Returning from a business trip to Texas last week, I found several queries in my in-box (firstname.lastname@example.org) regarding China's new Dong Feng 21D missile. Unveiled at a military parade last year, the DF-21 is widely-touted as a "carrier killer," able to accurately target a U.S. aircraft carrier at long distances (up to 900 miles) and send it to the bottom, using a conventional warhead.
Defense writers for the Associated Press, citing various "experts" have already described the DF-21D as a "game changer," potentially shifting the naval balance of power in the Pacific. Judging from their coverage, the U.S. would be well advised to move our carriers back to the West Coast, and keep them in port:
ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON – 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).
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.
To be sure, Beijing's long-range strike capabilities have improved dramatically over the past 20 years, thanks to double-digit annual growth in the Chinese defense budget and related research and development activities. And, any weapon with the potential to hit a moving carrier at long range will get the attention of Navy planners, for obvious reasons.
But a little context is in order.
First, as the AP mentions (briefly) in the article, there is the nagging issue of demonstrated accuracy. The DF-21D is still in testing, and so far, it has not proved its ability to strike a carrier-sized target over the horizon. True, the problem could be solved by placing a nuclear warhead on the missile, but that "solution" would invite a massive U.S. response, one reason that China emphasizes the conventional capabilities of the DF-21D.
It's also worth remembering the first rule of precision strike: devastatingly accurate weapons require intelligence of comparable precision. Beijing is working hard to improve its intel, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, but (once again) there is inconclusive evidence regarding the PRC's ability to develop--and deliver--such information for a time-sensitive target like an aircraft carrier at sea.
Carrier battle groups are often depicted as a fat, vulnerable target. But in reality, the Navy does a good job in suppressing the signature and locations of its carriers in the open ocean. And, some of the platforms China would use to track U.S. carriers, including jet bombers and attack submarines, are vulnerable to our counter-measures, ranging from our own subs (which are superior to Beijing's current boats) and F/A-18 Super Hornets, which can intercept intruders up to 400 NM from the carrier.
Additionally, our ship-borne missile defenses have improved dramatically in recent years, with development of the SM-3 missile as part of the Aegis weapons system. The SM-3 has become our most reliable missile interceptor, successfully engaging 16 of 19 test targets since 2002. In early 2008, a modified SM-3 successfully downed a decaying U.S. satellite, re-entering the earth's atmosphere at a speed of 22,000 mph.
While care must be taken in drawing parallels between the satellite intercept and missile defense, the velocity factor is stunning. By most estimates, DF-21D re-entry vehicles would plunge towards the carrier at slower speeds, so it is well within the technical capabilities of the Aegis/SM-3 to handle those targets.
Still, the Chinese missile will pose problems. Coupled with other anti-carrier weapons (including submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles), the DF-21D will force changes in our tactics, including operating locations that are more distant from hostile shores. That, in turn, will impact the carrier's flight operations, reducing the ability of the F/A-18s to hit long-range targets, and placing more demands on in-flight refueling assets.
As one naval officer observed, the Dong Feng 21D would be an excellent harassment weapon, particularly at the end of an operations cycle when the carrier is recovering aircraft. Imagine having 12-18 aircraft, low on fuel, trying to land on the carrier when a barrage of Chinese missiles is detected. Suddenly, the carrier is forced to maneuver, shut down much of its electronics, and assume a more defensive posture. In that scenario, "getting back on the boat" becomes much more difficult.
But the DF-21D does not spell the end of the carrier era. Our favorite Navy blogger, Commander Salamander, framed the debate well with a brief history of other "game-changing" naval weapons over the last 150 years:
--130 years ago it was the torpedo boat. It did not mean the end of large surface ships.
--105 years ago it was the Dreadnought. It did not mean the end of anything but large surface ships with and all gun battery.
--90 years ago it was the aircraft. It did not mean the end of large surface ships.
--70-80 years ago it was the dive bomber. It did not mean the end of surface ships or aircraft carriers.
--60 years ago it was the nuclear weapon. If did not mean the end of surface ships or aircraft carriers.
--40 years ago it was the anti-ship cruise missile. It did not mean the end of surface ships or aircraft carriers....
--And so today we are talking about Anti-ship cruise missiles.There is an evolution and survival of the fittest in warfare. It is only a problem if ignored. It is only a reason to panic if you lack a historical perspective and a lack of confidence in your military to effectively meet a new threat ... at threat that is yet to be fully formed.
One more thought: if the DF-21D represents the end of the carrier as an effective weapons system, why is Beijing working so hard on its own aircraft carriers? By some estimates, China will have as many as two carriers operational by the middle of the decade, equipped with SU-33 Flanker jets. The Chinese are making a pretty sizable investment in a weapons system that is supposedly past its prime.