Doubts cast over China’s ‘wonder weapon’

For Asia Times Online:

By Jens Kastner and Wang Jyh-Perng

In the past twelve months, the world’s military journals have been awash with analyses of power balance in the West Pacific tilting towards China’s favor. Pundits and reporters proclaim in unison that Beijing is about to achieve its goal making interventions by the US military in future conflicts fought out in the Yellow and East China Seas a very difficult mission. Hardly any think tank that doesn’t see Washington’s democratic allies in the region threatened by China’s boosted reconnaissance abilities, submarine fleet and a growing arsenal of cruise and tactical missiles. Yet, among all of Beijing’s options to challenge US naval supremacy, the weapon that sends chills down China’s opponents’ spines the most is what’s regarded as China’s wunderwaffe, the Dong Feng 21D, the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile. If the assessments of observers prove correct, China’s wonder weapon is to make its way in the history books since with it China can at long last take on the US Navy’s aircraft carriers, the pride of the United States military.

The outcome of a prediction published by Orbis, an American journal on international relations and US foreign policy, clearly did its job in making military circles uneasy. After a hit by a Dong Feng 21D, it took the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS George Washington a mere twenty minutes to sink.

The DF-21D, as the missile’s name is commonly abbreviated, is a modification of a solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range ballistic missile which China has been working on ever since the late 1960s. The newest version, also going under the NATO reporting name CSS-5 Mod-4, is believed to come with the unique feature that it’s having the capacity of targeting a moving aircraft carrier as distant as 3,000 km from a land-based mobile launcher. Enabled by this new weapon, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hopes to gain the option to control the West Pacific from land as opposed to engage with the US Navy in sea battles China would be unlikely to win. If the DF-21D was really as sophisticated as it has been widely speculated, the US would have to risk its neck when coming to Korea’s, Japan’s or Taiwan’s aid in case of Chinese military aggression. It can safely be assumed that a fair portion of Washington’s military strategies would be washed down the drain if it were to lose the ability to securely travel anywhere using aircraft carriers from which jet fighters start their devastatingly precise bombing campaigns as it has been seen in the wars against Serbia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Like the DF-21D’s earliest historic predecessor, the German V-2, a long-range WW2 ballistic missile that had by the Nazi-German propaganda ministry been categorized as a wunderwaffe, which literally translated means wonder weapon, China’s infamous anti-ship ballistic missile remains shrouded in mystery, and military experts from Washington to Taipei are left guessing what in terms of capability the missile is exactly about. It’s suggested that the high angle the missile re-enters the atmosphere with, as well as the speed of the attack make an effective defense against the weapon a nearly impossible task. What further worries the American defense analysts is that the Chinese apparently have the advantage of being able to screw on almost anything that’s found in the PLA’s warhead arsenals, such as HEAT shells, which are extremely efficient at defeating steel armor, as well as cluster bombs, that eject smaller submunitions. The Chinese could even destroy their opponents’ electronic control systems critical to the operation of ground vehicles and aircraft byproducing damaging current and voltage surges with help of electromagnetic pulse bombs loaded in the DF-21D. Yet another option would be the fitting of the missile with a thermobaric fuel-air bomb. This kind of warhead produces a blast wave of a very long duration, a feature that is useful in military applications where the attacker aims to increase the number of casualties and cause more damage to infrastructure.

As a strong indicator on how serious the US sees the threat through China’s new missiles, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates lamented that the DF-21D “has the ability to disrupt [American] freedom of movement and narrow our strategic options”.

Among others, Taiwan is one of the regional powers that have reason to worry the most about China’s alleged ability to block the US Navy’s aircraft carriers from accessing the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea. Unsurprisingly, the island is home to some of the world’s most accomplished scholars on the field who dedicate their entire careers monitoring and researching China’s security policy.

One of these men is Professor Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the China Politics Division at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. Apart from this assignment, he also holds the position of a Professor at the Political Warfare Cadres Academy in Taipei. Ding took his time giving an interview to Asia Times Online on the DF-21D, that led to the story taking on an unexpected twist.

Asia Times Online: “The DF-21D can strike US aircraft carriers and sink them in a very short time. Will this development have an impact on naval balance in the East China Sea?”

Ding: “This is the ultimate goal China aims achieving. But technically speaking, it’s not feasible. That is because when the missile re-enters the atmosphere, its speed would be somewhere around mach 7[2382.03 m/s]. That is so fast that there is no sufficient time to re-direct the warhead to hit an US aircraft carrier precisely. A carrier could only be hit indirectly by a special warhead, such as a fuel air explosive.”

Asia Times Online: “How will the DF-21D affect Taiwan’s security situation?”

Ding: “There’s no doubt that China’s military modernization does increase the risk for US involvement. Nevertheless, aircraft carriers are unlikely to be the only instruments the US will have at hands. As time goes by, many more weapons may be developed. If this is the case, China will be frustrated and disappointed if it’s only focusing on scenarios involving aircraft carriers. Thus, the DF-21D mainly serves as a psychological deterrent for the US.”

It’s left to be seen whether China’s wunderwaffe will gain more military relevance than Nazi-Germany’s wonder weapon seven decades earlier. The impact the V-2 had on the military balance in WW2 was tiny. Nonetheless, it arguably had its achievements; on the one hand it succeeded in frightening and therefore demoralizing the enemy while on the other hand it hugely boosted the attacking nation’s confidence in its own armed forces.



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