What China’s missile tests say about its military capabilities

What China's missile tests say about its military capabilities
Military vehicles carrying DF-21D missiles are displayed in a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on September 3, 2015. Source: Getty Images
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Daily US Times: United States defense officials said China launched a series of ballistic missiles into the South China Sea this week as part of a flurry of military exercises extending thousands of miles along the country’s coastline, as tensions between Beijing and Washington over the disputed waterway continue to escalate. Critics say the missile tests proved China’s military power.

China claims almost all of the vast South China Sea as its sovereign territory and in recent years, it has stepped-up efforts to assert its dominance over the resource-rich waters, transforming a string of obscure reefs and atolls into heavily fortified man-made islands and increasing its naval activity in the region.

At least five other countries contested China’s territorial ambitions in the region, and have been rejected outright by the US which has declared Beijing’s claims to be illegal under international law.

On Wednesday, Chinese military launched four medium-range missiles from mainland China. The missiles impacted in the northern reaches of the South China Sea between the Paracel Islands and Hainan Island, A US official said.

A Chinese DF-26 missile is tested in 2019. Source: CCTV

The drills are the latest in a long string of Chinese actions intended to “assert unlawful maritime claims” that disadvantage neighboring countries, the Pentagon said in a statement Thursday. The comments follow the announcement Wednesday that the US government will impose sanctions on dozens of Chinese companies for assisting China in the development and militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

‘Neither confirm nor deny’

On Thursday, Senior Col. Wu Qian, a Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesperson, said that China had carried out drills in waters and airspace between Qingdao in northeastern China and the disputed Spratly islands — known as Nansha in China — in the South China Sea. But the spokesperson did not mention the missiles tests.

The drills “did not target any country,” Wu says.

Though China has not confirmed the missile tests in the South China Sea, it’s government controlled media made several detailed references to the launches, citing reports in overseas media.

Those reports said the missiles involved were DF-26 and DF-21D missiles, both of which have been touted in Chinese propaganda as highly accurate and able to hit ships moving at sea.

The state-run Global Times said on Thursday, citing military observers: “China’s DF-26 and DF-21D are the world’s first ballistic missiles capable of targeting large and medium-sized vessels, earning them the title of ‘aircraft carrier killers.”

A separate editorial in the same newspaper acknowledged speculation around the launch of the DF-26 and DF-21D missiles, saying only that the “Chinese side has neither confirmed nor denied it.”

China “must increase its actions in the waters accordingly to suppress US arrogance and reinforce the US understanding that China does not fear a war,” the editorial added.

The South China Sea is home to vital international shipping lanes and is widely deemed as a potential flashpoint for a military conflict between the US and China.

Wednesday’s missile tests come a month after two US aircraft carrier strike groups, led by the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, completed combined exercises in the South China Sea for the first time in six years.

In recent months, the US has increased its naval activity in the region, carrying out routine patrols, referred to as freedom of navigation operations. A US guided-missile destroyer sailed near the Chinese-claimed Paracel Islands on Thursday.

US Vice Adm. Scott Conn, commander of the US Navy’s Third Fleet, talked up the US naval presence in the region and its ability to respond to Chinese threats, in a news conference call on Thursday.

He said: “In terms of launching of the ballistic missiles, the US Navy has 38 ships underway today in the Indo-Pacific region, including the South China Sea, and we continue to fly and sail and operate anywhere international law allows to demonstrate our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and reassure our allies and partners.”

China’s drills offer a rare opportunity for observers to assess the country’s advanced military capabilities.

China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (R). Source: Getty Images

Wednesday’s missile tests showed a high level of sophistication, owing to the involvement of two separate military branches, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and its Strategic Rocket Force (SRF), according to Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

He said: “This missile shot indicates China has or is very close to establishing procedures for coordinated fleet-SRF anti-ship ballistic missile attacks.”

That echoes comments made in state media of China that the country had developed what it termed a “complete system,” using aircraft, satellites and ships at sea to monitor the movements of enemy vessels and relay information to the missiles so they can adjust their trajectories during their final attack phase.

The missiles were fired into an area where Chinese naval vessels were likely operating, Schuster also noted, indicating a high degree of confidence in the accuracy of the missiles.

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