The PLANs response to the coercive threat of the US Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups came in the form of the Dong-Feng 21D Intermediate range, conventional tipped, Carrier Killer ballistic missiles. With their recent increase in accuracy and lethality these Anti-Ship Missiles have emerged as a highly significant new threat to the Aircraft Carrier Battle Group. 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 21Ds 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? Will the next major conflict at sea see them go the way of the earlier Battleships? Is the Dong-Feng 21D therefore a significant game changer? This merits serious debate and analysis and in part explains China’s highly truculent behaviour in 2010.
The carrier killer: DF-2ID missile
To recapitulate, in 1995–96 China was forced to back off when the US dispatched two Carrier Battle Groups to the Taiwan Straits at the height of the Chinese generated crisis. The approach of the Carrier Battle Groups forced China to back down. China had thereafter toned down its rhetoric and truculence for over 10 years. However its military and naval brass was intensively engaged in finding an answer to the challenge of US Carrier Battle Groups. The response has now come in the form of the DF-2ID Ballistic Missile. This is a mobile land based missile of 1,800–2,000 miles (approx 3,000 kms) range, specifically designed to engage and destroy the giant nuclear powered carriers. The DF-2ID has US naval strategists clearly worried. The US Navy concedes privately that they have only theoretical counter measures against the DF-2ID because its trajectory and other capabilities are largely unknown. As per US Naval Intelligence sources the DF-2ID is nearing operational capability. It could rank as the worlds first mobile land based missile capable of hitting a moving aircraft carrier nearly 2,000 miles away. The basic design of the DF-2ID is quite similar to the US Pershing II Missile of the cold war era. The missile is a two stage solid propellant missile with a CEP of 100–300 meteres. It was developed by China’s Chang Feng Mechanics and Electronics Technology Academy (also called Second Space Academy). This missile was developed from the Julang (JL-1) submarine launched ballistic missile. However it is a land based platform. Its payload and the capability of a ballistic missile to redirect in mid-flight is what especially worries US strategists. What drives the recent aggressive assertiveness of the Chinese navy? Is it its confidence that it finally has an answer to the US Carrier Battle Groups? The US Navy 7th Fleet Commander, Vice Adm John Bird was clearly worried when he said, “We have some concerns over the very aggressive weapons the Chinese are processing”.
Sattelite support system
China has built the recce support system for its Anti- ship Missiles in terms of an elaborate Satellite system and ground based Over the Horizon radar facilities. On 05 March 2009 the Chinese launched Yangon-1X Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellite (NOSS). This is equivalent of US White Cloud NOSS and consists of three small satellites that orbit in close formation and are dedicated to the task of detecting enemy Aircraft Carriers. It is a first generation Chinese Surveillance system with millimeter wave Radars to help stay in good orbital formation. Infra red sensors help spot the ships and antennae pick up electronic emissions. This has serious implications for US Aircraft Carriers due to their potential ability to find and track them. China launched two other such satellites in December 2009 (an electro-optical satellite and a synthetic aperture satellite) to complete the detection triad that will work together to locate and track US Aircraft Carriers. The advent of the Chinese NOSS however is a watershed in terms of actual, precise and real time targeting capability. China is likely to have some 80 DF-21D type ASBMs by 2015.
“Individually”, said Paul Giarra (a former Navy Cdr and now a Defence Dept Analyst) “the technological capabilities are not unprecedented but it is a revolutionary combination of capabilities”. The missile would be formidable during battle and its consequences go beyond any hypothetical cataclysmic wars. The Chinese would use the missile as leverage to try to weaken US Security pledges to Taiwan and other Asian allies, establishing vast no-go zones in the West Pacific.
An active Dong-Feng 21D Missile arsenal could prove to be a significant threat to the massive nuclear powered aircraft carriers. This “carrier killer” could usher in a major revolutionary change in naval warfare which had moved from the era of Battleships to the era of Aircraft Carriers in World War II. 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.
A small dose of well placed missiles they believe might persuade the enemy to back down or cease and desist. Such escalation could lead to miscalculation. If fired upon, the US might perceive what is intended as a warning shot or demonstration of resolve — as a prelude to all out attack.
The DF-21D therefore constitutes the high end Chinese asymmetric threat. US Admiral Robert Willard said in a testimony to the US Congress that such a missile could change the strategic equation and dramatically diminish American power projection.
