I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails asking for reaction to this story. For my own previous writings, see here. Information Dissemination has done a lot of work on this topic; see especially here, here, and here. For a good NWCR article on the subject by Andrew Erickson and David Yang, see here.
As for my thoughts:
First, yes, if the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) can be made to work it poses a very serious threat to USN carriers. The USN is very concerned about this, which is one reason it’s working so hard on ship-borne anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology. The USN is also working on other countermeasures, including strikes on DF-21 launch sites at the onset of war (potentially delivered from SSGNs), and electronic warfare. The latter is particularly important. A carrier-killing ASBM requires terminal guidance; it must revise its flight path after re-entering the atmosphere. From launch to strike, the flight of an ASBM can take fifteen or so minutes, at which time the carrier in question will have moved eight miles. The missile thus needs to be adjusted remotely (presumably from China) or needs to have the capacity to identify the carrier on its own. Both of these processes are subject to electronic disruption. At this point, we really haven’t the faintest idea what would happen if the Chinese launched a salvo of DF-21s (once they become available in sufficient numbers) at a US carrier battle group. Depending on reliability, some percentage would invariably go astray on their own. Some other percentage (and no one is quite sure how big) would be shot down by US escorts. EW would cause some to plunge harmlessly into the ocean. And finally, some might hit a carrier.
Second, it’s important to remember that Chinese carrier-killing capabilities are a system of systems, rather than any one particular weapon. In addition to ASBMs, the Chinese maintain a large submarine fleet, as well as air and surface launched cruise missile capabilities. In sufficient numbers, all of these can threaten to kill a carrier. In a shooting war the Chinese could use all of these systems, or graduate their use depending on political and military developments. Some of these are more easily countered than others, just as some pose greater costs to the Chinese than others. For example, surface-to-surface cruise missiles are great, but any ship launching one at a US carrier battle group will likely suffer destruction in short order. Similarly, both aircraft and submarines would face a high rate of attrition while making attacks on US carrier groups. ASBMs have obvious advantages over these other systems.
Third, just because the Chinese have ASBMs doesn’t mean that they’ll use them, even in a shooting war. The DF-21 will suffer from the same problem as the variety of global strike weapons that the Pentagon has considered over the years. It’s awesome to be able to kill a US carrier at range, but no one has any idea what will happen when the Chinese first let loose with a few salvos of DF-21s. Any MRBM launched could carry a nuclear warhead, targeted either at a carrier or some other target. The Chinese will have to count on very cool heads in Washington for the fifteen minutes between launch and impact. Launching at a US carrier represents an enormous risk, because it could start a decision-process that would bring full nuclear retaliation from the United States. That would be bad for the Chinese. That the Chinese probably lack secure second strike capability against the US makes things less stable, because the Americans might think that the Chinese were engaging in “use it or lose it” thinking, and so forth. It’s a bad scene, and the prospect of MRBM flying across the Pacific make it even twitchier. Best case scenario, you’d hope for some kind of hotline between Beijing and Washington that would specify what kinds of warheads were flying where, but even that poses problems.
Fourth, the point of developing this “system of systems” is not to use it. Rather, it’s to deter the US from going to war, and failing that to deter the USN from advance deploying its carrier battlegroups in times of war. Sinking a carrier could kill 6000 Americans in a few minutes, the prospect of which might be enough to make an American President reconsider intervention in a cross-Straits war. In case of intervention, the ASBMs and the other assorted systems would make the USN very leery about sailing its primary assets into danger. Aircraft carriers don’t simply represent national power, they ARE national power, and when you lose two or three you lose a large percentage of your ability to project power anywhere. Consequently, admirals tend to be very careful about the circumstances under which they risk their prize possessions. Prying the German and British capital ships out of their respective ports in World War I was like pulling teeth on a rabid walrus; the commanders were extremely reluctant to dispatch their fleets in any but the most advantageous circumstances. The same is likely to be the case with US admirals in case of war with China.
Does this mean that the supercarrier is obsolete? While it depends on what you mean by the term, the answer is probably no. That the Chinese are willing to spend vast amounts of time and money figuring out how to kill US carriers indicates that they take CV capabilities seriously. Moreover, the number of countries with both the interest and technical capability to develop such a “system of systems” is probably limited to two for the foreseeable future, and there’s little indication that the Russians are working in such a direction. That said, if you’re looking for platforms capable of delivering ordnance in a cross-straits war and living to tell about it, the SSGN is probably a better bet. If you’re looking for a platform capable of the various “influence” missions that the USN performs, from disaster relief to low-intensity expeditionary warfare, the big flat deck amphibs can do a pretty good job.
Finally, the ASBM is essentially a sea denial/anti-access weapon, not a sea control weapon. The USN already has multiple ways of killing any PLAN ship it sees fit to sink. ASBMs do not magically grant the Chinese world dominance, or prevent the USN, the JMSDF, or any other navy from carrying out its various peacetime tasks. The only context in which the ASBMs would appear to have use is a war between the US and China over control of Taiwan. It’s difficult to imagine anything else of sufficient value the the Americans and Chinese might both consider worth fighting for. I am not, thus, convinced that the development of a DF-21 ASBM variant represents an event of world-historic import. Important for a particular facet of the US-China military relationship, yes. Harbinger of some fundamental shift in world military, political, and economic power, not so much.