How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love China’s Carrier Killing Missile

A big part of the U.S. military - that would be the Navy - is working itself into knots over the “anti-access” challenge, potential enemies possessing large arsenals of long-range, precision guided missiles, stealthy submarines and over-the-horizon radars. In fact, the Navy, with the Air Force in tow, is thinking through a new warfighting doctrine known as AirSea Battle intended to come up with ways to counter enemy missile magazines and allow ships freedom of access in offshore waters (we wrote about it a few weeks back).

The biggest, baddest threat in the anti-access arena is China’s DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), ominously known as the “carrier killer.” The DF-21 is not fully operational. That China has been working on such a missile for some time is well known. In testimony before (.pdf) the House Armed Services Committee last week, the head of Pacific Command, Adm. Robert Willard, said China is “testing” the weapon. A soft kill terminal guidance warhead is thought to be in the works that would detonate above a carrier and riddle its deck with thousands of steel flechettes.

Defense Tech friend Craig Hooper has a new piece out in the April issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings that says hyping China’s ASBM threat has done little but upset America’s regional allies and legitimized an unproven weapon. “This self inflicted blow to U.S. stature in the region requires an adroit diplomatic response.”

First off, the defense community must stop assuming American flattops are the only or even primary target of such weapons. Chinese ASBMs pose a far greater threat to regional allies, such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, each of which is developing smaller “pocket-carriers,” that can operate helicopters and STOVL aircraft. “Modern Asian navies are becoming important co-guarantors of stability in the Pacific Basin… Asia’s growing fleet of tiny flattops is far more vulnerable to ASBM strikes than any U.S. carrier.”

By focusing solely on the threat to the U.S. Navy’s supercarriers, the defense community forfeited an opportunity to frame ASBMs as a regional challenge and develop a regional response. He points to the Cold War example when Russia’s medium range missiles were portrayed as a European-wide threat. “A review of Cold War history might inspire American strategists to get off the fainting couch and confront China’s ASBMs directly, on almost a missile for missile basis.”

A conventionally armed Trident intercontinental ballistic missile, along with submarine launched intermediate range ballistic missiles, would be just the ticket to hold Chinese missiles at risk and extend an umbrella over regional allies. These missiles, along with the Air Force’s new long range strike initiative, fall under the prompt global strike (PGS) concept, one Congress has been reluctant to fund because of worries over misinterpretation of a conventionally armed ballistic missile launch.

The “confirmed entry” of Chinese ASBMs into the Pacific could pressure Congress to fully fund a range of PGS efforts. Reaching back again to Cold War history, Hooper says as the deployment of the Pershing II in Europe changed Soviet behavior on missile basing, “a comparable U.S. step in the Pacific might set the stage for an Asia-focused dialogue on limiting ballistic missiles.”

— Greg

  • chris

    That’s an excellent point. While we should - and can -defend the carriers, the diplomatic benefits of unifying our allies are far greater. Look at all the unforeseen uses of NATO.

    • ShiroOmiai

      How America should dealt with China ASBM?

      i) Let’s be honest - America is broke. America had scrapped the flight of the space shuttle, and China had determined to go for Mars and beyond. Meaning:- America must surrender the world’s leadership without a fight

      ii) China need not use such dangerous weapon like ASBM to fight America without severe repercussion. A better method is to dump the American’s debt and America stock market would be screwed and the damage may be even greater than a direct shot at an carrier AND without missiles slamming back to China!!!!

      iii) If America did not have moneys for its space programme, what makes you think that America had moneys for PGS? By the time this PGS thing almost come to fruition, China may come with another equally “game changer” with just a fraction of the (PGS) costs? You still think America had that type of monies???

      iv) What America MUST do is to recognise China’s interest as well as China to respect America’s interest. America must NOT be too nosy poking onto other’s affairs with big big words like “national security”. “human’s rights”, “violations of this principles and that principles” for the fact that America herself breached so many of these rights and are no accountable to anyone!!!

      v) Then the two superpowers can then co-exists with a “win-win” situation i n long time to come. Think far, Don’t just think next 4 years because the incumbent/ potential candidate want to win the President of the United States!!!

