Why China May Limit “Carrier-Killer’s” Range

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Why China May Limit “Carrier-Killer’s” Range

Even if China’s technically capable of expanding the DF-21D ABSM’s range, its foreign policy goals might dictate restraint.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Defense released its annual report on China's military entitled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013. While last year's report was panned by some as being short on details and substance compared to prior years, the new 2013 version is much more comprehensive and offers a balanced analysis concerning China's rising military might.

In reading over the report, there was a line that struck me, but at the time was more a passing thought than a true revelation. A recent report detailing China's highly touted DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) or "carrier-killer" deserves credit for highlighting the significance of the passage (hat tip to Andrew Erickson).

From the DOD report:

"Current trends in China’s weapons production will enable the PLA to conduct a range of military operations in Asia well beyond Taiwan, in the South China Sea, western Pacific, and Indian Ocean. Key systems that have been either deployed or are in development include ballistic missiles (including anti-ship variants), anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, modern surface ships, and an aircraft carrier."

While the wording is far from definitive, there is the possibility that China could in the future develop its ASBM into a weapon with a much greater range. While most estimates (including the DOD's own report) place the range of the ASBM at "1,500+ km," as China is able to develop the weapons system and solve the challenge of hitting a moving ocean going vessel (not easy), Beijing's missile forces may begin to experiment with the idea of increasing the system’s range.

As Erickson recently noted in his report for China Brief:

"Now that the initial challenge of deploying an operational ASBM is completed, China has the option of developing other variants with different, likely complementary, characteristics. As China slowly builds the intelligence infrastructure to guide ASBMs toward their targets, future variants can be integrated more quickly into the force at higher levels of readiness. The advanced nature of ASBM development may become less the exception than the rule for future Chinese weapons programs."

China's possible mastery of ASBM technology with the added possibility of later fielding new variants with increased range would have wide-ranging regional consequences not only in the Asia-Pacific, but in the wider Indo-Pacific theatre. As many scholars have noted, China's anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) missile-centric forces are at their strongest off the coast of China extending out to about the range of the DF-21D, approximately 1,500 km. While growing stronger in recent years, Beijing does not possess a navy or air force that can project power into the mid-Pacific. True, Chinese naval forces have deployed into the Indian Ocean, but the PLA Navy can hardly be considered a force to be reckoned with alongside India in that theatre.

Having an ASBM that could again, in theory, reach such important regions would allow Beijing to project power to areas of the globe that would have taken it years via more conventional methods. If China were able to field an ASBM that could put in play the navies of India, Indonesia, and possibly Australia, the regional security environment could shift dramatically.

There would also be dramatic consequences for the United States. Currently, U.S. naval forces are largely secure in the mid-Pacific with no peer competitor challenging its mastery. An ASBM with a longer range could take away a potential safe zone for U.S. forces and possibly push combat forces out even further away from areas of tension like the South and East China Seas, and further endanger commitments made to Taiwan. Taking an even longer view, picture this: a U.S. Navy no longer safe when docked at Pearl Harbor? Scary thought.

Considering all this, China may want to give pause in creating such an ASBM variant. Nothing unites nations with competing interests like a shared threat.  While India-U.S. ties have warmed, New Delhi has not fully embraced America's pivot to the degree Washington would like. Would India reconsider and push for stronger military ties, perhaps even purchasing advanced American missile defense systems? Would New Delhi strengthen ties even further with Japan or others who share security concerns regarding China? Such ideas are not out of the question.

Would other nations in the region make similar calculations and consider stronger relations with Washington, express greater interest in American made missile defenses, or consider responding by developing their own missile forces or building up their own conventional forces? Would Japan and South Korea put to rest recent tensions and forge stronger military ties out of shared concern that Washington may not be able to come to their aid as easily in a crisis?

Truth be told, such considerations could be a long ways off. China may not see the need for expanding the range of its "carrier-killer," and instead remain content with increasing its military power across multiple domains along its coast. There is also the argument that Beijing may not have yet even mastered the technology of its existing ASBM. Yet, it is clear missile technology, cruise or ballistic, will create more problems for the surface fleets of the future, "carrier-killer" or not.