- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2001

China has conducted the first flight test of its new Russian-made anti-ship cruise missile, the most potent naval weapon in China's growing arsenal and a major improvement over its other anti-ship cruise missiles, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

A Chinese Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyer fired an SSN-22 Sunburn missile during a test Sept. 15, said officials familiar with reports of the test.

"This is the first test from sea, and it gets them close to an initial operating capability," said one military official.

The new supersonic cruise missile is part of China's naval buildup, which Pentagon analysts say is focused on developing the capability to sink U.S. warships.

Testing of the Sunburn, called the Moskit by Russia, had been expected. U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the region had spotted both of China's Sovremenny destroyers in the northern China port of Bo Hai Bay a week before the test, as the ships were loaded with missile cannisters.

The first batch of 48 SSN-22s were transferred from Russia last year. It is not known exactly how many of the missiles the Chinese navy has stockpiled, but officials said it could be several hundred.

One Navy official said recently that the new Chinese warships and their missiles "changed the capability of the [Chinese] surface force."

The missile, which can be equipped with both conventional and nuclear warheads, has a range of between 80 and 85 miles, and its high-explosive warhead is believed to be capable of sinking most U.S. ships. Its supersonic speed worries Navy officials.

Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military, said the Chinese missile ships are now operational, and "there is an expectation that China will be purchasing a more advanced version of this ship."

"The testing of the Sunburn serves as a reminder that as we seek cooperation with Beijing over the terrorist threat, we should keep in mind that Beijing's ultimate goal is the conquest of the democracy on Taiwan for which the Sovremennys were purchased," said Mr. Fisher, who is working on a book about the Chinese military.

Mr. Fisher said published reports have stated that China also is planning to purchase a small, Russian-built attack boat that will be armed with two Sunburns. "This would be an excellent blockade weapon" in a conflict with Taiwan, he said.

China began its purchase of the weapons after the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. Beijing fired short-range missiles north and south of Taiwan prior to scheduled elections in what U.S. officials said was an attempt to intimidate the island.

The United States responded by dispatching two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region in a show of force.

China then began building up its anti-aircraft carrier weapons, taking delivery of the first two Sovremennys last year.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe Beijing may purchase two more of the missile ships in the next several years.

During China's recent large-scale war games near Dongshan Island, opposite Taiwan, Chinese press reports said Chinese naval forces practiced engaging U.S. aircraft carriers and warships in combat.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and is preparing for a conflict with the United States if Beijing's leaders decide to use force to retake the island.

President Bush earlier this year said the United States would do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan from such an attack.

U.S. officials said Russia initially built the SSN-22 for use by the Soviet navy against U.S. ships during the Cold War.

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