Wed, May 01, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The China Challenge: New missile gap leaves US scrambling to counter China, part II

By David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim  /  Reuters, ZHUHAI, China

[China’s powerful military is considered to be a master at concealing its intentions, but there is no secret about how it plans to destroy US aircraft carriers if rivalry becomes war.]

Apart from weapons covered by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, where China has a monopoly, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has other missiles in its arsenal that outperform their US counterparts. These include two supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, the YJ-12, with a range of 400km, and the YJ-18, which can hit targets up to 540km away.

To counter these missiles, the US relies on its subsonic, Harpoon anti-ship missile which has been modified to give it a maximum range of about 240km.

“That is a very big gap,” said Robert Haddick, a former US Marine Corps officer and now a visiting senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies based in Arlington, Virginia, who is also an adviser to the US Special Operations Command.

“China’s anti-ship missile capability exceeds those of the United States in terms of range, speed and sensor performance,” he said.

As part of a sweeping reorganization of the Chinese armed forces, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in late 2015 elevated the missile force to the level of a service alongside the army, navy and air force.

In a ceremony widely covered in the state-controlled media, the Second Artillery Corps was renamed the PLA Rocket Force. Two veterans of this force, General Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和) and General Zhang Shengmin (張升民), now sit on the CCP’s Central Military Commission, the supreme military control body that is chaired by Xi.

Another Rocket Force veteran, General Gao Jin (高津), is seen as a rising star of the Chinese military.

When the missile force was rebadged, Gao was appointed to head a new branch of the PLA, the Strategic Support Force, which is responsible for cyber, electronic and space warfare.

Gao has been a key figure in the transition of the Rocket Force from its origins as primarily a nuclear deterrent to its current dual role of both nuclear shield and spearhead of the PLA’s conventional strike capability, according to US and Chinese military analysts.

For the US and its regional allies, a top priority is to wrest back the lead in the range war.

Extra performance is being squeezed out of old US air and sea-launched missiles. Boeing is upgrading the Harpoon anti-ship missile. An anti-ship variant of Raytheon’s venerable Tomahawk land attack cruise missile — with a range in excess of 1,600km — is undergoing tests.

The US Navy is working to add range to carrier strike aircraft, and new weapons are in the pipeline.

Lockheed Martin said in December last year that it had delivered the first of its new, long-range anti-ship missiles to the US Air Force after a series of successful tests. This stealthy missile could also be deployed on warships.

Meanwhile, China continues to improve its firepower.

Two sets of satellite images on Google Earth, taken three years apart, show how China’s Rocket Force is testing its growing arsenal.

In one, the distinctive shape of a jet fighter is clearly visible on what appears to be a mock airstrip in a remote Chinese desert. The images, captured in mid-2013 over the far west of China, show the outline of a delta-wing aircraft at the southern end of the runway.

Images taken in late 2016 tell a different story. The wings and tail section are strewn at odd angles in a pile of wreckage.

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