Chinese pilots onboard the guided-missile frigate Wuhu (539) stand in formation shortly after docking at the international port in Manila, Philippines on Jan. 17, 2019. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)
THINKING ABOUT CHINA
July 5, 2019 Updated: July 5, 2019
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) demonstrated its anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) in exercises in the South China Sea on June 29 or 30, 2019, as recounted by unnamed U.S. government sources in a July 1 report by CNBC.
An alarming development, this exercise is likely the first open-ocean demonstration of the PLA’s ASBMs, which they have been developing since the early 1990s. Larger PLA ASBMs are both difficult to shoot down and devastating in impact, as they can hit large moving ships such as aircraft carriers at hypersonic speeds.
However, the U.S. officials did not reveal the type of PLA ASBM used in the exercise. The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) has had the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) 1,700km range DF-21D ASBM since before 2010, and the 4,000km range DF-26 since 2014.
Since at least 2007, the PLA has maintained a missile base on Hainan Island near the city of Danzhou, which could accommodate the DF-21D and the DF-26. From this base, the DF-26 can attack U.S. Navy ships and Marines now hosted by Australia in the port city of Darwin.
A subsequent detail revealed by Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn to Bill Gertz of The Washington Free Beacon sheds more light on the missiles. He told Gertz that the missile “was launched from a man-made structure close to the Spratly Islands.” This likely means the missile was launched from one of China’s new artificial island military bases in the Spratly Islands, in further violation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 2005 pledge to not militarize these islands.
Launching from these islands also raises the possibility that the PLARF or PLA Navy (PLAN) may have demonstrated a version of the 290km range CASIC CM-401. This is a new ASBM for export that can be fired from ships or land bases, is smaller than the DF-21, and can be more easily stored on the island bases.
While the PLA could have fired a DF-21D, a shorter range ASBM would have been more appropriate for this week’s exercise area near Dreyer Shoal, roughly 300km north of the new PLA base on Subi Reef, or about 400km away from the PLA’s Mischief Reef base.
The PLA version of the CM-401 would likely have a longer 350km to 500km range, but it would also fly at a slower speed of Mach 4 to 5, making it vulnerable to advanced U.S. Navy defenses like the Aegis air and missile defense system.
Nevertheless, its deployment would be a troubling development, as the CM-401 would likely be used in coordination with submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles and air-launched supersonic speed YJ-12 anti-ship missiles fired from PLAN Air Force Xian Aircraft Corporation H-6J bombers, or shorter-range missiles fired from strike fighters. A large number of varied anti-ship missiles that might include faster longer-range, land-based ASBMs could likely overwhelm the Aegis defense system. This would pose a real threat to U.S. Navy ships.
Last January, the PLA tested its new joint service strategies in the South China Sea by holding combined exercises with its PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Navy and Rocket Force. One of the reported goals was to better integrate PLARF conventional forces with the new Southern Theater Command that would control operations in the South China Sea, according to CNBC.
Deploying the CM-401 or the DF-21D would also then justify PLA deployment of protecting jet fighters, surface to air missiles, and larger surveillance aircraft, and unmanned aircraft to assist ASBM targeting.
This would better enable the PLA to control sea lanes vital to the economies of Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. This week’s PLA exercise area near Dreyer Shoal was next to these major sea lanes. With weapons deployed, the larger bases like Mischief Reef and Subi Reef also become suitable for staging a future invasion of the Philippine island of Palawan.
For this reason, the United States should take immediate actions to deter China, while accelerating the development of new energy weapons that can provide better close-in defense for U.S. Navy ships. The Philippines should be offered a modest number of 400km range MGM-140 ATACMS short-range ballistic missiles able to reach Mischief Reef from Palawan.
Furthermore, the ASBM must not be allowed to make the aircraft carrier obsolete. Accelerated energy weapons such as high powered lasers and railguns could provide much greater assurance of defense. Overcoming technical barriers to their development may delay their deployment until much later in the 2020s.
But a U.S. ASBM deterrent capability could be fielded much sooner. The Trump Administration, to its credit, has placed a much higher priority on developing new U.S. medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that could also carry new hypersonic anti-ship warheads. It is also developing shorter tactical range hypersonic weapons that could attack ships.
As it develops these new missiles, the United States should also offer them for sale to allies and friends, like Japan and Taiwan. Chinese leaders should quickly be made to understand that if they use their missile barrages against the U.S. and allied navies, the PLA Navy can be immediately be smothered by ASBMs fired from the ships, submarines, and aircraft of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Taiwan.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Potomac, Maryland.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.