Chinese Anti-ship Missile Could Alter U.S. Power
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) and the associated reconnaissance and targeting systems could change U.S. strategy in the east Asian region, observers say.
Debate about the existence of a Chinese ASBM program was recently settled by U.S. Navy Adm. Robert Willard in March 23 testimony to Congress. The leader of U.S. Pacific Command told lawmakers that China is “developing and testing a conventional anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21/CSS-5 MRBM [medium-range ballistic missile] designed specifically to target aircraft carriers” as part of its anti-access, area-denial efforts.
That was the first time a U.S. official had acknowledged China was at “the stage of actual testing,” said Andrew Erickson, a researcher at the China Maritime Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. Such a missile “could change the strategic equation” and “dramatically diminish” America’s power projection, Erickson said.
He said China wants to be able to prevent a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group from intervening in a new Taiwan Strait crisis.
In 1996, the United States dispatched two aircraft carriers to show strength and monitor Chinese missile tests designed to rattle Taipei. China called the deployment interference in its “internal affairs.” Since then, China has sought to develop anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles.
Ian Easton, a researcher at the Washingtonbased Project 2049 Institute, noted that Beijing also is seeking better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
“It is clearly no coincidence that the official announcement that China is testing its ASBMs comes at a time when China is rapidly increasing its space-based intelligence-gathering platforms, both strategic and tactical,” Easton said.
An ASBM would likely need lots of help to find a ship at sea, and it appears that China is building the reconnaissance support system it needs: an elaborate satellite system and ground-based, over-the-horizon radar facilities.
On March 5, China launched the Yaogan-IX Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellite (NOSS), a “system intimately related to China’s ASBM program,” Easton said. “Unlike many spacebased military satellites, Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellites are of a tactical and not strategic nature. They live and breathe to hunt and kill enemy ships.” Launched from the Jiuquan Space Center in Gansu province, the system — like earlier versions of the U.S. White Cloud NOSS —
consists of three small satellites that orbit in close formation.
A “first-generation” Chinese surveillance satellite, the Yaogan-IX carries millimeterwave radar to help stay in good orbital formation, infrared sensors to spot ships, and antennae to pick up electronic emissions.
It “has serious implications for U.S. aircraft carriers due to its potential ability to find and track them, and its potential ability to cue land-based anti-ship ballistic missile [ASBM] systems as well as their associated sensors,” Easton said.
China launched two other reconnaissance satellites in this series in December: the Yaogan-VII electro-optical satellite Dec. 9 and the Yaogan-VIII synthetic aperture radar satellite five days later. All will work together to help Chinese ASBMs find their targets.
“The advent of the first Chinese NOSS is a watershed in terms of actual, precise, real-time targeting capability” because it will provide location data that is precise enough to guide an anti-ship ballistic missile, Easton said.
Once this technology matures, he said, the U.S. Navy will “face the unsavory choice of either risking the loss of its carriers to a Chinese first strike or having to take out the space-based eyes of China’s ASBMs with anti-satellite weapons and risk further escalation.” Erickson said a Chinese ASBM would affect U.S. strategy in the region, for even the “likelihood of a capability may have a large deterrent effect.”
Easton said regional air forces also should be concerned by China’s evolving NOSS capability, “for once mature, it could also be used to target mobile air-defense systems with pinpoint accuracy from great distances.” He said the ASBM could affect arms control, the militarization of space and many other issues.
“The ultimate conclusion one begins to come to is that U.S. carriers will very soon no longer be the uncontested juggernaut of the world’s seas,” he said.