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A military expert says the US carried out the interceptor test to show it still has superior firepower in Asia. Photo: US Navy

US-China relations: shooting down of mock ICBM was warning to Beijing, observers say

  • ‘SM-3 Block IIA interceptor test could be seen as a response to China launching two aircraft carrier killer missiles into the South China Sea,’ military expert Zhou Chenming says
  • US wanted to show its Asian allies it is still able to protect them, he says
The United States was sending a clear message to China on Tuesday when it shot down a mock intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) over the Pacific Ocean, military experts said.
“The SM-3 Block IIA interceptor test could be seen as a response to China launching two ‘ aircraft carrier killer’ missiles into the South China Sea,” Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said.

He was referring to reports that the People’s Liberation Army fired a DF-26B and a DF-21D from separate sites into the sea in August, as covered by the South China Morning Post at the time.

Last week it was reported that a former colonel with the Chinese military, speaking at a meeting in October, said the Chinese missiles successfully hit a moving ship close to the Paracel Islands.

Beijing has made no comment about either the launch of the missiles – known as “aircraft carrier killers” – or the mission’s apparent success.

In the US exercise on Tuesday, the latest version of an Aegis SM-3 missile built by American firm Raytheon Missiles & Defence was fired from a destroyer in the Pacific, northeast of Hawaii. Its target was launched from a test site in the Marshall Islands, the Pentagon said.

The US target missile was launched from a test site in the Marshall Islands, the Pentagon said. Photo: US Navy
Although the US was most likely sending a message to North Korea, whose development of ICBMs and nuclear weapons is the main reason the Pentagon has sought to accelerate its building of missile defence systems, observers said Tuesday’s exercise could prompt China’s military – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – to conduct more missile drills this year.

Zhou said the US had played up China’s missile launch to justify increasing its military presence in the Pacific and had used the interceptor test to show it still had military superiority in Asia.

“[It wanted to show its] Asian allies that Washington is still able to protect them,” he said.

The US exercise was the first time a missile interceptor had been launched from a ship at sea hit to destroy a mock ICBM in flight. Previous tests against ICBM targets had used interceptors launched from underground silos in the United States.

But Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the SM-3 Block IIA did not have the capability to stop Chinese missiles like the DF-41 ICBMs and DF-26B intermediate-range ballistic missiles because of their superior manoeuvrability and rapid trace changes in flight.

“The [SM-3’s] capability against a DF-41 is very limited, but it would be a threat to ICBMs developed by North Korea and Iran,” he said.

North Korea on October 10 unveiled its largest-ever, road-mobile ICBM during a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of its ruling party.

“However, the [US] test will spur China to step up its missile renewal programme to upgrade its old generation ballistic missiles,” Song said.

The SM-3 Block IIA was jointly developed by Raytheon and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. In August 2019, the US approved the sale of up to 73 SM-3 IIA missiles to Japan for an estimated US$3.3 million. The weapons will be installed at two sites in the East Asian country and expected to become operational in 2025.

Military vehicles carrying DF-26 ballistic missiles take part in a parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing in 2015. Photo: Reuters
The missile launches come at a time of high tensions between China and America, partly as a result of the US increasing its military ties with Taiwan and conducting more frequent freedom of navigation operations in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing’s posturing has been increasingly aggressive.

A Chinese military source said that besides the twin launches of the “aircraft carrier killer” missiles, the PLA Rocket Force also in August launched two DF-21s from a site in the northwest of the country to strike targets in the southern region of Guangxi.

“The Guangxi missile drill was aimed at warning Taiwan’s independence-leaning ruling Democratic Progressive Party that the PLA has the capability to hit specific targets on land,” the source said.

In contrast, the missiles aimed at the ship near the Paracel Islands were “specifically intended as a warning to the US navy”, the person said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US interception of missile in exercise ‘message to China’