China's Aircraft Carrier Killer


The Associated Press reports that China has achieved “initial operational capability” on the Dong Feng 21D missile system – a weapon that could be launched from shore, to take out large, slow-moving ships.  Either they’re planning to take out Hugh Hefner’s yacht during his honeymoon, or they’re developing the capability to destroy aircraft carriers. 

(Congrats to the 84-year-old Hefner and his blushing 24-year-old bride, by the way.  It’s wonderful when a man can marry a woman who was born after he started collecting Social Security.  Take that, actuarial tables!)

Anyway, back to China: the DF-21D evolved from a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and has a variant that can carry nuclear warheads.  The system uses satellites to lock on to its targets – China already had two suitable satellites in orbit, and launched a third last August, according to the website.  The missile switches to infrared targeting on final approach.  It can hit even the most advanced modern carrier from a distance of over 900 miles, if it lives up to its design specifications.  Some analysts think that range could be doubled with a smaller payload, which would still be adequate to damage the carrier and suspend flight operations.

The weapon is still a few years away from production and deployment, and China’s defense ministry insists they “pursue a defensive national policy” and “pose no threat to other countries” on their quest to “be a force in safeguarding regional peace and stability.”  Nevertheless, it’s hard to come up with a previous example of a weapon so obviously targeted at one specific nation.  China couldn’t even use it on Britain, as they just put their only aircraft carrier, the HMS Invincible, up for sale.  (Hef, if you’re looking for the perfect wedding gift, and the stores are still sold out of Zhu Zhu Pets…) 

A few nations in the region actually do have carriers in service.  India has one, the INS Viraat, which is over 50 years old.  A second Indian carrier is scheduled for deployment in a couple of years.  The flagship of the Royal Thai Navy is also a carrier, the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, but it spends most of its time either in port or ferrying the Royal Family around.  It’s hard to imagine any hypothetical Chinese defense against a suddenly belligerent Thailand would require a new weapon system to sink its carrier.

The existence of a land-based missile that can kill aircraft carriers would radically alter the strategic picture in theaters like Taiwan or North Korea, since it would severely compromise America’s ability to project air power.  Taking out a carrier is an extremely difficult proposition, as her battle group controls the sea in a tremendous radius around her, complete with extensive anti-submarine defenses.  A forest of carrier-killing missiles growing on enemy shorelines would be a real game-changer, if China decides the time has come for sudden reunification with a certain “renegade province” in the western Pacific.  The only imaginable threat to “regional peace and stability” that would end up on the wrong end of the DF-21D is the same one Western liberals worry about.