Thursday, December 30, 2010

China's Carrier-Killer Missile Now Operational

In April, 2009, this Blog called attention to China's efforts to develop a conventional ballistic missle capable of striking surface vessels, particularly aircraft carriers, 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland. In particular, reports at the time suggested that China was working to modify its DF-21 mobile intermediate range ballistic missile, pictured previously on this blog here, so it could strike moving targets, particularly aircraft carriers. The blog opined:

"If the report is accurate, America's ability to project power near China, e.g., defend Taiwan, could be greatly diminished, absent effective counter-measures that could thwart such a missile."

Now, the Washington Times is reporting that the DF-21 is operational, though not yet thoroughly tested. The Times quotes an American Admiral stating that China has deployed the missile, which apparently has not been tested on sea-based targets. Given the missile's range, the Chinese could, for instance, threaten American vessels coming to the aid of Taiwan or South Korea. (Note in this connection that the F-18 Superhornet, the main offensive weapon deployed from carriers, has a combat radius of between 400 and 450 miles. Hence, even carriers deployed west of Taiwan would be vulnerable to DF-21 attack.) (However, the F-35 will have a combat radius closer to 600 miles, without refueling.)

As reported in this blog's initial post on the subject, this version of the DF-21 would rely upon satellites, over the horizon radar, and unmanned aerial vehicles to track its targets -- which themselves travel over 30 miles per hour --- and guide the missile to its destination. This particular version of the DF-21 carries a conventional warhead, so near misses will be misses.

There are, it should be noted, various counter-measures the U.S. could take to blunt the relevance of the DF-21. For instance, the RIM-161 Standard Missile 3, deployed on Aegis-class cruisers, has an anti-ballistic missile capability and can presumably shoot down the DF-21. Indeed, as previously discussed on this blog, the United States deployed such interceptors to defend Hawaii against a threatened North Korea missile "test" during 2009. Moreover, the same missile can destroy low-orbit satellites; in 2008 a Standard 3 launched from the USS Lake Erie destroyed a malfunctioning American satellite at an altitude of 130 miles. Presumably the same missile could destroy satellites employed to help guide the DF-21 to its intended target.