Thu, Sep 24, 2009 - Page 5 News List

ANALYSIS: Foreign observers eye Dongfeng 21-D missile


When the National Day parade rolls down Beijing’s streets next week, foreign observers will look beyond the goose-stepping soldiers for signs that China is developing a new missile able to threaten US aircraft carriers.

If China is able to mount systems that support an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), it could force the US carrier fleet to keep a greater distance, US defense analysts said, which would change US strategy for defending Taiwan should war break out.

On Oct. 1, all eyes will be on the Avenue of Eternal Peace to see if China displays a Dongfeng 21-D missile — with maneuverable fins to help it find a moving target at sea — as well as a more finalized launch vehicle.

“The ASBM is far from operational, but it is close enough to make a splash,” said Eric McVadon, a retired rear admiral whose 35-year naval career included a defense attache post in Beijing. “It is something big. It represents the ability to make the US think twice before sending carrier strike groups into the Western Pacific.”

China is using the parade, which involves hundreds of thousands of marchers, to celebrate its modernization and the spectacular economic growth of three decades of reform.

Ten years ago, the military parade showcased new fighter jets and a model of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

This one will highlight achievements like the budding space program — illustrated in a topiary display along the route — and the army’s rescue work after last year’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan.

New weaponry and priorities will stand out. This week, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie outlined plans to transform naval and air forces to project power far from China’s shores.

An ASBM deployed from Chinese territory would have a range of about 1,500km, enough to reach far beyond Taiwan and cover much of Japan and the Philippines.

McVadon credits China for choosing to develop missiles rather than take the more uncertain route of trying to directly match the US’ strength in ships and submarines.

“China’s great success has been that it went to missiles,” said McVadon, now director for Asia Pacific Studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Washington. “It was a prudent decision to get around our strengths. They really made the right call.”

Other analysts caution that successfully modifying the Dongfeng series missile to hit ships would not be enough to successfully hold an aircraft carrier at bay.

“Seeing it in the parade is not hard evidence that the missile is operative,” said Matthew Durnin, a Beijing-based researcher with the World Security Institute. “But US intelligence believes that if this is credibly developed and deployed, it would change carrier strike group deployments.”

Durnin predicted that China would test the missile within two years to prove it can hit a ship at sea. He estimated it would be about five years before China has the satellites in place to fully track a moving target over the vast Pacific.

“It will be very expensive to develop all the supporting infrastructure for such a system, and whether the Chinese will make the necessary investments is fundamentally a political question,” said David Yang, a political scientist at RAND Corp who has also written on the ASBM system.

Liang said that the Second Artillery Corps, which holds the keys to the country’s nuclear weapons, would soon also control some conventional weapons.

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