  • slntax

    man the chi-coms love those white wall tires…

    • thedavidwilson

      I think they imported them from Ohio.

      • mad mike

        Yup, they imported the entire freekin’ tire factory!!!

      • skibowski

        Those white walled tires are for parade purposes only. All white walled tires are just for that, for display purposes. Quite appealing, by the way. But for combat ready units, those crappy tires are useless and are replaced with reliable tires.

  • Philo

    “Mr. President, we must not allow, a mine-shaft gap to occur!”

    good headline Greg, funny stuff.

    • John Scior

      Thats why I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

  • JZizka

    “He’ll see the big board!”

    Are carriers really worth all the effort required to defend them? I mean look at the resources required to support and defend one of them….wouldn’t a combinatin of DDGs and SSNs be better suited to securing the Straits of Taiwan should it come to it? Some of the DDGs have BMD ability so in theory they should be able to defend against these type threats. Carriers supported by tankers and land based aircraft should be able to provide air support.

    • Jeff N

      Are carriers worth it. Yes. You have to look at the alternative. An aircraft carrier and battled are effectively a mobile military base that has almost everything needed to wage a war. They allow a more rapid buildup of other military forces into a region and provide a lot of flexibility to military commanders. Like anything thats overly expenses their cost is a liability and putting all your eggs in a nicely wrapped basket makes it a tempting target. But their size and presence allows them to act as an infrastructural hub in otherwise unfriendly regions.

    • Will

      Defending the Straits of Taiwan is not the most likely, not the most important & probably not even the most difficult mission the Navy will have. Nothing matches the combination of flexibility, versatility & striking power of fixed wing aviation. Carriers bring fixed wing aviation to the fight where air bases are not available. Carriers are a critical resource in an unpredictable world.

  • John Moore

    I would think the bigger the ship the easier it is to hit .: a smaller carrier would stand a better chance?

    I dont follow the logic that a small boat is worse off.

    • acg1189

      pretty simple. Range. A Nimitz can put up a full range of fully-capable aircraft with ESM, Airborne Radar, and air refueling support to keep anybody at a VERY long arms length. Keep in mind to even launch these ballistic missiles, you have to FIND the carrier first. And the longer the range of the air wing the harder it is to both get close enough to give a good enough pinpoint of where it is AND the more square miles of ocean the carrier has to hide in.

      Small, helicopter/VTOL carriers can only deploy limited short range assets. the whole Chinese ballistic missile threat isn’t anything new; the soviets had essentially the same capability back in the cold war with long range cruise missiles on bombers, and they had the same fundamental problem back then of detection and getting around the defenses.

      • John Moore

        I agree with the bigger bang to sink a bigger boat but I would assume they would use assets such as satellites to pin point target area so proximity to us is erased and then its all about the size of the target which bigger == easier to hit.

        Thanx for the feed back though.

  • Guest

    Conflict over Japan, Korean or (insert virtually any Asian country here) exclusive economic zones is far more likely than a Taiwan fight. So those little carriers (the only way they’ll get a seized piece of rock back) are going to have to go it alone, probably without US support.

  • Bret

    China’s development of ASBMs is very scary, and is something that the US should be aware of. Not only is it a weapon to counter US influence in “blue waters”, but it also demonstrates the idea that China is beginning to develop technologies that the US does not possess. Theoretically, the SM-3 missile on Aegis Cruisers can counter ASBMs, but the US, and her allies in Asia should pay more attention to this and work together to balance the navies in the Pacific.

    You can read an interesting and informative post on Chinese ASBMs here (…

    • Steelers43

      Does the US really need ASBM technology? Are there that many fleet/carrier threats to the US that would make ASBM’s more effective than known technology/ships that the US already possesses? I do not think so….

      • Bret

        You make a good point. Does the US really need ASBM technology? Currently, it seems that the US would not need this technology because many possible adversaries only possess green-water navies. Plus, the US has arguably the best submarine force in the world. ASBMs might be useful IF the US would ever clash with Russian or Chinese vessels (very unlikely).

        The fact that China was pioneering new military technology shows how quickly they are beginning to “counter” US tactics. Either way, the US should be wary of ASBM development.

