China Developing Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI, Taiwan — China is developing anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) that could sink U.S. aircraft carriers responding to a Taiwan Strait crisis, a development that has some defense analysts and former U.S. and Taiwan government officials envisioning scenarios like this:
In March 2012, Washington responds to Chinese threats to invade Taiwan by sending two U.S. aircraft carrier groups toward the Taiwan Strait. Rhetoric out of Beijing and Washington escalates with threats and counterthreats, then open battle.
On the second day, Taiwan and U.S. fighter aircraft engage Chinese aircraft over the strait in what one Taiwanese pilot describes as a hornet’s nest from hell. On the third day, two dozen ASBMs sink the aircraft carriers and several Aegis-equipped destroyers and amphibious warfare ships, killing more than 18,000 U.S. sailors and Marines. In just under an hour, the Chinese inflict four times the losses of the Iraq war.
“Based on Chinese doctrinal and technical publications, among the more interesting programs has been research and development on advanced conventional ballistic missiles with maneuvering re-entry vehicles and terminal guidance,” said Mark Stokes, a former country director for China on the U.S. defense secretary’s staff and a former military attaché in Beijing.
“Successful deployment of conventional medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21C, as well as extended-range short-range ballistic missiles (SBRM), with terminal guidance packages, could hold at risk U.S. carrier battle groups intervening in a crisis.”
The DF-21C — the road-mobile Dong Feng 21C (East Wind) medium-range ballistic missile with a range of 2,500 kilometers — is the most serious threat to U.S. aircraft carrier groups approaching the Taiwan Strait, said Lin Chong-Pin, former Taiwan deputy minister of defense.
“The DF-21 can be mounted with five kinds of warheads, all designed with U.S. aircraft carrier groups in mind,” Lin said. “Parenthetically, the humiliation felt by the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] after the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis provided the greatest impetus for Beijing to acquire these capabilities that have been deployed since 2004.”
In March 1996, the United States sent two aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait area in response to Beijing’s threats. During the crisis, China test-fired several DF-15 (M-9) SRBMs in the waters around Taiwan and vowed to deny access to the area to U.S. warships in a future conflict.
“The PLA and China’s defense industry has been focused on being able to deter or disrupt U.S. intervention in a Taiwan Strait crisis for more than a decade,” Stokes said. “Authoritative Chinese writings indicate that a fundamental requirement would be to deny U.S. carrier battle groups and their logistics support access to the area of operations. To do so, the PLA would need an integrated system of sensors, survivable communication systems, and advanced weaponry to achieve the desired effects.”
The People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery, the heart and soul of China’s missile command, has roughly 1,300 DF-11 and DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan.
China also has the Russian-built SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missiles outfitted on four new Russian refitted Sovremenny-class destroyers in the Chinese Navy. The Sunburn is designed to overcome cruise missile defenses by rising above the target and slamming down through the deck of an aircraft carrier.
“The capabilities described above constitute ‘deterrence by denial’ and should be viewed in a larger context of China’s deterrence of U.S. aircraft carrier groups in order to seize the island with the least bloodshed and physical damage,” Lin said.
The United States is not without options. The U.S. Navy is armed with Standard SM-3 missiles and attempts will be made to deny Chinese access to GPS during a conflict. China’s positioning satellites, the geosynchronous Beidou, do not cover the western Pacific.
However, Lin said China’s possession of an ASBM will throw a wrench into Washington’s decision-making apparatus on what to do about the eruption of a Taiwan Strait crisis.
“To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question. While the U.S. National Security Council is deliberating with hesitancy, the PLA can seize Taiwan with its conventional forces in a quick war of paralysis rather than annihilation,” Lin said.
“The still larger context which I have mentioned is that the top priority of Beijing on Taiwan is to ‘absorb without war.’ The military option is the lowest, but under aggressive and speedy preparation. However, even the military option has never been to ‘strike the U.S. and to destroy Taiwan,’ but rather ‘to deter the U.S. and to seize Taiwan’ intact as much as possible.”
Could the U.S. Intervene?
Stokes said a “question many friends in Taiwan have asked is whether or not the United States would intervene, should the PRC use force against Taiwan. As time goes on, it may become more of a question of could the U.S. intervene with sufficient alacrity before being handed a fait accompli.”
Paul Giarra, a retired U.S. naval officer, strategic planner and defense analyst, believes it is debatable whether the U.S. Navy’s visions for fleet ballistic missile defense plans will be sufficient to meet this threat.
“This points to a strategic-operational campaign of slow reduction of Chinese operational capabilities from great distance, over a considerable period of time, rather than a rapidly concluded attack from forward positions with the advantage of exterior lines of communication and freedom of the seas,” he said.
“Since the Air Force sneezes when the Navy catches cold in the Asia-Pacific aerospace theater of operations, this Chinese capability thereby will make it difficult for the U.S. military to operate close enough to employ not only its naval surface fleet, but its land-based air power as well, Giarra said. Chinese multiple-warhead [anti-ballistic missiles] will necessitate significant technical and operational responses on the part of the American military.”
“While history does not repeat, it does rhyme. A Chinese ASBM scenario would appear to bring us back to early 1942, and the start of the long advance on Tokyo.”