain here. The short version is that in order to even fire the thing they’d have to know exactly where our carrier is, get that info to the missile battery commander asap, plug the info into the missile, and fire it before the carrier moved very far. Supposedly the missile warhead can search around, but my guess is it’s range of vision is about like looking through a straw.

    But this is a first generation weapon, and while China doesn’t have the C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) to use the DF21 is only comfort in the short term. Given enough time, they’ll develop follow-on systems that are a threat.

    Even so, the DF-21 is definitely something our commanders are taking into account, and between it and other new Chinese systems may make us think twice before sailing too close to China in the event of a war.

    A bigger threat in the short term comes from the plethora of medium-range conventionally armed missiles they have aimed at almost all of our bases in the Pacific west of Guam. This according to a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that was just released to Congress.

    Now, on the one hand China is building a lot of new ships. They’ve also bought a few of the very dangerous Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers from Russia. On the other hand, most of their fleet is still obsolete by Western standards.

    But remember this, too; as any war will be fought near their shores, they’ll be able to throw everything they’ve got at our Navy and Air Force (which will have to fly some distance to get there), while we’ll be operating far from home. Their airfields are “unsinkable.”

    We have one carrier permanently stationed in the area,the USS George Washington. The others might or might not be able to get there in time to make a difference. That’s a pretty thin margin, and remember that we’re down to 11 carriers, which have worldwide duties.

    Getting the F-35 Lighting II on board those carriers to replace the F-18C Hornets will be a huge help. The F-18E/F Super Hornets are OK (and will stay when the F-35 arrives) but until then I’m worried. Carriers are only as good as the airplanes on them.

    Finally, remember that in his infinite wisdom Obama stopped production of the F-22 Raptor at 187 aircraft. It’ll be great in a fight, but will we have enough? I don’t know. The F-15 is almost forty years old (first flight in 1972) and you can only upgrade an old airframe so much.

    Anyway, you can tell I take an interest in this, not to advertise my blog but check out “China / Taiwan” and “National Defense” categories.

    I look forward to more posts on this subject from you, as you can tell they get me going.

  3. ST says:

    Good stuff, Sister! I’m happy to see you recognize this threat. Military affairs aren’t something you usually blog about, but the rise of Chinese military power is something we should all definitely take note of.

    Hi Tom. I’m interested in the topic, to be sure, but for the record, my co-blogger actually wrote this post. ;)

  4. Carlos says:

    Lest we forget, the ChiComs will soon have a space/spy network that, if not technically equal to ours, will be able to spot and locate nearly every square inch of this globe.

  5. Ack! I didn’t look at the author before I posted the comment. Hats off to Phineas, then