  • jon

    Time for the submersible carrier?

  • DennisBuller

    With the F-35 Marine variant coming online, (if the price ever stops going up), it may be time to design a smaller carrier with electromagnetic catapults for launch and vertical landing.
    These would not need the troublesome nuclear reactors and the personnel training they entail.
    They could even retrofit a Gator Freighter design……
    Instead of one carrier, there could be four at the same cost. But then you have redundancy……
    Couple these with the Ospreys and military versions of Sikorsky X-2 helicopter and you have a flying force that can really reach out and touch someone.
    This is not an either or argument. With smaller carriers with the new planes we could cut down the large aircraft carrier fleet from 12 down to 8 or less over time.
    Who needs a Cruiser for protection when you are carrying a large compliment of X-2 variations of helicopter and UAV’s along with your aircraft?
    Ever seen a Cruiser or Destroyer do 200 MPH?

    • Guest

      I’d love to see a scalable EMALS. But then again, why be picky? I’d just love to see a functional EMALS….

    • Will

      Smaller carriers have even smaller air wings. If you want to bring big planes & lots of them to the fight, big carriers are the way to go.
      Sure, the reactors run up the cost of the ship but a task force only needs oiler support for the escorts. Nuclear is cheaper over time.
      You can’t do without escorts - helos & UAVs are no defense against supersonic, sea-skimming cruise missiles or the ASBM mentioned in the article.
      EM catapults will be installed on new carriers as soon as the tech is perfected. The GHW Bush would have had them if they were available.

  • BILL D

    I would think that if it came to a shooting war with China they would probably nuke the carrier battle groups off their coast.

    • Guest

      Not if they’re going against a non-nuke armed neighbor.

    • John Moore

      Thats what I thaught it was all. Nukes not metal fragments on a flight deck.

      Heck if its that hard to get a hit I'm going for a full kill!

    • The_Hand

      That might invite nuclear strikes on Chinese soil, so I’m not sure they’d be willing to open that door. The nice thing about the flechette attack is that it’s a kind of less-lethal strike. Scoring a function kill on a carrier would play a lot better politically than sinking it outright, and still lets the Chinese get on with forcibly annexing Taiwan (or whatever the point of the war is).

    • @Earlydawn

      Unlikely for a couple reasons. First, China lacks a robust satellite targeting capability. Second, nuclear attacks precipitate nuclear attacks.

  • Tony C

    Small boats take less high explosive to send them to the bottom!
    Big Boats take more punishment before going to the bottom.
    Carriers are high value assets that are protected in layers as to
    force an enemy to expend vast resources to destroy one. The problem
    is they are extremely expensive to protect as well. This issue may be seen
    as a war of attrition in reverse, with the US spending the money to build
    expendable assets to protect the high value asset.

    • mad mike

      Remember the carrier USS Enterprise. What a ship!

  • ohwilleke

    American flattops are largely regional weapons. The only place they make much sense in in places where ASBMs are a threat and in the Middle East. You don’t need one to deal with military challenges that come up in Africa, Latin America, or Europe.

    We shouldn’t worry because the Chinese are really after close military allies is cold comfort? Huh?

    Congress is rightfully suspicious of the notion that you can trust the nuclear missile armed Chinese not to hit the red button on their nukes when they see an ICBM or SLBM launched.

    Perhaps we should devote more of our resources in the Pacific to DF-21 proof systems like air tanker supported aircraft, and LCS too numerous to make DF-21 strikes worth China’s efforts. Meanwhile, we should be developing “access-creating” systems that don’t require major technological breakthroughs like Ohio class submarine class sized cargo submarines that can smuggle commerce to allies in volumes orders of magnitude better than airlifts without having to worry about many threats to surface ships.

  • chas

    US military strategy says that a nuclear strike on a carrier will result in retaliation in kind.

  • d-fens

    Perhaps a role for the airborne laser?

    • Brandon

      But its chemical and thats not the future so were not going to buy any chemical just energy.

