China’s chief military officer has issued the first official confirmation of the existence of a programme to develop a ‘carrier-killer’ missile that could allow China to challenge US naval dominance of the Pacific decades before it’s able to field a carrier fleet.
Gen. Chen Bingde announced that the modified Dongfeng 21-D missile will be able to strike ships nearly twice as far away as previously believed by US naval analysts, at a maximum range of 2,700 kilometres after launching from land.
Speaking to the China Daily, though, Chen tried to play down the PLA’s progress in developing the advanced missile system:
‘The missile is still undergoing experimental testing and will be used as a defensive weapon when it is successfully developed, not an offensive one,’ Chen was reported as saying. ‘It is a high-tech weapon and we face many difficulties in getting funding, advanced technologies and high-quality personnel, which are all underlying reasons why it is hard to develop this.’
Still, US naval leaders estimated that the Dongfeng system had reached ‘initial operational capacity’ as early as last December, using a technical term referring to technology in development that’s ready to begin performing some, but not all, of its intended functions. Large technical projects in the Chinese government are often developed under wraps, with the full extent of their progress saved to be used as a surprise for foreign audiences. Chen may also have sought to soothe the fears of US naval experts, who have been shaken by news of DF-21’s development.
Experts have pointed out that accurately targeting carriers will require more than better missiles – they will need long-range radar systems and advanced military satellites to guide them. But analysts estimate that China will be able to produce 10,000 of the new missiles for the price of a single US aircraft carrier – so even with poor targeting, they could pose a serious threat.
US military leaders have, for their part, generally attempted to project sangfroid in the face of news about China’s developing area denial power, arguing that a single missile won’t change the balance of power in the region. But a missile capable of striking a ship nearly 3,000 kilometres from China’s coast could end the US’s traditional ability to sail through disputed waters with impunity. It would certainly lead future US presidents to think twice before sending carriers to pass through the Taiwan Straits during standoffs between the two Chinas.
David Cohen is a freelance journalist. He blogs at www.sinocentric.net and his writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian Online, the Global Times, the China Daily and the Lowy Interpreter among other publications.