Chinese missile could shift Pacific power balance

Nothing projects U.S. global air and sea power more vividly thansupercarriers. Bristling with fighter jets that can reach deep intoeven landlocked trouble zones, America's virtually invincible carrierfleet 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 agame-changing weapon being developed by China — an unprecedentedcarrier-killing missile called the Dong Feng 21D that could be launchedfrom land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even themost advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 1,500kilometers (900 miles).

Analysts say final testing of the missile could come as soon as the endof this year, though questions remain about how fast China will be ableto perfect its accuracy to the level needed to threaten a movingcarrier at sea.

The weapon, a version of which was displayed last year in a Chinesemilitary parade, could revolutionize China's role in the Pacificbalance of power, seriously weakening Washington's ability to intervenein any potential conflict over Taiwan or North Korea. It could alsodeny U.S. ships safe access to international waters near China's11,200-mile (18,000-kilometer) -long coastline.

While a nuclear bomb could theoretically sink a carrier, assuming itsuser was willing to raise the stakes to atomic levels, theconventionally-armed Dong Feng 21D's uniqueness is in its ability tohit a powerfully defended moving target with pin-point precision.

The Chinese Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to the AP's request for a comment.

Funded by annual double-digit increases in the defense budget foralmost every year of the past two decades, the Chinese navy has becomeAsia's largest and has expanded beyond its traditional mission ofretaking Taiwan to push its sphere of influence deeper into the Pacificand protect vital maritime trade routes.

"The Navy has long had to fear carrier-killing capabilities," saidPatrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program atthe nonpartisan, Washington-based Center for a New American Security.

"The emerging Chinese antiship missile capability, and in particularthe DF 21D, represents the first post-Cold War capability that is bothpotentially capable of stopping our naval power projection anddeliberately designed for that purpose."

Setting the stage for a possible conflict, Beijing has grownincreasingly vocal in its demands for the U.S. to stay away from thewide swaths of ocean — covering much of the Yellow, East and SouthChina seas — where it claims exclusivity.

It strongly opposed plans to hold U.S.-South Korean war games in theYellow Sea off the northeastern Chinese coast, saying the participationof the USS George Washington supercarrier, with its 1,092-foot(333-meter) flight deck and 6,250 personnel, would be a provocationbecause it put Beijing within striking range of U.S. F-18 warplanes.

The carrier instead took part in maneuvers held farther away in the Sea of Japan.

U.S. officials deny Chinese pressure kept it away, and say they will not be told by Beijing where they can operate.

"We reserve the right to exercise in international waters anywhere inthe world," Rear Adm. Daniel Cloyd, who headed the U.S. side of theexercises, said aboard the carrier during the maneuvers, which endedlast week.

But the new missile could undermine that policy.

"China can reach out and hit the U.S. well before the U.S. can getclose enough to the mainland to hit back," said Toshi Yoshihara, anassociate professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He said U.S. shipshave only twice been that vulnerable — against Japan in World War IIand against Soviet bombers in the Cold War.

Carrier-killing missiles "could have an enduring psychological effecton U.S. policymakers," he e-mailed to The AP. "It underscores morebroadly that the U.S. Navy no longer rules the waves as it has sincethe end of World War II. The stark reality is that sea control cannotbe taken for granted anymore."

Yoshihara said the weapon is causing considerable consternation inWashington, though — with attention focused on land wars in Afghanistanand Iraq — its implications haven't been widely discussed in public.
Analysts note that while much has been made of China's efforts to readya carrier fleet of its own, it would likely take decades to catch U.S.carrier crews' level of expertise, training and experience.

But Beijing does not need to match the U.S. carrier for carrier. TheDong Feng 21D, smarter, and vastly cheaper, could successfully attack aU.S. carrier, or at least deter it from getting too close.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of the threat in a speech last September at the Air Force Association Convention.
"When considering the military-modernization programs of countries likeChina, we should be concerned less with their potential ability tochallenge the U.S. symmetrically — fighter to fighter or ship to ship —and more with their ability to disrupt our freedom of movement andnarrow our strategic options," he said.

Gates said China's investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare,anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, along with ballistic missiles, "couldthreaten America's primary way to project power" through its forwardair bases and carrier strike groups.

The Pentagon has been worried for years about China getting ananti-ship ballistic missile. The Pentagon considers such a missile an"anti-access," weapon, meaning that it could deny others access tocertain areas.

The Air Force's top surveillance and intelligence officer, Lt. Gen.David Deptula, told reporters this week that China's effort to increaseanti-access capability is part of a worrisome trend.

He did not single out the DF 21D, but said: "While we might not fightthe Chinese, we may end up in situations where we'll certainly beopposing the equipment that they build and sell around the world."
Questions remain over when — and if — China will perfect thetechnology; hitting a moving carrier is no mean feat, requiringstate-of-the-art guidance systems, and some experts believe it willtake China a decade or so to field a reliable threat.

Others, however, say final tests of the missile could come in the next year or two.

Former Navy commander James Kraska, a professor of international lawand sea power at the U.S. Naval War College, recently wrote acontroversial article in the magazine Orbis outlining a hypotheticalscenario set just five years from now in which a Deng Feng 21D missilewith a penetrator warhead sinks the USS George Washington.
That would usher in a "new epoch of international order in which Beijing emerges to displace the United States."

While China's Defense Ministry never comments on new weapons beforethey become operational, the DF 21D — which would travel at 10 timesthe speed of sound and carry conventional payloads — has been muchdiscussed by military buffs online.

A pseudonymous article posted on Xinhuanet, website of China's officialnews agency, imagines the U.S. dispatching the George Washington to aidTaiwan against a Chinese attack.

The Chinese would respond with three salvos of DF 21D, the first ofwhich would pierce the hull, start fires and shut down flightoperations, the article says. The second would knock out its enginesand be accompanied by air attacks. The third wave, the article says,would "send the George Washington to the bottom of the ocean."

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