Thursday, September 20, 2012

The ballistic anti-ship missile panic

The reports about China's development of a ballistic anti-ship missile have given new (questionable) arguments for air force fans to attack the aircraft carriers. Too vulnerable, they say, forgetting that ballistic missiles have been a threat for land airfields for many years. At one point, Vertical Take-Off and Landing was the answer to what was expected to be "the end of all airfields", which would be devastated by barrages of missiles and bombs. 
Days ago I wrote a quick comment piece that proved, sadly, a prophecy: while people obsessed about "too vulnerable" aircraft carriers, an attack on Camp Bastion took place, and 6 US Harriers were destroyed on the ground. 
Although it does not appear that this time indirect fire was the main threat, the attack on Bastion proves me right on both the need for improved Base-ISTAR and also the need for an effective C-RAM capability. 

Today I want to return on the subject of the ballistic carrier killer and look at the matter in greater detail to make a few considerations. 

The DF-21D

The new bogey man, I call it, because it is causing all sort of bold assertions and an unjustified amount of panic. The Dong Feng (Eastern Wind, in Chinese) DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod. 4 in NATO nomenclature) is, reportedly, a ship-killing variant of a well known two-stage, solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) land-based medium range ballistic missile in service in China for several years in nuclear (DF-21A) and conventionally armed variants (DF-21C). The DF-21 itself is a derivation, engineered in the 90s', of the Ju-Lang JL-1 missile originally developed to be launched by the submarines of the Xia class.
The DF-21A is road-mobile, mounted on a trailer towed by a large truck, while the DF-21C is mounted on a WS-2400 Tractor, Erector, Launcher (TEL) 10x10 high-mobility vehicle, which is also used by the DF-21D, to enhance survivability by allowing the system to move offroad, making it harder to locate.
The DF-21C has a payload of 2000 kg, and the DF-21D has probably the same space and weight envelopes. Differently from the C variant, however, the D needs a propulsion system and a complex guidance system fitted in that same space and weight. 

DF-21C missiles on parade. The DF-21D is supposed to look very much like its conventional brother, and share the same TEL vehicle.

Much of what we know about the DF-21D is a mix of speculation, Taiwanese-intelligence and US Intelligence analysis. 
We believed the range of the DF-21D is 2000 km but 3000 have also been suggested, and we assume that it is armed with a single, large maneuverable warhead (MARV) capable to pierce the armored decks of a Nimitz aircraft carrier, even if there is who talks of submunitions meant to destroy sensors and airplanes parked on the deck. 

The warhead is possibly equipped with a hybrid propulsion system, with liquid or solid fuel, in order to be able to maneuver and avoid interception in its exo-atmospheric flight phase. 
Unofficial Chinese sources say that the warhead is fitted with a Synthetic Aperture Radar in order to look down over the target area and locate the ships it is supposed to hit, and for terminal guidance would be provided by a multi-mode seeker combining millimeter-wave radar, electro-optic seeker and possibly passive radar homing. 

According to Taiwanese intelligence reports, the DF-21D should have entered service at the end of the 11th 5-years Plan of China, so around 2010, with a first production block of 15 to 20 missiles. Production is estimated at 10 to 15 units per year, allowing a force, by 2020, that in theory could number 150 launchers. 
For what we know, so far the DF-21D has never been tested against targets at sea, but only against land objectives.

In the words of China itself, the DF-21D is a long term capability that was first announced in 2003 and that plans to deliver: 

- By 2010, a ballistic anti-ship missile capability with a range of 1800 to 2000 Km. 
- Improve range and targeting by 2015
- Extend engagement capability at intercontinental level by 2020 (14.000 km or more) 

This is part of a larger plan of strengthening for the Strategic Missile forces that includes development of hypersonic missiles with global attack capability by 2025. 

A graphic demonstration of the Ballistic Missile capabilities available to China. In red, the indicative range of the DF-21 family.

In the Chinese forces, ballistic missiles are assigned to the 2nd Artillery Corps, which controls the nuclear and conventional missile resources as well as organic Electronic Warfare elements, force protection and support. 
The assumption is that China has so far been giving the DF-21 to two Missile Brigades based in front of Taiwan, each expected to be organized on 6 battalions with 17 launchers each in 2 batteries. This organization is that of the land attack DF-15 missile brigades, that, we assume, will be maintained. 
Within these two brigades, the anti-ship variant of the DF-21 missile is supposed to have been trialed and brought to IOC in 2010. 
Up to 40 anti-ship systems might be in service as we speak. 

And by this time, the number of "assumptions" is already very high. 

The doctrine

The DF-21D employment is part of an operational concept adopted by the Chinese forces to confront an enemy (the US Navy) that they cannot face directly with hopes of victory. 
The use of long-range bombers with anti-ship missiles is nothing new, as it is the approach the old URSS used before China. 
And ballistic anti-ship missiles were probably imagined by the Russians, as well. The idea is that the ballistic missile gives the US navy a difficult enemy to deal with, without China needing to risk any asset near the carrier battlegroups of the Americans. 

