China's military is deploying a new anti-ship ballistic missile that can sink U.S. aircraft carriers, a weapon that specialists say gives Beijing new power-projection capabilities that will affect U.S. support for its Pacific allies.
Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, disclosed to a Japanese newspaper on Sunday that the new anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is now in the early stages of deployment after having undergone extensive testing.
"An analogy using a Western term would be 'initial operational capability (IOC),' whereby I think China would perceive that it has an operational capability now, but they continue to develop it," Adm. Willard told the Asahi Shimbun. "I would gauge it as about the equivalent of a U.S. system that has achieved IOC."
The four-star admiral, who has been an outspoken skeptic of China's claims that its large-scale military buildup is peaceful, said the U.S. deployment assessment is based on China's press reports and continued testing.
The new weapon, the "D" version of China's DF-21 medium-range missile, involves firing the mobile missile into space, returning it into the atmosphere and then maneuvering it to its target
Military officials consider using ballistic missiles against ships at sea to be a difficult task that requires a variety of air, sea and space sensors, navigation systems and precision guidance technology - capabilities not typical of other Chinese missiles.
Asked about the integrated system, Adm. Willard said that "to have something that would be regarded as in its early operational stage would require that system be able to accomplish its flight pattern as designed, by and large."
The admiral said that while the U.S. thinks "that the component parts of the anti-ship ballistic missile have been developed and tested," China's testing has not gone as far as a live-fire test attack on an actual ship.
"We have not seen an over-water test of the entire system," he said.
Adm. Willard said he did not view the new missile as a greater threat to U.S. and allied forces than China's submarine forces, which also have been expanded greatly in the past decade.
"Anti-access/area denial, which is a term that was relatively recently coined, is attempting to represent an entire range of capabilities that China has developed and that other countries have developed," he said.
"It´s not exclusively China that has what is now being referred to as A2/AD capability. But in China´s case, it´s a combination of integrated air-defense systems; advanced naval systems, such as the submarine; advanced ballistic-missile systems, such as the anti-ship ballistic missile, as well as power-projection systems into the region," he said.
The new weapons can threaten "archipelagos" in Asia, such as Japan and Philippines, as well as Vietnam and other states that "are falling within the envelope of this, of an A2/AD capability of China," Adm. Willard said.
"That should be concerning - and we know is concerning - to those countries," he said.
Adm. Willard said the new weapons are "an expanded capability that ranges beyond the first island chain and overlaps countries in the region."
"For that reason, it is concerning to Southeast Asia, [and] it remains concerning to the United States."
Andrew S. Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said the admiral's comments on the missile deployment confirm earlier reports that the Chinese are moving ahead with the DF-21D missile.
"China must have conducted a rigorous program of tests, most likely including flight tests, to demonstrate that the DF-21D [missile] is mature enough for initial production, deployment and employment," Mr. Erickson said in an e-mail.
Mr. Erickson estimates that at least one unit of China's Second Artillery Corps, as its missile forces are called, must be equipped with the road-mobile system.
"While doubtless an area of continuous challenge and improvement, the DF-21D´s command, control, communications, computers, information, surveillance, and reconnaissance infrastructure must be sufficient to support attempts at basic carrier strike group targeting," he said.
Mr. Erickson said, based on Chinese missile-deployment patterns, that the new missile system likely will be fielded in "waves" at different units to meet deterrence objectives.
Military specialists have said the DF-21D deployment is a potent new threat because it will force U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups to operate farther from hot spots in the western Pacific.
Currently, U.S. military strategy calls for the Pentagon to send several strike groups to waters near Taiwan in the event China follows through on threats to use force to retake the island. The lone U.S. aircraft carrier strike group based permanently in the region is the USS George Washington, whose home port is inYokosuka, Japan. A second carrier is planned for Hawaii or Guam.
Carrier forces also provide air power in the event of a new war in Korea and are used to assure freedom of navigation, a growing problem as the result of recent Chinese military assertiveness in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea.
Adm. Willard did not discuss what U.S. countermeasures the Navy has taken against the new anti-ship missile. U.S. naval task forces include ships equipped with the Aegis system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles.
Wallace "Chip" Gregson, assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said in a speech earlier this month that China's new anti-access and area-denial weapons, including the DF-21D, "threaten our primary means of projecting power: our bases, our sea and air assets, and the networks that support them."
He warned that China's military buildup could "upend the regional security balance."
Richard Fisher, a China military-affairs specialist, said the new ASBM is only one part of a series of new Chinese weapons that threaten the region.
"When we add the ASBM to the PLA's [People's Liberation Army's] growing anti-satellite capabilities, growing numbers of submarines, and quite soon, its fifth-generation fighter, we are seeing the erection of a new Chinese wall in the western Pacific, for which the Obama administration has offered almost nothing in defensive response," Mr. Fisher said.
"Clearly, China's communist leadership is not impressed by the administration's ending of F-22 production, its retirement of the Navy's nuclear cruise missile, START Treaty reductions in U.S. missile warheads, and its refusal to consider U.S. space warfare capabilities. Such weakness is the surest way to invite military adventurism from China," he added.
Mr. Fisher said the Pentagon should mount a crash program to develop high-technology energy weapons, like rail guns and lasers in response to the new ASBMs.
Mark Stokes, a retired Air Force officer who has written extensively on the new missile, said the new deployment is a concern.
"China's ability to place at risk U.S. and other nations' maritime surface assets operating in the western Pacific and South China Sea is growing and closer to becoming a reality than many may think," Mr. Stokes said.
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