China: Fielding a New Anti-Ship Capability

7 MINS READNov 18, 2009 | 23:20 GMT
China is reportedly close to fielding a new anti-ship ballistic missile. Though considerable questions remain, this may mark a significant advancement in Chinese anti-ship capabilities.
The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence has reportedly found that China is close to fielding an anti-ship ballistic missile, according to a Nov. 17 story broken by Bloomberg. This development has been on the horizon for some time, but many questions remain about this new weapon system and its true capabilities. Despite these questions, the matter is of deep concern for the U.S. Navy as the capability holds considerable promise if China masters it.

Anti-Ship vs. Ballistic Missiles

Anti-ship missiles are generally closer to cruise missiles in configuration and flight profile. There are important reasons for this. Even a large warship is a relatively small target that can maneuver. Whether an anti-ship missile closes to its target while skimming the surface of the water or from a higher altitude, its range can be between one and several hundred kilometers. Consequently, even those that travel at supersonic speeds require some measure of guidance and the ability to refine their course and trajectory as they close the distance to the target ship. Even if the missile's motor has burned out, aerodynamic control surfaces can provide this maneuverability until impact. Ballistic missiles, on the other hand, are not nearly as maneuverable after launch. Although during the boost phase (the first powered part of flight), various means are used to stabilize the missile and follow the proscribed ballistic path, the weapon is not maneuverable in the same way. Well before apogee (the peak of the ballistic flight path), the missile's motor burns out. Expended stages often fall away, and in single warhead missiles, leave only a small re-entry vehicle (RV) to travel the remainder of the ballistic trajectory. Even modern RVs are not generally guided or maneuverable, so the remainder of the ballistic trajectory is essentially predetermined. In the early decades of the Cold War, large nuclear warheads were necessary to compensate for the resulting inaccuracy. So the Chinese marrying of the target of anti-ship missiles — small, moving ships — and the un-maneuverable ballistic missile is itself noteworthy. But serious questions remain about the true capability of what now seems to promise to be the world's first deployed anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).


The Chinese ASBM appears to be based on the DF-21 road mobile medium-range ballistic missile. Fueled by solid propellant, the DF-21 and DF-21A (a refined version) were fielded in the 1990s, and may already be used to carry both nuclear and conventional warheads. The latter could be suggestive of a higher degree of accuracy, since a ballistic missile armed with a conventional warhead on the order of 1,500 pounds with meaningful military capability would require considerable precision. But even if China had achieved an unprecedented degree of accuracy with its ballistic missiles, it would only be relevant for an ASBM if China could pinpoint exactly where a U.S. carrier would be at the exact moment of impact. But even if the ASBM's time from launch to impact remains consistent with medium-range ballistic missiles, which is well under 10 minutes, U.S. carriers do not tend to sit idle and unmoving –- especially in more hostile environments, or when a ballistic missile launch from China's coast has been detected. All this would suggest that for non-nuclear anti-ship capability, China would require a guided and maneuverable RV. Russia is known to have done work on maneuverable RVs, but with an eye primarily toward evading ballistic missile defenses rather than improving accuracy to the point where a non-nuclear warhead can have utility. China may well have done similar work for the same purpose. Applying that maneuverability to the problem of accuracy and incorporating terminal guidance would require considerable additional work. The 4.5-acre flight deck of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier against the backdrop of the open ocean certainly makes for an easily identifiable target from altitude. However, marrying guidance with maneuverability at supersonic speeds would be a considerably more advanced capability than lobbing a nuclear warhead in the vicinity of a U.S. carrier strike group (CSG). In addition, a modern U.S. carrier displaces over 100,000 tons. These are not targets that are likely to be sunk even with a direct hit by a 1,500-pound warhead. If one or several strike the right places on a flight deck, though, they may severely degrade flight operations or possibly achieve a mission kill (prevent the ship from carrying out its primary function even if it does not sink). In short, several unknowns remain about the true capability of China's new ASBM. In addition to the open question of whether it has sufficient maneuverability and accuracy to be a meaningful threat, there are questions regarding China's ability to pinpoint the location of a U.S. CSG. In all likelihood, this would require space-based sensors to detect approaches from the Mariana Islands. China would also have to reduce considerably the time it takes to feed targeting data from a satellite into a missile at a mobile launch battery on the coast.

Access Denial

The bottom line is that China is using older technology and repurposing other technologies to create new, asymmetric capabilities tailored to the U.S. Navy. By presenting a new threat that approaches from a nearly vertical trajectory at supersonic speeds, a Chinese ASBM would engage a CSG outside what is thought to be the engagement envelope of most of the CSG's considerable array of defensive systems. Though the Aegis-based Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) ballistic missile defense system may be an effective counter, only a small portion of U.S. guided missile cruisers and destroyers — a vast majority of which are currently based in the Pacific — have been upgraded to that capability so far. China could attempt to use its ASBMs to hold U.S. CSGs at a distance (since their range is approximately 1,500 km, or 932 miles). This distance is at the limits of or even beyond the effective range of carrier-based aviation, particularly a sustained air campaign. Of particular note is the dramatic increase in anti-ship missile range. More traditional configurations are limited to less than one-third this distance. It is this combination of increased range and potential evasion of traditional and refined U.S. shipboard defenses that makes this threat particularly noteworthy. And though the Chinese may not be able to truly deny the U.S. Navy access to the waters off their coast indefinitely, it can certainly work to keep the United States farther off shore, increase the risks and costs of operating there and slow the American approach in a crisis — which is particularly relevant in a time-sensitive Taiwan scenario. In other words, the fielding of an ASBM capability is completely compatible with Beijing's efforts to attempt to deny the United States access to the Chinese mainland without going to the expense of building a true water navy. And while the Chinese may have considerable work to do in terms of operationalizing the DF-21 ASBM as a meaningful military weapon, it is certainly something that has gotten the attention of the U.S. Navy. Chinese efforts to further refine this new capability will undoubtedly continue apace. This new ASBM –- even if it is still being refined –- could ultimately prove to be a more significant threat to the U.S. Navy than previous anti-ship missiles.

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