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Ballistic Missiles: Not Just For Norks

While the world is focused on North Korea and its Taepodongs, the Chinese military has reportedly been refining its own ballistic missiles. But whereas the Nork missiles were really only intended as diplomatic leverage rather than for actual military operations, the Chinese missiles are designed to actually work against a specific set of military targets: U.S. ships, especially aircraft carriers.
“Since the mid-1990s, reports have indicated Chinese interest in modifying DF-15 tactical (600 kilometer) and DF-21 (2,500 kilometer) intermediate-range ballistic missiles as antiship weapons, using radar or infrared guidance,” naval expert Norman Friedman writes in this month’s Proceedings. (Not yet online.)
Friedman says that ballistic missiles are effective anti-ship weapons because they exploit a gap in the anti-air coverage of U.S. warships, which are optimized to defend against low-flying cruise missiles.
“The main effect of a tactical ballistic-missile threat would be to make anti-ballistic weapons such as the [Raytheon] SM-3 much more important for Fleet air defense.“
In other words, those interceptors the Navy was planning to use to shoot down Nork terror weapons might be handier as a routine defense against Chinese anti-ship missiles.
But don’t go investing in Raytheon stocks quite yet. The Chinese missiles rely on a sophisticated satellite targeting system that probably isn’t in place … and might never be.

This [missile] program, if indeed it exists, may be connected to an ongoing Chinese satellite surveillance program, which reportedly will consist of four radar and four electro-optical satellites.
[But] it is not … clear whether the [potential] Chinese satellite system is intended primarily for ocean surveillance.
Remember that the Chinese military procurement system was initially modeled on that of the Soviet Union, and that probably it has changed a lot less than the rest of Chinese society. To what extent would the Chinese field an antiship ballistic missile even though the associated targeting system(s) were either not ready or would never enter service?

Moreover, Friedman adds, even if the satellites are pointed at the ocean, telling an aircraft carrier from a civilian tanker ship is difficult for all but the most sophisticated sensors. In the end, Friedman is skeptical that the Chinese can effectively target whatever ballistic anti-ship missiles they possess.
David Axe

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

dfgh July 6, 2006 at 6:58 am

telling an aircraft carrier from a civilian tanker ship is difficult for all but the most sophisticated sensors
Wouldn`t the radar signals be a dead giveaway? How many tankers have the best air surveilance radars the US can build? Coming to think of it there are a lot of places that are vital to serious US fighting that are putting out a lot of radio signals into space.
And a missile may be expensive, it is likely to be a hell of a lot cheaper than all the planes, boats and tanks that could be destroyed from the carrier it blows up. And just add up the costs of all the anti air missiles you need to blow up individual planes…
I guess it would be like taking out a dump truck filled with hundreds of people who are gonna blow up billion dollar oil infrastructure. Blowing these people (or these planes) up while they are lumped together, or “wholsesale”, is the essence of economic efficiency. Its a wall mart weapon ;-)

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Robot.Economist July 6, 2006 at 9:53 am

I think Freidman is chasing a paper tiger on this one. Estimates on the circular error probable for the DF-21 is around 300-400m and DF-15 is around 300-600m. With the support of commercial GPS or GLONASS or the inclusion of Western laser-gyroscopes, the Chinese might be able to get their CEP under 100m. Such a degree of accuracy could probably hit an aircraft carrier pretty reliably, but it would still be a waste of money in my opinion.
Why pop off one IRBM that might hit the target when you could fire a swarm of sea-launched cruise missiles at the same cost? Radiation-seeking SLCMs are much more accurate and even AEGIS systems can be overwhelmed by a large enough volume of targets.
The 15-20 year-old missiles in China’s arsenal have far more utility threatening Taiwan than threatening the US Navy.

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test July 8, 2006 at 2:25 am

this is a test

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