Russia will deliver the first of two cruise missile destroyers to China this week, giving Beijing a new capability to sink U.S. warships, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
A Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyer will be delivered to the Chinese navy at a shipyard in St. Petersburg on Saturday Christmas Day and will depart for its home port in China two days later, Russia’s official Itar-Tass news agency announced on Monday.
A christening ceremony involving the hoisting of a Chinese flag on the ship will take place at the shipyard ceremony Saturday and the ships “will become Chinese property,” the news agency said.
The Pentagon’s main worry is that the destroyers will be equipped with advanced anti-ship cruise missiles that are part of China’s expanding military role in the region, according to defense officials and private analysts.
The Chinese could use the supersonic SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missiles in an amphibious attack on Taiwan, said defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. It also will give China a greater power projection capability against U.S. ships farther from China’s shores, they said.
The new ships are part of a Chinese military buildup in anticipation that the U.S. military will defend Taiwan during a conflict with China, the officials said.
Beijing regards the island as part of China and has refused to renounce the use of force to reunite the island that became the last outpost for nationalist forces defeated during China’s civil war in the 1940s.
Asked yesterday about the ship sale, a senior defense official said the destroyer’s missiles represent a strategic threat to the region.
“This is one of an expected two destroyers,” the official said. “And while the destroyer itself isn’t an issue, we are concerned about the SS-N-22 Sunburns being deployed because this will be a new capability for the Chinese.”
The Pentagon is worried the cruise missile destroyers will be used against U.S. Navy warships that might be called on to defend Taiwan against a Chinese military attack, the official said.
China is expected to take up to two years to fully integrate the missile ships into the Chinese navy, the official said.
“At the same time, we’re concerned about the capability to reverse engineer and improve the missiles,” the official said.
Pentagon intelligence agencies have been monitoring the refurbishing of the two Russian ships since they were sold in September 1997. The deal was first disclosed by The Washington Times.
In 1997, the House sought to cut off U.S. aid to Russia if the missiles are sold, but legislation containing the provision was cut out during a House-Senate conference.
According to defense officials, the first ship will pass through the Suez Canal on the way to its home port of Shanghai. The second destroyer will be delivered next month, they said.
The intelligence assessment of the ships is that they will give the Chinese advanced missile capabilities, greater range for power projection and better war-fighting capabilities when combined with new extended-range warplanes.
The destroyer set to depart St. Petersburg conducted sea training with Russian and Chinese sailors for the past seven months, the officials said. The hulls of both destroyers were identified by the Pentagon as Sovremenny-class hull numbers 18 and 19.
Pentagon officials said at the time of the ship deal part of an $8 billion to $9 billion arms package that the sale was Beijing’s direct response to the deployment of two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan in March 1996.
The carriers were sent in response to China’s firing of several M-9 test missiles near the island as part of large-scale, threatening military exercises that the Navy concluded could have been preparation for an invasion.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon sought to play down the advanced-weapon transfer from Russia to China. “We have been following it for some time, and there’s nothing new in it,” he said. He declined to comment when asked if the Pentagon views the ship as a threat.
Michael Pillsbury, a senior Pentagon official during the Reagan and Bush administrations, said the missile destroyers are part of Chinese efforts against Taiwan.
“This is part of a package that began to be assembled several years ago that China is developing as the means to liberate Taiwan by force, even if the U.S. plays a role [in the regional conflict],” Mr. Pillsbury said in an interview.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin said during a speech last week that China is prepared to “liberate” the island.
According to Tass, the ship will set sail from Russia without its SS-N-22s. The missiles will be sent to the ships in April and October, the news agency said.
China and Russia have increased defense cooperation in what some U.S. officials view as a growing anti-U.S. alliance.
In addition to the ships, the Russians have sold China several Kilo-class submarines and scores of Su-27 fighter bombers. The two nations recently concluded a deal for more advanced Su-30 jets.
Intelligence reports also have stated recently that Russia may be discussing sales to China of even more advanced Akula-class submarines.
The Sunburns are supersonic missiles designed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s specifically to attack U.S. warships, according to Pentagon officials.
The SS-N-22 can carry a 660-pound, high-explosive warhead to a maximum range of about 75 miles, according to the publication Jane’s Fighting Ships. A more advanced version can travel up to 155 miles.
Some defense analysts believe the missiles can be equipped with small nuclear warheads developed by China several years ago from U.S. W-88 warhead design information obtained by spies.
The radar-guided missiles use on-board computers to direct it to targets from a command ship or aircraft. It skims the sea surface and can maneuver to avoid missile defenses before hitting the ship.
According to China specialist and author William C. Triplett, the SS-N-22s could be controlled to their targets by the Russian-Israeli airborne warning control aircraft currently being built in Israel for the Chinese military.