As Washington grapples with the visibly important issues of debt, the role and scope of government in Americans' daily lives, and what should encompass core U.S. foreign-policy goals, dangerous threats to our nation's security are emerging almost unnoticed. How Washington deals with such challenges could critically affect America's role in the world and determine whether we will remain a true superpower.
Over the past several years, a number of nations — such as China and Iran — have begun developing advanced weapons that have the potential to deny U.S. forces the crucial ability to mass forces into a combat zone and by asymmetrical means to deter or defeat an adversary. These weapons are known by security scholars as Anti-Access Area-Denial, or A2-AD. Strategically vital regions of the world such as the economically dynamic Indo-Pacific region are affected.
Through the development and deployment of advanced sea mines, ultraquiet submarines, and increasingly advanced cruise and ballistic missiles, some of America's key competitors and potential adversaries are attempting to develop A2-AD capabilities that would force U.S. military planners to make an awful choice: suffer unthinkable casualties or decline to defend allies in future military conflicts.
China is developing what could be seen as the ultimate such weapon, a real nightmare for the U.S. Navy. Since at least the mid-1990s, Beijing has been developing a highly advanced ballistic missile, the DF-21D, popularly dubbed "the carrier-killer." On paper, such a missile could truly complicate Washington's ability to move naval vessels as a hedge against China's growing military might.
How the missile works is key to understanding its deadly potential. The weapon is mobile, making its detection difficult — even under the best of circumstances. When fired, the missile is guided using advanced radar, satellites and possibly even an unmanned aerial vehicle. Various reports indicate it has a maneuverable warhead potentially capable of defeating missile-defense systems. It slams down on its target — an oceangoing vessel like an aircraft carrier — at speeds of Mach 10 to 12. Even more frightening, the missile allegedly holds the ability to attack naval vessels up to approximately 1,000 miles away, outranging by many times the strike range of all U.S. aircraft aboard existing carriers.
Until recently, considering the science fiction-like description of such a weapon, many doubted the ability of China's still-evolving defense industry to develop the missile. Many have pointed to the inability of Soviet engineers in the 1970s to develop similar weapons. Hitting a moving target on the high seas is not an easy feat; only a world-class scientific and defense industry would even make the attempt.
However, simply dismissing China's capability to develop such a missile may have been wishful thinking. A recent report from the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation mined Chinese sources and publicly available information to conclude that America has reason to worry.
Chinese military experts began thinking about how to use missiles against naval vessels as early as the 1970s. After America deployed two aircraft carriers during the 1995-96 Taiwan crises, research moved into high gear. According to the report, as of 2010, the DF-21D was capable of hitting slow-moving targets. Late that same year, a U.S. admiral declared the missile had reached "initial operational capacity," and U.S. officials this year think China has actually deployed the latest version of the missile.
Still, many U.S. officials question whether the DF-21D missile will operate as claimed under battlefield conditions. They aren't sure the missile could actually take out an aircraft carrier and wonder whether — or at least hope that — our own missiles might be able to intercept and destroy a carrier-killer before it reaches its target.
While the Chinese carrier-killer is cause for concern, so too is the fact that other nations are developing or at least lusting after such hardware. Countries such as North Korea, Syria, Iran and others are acquiring increasingly advanced weapons with the clear goal of keeping U.S. forces out of potential areas of conflict, or at least forcing us to pay an inordinately heavy price for involvement. Compounding the problem is the tendency to use scarce resources to prepare to refight the last war rather than to prepare for future conflicts. Without a sustained effort to negate the challenge of weapons such as China's carrier-killer, America could be in for quite a shock.
Harry J. Kazianis is managing editor of the National Interest.