The Chinese have made significant progress on a missile system designed to sink a moving aircraft carrier from nearly 2,000 miles away, according to the top U.S. commander in the Pacific.
China’s anti-ship missile system has reached the rough equivalent of what the U.S. military terms as “initial operational capability,” Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said in an interview with Japan’s Asahi newspaper Tuesday.
At the heart of the system is the Dong Feng 21D, a mobile, land-based missile that is projected to strike a carrier from between 1,200 and 1,800 miles, depending on its payload and other factors.
Willard said that the “component parts of the anti-ship ballistic missile have been developed and tested,” according to Asahi.
The missile has not yet been flight-tested over water, Willard acknowledged.
The Defense Department broadly defines initial operational capability as when a unit has the ability to employ and maintain a weapon it has received, although it may still require refinement before reaching “full operational capability” and wide distribution, according to the Defense Acquisition University in Fort Belvoir, Va.
Nevertheless, if China has mastered the complexities of striking a moving ship with a ballistic missile, it would be the only country to possess such a weapon. The United States relies on other weapon systems to attack ships.
Willard’s revelation about the system adds to growing concerns in the United States and Japan about China’s rapidly modernizing military and its increasingly aggressive actions in the Pacific.
Reports of Chinese naval activity in international waters near Okinawa, a diplomatic row between Japan and China over an island chain claimed by both countries and a contentious U.S. arms sale to Taiwan this year have increased tension in the region. In its National Defense Program Guideline released Dec. 17, Japan called China’s growing military and its lack of transparency as “a matter of concern for the region and the international community.”
China, meanwhile, claims that its military rise is defensive in nature and not aimed at any country in particular.
However, Willard said, combined with China’s air and naval advancements and power projections in the region, the Dong Feng 21D signals China’s move to expand its capability of denying access to regional waters.
China’s priorities reflect obvious future aspirations to become a “global military,” Willard said.
For now, their focus is on “what they term their near seas — the Bohai, Yellow Sea, South China Sea, East China Sea,” Willard said.
China still considers Taiwan, located in the East China Sea across the Taiwan Strait, as its sovereign territory, despite its split from the mainland government in 1949.
During past security crises in the South China Sea, Beijing has launched missiles and staged amphibious assault exercises near Taiwan. It did so most notably in 1996, after it appeared that a candidate favoring Taiwan independence would win.
In response, the United States sent two aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait, after which China ceased its military escalation. The U.S. has dispatched an aircraft carrier near the Taiwan Strait during every successive presidential election in Taiwan.
An active Dong Feng 21D missile arsenal would complicate that strategy.
“The strongest argument for obtaining (the anti-ship missile) capability is keeping the U.S. Navy from intervening in Taiwan,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
China’s anti-ship missile system also highlights a fundamental disagreement between China and the United States and Japan on regional missile defense, he said.
The U.S. and Japan contend its joint missile defense program enhances regional security and is not aimed at China, despite U.S. reports highlighting the concern China’s growing missile program presents. China criticizes the system for unduly shifting the balance of military power in the region.
The U.S.-led missile defense system in Asia neutralizes China’s ability to use nuclear weapons, Roy said. “It gives them a big reason to do a lot more” with conventional weapons systems, he said.
China called Japan’s recent announcement to beef up missile defense irresponsible, according to The London Telegraph.
“China will have no choice but to respond by enhancing its own capabilities,” said Jiang Yu, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, the newspaper reported earlier this month.