(CNN) Ballistic missile can hit moving ships, China says, but experts remain skeptical. An earlier article, “China’s reaction to US Navy operation: We have missiles, quotes Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center:
“Remember, the Soviet Union never successfully developed an ASBM (anti-ship ballistic missile) and no country in the West has one,” Schuster said.”
The simplest reason of several is geometric. The aim of a cruise missile, which flies at low altitude towards the target, is principally a matter of azimuth angle, which you could think of as a direction. The DB-26 missile flies high and approaches the target in a steep dive. This means that as it dives, it must use its fins to control two angles, the “direction”, and the steepness of the dive. (This description is for the nonspecialist reader.) It is much harder for the DF-26 to land on target than for a cruise missile to do the same.
And with the missile coming from the far west desert of Xinjiang, it’s a challenge to tell the missile where the target is, requiring a distributed system architecture. The software is hideously complex.
But casting this as a weapons match up is wrong. With effort to muster force, which might take some time to arrange, and be visible to intelligence assets, China has a good chance to sink ships on similar missions. They have at least three options:
- Low lethality. “If a US warship illegally enters into Chinese territorial waters again, two Chinese warships should be sent, one to stop it and the other to bump against and sink it,” Dai Xu, president of China’s Institute of Marine Safety and Cooperation, was quoted as saying in an article on the Chinese military’s English-language website.
- Dubious, the DF-26, guided perhaps by a jury rig, a nearby spotter, disguised as a trawler, or more quaintly, as a junk.
- High lethality. Arleigh Burke class destroyers prior to Flight 3 have the AN/SPY-1 radar. A marvel when it was introduced, it has limited ability to engage (as opposed to track) multiple, simultaneous targets. If I recall correctly, the maximum number is 4. A simultaneous barrage of a large number of obsolete cruise missiles might exploit this limitation. Quantity has a quality all its own.
The reason China doesn’t do it is that it would scare all the money out of China. Hence caution, while they debate the proper moment. For the oldest civilization, there’s plenty of time.
For us, it’s important to understand the game.