Saturday, September 11, 2010

“Where’s the Nearest (U.S.) Carrier?”

China’s military planners covet the ability to prevent U.S. and allied forces from intervening effectively in the event of a future Taiwan Strait crisis and to constrain the latter’s influence on China’s maritime periphery, which contains several disputed zones of core strategic importance to Beijing. In order to achieve the aforementioned goals, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been pursuing a two-level approach to military modernization, with consistent focus on increasingly formidable high-end ‘anti-access/area denial’ (A2/AD) capabilities to support major combat operations in China’s ‘Near Seas’ (Yellow, East, and South) and their approaches, and relatively low-intensity but gradually growing capabilities to influence strategic conditions further afield (e.g., in the Indian Ocean) in China’s favor.

Of perhaps greatest concern, Beijing is pursuing an ASBM based on the DF-21D/CSS-5 solid propellant medium-range ballistic missile. A DF-21D ASBM would have two stages, and a reentry vehicle (RV) with a seeker, control fins and a warhead (unitary, submunitions, or conventional electro-magnetic pulse). In operation, some combination of land-, sea- and space-based sensors would first detect the relevant sea-surface target. While locating an aircraft carrier has been likened to finding a needle in a haystack, this particular ‘needle’ has a large radar cross section, emits radio waves and is surrounded by airplanes.

Simply looking for the biggest radar reflection to target will tend to locate the largest ship—and the largest ship will usually be an aircraft carrier. The ASBM would be launched from a transporter-erector-launcher on a ballistic trajectory aimed roughly at the target, most likely a CSG. After jettisoning its stages, the RV would use its seeker (possibly radar-homing or infrared) to locate and attack the CSG. This could be supplemented by targeting updates if necessary. The DF-21D’s 1,500 km+ range could result in denial of access to a large maritime area, far beyond Taiwan and the First Island Chain into the Western Pacific.

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