Carrier Non-Killer?

By John Liang / August 9, 2010 at 5:37 PM

At least one analyst is downplaying the notion in the news last week that China's new missile could be a "carrier killer." As the Associate Press reported last week:

U.S. naval planners are scrambling to deal with what analysts say is a game-changing weapon being developed by China -- an unprecedented carrier-killing missile called the Dong Feng 21D that could be launched from land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even the most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles).

But Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute doesn't seem to think so. In a blog entry posted today, he writes:

I haven't seen the intelligence reports, so maybe all the alarm is warranted. But I doubt it. China has yet to conduct a single realistic test of the conventionally-armed ballistic missile. Even if it performs as feared, there is a glaring omission in all the threat mongering: the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) has no reliable way of actually targeting U.S. carrier task forces when they are at sea. No matter how accurate the new missile's guidance system may be, Chinese military commanders need to know where to aim it -- especially since a near miss with a conventional warhead has pretty much the same military value as missing by a hundred miles. So how exactly is the PLA supposed to find U.S. carriers, when they are constantly moving and actively excluding hostile forces from their immediate vicinity?

The answer is that it can't. "Four and a half acres of sovereign U.S. territory" -- the way carrier proponents often describe flattops -- may sound like a huge target, but in fact it is a mere speck in the vast expanses of the Western Pacific. For example, the modestly-sized South China Sea that Beijing keeps trying to claim for itself contains over a million square miles of water, in which a carrier can easily hide. And that's only a small part of the East Asia littoral. I calculated a decade ago that to acquire continuous target-quality information for the entire South China Sea, the PLA would need over a hundred low-earth-orbit reconnaissance satellites moving in three parallel tracks. At the moment, China only has a handful of such satellites, and as a result most of the time its overhead sensors aren't anywhere near areas of interest. It also has over-the-horizon radars and roaming submarines, plus a fleet of reconnaissance aircraft, but these do not add up to the seamless targeting network the PLA would need to track and attack a U.S. carrier.