- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

YOKOSUKA, Japan | A new “carrier killer” missile that has become a symbol of China’s rising military might will not force the U.S. Navy to change the way it operates in the Pacific, a senior Navy commander told the Associated Press.

Defense analysts say the Dong Feng 21D missile could upend the balance of power in Asia, where U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups have ruled the waves since the end of World War II.

However, Vice Adm. Scott van Buskirk, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, told the AP in an interview that the Navy does not see the much-feared weapon as creating any insurmountable vulnerability for the U.S. carriers - the Navy’s crown jewels.

“It’s not the Achilles’ heel of our aircraft carriers or our Navy - it is one weapons system, one technology that is out there,” Adm. van Buskirk said in an interview this week on the bridge of the USS George Washington, the only carrier that is home-based in the western Pacific.

The Dong Feng 21D is unique because it is thought to be capable of hitting a powerfully defended moving target - such as the USS George Washington - with pinpoint precision. That objective is so complex that the Soviets gave up on a similar project.

The missile would penetrate defenses because its speed from launch would not allow enough time for carriers or other large ships to complete countermeasures.

That could seriously weaken Washington’s ability to intervene in any conflict over Taiwan or North Korea, as well as deny U.S. ships safe access to international waters near China’s 11,200-mile-long coastline.

Adm. van Buskirk, whose fleet is responsible for most of the Pacific and Indian oceans, with 60 to 70 ships and 40,000 sailors and Marines under its command, said the capabilities of the Chinese missile have not been proved. He acknowledged, however, that it does raise special concerns.

“Any new capability is something that we try to monitor,” he said.

“If there wasn’t this to point to as a game changer, there would be something else,” he said. “That term has been bandied about for many things. I think it really depends in how you define the game, whether it really changes it or not. It’s a very specific scenario for a very specific capability - some things can be very impactful.”

The missile has been developed as China ventures farther out to sea and becomes more assertive around its coastline and in disputes over territory.

Late last year, China and Japan were locked in a heated diplomatic row over several islands that both claim in the East China Sea, an area regularly patrolled by U.S. Navy vessels. A flotilla of 10 Chinese warships, including advanced submarines and destroyers, passed through the Miyako Strait in April in the biggest transit of its kind to date.

Analysts saw it as a Chinese attempt to test Japan and the United States and demonstrate its open-water capabilities.

China also has expressed strong displeasure with U.S. carrier operations off the Korean Peninsula, saying that they posed a security risk to its capital.

Still, Adm. van Buskirk said, the Navy has no intention of altering its mission because of the threat and will continue to operate in the seas around Japan, the Korean Peninsula, the Philippines and anywhere else it deems necessary.

“We won’t change these operations because of this specific technology that might be out there,” he told the AP while the USS George Washington was in its home port just south of Tokyo for repairs last week. “But we will carefully monitor and adapt to it.”

The faster-than-expected development of the missile has set off alarm bells in Washington. Furthermore, China is developing a stealth fighter jet that could be used to support its navy in a conflict and aims to deploy its first aircraft carriers over the next decade.

Before visiting Beijing last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he has been concerned about the anti-ship missile since he took office.

In December, Adm. Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper that he thought the missile program had achieved “initial operational capability,” meaning a workable design had been chosen and was being developed further.

The missile is considered to be a key component of China’s strategy of denying U.S. planes and ships access to waters off its coast. The strategy includes overlapping layers of air defense systems, naval assets such as submarines, and advanced ballistic missile systems - all woven together with a network of satellites.

At its most capable, the Dong Feng 21D could be launched from land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even the most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 900 miles.

To allay regional security fears, Adm. van Buskirk said, China needs to be more forthcoming about its intentions.

“It goes back to transparency,” he said. “Using the United States as an example, we are very clear about our intent when conducting routine and normal operations in international waters. … That is what you might expect from other nations that might operate in this region.”