Current US defensive measures
The current US missile defence systems are based on the US Aegis class cruisers / destroyers that form part of an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group. These carry the SM-3 interceptor missiles. However Giarra noted that the interception capability of Aegis equipped ships is not enough to reliably defend against a volley of well placed Anti-ship missiles. The US option therefore would be to rely more upon submarines or else keep its surface ships out of missile range. This seems to explain the surprising rise in Chinese naval assertiveness. B Raman has rightly pointed out that China seems to be asserting itself more and more with respect to the kinds of territorial claims. They seem to be taking a much more aggressive approach to near sea areas recently. This has serious implications for the freedom of navigation on the high seas. It virtually amounts to the enforcement of maritime exclusion zones. What is highly surprising is what precisely impelled America to back down and hold its Naval Drill in the Sea of Japan, instead of the Yellow Sea. Was it the threat of the DF-21D? A Chinese military analyst wrote lately that “The rise of Chinese Naval Power is unstoppable. Instead of trying to counter it the US should accommodate itself with it by accepting the new reality in the Western Pacific as a result of the rise of the Chinese Navy”. Beijing now has an expanded list of core sensitivities that go far beyond Taiwan and Tibet.
Admiral Mike Mullen’s concern
During his visit to India in early 2010, US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen clearly articulated his growing concern over China’s recent Naval assertiveness and muscle flexing. Beset with a financial crisis and bogged down with ongoing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama Administration’s first impulse after coming to office, was to seek accommodation with China at the global level and alliance with Pakistan at the regional scale. India was completely marginalised from its world view and pilloried to make peace with Pakistan. Obama’s visit to China however was a significant come down. Chinese assertiveness in the climate change negotiations further convinced the Americans that China only respected strength. They retaliated by providing US$ 6 billion worth of arms to Taiwan. This entrained a negative cycle that is now manifesting in the crisis in East Asia and the increasing naval muscle flexing by China.
Things changed suddenly in 2010. With the Beijing Olympics China threw its coming of age party. The global financial crisis found America considerably weakened. China sensed its break out opportunity and in 2010 there has been a dramatic turn around from its “Hide your capabilities bide your time” phase. Its military build-up has given new confidence and assertiveness to the PLA, the PLAN and the PLAFF. The DF-2ID seems to have exorcised the threat of American Carrier Battle Groups and introduced a significant game changer in the naval arena of the Western Pacific Ocean. China is now flexing its muscles. China’s recent attempt to virtually enforce maritime exclusion zones in the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Yellow Sea forms a very disturbing precedent. It has obvious implications for the freedom of navigation on the high seas. This obviously worries the USA and it equally has implications for India.
The Global Financial Crisis is being seen by the Chinese as a significant game changer that has hastened its coming of age party. The pattern shift in Chinese state behaviour has serious implications for Asia and the World in general and India in particular. Indian National Security experts need to take serious note of these tectonic plate shifts and speed up our inordinately delayed military build-up. We cannot afford to postpone the completion of our military build-up to 2025. The crisis situations are building up far quicker than anticipated in Asia. We cannot afford to be overtaken by events once more. The Americans are clearly concerned and Admiral Mullen articulated this concern unambiguously during his visit to India. He stated inter alia “I have moved from being curious about what they are doing to being concerned about what they are doing”. He elaborated “I see a fairly significant investment in high end equipment, satellites, ships and anti-ship missiles and high end aircraft. They are shifting focus from ground forces to a focus on their navy and air force”. He also stated significantly that “China is massing expeditionary maritime and air capabilities which seem oddly out of step with their stated goal of territorial defence”.
He was of the view that “Every nation has a right to defend itself and spend as much as it deems fit for that purpose. But a gap as wide as what seems to be forming between China’s stated intent and its military progress, leaves me more than curious about the end result”.
Paradigm shift in naval warfare
The Dong-Feng 2ID Ballistic Missile as a carrier killer could generate a naval RMA. It could have a huge impact on the way navies fight. India has invested in a major way in acquiring tactical to midsized aircraft carriers. It must factor in the impact of the DF-2ID threat to its CBGs. India has developed considerable expertise in developing autarky in missiles. The DRDO must rapidly produce such Carrier Killer Ballistic Missiles as also defensive systems against such attacks on our own CBGs. It is ushering in a new era in naval warfare and we cannot afford to be left behind. The Carrier Killer Ballistic Missile is a significant game changer. It is also cheap and affordable and the earlier we acquire this capability the better it will be for us. We also need to invest in countering this new threat — otherwise our own CBGs will have to be confined to harbours in future naval battles. The rate and pace of change is accelerating in our times. We have no option but to keep pace.
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 21Ds 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?
About the Author
Maj Gen (Dr) G D Bakshi SM, VSM (retd) — The writer is a combat veteran of many skirmishes on the Line of Control and counter-terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. He subsequently commanded the reputed Romeo Force during intensive counter-terrorist operations in the Rajouri-Poonch districts. He has served two tenures at the highly prestigious Directorate General of Military Operations. He is a prolific writer on matters military and non-military and has published 24 books and over 100 papers in many prestigious research journals. He is also Executive Editor of Defence and Security Alert (DSA) magazine.
Defence and Security Alert (DSA
Defence and Security Alert (DSA) magazine is the only ISO 9001:2008 certified, premier world class, new wave monthly magazine which features paradigm changing in-depth analyses on defence, security, safety and surveillance, focusing on developing and strategic future scenarios in India and around the world.