'Carrier killer' missile may give China powerful edge
While PLA chief Chen Bingde's remarks about China's aircraft carrier development hogged attention during the visit by his US counterpart this week, it was his confirmation that the military is developing a missile able to hit carriers that has caused a stir.
The general's comments on the anti-ship ballistic missile - the so-called carrier killer - were the first official military acknowledgement that work on the DF 21-D is under way, even as he outlined problems ahead.
'The missile is still undergoing experimental testing and will be used as a defensive weapon when it is successfully developed, not an offensive one,' Chen (pictured) said.
'It is a hi-tech weapon and we face many difficulties in getting funding, advanced technologies and high-quality personnel, which are all underlying reasons why it is hard to develop this.'
The development of the weapon surfaced in private discussions between Chen and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, during his visit.
No timing for the weapon's completion was given. Its creation is being closely monitored by the US and its regional allies, who fear that the weapon could complicate US access to the seas off East Asia.
The weapon is under development by the PLA's Second Artillery Corps. A variant of the DF 21-D medium-range missile, it would be fired from a mobile launcher and would carry a technologically advanced warhead that would break in the last stages of flight and head towards a target, such as an aircraft carrier.
Beijing knows such a weapon would have a considerable deterrent effect, forcing the US to rethink how it deploys its aircraft carriers, particularly the one permanently based with the US Seventh Fleet in Japan.
'Chen's remarks are very significant ... many of us wondered whether this was actually real or just some kind of myth to sow fear and confusion,' said one veteran Asian military attach?. 'The weapon, we are told, is actually being developed.'
If China successfully develops the anti-ship ballistic missile, it will possess a weapon no other nation has.
As such, it is one of the PLA's most controversial weapons - harnessing technology that the US and the former Soviet Union pledged never to pursue.
Wary of its costs and dangers, Washington and Moscow agreed to ban the development of such a weapon towards the end of the cold war.
Strategists believe that if China was engaged in conflict and fired such a ballistic missile - a rocket that would traditionally carry a nuclear warhead - to hit a single ship, it would risk a catastrophic miscalculation by its enemies, who might fear they were under nuclear attack and therefore retaliate in kind.
Gary Li, a PLA analyst at the London-based private intelligence firm Exclusive Analysis, said Chen appeared determined to put the weapon's development in an 'unspectacular context'.
'Compared to the fact that he unusually showed his concern and frustration in public over the South China Sea during Mullen's visit, he mentioned the DF 21-D almost as a friendly reminder,' Li said. 'It was the first official mention and it was significant, of course, but he was also backing into it, suggesting there is still a lot of work to be done ... which there is.'
Such a weapon would require a network of ground sensors and satellites, including a foolproof over-the-horizon radar, which meant it could be years before it was reliably operational.
'The missile and warhead are one thing ... all the elements to be able to put it all together in a conflict situation, well that is quite another.'
China's own independent satellite navigation network, the Beidou system, was still nine years from completion, Li said.
Dr Andrew Erickson, a strategic scholar at the US Naval War College, noted Chen's apparent caution, saying he could be both downplaying Chinese capabilities to minimise foreign development of counter-measures and preparing the ground for further testing before the PLA was fully confident in the weapon.
Erickson noted potential problems for the Sino-US relationship. 'From a Chinese perspective, this appears inherently defensive; from the perspective of the US and other regional actors, it may not appear defensive at all. Herein lies a substantial challenge for Sino-American strategic relations even as the two great powers move to explore possibilities for mutually beneficial security co-operation in the future.'