A new Chinese anti-ship missile that will significantly alter the balance of military power in the Pacific is now operational, according to a senior US commander.
Admiral Robert Willard, the top US commander in the Pacific, said the Chinese ballistic missile, which was designed to threaten US aircraft carriers in the region, had reached “initial operational capability”.
His remarks signal that China is challenging the US ability to project military power in Asia much sooner than many had expected.
The US and other countries in the Pacific region are increasingly concerned at the speed with which China is developing its naval power. Japan, for example, recently decided to refocus its military on the potential threat from China.
“So now we know – China’s [anti-ship ballistic missile] is no longer aspirational,” Andrew Erickson, an expert on the Chinese military at the US Naval War College, said in response to Adm Willard’s comments to the Asahi newspaper.
Defense analysts have called the Dongfeng 21 D missile a “game changer” since it could force US aircraft carriers to stay away from waters where China does not want to see them. These include the Taiwan Strait where a potential conflict could develop over the self-ruled island which China claims.
The land-based missile is designed to target and track aircraft carrier groups with the help of satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles and over-the-horizon radar. Aircraft carriers and their accompanying ships are unable to defend themselves against such a threat.
Aware of the missile’s development, the Pentagon has already started considering ways to counter the new threat, including a new concept for more closely integrated navy and air force operations.
Robert Gates, US defense secretary, said in September, the development of such a missile would force the Pentagon to rethink the way carriers were deployed.
“If the Chinese or somebody else has a highly accurate anti-ship cruise or ballistic missile that can take out a carrier at hundreds of miles of ranges and therefore in Asia puts us back behind the second island chain, how then do you use carriers differently in the future?” Mr Gates asked.
The second chain of islands runs from the Bonins along the Marianas, Guam and Palau, forming a north-south line east of Japan and the Philippines. This line defines what China sees as its “near seas” – waters in which the US navy now frequently operates and are home to US naval bases and allies such as Japan and South Korea.
Adm Willard noted this year that China’s anti-ship ballistic missile was undergoing extensive testing and was close to deployment. Observers believe China started production of missile motors last year and that the Chinese military is preparing a nuclear missile base in the southern city of Shaoguan for their deployment.
Defense analysts have also linked several missile flight tests this year to the new weapon but no conclusive evidence has been available to date.
Adm Willard’s latest comments appear to remove any doubts. The term “initial operational capability” as used by the Pentagon indicates that some military units have started deployment of the weapon and are capable of using it.
Mr Erickson said: “Beijing has successfully developed, tested, and deployed the world’s first weapons system capable of targeting a moving carrier strike group from long-range, land-based mobile launchers.” .
Adm Willard said the new Chinese weapon was still not fully-operational and would probably undergo testing for “several more years”. The key remaining step is a comprehensive test of the entire system at sea, which is much more difficult than test flights over land.
China also needs to deploy more satellites to ensure seamless tracking of a moving target at sea. But defense experts warn that the weapon would immediately be a threat to US carriers because China could make up for a lack in accuracy by launching larger numbers of missiles.