Yesterday, China launched a DF-26B and a DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) – it also calls “carrier killers” – from two different locations on the mainland converging on one target area in the South China Sea (SCS). This rare double test was a clear response to the U.S. Navy’s recent repeated visits to the South China Sea by several aircraft carriers, as well as the ongoing U.S-led RIMPAC 2020 international naval exercise near Hawaii.
As I have previously written, the USS Theodore Roosevelt transited the South China Sea in March, while last month, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan conducted their own rare dual carrier drills with their strike forces operating jointly in the SCS.
With these “carrier-killer” missiles, China believes it can destroy U.S. ships operating in the SCS, including America’s mightiest aircraft carriers. This double missile test was also a reminder, not just to the U.S. Navy, but also to its regional allies who may feel emboldened to join any U.S.-led anti-China alliance.
While its missile capabilities are formidable, how successful China would be in sinking well-defended U.S. carriers is still uncertain.
As Popular Mechanics (PopMech) notes, the DF-21 is a medium-range missile with a range of 1,355 miles, while the DF-26 is an intermediate-range missile with a longer range of up to 2,485 miles. Developed from land-based variants, these ASBMs are now a means of holding U.S. Navy aircraft carriers at risk. PopMech further explains that they –
…are designed to launch from mobile transporters and travel hundreds of miles to attack enemy warships. The hypersonic warhead flies higher and faster than conventional anti-ship missiles, making it difficult for ships without ballistic missile engagement capability to intercept. The warhead is designed to slam into a warship at blisteringly fast speed, then detonate a high explosive or even nuclear warhead.
In anticipation of China’s ASBM launches, PopMech reported that the Pentagon deployed an RC-135S Cobra Ball reconnaissance aircraft to the SCS prior to the missile test. The Air Force RC-135S is a converted Boeing 707 jetliner designed to “collect optical and electronic data on ballistic targets.”
In other words, the Cobra Bell RC-135S gathers data from these missile tests to help improve American ballistic missile defenses.
China illegally claims almost 90 percent of the expansive, and misnamed, South China Sea as its own territorial waters. The U.S. and most other nations vigorously dispute this claim, calling it not only illegal but absurd. They also declare most of the SCS as international waters, and some islands within it as belonging to smaller countries in the region such as Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
To keep the Chinese from steadily encroaching on the rights of these smaller countries, and dominating a major strategic international waterway, the U.S. Navy conducts Freedom Of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) throughout the SCS.
These FONOPS have increased in size and frequency recently as China has become more belligerent and aggressive in its expansion. These Chinese missile launches are just the latest warning to the U.S. Navy to back off.
Unfortunately for China, based on recent actions and statements by the U.S. Navy and the Trump administration, “backing off” does not appear to be a U.S. option.