April 20, 2009 After years of speculation, details are beginning to emerge of a "kill weapon" developed by the Chinese, which is capable of targeting and destroying US aircraft carriers. The Dong Feng 21 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) can carry a warhead big enough to inflict significant damage on a large naval vessel, such as a supercarrier, with a single strike. The missile employs a complex guidance system, using low radar signature and a maneuverability that makes its flight path unpredictable. This increases the odds that the missile can evade tracking systems to successfully reach its target. It is estimated that the missile can travel at mach 10 speed and reach its maximum range of 2,000km in less than 12 minutes.

The Dong Feng 21 ASBM

The anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) has been a topic of discussion within national defense circles for some time, but the fact that information is now coming from Chinese sources suggests that the weapon system is operational. According to the US Navy Institute, the Chinese rarely mention weapons projects unless they are well beyond the test stages. The institute believes that the ASBM is considered a genuine threat in light of the build-up of the Chinese navy and a confrontation with an unarmed US ship in international waters in early March.

A recent report on US naval affairs blog Information Dissemination outlines the Dong Feng 21's deadly capabilities, based on a translated Chinese blog, viewed as credible by military analysts.

The modified Dong Feng 21 missile is significant because it covers likely "hot zones" for future confrontations between US and Chinese surface forces, says the US Navy Institute. Supporting the missile is a network of satellites, radar and unmanned aerial vehicles that can locate US ships and then guide the weapon, enabling it to hit moving targets. If operational, as is believed, the system marks the first time a ballistic missile has been successfully developed to attack vessels at sea. At the moment, ships have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.

After spending the past decade concentrating on building a fleet that can operate in shallow waters near coastlines, the US Navy seems to have quickly changed its strategy over the past several months to focus on improving the capabilities of its deep sea fleet and developing anti-ballistic defenses.

As analyst Raymond Pritchett notes in a post on the US Naval Institute blog: "The Navy's reaction is telling, because it essentially equals a radical change in direction based on information that has created a panic inside the bubble. For a major military service to panic due to a new weapon system, clearly a mission kill weapon system, either suggests the threat is legitimate or the leadership of the Navy is legitimately unqualified. There really aren't many gray spaces in evaluating the reaction by the Navy … the data tends to support the legitimacy of the threat."

David Greig