China — Dong Feng 21-D: A Game Changer?

The era of the mighty Bat­tle­ships became his­to­ry dur­ing the Sec­ond World War with the Japan­ese attack on Pearl Har­bour. The US became the fore­most pro­tag­o­nist of the Car­ri­er Bat­tle Group (CBG) as the prime instru­ment of pow­er-pro­jec­tion. The 11 CBGs of the US Navy actu­al­ly make that coun­try a super pow­er. In 1996, the dis­patch of two US CBGs forced Chi­na to back down over Tai­wan. This humil­i­a­tion forced the Chi­nese to seek a nov­el and out of the box solu­tion to the threat of US air­craft car­ri­ers. In the Dong Feng 21 D Anti-Ship mis­sile it now seems to have found a very cost-effec­tive answer. Though as yet untest­ed in com­bat, the DF-21 Mis­siles have sig­nif­i­cant­ly enhanced the threat to the car­ri­ers. Any Amer­i­can deci­sion to parade these car­ri­ers in any future con­fronta­tion over Tai­wan would be seri­ous­ly ham­strung by the fear of los­ing these car­ri­ers to a bar­rage of Dong-Feng 21 Ds fired in mul­ti­ple salvos. The car­ri­ers could thus be sunk some 2–3,000 kms out at sea while their tac­ti­cal on-board air­craft and cruise mis­siles would be well out of range of the Chi­nese main­land. The enhanced accu­ra­cy of these inter­me­di­ate range Bal­lis­tic mis­siles has there­fore posed a seri­ous threat to the slow mov­ing Air­craft Car­ri­er armadas. How sig­nif­i­cant is this threat? Is it a game chang­er in the annals of naval war­fare that will ren­der this class of ships obso­lete? Is the long era of the Air­craft Car­ri­er final­ly over? The issue mer­its seri­ous debate and analy­sis.

This arti­cle is pub­lished with the kind per­mis­sion of “Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA) Mag­a­zine” New Del­hi-India

Defence and Security Alert (DSA

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Bat­tle­ships like the Hood, Repulse, Bis­mar­ck etc. had ruled the seas almost till the mid­point of the Sec­ond World War. These mighty bat­tle­ships how­ev­er were com­plete­ly eclipsed by the advent of the Air­craft Car­ri­ers which have emerged since as the pri­ma­ry plat­form for pow­er pro­jec­tion across the globe. The era of the Air­craft Car­ri­er had dawned with the bril­liant­ly suc­cess­ful Japan­ese attack on the mighty Amer­i­can Naval Base at Pearl Har­bour. So emi­nent­ly suc­cess­ful was the Japan­ese Fleet’s attack that Pearl Har­bour has become a his­tor­i­cal syn­onym for shock and sur­prise in war or any con­flict­ual activ­i­ty. Sur­pris­ing­ly it was the Armed Forces of the Total­i­tar­i­an states like Ger­many and Japan that did out of the box think­ing in the Sec­ond World War and came out with high­ly inno­v­a­tive solu­tions to counter the indus­tri­al and quan­ti­ta­tive supe­ri­or­i­ty of the Allied Pow­ers. The Allied Pow­ers were all, (with the excep­tion of Sovi­et Rus­sia), lib­er­al democ­ra­cies, who the­o­ret­i­cal­ly should have fos­tered more cre­ative think­ing and inno­va­tion. It was the Ger­mans how­ev­er, who syn­the­sised the Stu­ka Dive Bombers with the fast mov­ing Panz­er Tank columns to gen­er­ate shock and awe and effect deep and paralysing pen­e­tra­tions of the blitzkreig in land war­fare. It was the Japan­ese who syn­the­sised Tac­ti­cal avi­a­tion with Sea Pow­er to pio­neer the advent of Air­craft Car­ri­ers. The Amer­i­cans, till Pearl Har­bour, had relied pri­mar­i­ly upon the tra­di­tion­al gigan­tic Bat­tle­ships to effect sea-con­trol. By a curi­ous coin­ci­dence, almost the entire Amer­i­can Bat­tle­ship fleet was sunk at Pearl Har­bour. The Amer­i­can Air­craft Car­ri­ers were not in har­bour on that par­tic­u­lar day and hence sur­vived. It was nat­ur­al there­fore, that giv­en the spec­tac­u­lar Japan­ese suc­cess with this class of ships, the Amer­i­can Car­ri­ers would lead the US Counter offen­sive across the Pacif­ic. The Amer­i­cans sim­ply had no oth­er option. The Amer­i­cans began their relent­less island hop­ping cam­paign across the Pacif­ic chain of islands as they inched clos­er to the Japan­ese main­land. The turn­ing point of the war came in the Bat­tle of Mid­way, when the Amer­i­can and Japan­ese fleets of Air­craft Car­ri­ers fought a fierce engage­ment with­out the two fleets com­ing in sight of one anoth­er. US tech­no­log­i­cal supe­ri­or­i­ty turned the scales in this relent­less bat­tle of attri­tion via the Manoeu­vre of the Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups. The Air­craft Car­ri­er Group has since then firm­ly estab­lished itself as the pri­ma­ry instru­ment of pow­er pro­jec­tion.

