Image via Wikipedia
Eric Talmadge, “US admiral: Carrier killer won’t stop US Navy,” Washington Post, February 15, 2011
The U.S. military has had its eye on China’s “carrier killer” missile, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (or ASBM), for some time now, especially the U.S. Navy (understandably, since it’s advertised as a direct counter to the “crown jewel” of the U.S. fleet and a lodestar of U.S. power projection capabilities). The DoD seems to go to pretty extensive lengths to put forth an image of not fearing this weapon, for instance, this today:
However, Vice Adm. Scott van Buskirk, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, told the AP in an interview that the Navy does not see the much-feared weapon as creating any insurmountable vulnerability for the U.S. carriers – the Navy’s crown jewels.
“It’s not the Achilles heel of our aircraft carriers or our Navy – it is one weapons system, one technology that is out there,” Van Buskirk said in an interview this week on the bridge of the USS George Washington, the only carrier that is home-based in the western Pacific.
Admiral Van Buskirk took command of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet last fall. 7th Fleet is the naval command that would be on the front line of a potential maritime conflict with China.
It’s not surprising that the leader of this command would come forth with a strong statement discounting the ASBM – just imagine how it would look if he made a statement saying that there was no realistic defense against the ASBM. (Not exactly confidence-inspiring!)
The truth is that nobody knows for sure if the ASBM will work as advertised. There are a number of extremely high technical hurdles that the Chinese will have to solve in order to achieve a operational, fully capable weapon system. The commander of United States Pacific Command (USPACOM – two echelons of command up the chain from 7th Fleet), Admiral Robert Willard stated in an December 2010 interview that the ASBM has reached a state of development roughly equivalent to what in the U.S. defense establishment is called “initial operational capability.” This means that some units can be expected to have received the equipment and have the ability to employ it. It does not mean, however, that all the pieces of the necessary targeting systems, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) networks and associated technologies are at a sufficient state of development to fully support the weapon. Indeed. many U.S. defense analysts believe that these supporting technologies are about five years away from being fully operational. (It’s probably good to point out right here that the U.S. has been pretty poor at making accurate predictions about when various Chinese military technologies and hardware will come into service – see also the J-20 stealth aircraft, the prospects of the Chinese deploying an aircraft carrier in the near term, etc.)
In the same interview, Admiral Willard stated that a full over-water test of the ASBM system had not yet been observed. There was some speculation last summer that the PRC might do such a test in conjunction with bellicose rhetoric about U.S. naval operations in the Yellow Sea, but it never came to pass. (The U.S. naval operations were part of the combined response – along with the South Koreans – to the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan by North Korea earlier in 2010.)
I’d like to go back to what Admiral Van Buskirk said about the ASBM in the quote above – “It’s not the Achilles heel of our aircraft carriers or our Navy – it is one weapons system, one technology that is out there.” [emphasis added] Very true. But it’s one part that is very provocative, since only China has anything like it, and because it appears to be directly intended to counter a key U.S. strength in an asymmetric fashion.
In recent testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an expert from the RAND Corporation described China’s anti-access approach to be a “system-of-systems”; that China’s ability to effectively employ its joint anti-access strategy in the Western Pacific would be dependent to a great extent on establishing an effective operational system (meaning the right kinds of units, manned with people trained in the right way) to employ its anti-access capabilities (including the ASBM), and at the same time that China still needed to work on full deployment and integration of a host of battle management and ISR networks to be able to effectively target at long distance, for instance, a U.S. aircraft carrier heading toward the Taiwan Strait. I believe this is what Admiral Van Buskirk was alluding to when saying that the ASBM is but one piece of the overall system. The U.S. has to worry about all of the threats, not just one.
A final quote:
Still, van Buskirk said the Navy has no intention of altering its mission because of the new threat and will continue to operate in the seas around Japan, Korea, the Philippines and anywhere else it deems necessary.
“We won’t change these operations because of this specific technology that might be out there,” he told The AP while the USS George Washington was in its home port just south of Tokyo for repairs last week. “But we will carefully monitor and adapt to it.”
I think that to some extent the Navy (and other branches of the U.S. armed forces) have indeed altered their operations in response to threats like the Chinese ASBM (thought it is hard to prove something like this). A greater impact in this realm has almost certainly been exerted by Chinese short- and medium-range missiles, which have been a focus of particular expansion by the Chinese over the past decade (chiefly as an axe to hold over the head of Taiwan). One could in fact argue that a factor in the shift of some U.S. troops from Okinawa in the much more distant U.S. outpost of Guam has been the Chinese ballistic missile threat. Okinawa is well within range of several types of Chinese ballistic missiles and its utility as a platform to support U.S. combat operations in a China contingency could be degraded quite quickly by the wealth of missile capabilities the PRC would potentially be able to lavish upon it. No wonder the U.S. wants to be able to port an aircraft carrier in Guam and is also expanding its air power and ISR profile there.