Beijing is in the process of developing intermediate and long-range ballistic “carrier killer” missiles, with analysts suggesting at least one variant has already been tested in the region in the last six months. To compound matters, China is also thought to be in the process of improving its surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, consisting of satellites, drones and aircraft, which improve chances to hit a moving target on water. Specifically, China is thought to have tested its Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile, which has a range of 932 miles, on a moving target at sea for the first time.
Dr Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow in sea power at UK-based think tank the Royal United Services Institute told The Times if the reports were correct, it “really would be a game-changing technology”.
Each missile costs in the region of £25million – but Mr Kaushal points out that, given each aircraft carriers is worth several billion pounds, China could “firing crew can afford a few misses, but the carrier can only afford the one hit”.
Ian Williams, the deputy director of the missile defence project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “They do seem to be very dedicated to getting this down, an anti-ballistic ship missile.”
Destroyer Taizhou fires missile during a drill in China
“It’s reasonable to assume that they have developed the kind of terminal guidance capability that is able to manoeuvre on the way in as it is re-entering to be able to strike a smaller target.”
The UK currently has two aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth, nicknamed Big Lizzie, and HMS Prince of Wales, which was commissioned earlier this week at a ceremony attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall.
Long-range missiles could potentially force western aircraft carries to stay hundreds of miles from China’s cost, restricting their ability to move freely and also curtailing the operations of fighter jets.
Royal Navy aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (right)
Henry Boyd, a research fellow for defence and military analysis at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), said: “Do these missiles make carrier battle groups more vulnerable? The answer is obviously yes.
“But does it make them redundant or ineffective?
“There may be moves to operate them further off-shore and with reduced capability, but that does not mean they would become simply inoperable.”
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The South China Sea has been identified as a major source of international tension in recent years, with China having fortified numerous uninhabited islands in a region it claims as being within its own territory, with tense encounters stand-offs between China and the US becoming a regular occurrence.
Speaking last week, Eugene Gholz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, told Express.co.uk: “I think there is certainly a constructive way forward for the United States: the United States should shift its military operational plans to the defensive, which will make them match our defensive strategic goals.
“The United States would be better off bankrolling Asian military’s investment in defensive technologies than in investing in comparable technologies to arm the US military itself, because the technologies are most useful when operated from land, and expanding US military land bases in Asia (especially putting new bases in Taiwan!) would be fraught with tension.”
Prof Gholz, who stressed he was not a sinologist and therefore not an expert in internal Chinese politics, added: “I do not know what China’s ambitions are in the South China Sea – at least not beyond the superficial level at which it is clear that they want greater control of the maritime features and islands that they dispute with their neighbours.
“I do not know how much investment and risk China is willing to tolerate to pursue its goals or how expansive those goals ultimately are.
“I do not think that anyone – perhaps including the leadership in China – really understands those goals.
“I can well imagine that Chinese leaders do not like the fact that the United States routinely operates military assets very close to the Chinese coast and routinely collects electronic intelligence by operating in international waters very close to China’s coast, but ultimately the question is what China is willing to do to try to stop what must be annoying, from their perspective.
“I am also fairly confident that Chinese leaders often interpret US military moves that the United States claims to be purely defensive as actually being aggressive or threatening.”