What are we going to do about those Dong Feng’ed missiles?


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.


5 thoughts on “What are we going to do about those Dong Feng’ed missiles?

  1. Thanks for a very illuminating article. History had shown that when Chinese invent a certain military hardware, the main purpose is not for actual full out war (though not necessary so) but more towards deterrence effects. However America is not shy to flaunt her military hardwares even at the expense of her national credibility or image. Remember the great military strategist, Sun Tzu – the greatest winning in a war is if the winning does not required any war at all.

  2. This is just flexing muscle. Same goes for Iran – all this unfounded commotion I feel is neglecting history. Since it’s founding, Iran has never attacked another nation – ever.

  3. Nerve Agent,

    I see you gettin’ accused by many “patriots” to be a “useful idiot”.

    Joseph Tan,

    “the greatest winning in a war is if the winning does not required any war at all”

    If only this were always heeded. The terrible lessons of History lie amongst the dusty tomes in libraries long forgotten.

  4. If I were truly a “useful idiot,” I probably would be saying something along the lines of “China is a benevolent power that desires only peace; let us welcome its rise so that we may extirpate the barbarism of a Western-dominated world-order,” all the while being on the payroll of a Beijing-funded Institute for the Study of Confucianism.

    It’s just important to keep in mind that with the amount of resources that the U.S. has poured into missile defense technology, relying on ballistic weapons to keep the U.S. Navy at bay is a questionable prospect at best. If in the event of war U.S. carriers keep their distance from the Chinese mainland, the DF-21 will be a factor in that strategy, but the Navy already understands that operating within range of the land-based airpower of a “near-peer” competitor is not a very good idea to begin with, no matter what weapon systems compose that airpower.

  5. Pingback: Sinking a Carrier: Precisification of Concept « Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

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