      • Theo

        Yes, but its in development as with the ASBM, and we may have a functional version by the time they do. On the other hand can anyone tell me the feasibility of using an airborne laser against a larger slow moving target for an extended period. e.g. the housing of the nuclear generator on a carrier, remembering that you don’t have to break it, just create the impression that you might cause a breach…
        Oh and on the subject of effectiveness, could an airborne laser be used against a sea-skimming missile?

  • Chad

    Sort of off topic, but in response to DennisBuller. Has nuclear propulsion in carriers been in any way troublesome and has there been a substantial problem obtaining personnel to man them? Will the gain in simplicity (if any) obtained by switching to conventional propulsion offset the mobility and endurance advantages of nuclear (not to mention environmental sustainability)?

  • rugerblake

    Perhaps signaling to China that pulling the Pershing III (purposeful) out of mothballs and begin deployment would be a very cost effective approach to this threat. This is valuable because it allows the perceived ability to swap a 20 kt warhead onto it if EMP devices were mistakenly used by China in a denial campaign. Conventionally, they would make great anti-DF battery missiles.
    Of course, continuing to advance forward on sea-based ABM systems is always prudent.
    My mistake, as always, whereby one attempts to solve a political issue with technology.

    • Guest

      We can’t…land-based intermediate range ballistic missiles are not allowed under an existing (and very successful) treaty…

      • rugerblake

        That eliminates Nuclear weapons not conventional Pershing-like missiles. While retaliating against an EMP is really the job of a full SLBM strike, the conventional SRBM or like capable missile is for checking purposes. The POINT, was that we COULD use a lower-cost alternative or compliment to ABM if we had the political will. Again this would be the overt reaction to their action as a deterrence. - dreamy I know

  • willy

    Implying somebody whom you are bombing civilians of with you carrier on their coast wont use nukes against it if they have to and everybody in the world doesnt agree them doing the rigth thing.
    With China or any bigger country thats whats going to happend and i think and hope that if USA retaliates with nukes it will be responded with “so what that way we would have no chance never after all2 all way nuclear war against United States “to the death of the earth or you”.
    There is one minus.
    If I would have problems with you I would first ask weather you are going to hold it. Once and kindly as side question about something else.
    If so I would nuke you all as the first strike all the way with barrages protectional nukes and all you nearby assets.. :) :)

  • Guest

    So if we eliminate nuclear warheads (good for the world!) in favor of precise non-nuclear missiles, then China may get antsy about their limited nuke force (a small-sized arsenal which is good for the US!) and build more (Uh oh…bad). It may also move their warheads out of central storage (a secure storage place that is good for the US! Yay!) and disseminate them throughout the country (bad)…etc…

    Makes my head hurt! This is a tough subject. China needs to open up about this stuff. Sooner rather than later….

  • Anthony

    From a defense sector perspective, the chinese are simply staking their claim in the world, for the US most of our military is experianced and our weapons proven. Just because a nation claims something does not mean it works in a combat situation as it should… think about it… all the huff and puff for a country that has not been in a real war since it basically been introduced as the peoples republic of china. You really think they can fight a major battle let alone a war in their current state? As technology will prove… the US has the edge .. and the Chinese still are using brand X.

  • joe

    In this world we live there never fails to come along a fool who does something stupid and the rest of us suffers-Stalin, Hitler, etc. We need to be prepared. We should prove to ourselves that we have learnt from the past.

  • Nodebong
  • Wynne

    US want to be the only one that gets to stick their nose in someone else’s business and now their upset LOL

  • John Scior

    You know, I would think that a whole bunch of hydrogen filled polymer balloons coated with a slight layer of reflective aluminum deployed over other carrier escort ships might confuse the radar tracking abilities of this missile. Also, what about growler f-18g with their jamming capabilities ?? Not to mention anti-ballistic missile technology that might be able to knock these out of the sky. Also, Taiwan and Japan are the ultimate unsinkable aircraft carriers whereby american carriers might be ale to stay out of range and conduct strike missions, then land in those countries , refuel and return to their carrier. These missilese are huge, should be easy to spot with a stealth drone. Also Zumwalt destroyers with railguns or even their 155 ags couldaid incounteringthese. why all the worry about this, it seems the worry boys are hyping a strategy designed toend the aircraft carrier era unneccesarily.