China’s Missile Plans Put US Naval Power In A Weaker Spot

Outgoing US President George W. Bush commissioned America’s newest aircraft carrier last Saturday at the Norfolk naval base in Virginia. Named after his father, former President George H. W. Bush, the ship, which carries 85 planes and a crew of nearly 6000, is a potent symbol of America’s global power and presence, despite recent economic and foreign policy failures.

It is also the last of 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers to enter service with the United States Navy. They are the largest warships in the world. However, by 2015 the first of an even bigger and more advanced class of carrier, also nuclear-powered, is scheduled to start replacing the Nimitz vessels.

Two years ago, US Vice-President Dick Cheney said that the successor ships ”will help ensure the sea power of the United States for the next half century”.

To defend its interests in Asia, the US has been steadily transferring more aircraft carriers and other warships from its Atlantic fleet to the Pacific.

As a result, the Pacific fleet’s share of the 280 ships in the navy has risen from 45 per cent in earlier years to about 54 per cent and continues to increase. The US Pacific fleet now includes six of the navy’s 11 aircraft carriers, almost all of the 18 Aegis cruisers and destroyers that have been modified for ballistic missile defence operations, and 26 of the 57 attack submarines.

To counter the Asia-Pacific focus of the US Navy, China is reportedly planning to deploy ballistic missiles with non-nuclear warheads and special guidance systems to hit moving surface ships at sea in the western Pacific before they can get within range of Chinese targets. If China fielded such a weapon, one that could reliably sink or cause heavy damage to aircraft carriers and other major warships far from its shores, it would make a potential adversary think long and hard before sending naval forces to intervene in a crisis over Taiwan or any other regional conflict in which China was involved.

This would reduce the value and deterrent effect of US alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, including its mutual defence pacts with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand. Taiwan is often seen as the prime potential flashpoint between China and the US. Fortunately, China and Taiwan have greatly improved their relations recently and an armed confrontation between them that could bring the US into the fighting on the side of Taiwan seems less likely.

Still, a specialist in naval affairs for the Congressional Research Service, Ronald O’Rourke, told US lawmakers in November that the US Defence Department and other analysts believed that China was developing anti-ship ballistic missiles, or ASBMs. They would have a range of up to 3000km and carry manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles with warheads designed to hit moving naval ships. The missiles would be launched by rocket propulsion from land in an arc-like trajectory high into the atmosphere and travel at speeds of up to 24,000km/h when coming down, making them very hard to defend against.

Ballistic missiles have traditionally been used to attack fixed targets on land and O’Rourke noted that the US Navy had ”not previously faced a threat from highly accurate ballistic missiles capable of hitting moving ships at sea. Due to their ability to change course, MaRVs [manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles] would be more difficult to intercept than non-manoeuvring ballistic missile re-entry vehicles.”

Some analysts are sceptical and doubt that China has made all the technical breakthroughs for an accurate ASBM system. The US Office of Naval Intelligence concluded in 2004 that it would be ”very difficult” for China to field an ASBM force that could successfully track faraway aircraft carriers and other major warships, which can travel at sustained speeds of more than 30 knots and then hit them with MaRV warheads. The Bush Administration has spent billions of dollars to develop defences against ballistic missiles. But President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office next Tuesday, says that while he supports missile defence, he wants to be sure programs are affordable and proven.

One of the more successful parts of the US program, the Aegis ship-based system to defend against shorter-range missiles, experienced two recent test failures, bringing its record to 13 hits in 17 intercept attempts. Even so, it is not designed to provide a shield against the longer-range missiles China is reportedly trying to turn into weapons for use against naval vessels. The Pentagon’s latest annual report to Congress on Chinese military power, published last year, said that when incorporated into a sophisticated command and control system, China’s ASBMs would be a key component of its strategy to give its armed forces ”the capability to attack ships at sea, including aircraft carriers, from great distances” so as to deny access to waters around China. Some analysts say that China already operates over-the-horizon radar installations to detect and track ships far out at sea and is backing this up with maritime surveillance using its own satellites in space. They say that China will soon test an ASBM. If they are correct and the new system works, it could turn potent symbols of naval power into sitting ducks.

Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of South-East Asian Studies.

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