Thursday, September 9, 2010

Doubt over China's wonder weapons


Doubts over China's 'wonder weapon'
By Jens Kastner and Wang Jyh-Perng

TAIPEI - In the past 12 months, the world's military journals have been awash with analyses of the power balance in the West Pacific possibly tilting in China's favor. Pundits and reporters proclaim in unison that Beijing is about to achieve its goal of making United States military interventions in future conflicts fought out in the Yellow, the East China or South China Seas a very difficult, if not impossible, mission.

Most think-tanks see Washington's democratic allies in the region as being threatened by China's boosted reconnaissance abilities, its submarine fleet and a growing arsenal of cruise and tactical missiles.

Yet, among all of Beijing's options to challenge US naval supremacy, the weapon that sends chills down China's opponents' spines is what is regarded as a Wunderwaffe, or wonder weapon, the Dong Feng 21D, the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile. If the assessments of observers prove correct, China's wonder weapon is to make its way into history books - with it, China would be able to take on the US Navy's aircraft carriers, the pride of the US military.

The outcome of a simulation published by Orbis, an American journal on international relations and US foreign policy, clearly did its job in making military circles uneasy. After a hit by a Dong Feng 21D, it took the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS George Washington a mere 20 minutes to sink.

The DF-21D, as the missile is commonly called, is a modification of a solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range ballistic missile that China has been working on since the late 1960s. The newest version, also going under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization reporting name CSS-5 Mod-4, is believed to come with the unique feature that it can target a moving aircraft carrier as far away as 3,000 kilometers from a land-based mobile launcher.

Enabled by this new weapon, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) hopes to gain the option to control the West Pacific from land, as opposed to engaging with the US Navy in sea battles that China would be unlikely to win. If the DF-21D is really as sophisticated as has been widely speculated, the US would have to risk its neck when coming to South Korea's, Japan's or Taiwan's aid in the event of Chinese military aggression.

It can safely be assumed that a fair portion of Washington's military strategies would be rendered useless it the US were to lose the ability to securely travel anywhere using aircraft carriers from which jet fighters start their devastatingly precise bombing campaigns - as has been seen in the wars against Serbia and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Like the DF-21D's earliest predecessor, the German V-2, a long-range World War II ballistic missile that the Nazis called a Wunderwaffe, China's anti-ship ballistic missile remains shrouded in mystery. Military experts from Washington to Taipei have been left guessing its exact capabilities. It is suggested that the missile's high-angle re-entry into the atmosphere, as well as its speed, make it almost impossible to defend against.

What further worries American defense analysts is that the Chinese apparently have the advantage of being able to screw on almost anything that's found in the PLA's warhead arsenals, such as HEAT shells, which are extremely efficient at penetrating steel, as well as cluster bombs, which eject smaller sub-munitions.

The Chinese could even destroy their opponents' electronic control systems - critical to the operation of ground vehicles and aircraft - by producing damaging current and voltage surges with the help of electromagnetic pulse bombs loaded into the DF-21D. Yet another option would be to fit a missile with a thermobaric fuel-air bomb. This warhead produces a blast wave of a very long duration, a feature that is useful in military applications where the attacker aims to increase the number of casualties and cause greater damage to infrastructure.

As a strong indication of how serious the US sees the threat of China's missiles, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently lamented that the DF-21D "has the ability to disrupt [American] freedom of movement and narrow our strategic options".

Among others, Taiwan has reason to be most concerned about China's apparent potential to deter US carriers from entering the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea. The island is home to some of the world's most accomplished scholars who dedicate their careers to monitoring and researching China's security policy.

One of these is Professor Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the China Politics Division at Taiwan's National Chengchi University. Apart from this assignment, he also holds the position of a professor at the Political Warfare Cadres Academy in Taipei. Ding spoke to Asia Times Online on the DF-21D.

Asia Times Online: The DF-21D can strike US aircraft carriers and sink them in a very short time. Will this development have an impact on the naval balance in the East China Sea?

Arthur Ding: This is the ultimate goal China aims to achieve. But technically speaking, it's not feasible. That is because when the missile re-enters the atmosphere, its speed would be somewhere around Mach 7 [2,382.03 meters/second]. That is so fast that there would not be sufficient time to re-direct the warhead to hit an US aircraft carrier precisely. A carrier could only be hit indirectly by a special warhead, such as a fuel-air explosive.

AToL: How will the DF-21D affect Taiwan's security situation?

AD: There's no doubt that China's military modernization does increase the risk for US involvement. Nevertheless, aircraft carriers are unlikely to be the only instruments the US will have at hand. As time goes by, many more weapons may be developed. If this is the case, China will be frustrated and disappointed if it's only focusing on scenarios involving aircraft carriers. Thus, the DF-21D mainly serves as a psychological deterrent for the US.

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based writer. Wang Jyh-Perng is a reserve captain of the Taiwan Navy and associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies.


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