By David Crane
defrev (at) gmail (dot) com
December 28, 2010
Looks like the “D” version of the Chinese DF-21 medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is moving into the deployment phase, although an “over the water” flight test has reportedly not yet been conducted. If the DF-21D ASBM ends up working as advertised, however, it may (potentially) effectively obsolete U.S. Navy aircraft carriers in the event of a future direct conflict with China over Taiwan. It will mean that the Chinese can essentially sink our aircraft carriers at will, turning them into huge, massively-expensive above-the-water targets (multi-billion-dollar targets, when accompanying aircraft are taken into account) for the taking–easy pickins, if you will. At the very least, the DF-21D, once operational, will change the way the U.S. Navy deploys its carriers in a crisis situation around China.
The kicker is that the DF-21D ASBM (Dong Feng-21D ASBM) doesn’t fully represent the extent of China’s anti-ship, carrier-sinking capability. In recent years, China has expanded its submarine force, and those submarines carry torpedoes. In the future, they will most likely carry supercavitating torpedoes. Also, it would seem logical that China would also be developing their own supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, just like Russia and India. Anti-ship missiles are relatively inexpensive compared to aircraft carriers.
Some military strategists may argue that the Chinese wouldn’t risk a full-scale war, or even a nuclear exchange, with the United States by sinking one or more of our carriers. Really? Would we (the U.S.) risk a large-scale war or nuclear exchange with China by threatening or initiating a full conventional attack or nuclear strike in response to a lost carrier? Which country can afford to lose more people? Are we willing to trade Washington D.C. and/or Manhattan/New York City (NYC), Los Angeles, or San Francisco for Beijing or Shanghai in a nuclear exchange?
The point is, we can’t rely on our nuclear armament deterrent against China, particularly if they’re willing to sacrifice Beijing and/or Shanghai and millions of their people in an exchange. We have to be able to beat them conventionally.
The irony is that China doesn’t necessarily even need the latest, super-advanced missiles and torpedoes to sink our carriers. Lietenant General Paul K. Van Riper proved this when he sank two-thirds of the U.S. fleet during the Millenium Challenge 2002 naval warfare exercise. While U.S. ship defense systems have advanced since 2002, so have anti-ship weapon systems.
It’s going to be pretty tough for U.S. ship defense tech to keep pace with anti-ship weapons tech. Even if it can, all the enemy really has to do is overwhelm ship defenses with large enough missile and torpedo salvos (i.e., sheer numbers of missiles and torpedoes all fired simultaneously at the target)…with one caveat: for above-the-water-ship defense, it’s possible that anti-missile laser and guidance disruption or jamming technologies could potentially work. If there’s a viable/deployable method of distrupting torpedoes (including supercavitating torpedoes) besides traditional countermeasures, DefenseReview (DR) isn’t aware of it.