Chinese missile threatens US Navy’s Pacific fleet

Nov 18, 2009
Jack Bremer

World’s first anti-ship ballistic missile could prevent US from protecting Taiwan

Internet censorship came up, as did global warming and trade sanctions. But one subject that was not raised – publicly at least – before US President Barack Obama left Beijing for South Korea today was China's apparent attempt to scare the US Navy out of the western Pacific Ocean.

According to a Bloomberg report published yesterday, US Naval Intelligence has established that China's development of the world's first anti-ship missile, long mooted, is nearing readiness.

With a range of nearly 900 miles, and capable of being fired from mobile land-based launchers, the missile is "specifically designed to defeat US carrier strike groups" by destroying aircraft on the carrier's deck and control towers.

Coupled with a new 'over-the-horizon' radar system the Chinese are also developing, the threat of the missile could make the South China Sea a no-go zone for the US Navy - with potentially dramatic consequences.

The US currently keeps five aircraft carriers based in the Pacific and their mission includes the defence of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack on what Beijing sees as a breakaway province.

It is understood the Chinese began developing the anti-ship missile immediately after the Taiwan crisis in March 1996 when Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carriers and escort warships into the Taiwan Strait area after China fired missiles near the island before its presidential election.

If the US Navy were to pull its carriers out of the region, the Taiwanese would be unprotected.

The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) has been monitoring the development of the new missile for some time. A report on the missile by Scott Bray, the ONI's senior China expert, was issued in July but only made public this week after Bloomberg requested it.

Bray warned that China has made "remarkable progress" on the missile. "In little over a decade, China has taken the programme from the conceptual phase" to "near fielding a combat-ready missile," he said.

How anxious should the Obama administration be?

Paul Giarra, a defence consultant who specialises in China's military threat, laid out the risk of a no-go zone when he said: "No American military operations - air or ground - are feasible in a region where the US Navy cannot operate."

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in September that China's "investments in anti-ship weaponry and ballistic missiles could threaten America's primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific - particularly our forward bases and carrier strike groups."

The Chinese response is that the West is over-reacting. Dai Xu, a Chinese military expert, told the Global Times: "China is indeed developing anti-ship ballistic missiles. It is not a secret. During the 60th anniversary National Day military parade, China exhibited such missiles.

"However, the media report is rather exaggerated... In fact, attacking an aircraft carrier with the missile is not an easy thing... To detect and lock on to a moving target in the ocean, such as aircraft carriers or other large warships, is still a very challenging issue, because ballistic missiles are mainly used for attacking large fixed targets."

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