In China’s Sights

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by Mark Thompson,

from TIME Magazine,

A new missile threatens American aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

There are few things as awesome as a U.S. aircraft carrier–100,000 tons of nuclear-powered steel towering 20 stories above the waterline and crammed with nearly 70 warplanes ready to do its nation’s bidding. A carrier reassures allies while giving pause to global troublemakers.

But these mighty fighting machines may be losing some of their invincibility, at least in a wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of China. Since 2010, Beijing has deployed a new kind of land-based ballistic missile with the potential to change the balance of power in a volatile and vital part of the world. The Dong Feng-21D missile is what Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College calls a Frankenweapon, a marriage of several existing military technologies that together could transform war. Launched from a truck, it can fly almost 1,000 miles over the ocean, homing in on its target during the final moments of flight before diving into the ship from above.

If China’s military commanders were to succeed in disabling or even sinking one of those targets, it would signal a marked loss in American hegemony on the high seas. If effective, such weapons would push U.S. carriers farther from China, cutting the range and utility of their warplanes and reducing the U.S.-provided security that has nurtured East Asia’s economic growth and relative stability. The threat has coincided with an unpredictable dispute between China and Japan over a cluster of islands that both countries claim. In the pre-DF-21D era, the U.S. might have quickly sent a carrier or two to the region to bring an effective end to Chinese military maneuvers.

The U.S. debate over the Dong Feng–meaning East Wind in Chinese–is happening quietly but intensely behind closed doors in Washington. Public photographs of the missile don’t exist.

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