Fears grow that PLA may test 'carrier killer'
Jun 30, 2010
Whenever China conducts military exercises or tests, the growing band of foreign analysts charting its modernisation wonder whether it will launch the game-changer - the so-called "aircraft-carrier killer" that no nation has yet tested.
In some military and diplomatic circles, fears are mounting that the live firing tests in the East China Sea announced on Monday and due to start today could see China attempt to launch its first anti-ship ballistic missile.
The ASBM represents one of the People's Liberation Army's most controversial weapons - harnessing technology that the US and the former Soviet Union pledged never to pursue.
Wary of its costs and dangers, Washington and Moscow agreed to ban the development of such a weapon towards the end of the cold war.
By firing a ballistic missile in a conflict - a rocket that would traditionally carry a nuclear warhead - to strike a single ship, China would risk a catastrophic miscalculation by its enemies, who might fear they were under nuclear attack and therefore retaliate in kind.
The weapon apparently under development by the PLA's Second Artillery would see a variant of the DF-21D medium-range missile carry a technologically-advanced warhead that would break in the last stages of flight and manoeuvre itself towards a target, such as an aircraft carrier.
Fired from a mobile launcher, Beijing knows such a weapon would have a considerable deterrent effect, forcing a dramatic rethink of how the US deploys its aircraft carriers, particularly the one permanently based with the Seventh Fleet in Japan.
Respected US-based military scholar Dr Andrew Erickson said that while he had no specific information, this could be the week.
"We cannot rule out that possibility," Erickson, an associate professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US Naval War College, said. "Beijing has reason to believe that multiple days of tests will receive significant attention and even trigger adverse political reactions.
"So for the tests to be worthwhile, they would probably have to not only produce useful technical results but also have significant deterrent effects in the eyes of China's decision-makers ... These standards could only be met if the tests were sophisticated and successful."
In an unusual move, the PLA announced on Monday that the tests would run over six days, and ordered vessels to keep out of designated areas.
The tests come amid a freeze in Sino-US military exchanges and as the United States and South Korea prepare for high-profile anti-submarine exercises in the Yellow Sea - a move Beijing has objected to, fearing the drills would further raise tensions in the wake of North Korea's sinking of a South Korean warship in March.
South Korean press reports said the exercises were due to start this week and would involve the aircraft carrier the USS George Washington. Pentagon officials said the start date, details and precise location had yet to be finalised - but said the US had every right to exercise with its treaty ally, South Korea, in international waters.
The George Washington is currently steaming off Okinawa.
Chinese military officials reportedly denied the live firing drills were intended as a rebuke to Washington and Seoul.
Erickson noted a number of indications that China had reached the point where advanced ASBM tests were possible and needed for a weapon "that China has so clearly prioritised".
He cited the reported completion of a rocket motor factory for the DF-21D and the recent launch of five advanced Yaogan satellites. Three of those had been placed in the same orbit in March, giving improved coverage of China's maritime periphery.
The timing of tests this week could reflect the "desire to pressure the US Navy not to hold exercises involving carrier strike groups with its South Korean counterpart in areas near China's territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, and the perception that the July 4 weekend would be a time of reduced press coverage and activity", Erickson said.
It was likely China wanted international scrutiny of such a test, he added.
Several Asian and European military attaches said that China would soon have to test its weapon.
"If you are going to prove that you have a deterrent, it pays to let people know you've got it," one veteran Asian military attache said. "And China's leadership will want to know that this weapon is feasible before they rely on it as a key part of their strategic thinking. Quite when is the burning question."
Gary Li, a PLA analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said mainland reports suggested China would use its fleet of Houbei Type 022 fast missile vessels as part of the tests. These ultra-fast catamarans are designed to fire cruise missiles at carriers in "hit-and-run" attacks.
Its eastern sea fleet submarines had also apparently left port, he said, suggesting that the PLA could be preparing for wide-ranging anti-carrier operations.
Erickson noted that China had long-planned "saturation" attacks on a carrier strike group, harnessing a range of weapons from fast missile boats to ballistic missiles launched from land.
"We might therefore expect the PLA to test a variety of missiles from a variety of platforms, both to test progress [of capabilities] ... as well as a high level of resolve."