Post the Sec­ond World War, the US enhanced its depen­dence on the Air­craft Car­ri­er Bat­tle Group as the pri­ma­ry tools of Pow­er Pro­jec­tion. Today, the US Navy boasts of 11 Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups. Today such a US Nuclear pow­ered Air­craft Car­ri­er Bat­tle Group can tra­verse 5–700 nau­ti­cal miles in a day and cov­er some 5,000 Nau­ti­cal miles in a week. With its Fleet of F-18 Hor­net air­craft, it can reach out anoth­er 3–400 nau­ti­cal miles and more and deci­sive­ly mass effects at very long dis­tances from the Amer­i­can main­land.

The Sovi­ets were a tra­di­tion­al Con­ti­nen­tal pow­er and the Sovi­et Navy there­fore focused more on Sea-denial than Sea-con­trol. This it did through a vast arma­da of nuclear and con­ven­tion­al sub­marines. How­ev­er, towards the hey­day of the Sovi­et Empire in the 1970s the Sovi­et Navy began to emu­late its Amer­i­can coun­ter­part and went in for a series of tac­ti­cal to mid-sized Air­craft Car­ri­ers like the Gor­shkov (now the Vikra­ma­ditya of the Indi­an Navy), the Veryag (now the She­lang of the Chi­nese PLA Navy) and the Kuznetsov. The Air­craft Car­ri­er had proved its util­i­ty and effi­ca­cy as an ide­al plat­form for Pow­er Pro­jec­tion.

The DFs mark a sig­nif­i­cant par­a­digm shift that could make the strat­e­gy of send­ing giant air­craft car­ri­ers more dan­ger­ous because it could give Chi­na the option of fir­ing warn­ing shots if the US ships sail too close for Chi­nese com­fort says Toshi Yoshi­wara, Prof of Strat­e­gy and Pol­i­cy at the US Naval War Col­lege

Dur­ing the cold war the Air­craft Car­ri­er played a lead role in the con­flicts in Korea and Viet­nam. After the col­lapse of the mighty Sovi­et Union, the US Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups ranged vir­tu­al­ly unchal­lenged over the glob­al seas. They played a lead and deci­sive role in Gulf War I and Gulf War II as also Op Endur­ing Free­dom in Afghanistan and also behind the scenes in Libya. Unchal­lenged Naval pow­er and sea-lift capa­bil­i­ties alone enabled Amer­i­ca to defeat Iraq and pul­verise Afghanistan, Koso­vo and Libya.

The Tai­wan con­fronta­tion

In 1995, Chi­na had embarked on a rather aggres­sive mil­i­tary exer­cise to coerce and intim­i­date Tai­wan. It fired a bar­rage of short ranged Tac­ti­cal Bal­lis­tic mis­siles over Tai­wan to over­awe that state into call­ing off its Pro-inde­pen­dence agen­da.

The Amer­i­cans retal­i­at­ed by dis­patch­ing two Nuclear Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups to the Tai­wan Straits. The Chi­nese were forced to back down. It was a sig­nif­i­cant humil­i­a­tion and loss of face for the Chi­nese. They resolved to ensure that this would not hap­pen ever again. The Chi­nese Navy deter­mined­ly set out to find an out of the box and inno­v­a­tive solu­tion to the threat of the US Air­craft Car­ri­er Bat­tle Groups. The solu­tion they have come up with is nov­el and quite cost-effec­tive.