No piece of hardware epitomizes US military might like an aircraft carrier. Capable of carrying over 60 planes, these hulking vessels allow the US to project power around the world while checking the potentially destabilizing behaviour of rival governments.
But that balance might be starting to shift in East Asia, an area of increasing strategic concern to the US. In a time when China wants full control of the disputed South China Sea, Beijing has developed a potential carrier-killer: an anti-ship missile called the Dong Feng-21 (CSS-5) that could deal catastrophic damage to US vessels.
Because of the missiles, the US could be less willing to place its vaunted carriers in a potential conflict with Beijing.
“[Carriers are] now targets for the world’s first operational antiship ballistic missiles,”Andrew Browne writes for WSJ, in referecne to the Dong Feng-21.
The missles are just one part of a larger Chinese military upgrade. “[S]hock and awe isn’t part of any rational game plan these days against China, whose military spending has been growing by an annual average of 11% since 1996,” writes Browne, “narrowing the military gap with America faster than almost anybody thought possible.”
The missile effectively makes deployment of carriers against China during a hypothetical conflict incredibly risky. This wasn’t always the case, and US carriers have proven to be an effective instrument of US hard power in East Asia: In 1996, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the US sent two aircraft carrier groups towards Taiwan as Beijing was threatening the island. China quickly halted its various provocative actions.
The Dong Feng-21 could make the US think twice before authorizing those kinds of risky deployments. The average unrefueled combat range of US aircraft carriers is now 496 nautical miles (NM), retired US Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix noted in a report for the Center for a New American Security. The DF-21, on the other hand, has an estimated range of between 800 and of 1,000 NM.
“American power and permissive environments were assumed following the end of the Cold War, but the rise of new powers, including China and its pursuit of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies and capabilities to include the carrier-killing 1,000 nautical mile (nm) range Dong Feng-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, now threatens to push the Navy back beyond the range of its carrier air wings,” Hendrix wrote
According to Hendrix, the missile is particularly challenging for the US Navy both because of its range and method of attack. The DF-21 strikes a target at hypersonic speed from a nearly vertical angle. It can also conductt defensive maneuvers that maked the missile incredibly difficult to intercept.
The possible risks associated with the the DF-21 have led the Navy to invest in a range of anti-ballistic missile technologies.
“The USN is very concerned about the DF-21D, which is one reason it’s working so hard on ship-borne anti-ballistic missile technology,” Robert Farley, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, wrote for The National Interest.
“The USN is also working on other countermeasures, including strikes on DF-21 launch sites at the onset of war (potentially delivered from nuclear cruise missile submarines), and electronic warfare,” Farley wrote.
The DF-21 is also highly manoeuvrable. The missile, according to an April 2015 Department of Defence report, is road mobile. Batteries can be placed and moved throughout China, making then difficult to find and destroy.
The report noted that the missile, which had an estimated range at that time of 810 MN, was capable of targeting ships and aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea.
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