Written by Harry J. Kazianis.
Over the last several years, a fierce debate has roared anytime the words “carrier-killer” are dropped into any news blurb, blogpost, or scholarly essay. Yet, China’s DF-21D, the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), suffers from a case of mistaken identity in many respects. While various scholars and pundits have classified the weapon as a game changer, the system itself is part of a complex but well-defined narrative of Beijing developing capabilities to defend its interests in and around the first island chain while raising the costs for any modern military to intervene in Chinese core territorial interests. The weapon is an important component of Beijing “counter-intervention” strategy, or what western scholars call Anti-Access/Area-Denial. However, let us be clear, it is only one part of such a strategy. The weapon is certainly one that will make the lives of American and allied military planners more complicated, but a game changer it is not.
The weapon’s creation itself is truly a remarkable case-study in the evolution of Chinese research and development, studying and mimicking western and Russian technology, and adapting to the strategic realities Beijing finds itself in the present day.
The technical aspects of the weapon are well known according to most open-source texts. The weapon is launched from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere. Over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles could each– according to most texts– provide up to the minute guidance. The missile then descends on its target at a terrifying speed (possibly Mach 10 to 12). The system also incorporates a manoeuvrable warhead to help find its target. To this day, there is wide-ranging debate if U.S. or allied missile defense systems can defend against a fully-developed, tested, and working ASBM as described.
Considering all this, obvious questions are conjured up: If such a weapon has been mass-produced, is functional, and can evade western defenses, are American aircraft carriers now obsolete?
To answer to such a question we first need to address the most important point of all, does the DF-21D actually work? There is considerable debate on this point. U.S. officials have already dubbed the system has having an initial operational capacity (IOC) several years ago. While there have been at least two reports that note the DF-21D has been deployed in some capacity, there has never been a fully documented test (in nonclassified sources, at least) of the weapon challenging an uncooperative, ocean-going vessel on the high seas. While there would be obvious risks in such a test — such as exacerbating regional tensions, or a technical glitch causing a failure of the system that would negate its deterrent capabilities — doubts will remain without some sort of successful testing being conducted.
Indeed, there is a certain appeal to marvel and strategize over such a sophisticated and challenging weapon. However, one must take a step back and look to China’s overall military strategy developed over the last twenty years to place the ASBM in proper context.
Beijing’s embrace of A2/AD — the development of large quantities of advanced conventional submarines, approximately 100,000 sea mines, while fielding large amounts of ever increasing long-range and accurate cruise missiles and now ASBMs — is a clear signal to the United States that entry into any conflict in the near seas against Beijing will be a costly affair to be sure. Clearly, the DF-21D is only one of several weapons that form the basis of China’s A2/AD strategy.
China has carefully studied its failure in being unable to stop or deter– at least in theory — the deployment of two American carrier-battle groups (CBG) to the area around Taiwan during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Crisis. Combined with detailed analysis of the 1991 Gulf War that ushered in so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA), conflict in Kosovo as well as operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting asymmetrically and targeting perceived weaknesses in U.S. military systems seems to be where Beijing is placing its strategic bets.
We must also consider history and the present global strategic environment. The targeting of ocean going vessels on the high-seas is certainly nothing new. Soviet strategy in the Cold War placed utility in attacking american carriers with various types of missile systems — one of the reasons for the development of the AEGIS defense system. Today, while certainly not as advanced as the DF-21D (or withe possible range), other nations have various types of missiles that can certainly in theory pose challenges to American or allied maritime combatants.
The real danger for American or allied maritime assets lies in the abilities and capabilities of China’s A2/AD missiles when tallied overall. When one considers the ability of Chinese forces to launch saturation strikes that could overwhelm a CBGs missile defense systems, U.S. forces could be forced to fight from distance. As one scholar notes, it would seem sheer force of numbers that dooms American carriers in a A2/AD combat situation:
“ASBMs (anti-ship ballistic missiles) may not need to produce mission kills against the surface fleet to complicate U.S. plans. They only need to reach the fleet’s defensive envelope for the Aegis to engage the incoming threats, thus forcing the defender to expend valuable ammunition that cannot be easily resupplied at sea under combat conditions. Even inaccurate ASBMs, then, could compel the Aegis to exhaust its weapons inventory, leaving it defenseless against further PLA actions. Used in conjunction with conventional ballistic missile strikes against U.S. bases and other land targets across Asia — strikes that would elicit more intercept attempts — ASBM raids could deprive the United States and its allies of their staying power in a sea fight.”
Certainly, when one considers the DF-21D and overall Chinese strategic thinking concerning A2/AD, western scholars can only make accurate predictions based on the information at hand. When such analysis surveys Chinese history, its overall present strategic doctrines and challenges, combined with the nature of today’s military hardware, clarity emerges that allows scholars to understand China’s ASBM in a much broader context. New threats, challenges and advances will always pose risks for present military technologies. So while the words “carrier-killer” might elicit a certain reaction, understood from a broader perspective combined with the unknown or unclear, their power loses a little of its magic touch.