The latest opportunity for the media to engage in another shameless bout of Sinophilia concerns the rather esoteric topic of maneuverable ballistic re-entry vehicles. A recent Associated Press article loaded with triumphant language declares American supremacy on the high seas all but over, thanks to the latest Chinese magic bullet: the DF-21D.
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).
What makes the DF-21D unique is its payload: a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) equipped with a conventional warhead and either radar or infrared terminal homing. This would indeed pose a threat to the U.S. Navy because existing ship-borne defense systems are designed to protect against sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles; a MaRV would approach its target along a ballistic trajectory within a cone that is poorly covered by existing systems. However, before proclaiming the death of U.S. naval supremacy, a few points need to be raised.
First of all, anti-ship ballistic missiles are not “unprecedented.” In the 1960s, the Soviets developed an anti-ship variant of the SS-N-6 (R-27) submarine launched ballistic missile with a reentry vehicle equipped with passive radar terminal homing and a nuclear warhead. A small number of the weapons entered service aboard a single Golf-class submarine in the early 1970s before they were evidently retired in compliance with the SALT treaty.
Second, the U.S. Navy already has a countermeasure available. The Aegis defense system and its SPY-1 fire control radar are capable of monitoring ballistic threats. Coupled with the SM-3 anti-ballistic interceptor, this allows Aegis-equipped vessels to engage incoming MaRVs. However, monitoring ballistic tracks requires Aegis to lift coverage away from low-altitude threats, so the immediate course of action for the Navy is to equip additional vessels with the SM-3 and assign each ship in a carrier battle group to guard a particular trajectory.
Third, and as Loren Thompson pointed out, the effective employment of MaRVs requires precision intelligence that will be difficult for the Chinese to obtain. The weapons rely on reconnaissance from aircraft, satellites, over-the-horizon radar, or other external platforms to locate enemy ships and supply inertial guidance information. Passive radar satellites, which can identify individual ships by radar fingerprinting, are easily misled by simple spoofs. Active radar can identify a ship by imaging them, but the search corridor is very narrow, making it ineffective for ocean surveillance. Target vessels must also be distinguished from merchant shipping, though this dilemma could be alleviated by monitoring the transponders that identify a ship’s commercial nature.
Finally, the DF-21 will not be sinking any carriers for a very simple reason: they will not be in range. Chinese strategists are wasting their time when they gleefully imagine sinking the U.S. Navy as it charges headlong into the Taiwan Strait. To the extent that the weapon deters U.S. carriers from operating near the Chinese mainland, it is indeed a very successful investment for Beijing. But that hardly guarantees Chinese dominance of the Western Pacific. In the event of war, U.S. carriers will be busy in the Indian Ocean, crushing the “pearls” that China has strung there, closing the Strait of Malacca, and cutting off the flow of oil and raw materials upon which the Chinese economy depends. Without these imports – particularly the oil – the Chinese military will come to a screeching halt.
China is a rising power, but due to its disadvantaged geography, America still holds the cards.