By Tony Capaccio
Nov. 17 (Bloomberg) -- China’s military is close to fielding the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile, according to U.S. Navy intelligence.
The missile, with a range of almost 900 miles (1,500 kilometers), would be fired from mobile, land-based launchers and is “specifically designed to defeat U.S. carrier strike groups,” the Office of Naval Intelligence reported.
Five of the U.S. Navy’s 11 carriers are based in the Pacific and operate freely in international waters near China. Their mission includes defending Taiwan should China seek to exercise by force its claim to the island democracy, which it considers a breakaway province.
The missile could turn this region into a “no-go zone” for U.S. carriers, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments in Washington.
Scott Bray, who wrote the ONI report on China’s Navy, said China has made “remarkable progress” on the missile. “In little over a decade, China has taken the program from the conceptual phase” to “near fielding a combat-ready missile,” he said. Bray’s report, issued in July, was provided to Bloomberg News on request.
China also is developing an over-the-horizon radar network to spot U.S. ships at great distances from its mainland, and its navy since 2000 has tripled to 36 from 12 the number of vessels carrying anti-ship weapons, Bray, the ONI’s senior officer for intelligence on China, said in an e-mail.
The new missile would support China’s “anti-access” strategy to detect and if necessary attack U.S. warships “at progressively greater distances” from its mainland, Krepinevich said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a Sept. 16 speech, said 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.”
Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of U.S. naval operations, says the new Chinese missile was one factor in his 2008 decision to cut the DDG-1000 destroyer program from eight ships to three because the vessels lack a missile-defense capability.
The Navy instead plans to build up to seven more Lockheed Martin Corp. Aegis-class DDG-51 destroyers and equip them with the newest radar and missiles.
China’s ballistic missile “portends the sophistication of the threats that we’re going to see,” Roughead said in an interview earlier this year.
China has ground-tested the missile three times since 2006 and conducted no flight tests yet, Navy officials said.
General Xu Caihou, China’s No. 2 military official, played down the weapon’s significance.
“It is a limited capability” to meet “the minimum requirement of” China’s national security, Xu, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, said in response to a question following an Oct. 26 speech in Washington.
Mark Stokes, an analyst who has studied the missile program, said the Navy’s assessment indicates China started to develop the weapon after the March 1996 Taiwan “crisis.” That’s when the Clinton administration sent two aircraft carriers and escort warships into the Taiwan Strait and the surrounding area after China fired missiles near the island before its presidential election, Stokes said.
Stokes just published a study of the weapon for the non- profit Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia, that studies Asia security issues.
An article in the May 2009 edition of Proceedings, a magazine published by the U.S. Naval Institute, said the missile “could alter the rules in the Pacific and place U.S. Navy carrier strike groups in jeopardy.”
“The mere perception that China might have an anti-ship ballistic missile capability could be a game-changer, with profound consequences for deterrence, military operations and the balance of power in the Western Pacific,” the article said.
Paul Giarra, a defense consultant who studies China’s weapons, called the missile “a remarkably asymmetric Chinese attempt to control the sea from the shore.”
“No American military operations -- air or ground -- are feasible in a region where the U.S. Navy cannot operate,” Giarra, president of Global Strategies and Transformation, based in Herndon, Virginia, said in an e-mail.
The missiles are intended for launch to a general location where their guidance systems take over and spot carriers for attack with warheads intended to neutralize the ships’ threat by destroying aircraft on decks, launching gear and control towers, Giarra said.
The Pentagon, in its latest annual report on China’s military, for the first time included a sketch of the notional flight profile of the new Chinese missile but gave little additional detail.
Bray said China has the initial elements of its new over- the-horizon radar that can provide the general location of U.S. vessels before launching the new missile.
Stokes said the so-called Sky Wave radar can spot U.S. vessels as far away as 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers).
Unlike traditional radar that fires radio waves off objects straight ahead, over-the-horizon radar bounces signals off the ionosphere, the uppermost layer of the atmosphere, which can pick up objects at greater distances.
The radar is supplemented by reconnaissance satellites, another Navy official said, requesting anonymity. There are 33 in orbit and that number may grow to 65 by 2014, 11 of which would be capable of conducting ocean surveillance, he said.
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