Obviously, the long range anti-ship ballistic missile is meant to neutralize aircraft carriers sailing towards China, but it is also meant to cut communications line across the Pacific and isolate hostile powers in the area (Taiwan first of all, obviously, but Japan a close second). 
The ballistic anti-ship missile is meant to keep the US away from the area, in a perfect example of Anti-Access strategy. 
To do so, the conventional DF-21 missiles meant for land attack could be used first, to force the US Navy (incapable to determine the kind of warhead fitted to the missile) to employ its SM-3 anti-ballistic missiles before the actual anti-ship Dong Feng is launched. 
The old tactic of saturation, nothing more, nothing less. 

The US are not helped in countering this tactic by the fact that the SM3 intercepts enemy missiles in their exo-atmospheric phase, so that during a saturation attack done with normal ballistic missiles there would be no real possibility to wait and track the trajectories of the warheads re-entering the atmosphere to hit only those on a dangerous trajectory. 
The US Navy would have to run the risk and hold fire, or potentially waste a huge number of precious interceptors against missiles with nearly zero effective chances of hitting the ships at sea. After that, the actual anti-ship guided warheads would follow, and find the defences of the carrier battlegroup severely short of ammunition. 
To make things worse, currently there is pretty much no way to reload vertical launch cells at sea with new missile canisters, making saturation a real issue, even for ships such as the Burkes and Ticonderoga, which carry dozen of interceptors. 

The doubts

There are many reasons to doubt of the effectiveness of the ballistic anti-ship missile. In our estimates, we are likely giving the new system capabilities it actually does not have. 
The reports about hybrid propulsion, SAR radar and multi-mode seeker bring forth several questions, from the size of the warhead to the feasibility of putting any kind of radar and electro-optic sensor inside such an atmospheric re-entry vehicle. 
The space for the actual warhead is likely to be tiny, if there really is a propulsion system and multiple targeting sensors fitted to the re-entry vehicle. 

Even assuming the tremendous speed of the re-entry into Atmosphere gives the warhead sufficient kinetic energy to be lethal on impact, we come straight to the next issue: developing a seeker window that allows the radar and electro-optic sensors to look out towards the target while resisting to the heat and stress of re-entry into atmosphere. 
The temperatures involved, the speed, the violence of the impact with the atmosphere, are tremendous. A tiny vulnerability in the heat shield means catastrophe, as the shuttle Columbia demonstrated not so long ago with tragic consequences for its crew. 

The actual feasibility of a maneuvering warhead that, during the re-entry phase, can significantly alter its course to detect, track and pursue moving ships that will have changed their position by a good bit since the DF-21D has been launched is also questionable. 
Hitting a ship at sea is not like delivering a large warhead on a static land target with an acceptable CEP. Delivering a nuke or a conventional warhead over a static target of which we know the position is one thing. Hitting a moving ship in the middle of the sea is a whole different story. 
There is too much stuff that must be crammed into the re-entry vehicle. Technology might be moving fast, but it is hard to believe that the Chinese have solved all the issues involved. 

Crucially, the biggest vulnerability of the DF-21D is in the "Find" phase. Even assuming the missile can do what it promises on the tin, the Chinese first need to detect and track the position of the ships to be hit. And this is a task far more complex than most people realize. 
The crucial capability here is that provided by satellites. The Chinese are in fact putting satellites into orbit to provide coverage to the South China Sea, with a number already deployed and 8 more planned. The satellites are of the HJ-1 type, fitted with SAR radar and/or electro-optic sensors, and of the Yaogan type, fitted for ELINT tasks. 

It'll be around satellites that the opening phases of any conflict between the two superpowers will revolve. The "player" that shoots down the most enemy satellites while preserving more of its own, gains a fundamental upper hand. 
Blind the satellites, destroying them or using electronic warfare or just hiding from them (you can actually hide from most satellites, guiding your ships into a different area of sea at the right time, and it is a simple geometrical issue, with times and routes easily calculated upon observation of the orbits of the enemy satellites) and you have seriously reduced the chances of the DF-21D to achieve anything. 

Iran's own missile 

Iran also claims to have developed a ballistic anti-ship missile, but its claim is even less substantial and raises even more doubts than China's own. 
Iran showed images on its state television of a barge in the water being hit and sunk by what was presented as the warhead of a ballistic missile, but hitting a motionless barge for the state television's camera is hardly demonstration of any realistic capability.

The countermeasures 

Since the end of the Cold War, the US Navy carrier wing has massively reduced its long range air defence effort, focusing more on land attack. It cut back on dedicate CAP patrols, and removed the "air defence" fighter from the Wing with the F14, along with the long range anti-air missile, the Phoenix. 
One countermeasure to the Chinese threat will be reversing these decisions, strengthening the carrier wing against air threats. In this sense, the interest for increasing the number of missiles carried by the F35 and the interest in the Meteor long-range missile are both indicative. 
Improved air defence will be indispensable to keep bombers, missiles and, crucially, reconnaissance airplanes and UAVs away from the battlegroup. 

