China has been seen as a potential adversary in the Western Pacific for over two decades. In the summer of 1996, that potential hit the headlines as Taiwan was preparing for a presidential election. The United States sent two aircraft carriers to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan. The election was held.
Since then, China has been working to deny the United States access to the Western Pacific, whether to enable them to secure control of the South China Sea and its position astride the sea lanes to Japan and South Korea, or to cut off and possibly invade Taiwan. In one sense, the fundamental challenge faced by the United States over 70 years ago against Japan in World War II is the same one that would be faced in a war with the People’s Republic of China: Project sufficient power to impose our preferred outcome on the enemy. In fact, both the People’s Republic of China of the present, and Japan in the 1930s have the same objective: Make it too costly for the United States to thwart planned aggression in the Western Pacific.
While the objectives are different (Japan sought the resource-rich Dutch East Indies, China wants to control the South China Sea and take Taiwan), both China and Japan are trying to address the same obstacle to their plans for aggression: The United States Navy. Like Japan did in the 1930s, China is trying to find a way to overcome that obstacle, ideally by finding ways to whittle down – or wipe out – the American fleet before it can deploy to the Western Pacific, and plans to use an “anti-access/area denial” strategy for that purpose.
In essence, the plan is to deny the United States access to the Western Pacific without suffering serious losses. China has developed an anti-ship ballistic missile for that purpose, centering on the DF-21D, which has a range of at least 810 nautical miles (some estimates claim it can reach up to 1,900 nautical miles). China would seek to damage or sink American carriers long before they could have an effect on a major battle in the South China Sea or near Taiwan. The DF-21 would be capable of doing just that.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought to kill American carriers with large, supersonic anti-ship missiles like Kh-22 (AS-4 Kitchen) that could reach speeds of Mach 4.6 or the KSR-5 (AS-6 Kingfish), which could hit Mach 3.5. Both missiles carried 2,200-pound high-explosive warheads. The DF-21 has a top speed of Mach 10 – about twice the speed of the Russian missiles. Here is what that means in terms of the power being directed on a carrier. The 2200-pound warhead on an AS-4 would be multiplied by 21.16 times the speed of sound to determine how much energy that the AS-4 would deliver to the carrier on impact. For the energy of the impact of that that same warhead on a DF-21, you would need to multiply it by 100 times the speed of sound. Even a dud would send a Nimitz-class carrier back to its base for significant repairs. This is the bad news of the DF-21. It can deliver a crippling blow to an American aircraft carrier over 810 nautical miles from the shores of China – or its island bases in the South China Sea.
That said, China still has some problems. First, they have a limited number of DF-21 ballistic missiles (80 was the high-end estimate in 2008), and can build about a dozen a year. Therefore, as of now, China probably has less than 180 DF-21 missiles of all types in its inventory. Therefore, assuming that about 25% of the total inventory of DF-21 missiles are the DF-21D version, which is intended to hit American carriers.
That makes a total of 45 missiles. Not so bad, right? Well, those 45 missiles could probably wipe out a good chunk of the Seventh Fleet. However, that would still leave American naval assets based in Hawaii, the West Coast, and in the Atlantic to deal with. That is the absolute worst-case scenario at present. But that is just the present – China could increase DF-21 production in the future, so the question becomes, “How can America counter this missile?”
The good news is that one system to counter the DF-21 is already in service: The RIM-161 SM-3 Standard Missile. In tests, it has been highly successful against ballistic targets, and the Navy has already been modifying Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers (CGs) and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) to use this missile. The Block II SM-3s have a range of up to 933 miles and a top speed of over Mach 15. Other Navy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), like the RIM-66C SM-2 Standard Missile and the RIM-174 SM-6 Extended Range Active Missile, also can be effective against ballistic targets, but the Navy’s best shot would be to load their ships up with SM-3s.
Here, though, is where things get tricky. To secure a kill against an incoming missile, the standard practice is usually to fire more than one missile at the target. This is quite understandable, given that the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs) are not only expensive (a new Gerald R. Ford-class carrier costs over $10 billion per ship to build), but they have a crew of over 4,200, and they take a long time to build (about seven years from laying down the keel to commissioning). Furthermore, given the investment in time, money, and crew that a CVN involved, the Navy will want to be able to fire more than one salvo. So, figure that a CVN’s escorts will need to carry a minimum of 180 missiles to be able to fire two salvos of two missiles each at the 45 inbound missiles. If each CVN has one Ticonderoga-class CG and three Arleigh Burke-class DDGs as escorts, then it is safe to assume that the 180 SM-3 missiles can be divided among those escorts, with 60 SM-3s on the CG, and 40 SM-3s on each of the DDGs. Problem solved, right? Not exactly.
These ships can only hold so many missiles – 128 in two 64-cell Mk41 Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) for a Ticonderoga, and 96 in a 32-cell Mk41 VLS and 64-cell Mk41 VLS for a Burke. Thanks to the DF-21D, about half of the VLS cells now have to carry SM-3s, which means they cannot carry other weapons, like the SM-6 surface-to-air missile (which is a better performer against aircraft and missiles, while also having the ability to target ships) or the Tomahawk cruise missile (the Navy’s main deep-strike weapon).
This is what the DF-21D can do to the United States Navy. It has indirectly inflicted what is known as “virtual attrition” on the Navy’s strike assets by forcing the Navy to deploy additional SM-3s on a CVN’s escorts. The only way to maintain the number of Tomahawks in a theater would be to add additional ships capable of launching them – but those ships have to come from somewhere else, where they might have been able to do something else.
Virtual attrition is pernicious in this regard, as it really is not splashy, but the effects are all too real. If the Navy were to add a second Ticonderoga to each of the 11 carrier strike groups, that would take up all 22 of the active cruisers. There would be none left to escort the Navy’s amphibious ready groups (ARGs), which not only are centered on expensive large-deck amphibious warfare ships (USS America, commissioned in 2014, cost $3.4 billion), but which carry precious cargo in the form of United States Marines and their equipment. Nor would there be any reserves to replace war losses or ships that need to be overhauled or repaired.
In the short-term, accepting virtual attrition may be the only way to counter the DF-21D. For the long-term, the United States Navy must have far more hulls in the water to guard these valuable ships and maintain the strike capabilities of the Tomahawk cruise missile. One option to get those hulls quickly would be to license production of Spain’s Alvaro de Bazan-class guided missile frigates. With a 48-cell Mk 41 VLS, these ships could not only take over as Tomahawk shooters, but also carry SM-6 and SM-3 missiles.
The virtual attrition could also be reduced by re-starting the “Brilliant Pebbles” program from the Strategic Defense Initiative. Part of that system is already serving the U.S. military in the form of the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS). The micro-satellite kill vehicles would add an extra layer of defenses for not only ships at sea, but American allies in the region like Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines.
The DF-21D is not the first attempt to develop a weapon to help defeat the United States in the Pacific. Prior to World War II, Japan developed the Long Lance torpedo and the Mitsubishi G4M bomber (also known as the “Betty”) to help defeat America. However, an American military build-up started before World War II helped America overcome the Long Lance and Betty. Starting another build-up today could ensure America can overcome the DF-21.