Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Evaluating China's New "Carrier-Killing" Missile

Last week saw another round of semi-hysterical speculation about China's new Dong Feng missile, which supposedly has the accuracy required to attack U.S. aircraft carriers from 900 miles away.

Prof. Toshi Yoshihara of the Naval War College told the Associated Press that the new missile signals "the U.S. Navy no longer rules the waves as it has since the end of World War II," and "sea control cannot be taken for granted anymore." Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security said the missile is "potentially capable of stopping our naval projection." Investor's Business Daily compared the Pentagon's lack of response to the Dong Feng with Navy complacency in the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and saw the emerging antiship threat as further evidence the world is entering a "Chinese Century."

I haven't seen the intelligence reports, so maybe all the alarm is warranted. But I doubt it. China has yet to conduct a single realistic test of the conventionally-armed ballistic missile. Even if it performs as feared, there is a glaring omission in all the threat mongering: the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) has no reliable way of actually targeting U.S. carrier task forces when they are at sea. No matter how accurate the new missile's guidance system may be, Chinese military commanders need to know where to aim it -- especially since a near miss with a conventional warhead has pretty much the same military value as missing by a hundred miles. So how exactly is the PLA supposed to find U.S. carriers, when they are constantly moving and actively excluding hostile forces from their immediate vicinity?

The answer is that it can't. "Four and a half acres of sovereign U.S. territory" -- the way carrier proponents often describe flattops -- may sound like a huge target, but in fact it is a mere speck in the vast expanses of the Western Pacific. For example, the modestly-sized South China Sea that Beijing keeps trying to claim for itself contains over a million square miles of water, in which a carrier can easily hide. And that's only a small part of the East Asia littoral.

I calculated a decade ago that to acquire continuous target-quality information for the entire South China Sea, the PLA would need over a hundred low-earth-orbit reconnaissance satellites moving in three parallel tracks. At the moment, China only has a handful of such satellites, and as a result most of the time its overhead sensors aren't anywhere near areas of interest. It also has over-the-horizon radars and roaming submarines, plus a fleet of reconnaissance aircraft, but these do not add up to the seamless targeting network the PLA would need to track and attack a U.S. carrier.

The Navy is currently investing in upgrades to its Aegis combat system and other defensive equipment aimed at dealing with maneuvering warheads such as the Dong Feng would carry. These defensive measures will likely come to fruition long before Beijing has a reliable way of targeting our carriers. In addition, the Navy has numerous kinetic and non-kinetic strike options that could be used to rapidly degrade whatever surveillance network the PLA has assembled if the threat of an attack against U.S. carriers were deemed serious enough. And then there are all the passive "signature management" measures the Navy might undertake to foil the tracking efforts of the PLA using remote sensors. Frankly, the U.S. Navy has so many options for negating Chinese antiship capabilities that I can only conclude the alarmists aren't conversant with U.S. military preparations to be so worried about the nascent Dong Feng.

Of course, losing even one aircraft carrier would be a huge blow to the American psyche. But the American response would be so devastating that Beijing would soon regret its boldness. The value of a trillion dollars in Chinese currency reserves would evaporate overnight. China's access to the world's richest export market would end. Its information networks would largely cease functioning. Its sea-based supply lines to Persian Gulf oil and Australian minerals would be severed. And all that could happen even before U.S. bombs began falling on Chinese territory. So while we can't be absolutely certain that China's leaders won't someday be foolish enough to attack a U.S. aircraft carrier, we can be pretty damned sure that they would soon realize they had made a big mistake

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