ASPEN, Colo.—China’s advanced cruise and ballistic missiles pose a significant threat in future conflict with the United States, the chief of naval operations (CNO) warned last week.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the CNO, also said during a security conference Friday that China is building a second aircraft carrier that could be deployed in the not too distant future.
However, China’s current single carrier force is still under development and the Chinese are incapable of conducting aircraft strike operations from the refurbished Soviet-era carrier now called the Liaoning, Greenert said following a recent visit to China, where he toured the carrier.
Asked what Chinese weapons systems he is most concerned about if the United States went to war with China, Greenert noted Beijing’s growing arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles.
“They have an extraordinary selection of cruise missiles, and a ballistic missile force that they developed,” Greenert told the Aspen Security Forum.
If the conflict were close to China, the missile forces would pose the most serious threat, he said.
“If it’s in their backyard, I’m a little worried about their ballistic missile [force] because of its reach,” Greenert said.
China has developed several types of advanced missile systems, including a unique DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile that is intended to strike U.S. aircraft carriers hundreds of miles from China’s coast.
The DF-21D has been described as a “carrier killer” for which the U.S. Navy has few defenses. Greenert has said earlier that U.S. defenses against the DF-21D would involve breaking the weapons’ “kill chain—the network of sensors and communications links used to guide the missile to its target.
The Pentagon stated in its latest annual report to Congress that the DF-21D “gives the [People’s Liberation Army] the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.
The missile has a range of more than 930 miles and is armed with a maneuverable warhead.
Another major threat in a future conflict is China’s new guided missile destroyer, the Type 052D that the Pentagon says has deployed the PLA’s first multipurpose vertical launch system that is believed “capable of launching [anti-ship cruise missiles], land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and anti-submarine missiles.” More than a dozen Type 052 destroyers are planned.
China’s H-6 bomber also has been upgraded to carry six land-attack cruise missiles with precision guidance capabilities.
“The development of China’s conventionally armed missiles has been rapid, even in the context of overall Chinese military modernization,” the Pentagon report said, noting that as recently as 10 years ago China could not strike targets far from coasts.
“Today, however, China has more than 1,000 conventionally armed ballistic missiles,” the report said. “U.S. bases on Okinawa are in range of a growing number of Chinese [medium-range ballistic missiles], and Guam could potentially be reached by air-launched cruise missiles.”
Chinese missiles also have grown more accurate and “are now better suited to strike regional air bases, logistics facilities, and other ground-based infrastructure, which Chinese military analysts have concluded are vulnerabilities in modern warfare,” the report said.
The combination of ballistic, ground- and air-launched land attack cruise missiles, and other forces threaten targets throughout the region, the report said.
China’s first threatening cruise missiles were purchased from Russia in the 1990s aboard Sovremenny-class guided missile warships that are equipped with high-speed SSN-22 Sunburn anti-ship missiles.
The National Air and Space Intelligence Center lists 14 types of Chinese short-range ballistic missiles, five types of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and two types of land-attack cruise missiles.
Earlier this month, Greenert met in China with PLA Navy chief Adm. Wu Shengli, and the two admirals sought to improve cooperation and coordination.
Greenert said that Wu asked that Chinese naval experts be permitted to visit U.S. aircraft carriers as part of China’s carrier development program, but the request was rejected.
“They want to learn a lot more about our carriers by coming aboard our carriers with experts, and we said ‘well we’re not ready for that,’” Greenert said.
U.S. law passed in 1999 currently prohibits the Pentagon from sharing details of U.S. power projection capabilities with China during military exchanges. The law was passed to prevent the Chinese from exploiting U.S.-China military exchanges to bolster their large-scale military build up.
Greenert described the Chinese carrier as “very Russian.”
“It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s onerous,” he said, adding that the refurbishment includes advanced Chinese military gear.
“They will build another carrier, probably relatively soon,” he said. “It’ll look just like this one, they said. Ski ramp. About the same tonnage, 65,000, 70,000 tons.”
While U.S. carrier operations can include the launch and recovery of 100 aircraft routinely, China currently is limited to launching and landing 10 jets at a time, and test pilots are involved in takeoffs and landings.
“But they are moving at a pace that is extraordinary,” Greenert said of the carrier development.
Currently, the Chinese have operated the carrier in the South China Sea, but without aircraft, and in the Yellow sea with carrier-based jets.
Greenert said he is not overly concerned by the Chinese carrier development because the PLA needs more work before the warship can conduct military operations.
Greenert defended allowing the Chinese navy to take part in the recent international military exercises known as Rim of the Pacific. He noted that the Russians had taken part in RIMPAC in the past and there were few protests.
Some in Congress opposed the Chinese navy involvement in RIMPAC because it appeared the United States was rewarding China by allowing Beijing’s participation at a time when China is engaged in bullying most of its maritime neighbors in Asia.
Asked about China’s use of advanced weapons that are designed to allow a weaker power to defeat a stronger foe, Greenert defended the Navy’s development of high tech arms. He highlighted several new Navy weapons programs, including a laser weapon that can shoot down drones
“Number one, we’re looking at lasers,” Greenert said. “And as we speak we have a laser gun in the Arabian Gulf on a ship that we are testing. It’s been demonstrated. It’s shooting down a drone and, if you will, ‘overheating’ a fast craft at this level of power.”
Other advanced systems include unmanned aerial vehicles that can be launched from carriers, and autonomous underwater vehicles that can conduct searches and pass the information to surface vessels.
“We’re into cyber in many ways beyond the classification that we’re talking here,” he said.
“So I too agree just more kinetic [weapons], more missiles that’s not the way ahead,” Greenert said. “The way is the electro magnetic spectrum to get in to spoof, to jam, to fry, if you will, microwave, and that’s the way of the future for us as well.”