Improved anti-ballistic capability, on land and at sea, is already a necessity, with the proliferation of ballistic threats, from the SCUD to the Iskander, up to the Dong Feng. It is very much likely that the UK itself will have to take note of the ballistic threat at some point (currently, it has nearly zero capability of its own to counter ballistic missiles) and the MOD has indeed studies open, and a partnership with BAE to keep the Type 45 and its Sampson radar up to date and readily available to take on a ABM role. The Type 45 also has space for 16 new missile cells, while Raytheon has developed a data link that would quickly enable the destroyer to employ the SM3 missile in ABM role.

The US is planning to expand progressively the capability of the SM3 missile, and plans to have more ships ABM capable, and more interceptor missiles at the ready. 
There are also studies to fit AMRAAMs with Infra-Red seekers, adapting them as ballistic missile killers, and this could be a cost-effective measure capable to massively increase the resilience of deployed forces against the ballistic threat, even if this project is intended to kill a ballistic missile in its boost phase, thus requiring the launching airplanes to enter enemy airspace. It would arguably be better to have more possibilities of hitting the enemy missiles in the re-entry phase, to counter the Dong Feng. 
The US Navy is also due to enhance air defence for its ships with the SM6, a Standard missile fitted with the radar seeker of the AMRAAM to finally give the Aegis system a fire-and-forget weapon, in place of the current semi-active missiles. This will greatly help in reducing the risk of saturation in front of massive air attacks. The UK in this area leads the way thanks to the formidable performances of the Aster/Sampson combination. 

The age of the UAV can help, too. The US Navy is investing to bring, by 2018 or 2020, the first UCAV into the carrier air wings, as a platform capable to collect intelligence and strike enemy targets at greater distance from the enemy.  This too can be an effective defence: the further away you are from the enemy shore, the harder you are to find and target.


It is way too early to be frightened by a weapon system of dubious effectiveness, known mostly through stories, suggestions and guesses. There are many good reasons why we should doubt of the effective capabilities of the DF-21D, and there are, in general, good countermeasures already on the way. 
While it would be stupid to ignore the Dong Feng appearance, it would be even worse to fall into panic and start with unsustainable programs for weapons adequate to counter this specific mooted threat. This would only make China happy. It is a trick that NATO itself used against URSS in the Cold War. To fall for the same trick would be rather embarrassing. 

Even more unjustifiable to my eyes is the position of those who say that the aircraft carrier is now "too vulnerable" and destined to lose importance and quickly become obsolete. Its effective vulnerability is questionable, and arguably inferior, in many ways, to the vulnerability of land airbases, no matter how well defended. 
Ballistic missiles have been and are a threat for airfields from many years. It is possible that, in the future, they will be a threat to aircraft carriers as well. But this should not lead to bold and dumb claims.

Ultimately, the "obsolescence" of the aircraft carrier is denied by the simple fact that airplanes, manned or not, still need bases in order to operate. And airplanes are, today more than ever before, fundamental in any kind of operation. 
In my opinion, it is more "likely" that we will see a submarine aircraft carrier one day, more than is likely that we will see the obsolescence of floating bases for aircrafts. 
Just as we depend on runways on land, we depend on runways on the sea. Both kinds of runways are vulnerable in their own ways. 
But until the airplane becomes obsolete, or somehow ceases to need a base from which to operate, there is no alternative to the aircraft carrier just as there is no alternative to the use of airports. 

Has anyone tried to think of the vulnerability of any kind of fleet at sea without the air cover and air support provided by a carrier air wing...?  
Also, has anyone tried to think of the vulnerability of air bases in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, when on the opposing coast, in China, literally thousands of ballistic missiles are based, ready to be launched for a massive opening strike...? 
Has anyone noticed the events in Camp Bastion...? 

Try and think about it. You're probably going to change opinion about the "vulnerability" of the aircraft carrier.  


  1. They can't even build a jet engine that's any cop. They're all bark for now and no bite. Not that one should under-estimate ones potential foe but the hysteria around China puts me in mind of war mongering and internet fan bois wanting to see if cool kit they've fantasised about works.

    And lets not forget just how dangerous it is to go lobbing ballistic missiles of that nature around the skies. How does anyone know it doesn't have a nuke warhead? Answer is, they won't.

  2. Well, I thought the Zumwalt was suppose to be the most advanced Destroyer in the World. I'm sure more Zumwalts could take care of this. Zumwalts make Type 45 look like 1990s tech at best.

  3. They can't build jet engines but they have been building rocket engines for
    a long time & the rocket engines work. They also build iPhones in vast
    quantity so expertise in advanced electronics is not in doubt. The processor in an iPhone is more powerful than any processor in a Nimitz class carrier. Really just a matter of long endurance drones & cognitive algorithms.


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