If you’re Beijing and you want to take on the world’s biggest air and naval power — that’s the U.S., for those of you in the cheap seats — you don’t try to fight it out on even terms. You still build up your navy, but realistically you’re not going to have a comparable one any time soon. So instead, you acquire lots of other weapons that make it so you don’t have to match America ship for ship.
Other weapons like ballistic missiles. And that’s exactly what China is doing.
Beijing has just deployed its latest ballistic missile, the Dong Feng-12 (DF-12), an 880-pound solid-fuel monster with some tricky countermeasures designed to beat the U.S.’s most modern defenses. Formerly named the M20, the missile recently arrived in the arsenals of the Second Artillery Corps of the People’s Liberation Army, which handles all of China’s nuclear and conventional missiles.
On plus side for the U.S., the DF-12 missiles can’t really travel all that far. They’re likely reverse-engineered from the Russian Iskander-E — perhaps acquired from Ukraine or Belarus — and reportedly match the Iskander-E’s 280-kilometer range. That’s too short to hit the U.S.’s gigantic Kadena air base in Okinawa. But the missiles are within range of Taipei if positioned directly across the Taiwan Strait.
What’s the big deal about that? China has a lot of missiles aimed at Taiwan. More than 1,600 of them. So what’s a few more? Well, these missiles are designed to blast through everything the U.S. can throw in their paths.
How to avoid being blown up by a Chinese missile
Let’s say you’re being attacked by ballistic missiles.
There are three general methods of dealing with this terrifying scenario. The first is to destroy the projectile before it ever gets off the ground — this can be done by attacking it with aircraft or missiles of your own, or destroying or capturing its launcher.
The second method is to shoot down the missile with an interceptor, knocking it out of the sky in the seconds before it hits you. The final method is to duck and hope you’ve got something solid to hide behind. That’s generally understood to be the worst possible defense against nearly half-ton, high-explosive projectile.
The DF-12 is designed specifically to make shooting it down extremely difficult. Plugged inside the missile are GPS and infrared-homing sensors, which allow it to maneuver during its terminal phase — that is, the final few seconds before impact.
Once it hits, it’ll be releasing 880 pounds of exploding cluster bomblets or thermobaric explosives that set the air on fire. And the DF-12's warhead is guaranteed to hit within 31 feet of its target. That’s close.
This is a complication, to say the least, for Taiwan’s existing missile defenses. The U.S. has supplied four batteries of the MIM-104 Patriot missiles to Taipei, which are designed to shoot down both aircraft and ballistic missiles during their terminal phase. The DF-12 may also be able to slip past the SM-3 anti-missile system, which is mounted on U.S. warships and designed to shoot down short-range ballistic missiles in their midcourse and terminal phases.
Even if the DF-12 can’t reach U.S. bases in the Pacific, there are plenty of missiles that can.
Beijing’s “long-term, comprehensive military modernization is improving the capability of its ballistic missile force to conduct high-intensity, regional military operations, including ‘anti-access and area denial’ (A2/AD) operations,” stated a blunt report last month from the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center. “A2/AD” is military lingo for using advanced, long-range weapons to eliminate the U.S. military’s biggest advantage: its ability to project power almost anywhere in the world.
These threats to American power have inspired some crash programs to deal with it, some of which are hush-hush. In July, the Navy proposed spending $64 million on electronic warfare suites to stop an “immediate threat for naval fleet operations” in the Pacific. The threat is still a mystery, but the funds were for electronics typically designed to jam incoming missiles.
The worst-case scenario also looks really bad in the — God forbid — case of a war with Beijing.
Several years ago, the RAND Corporation simulated a shooting war with China. As part of the exercise, the research firm simulated a ballistic missile barrage on Kadena, which houses the bulk of the U.S.’s Pacific air forces. The results were catastrophic.
Nearly half of the aircraft at the base were “destroyed by submunitions or ensuing fires,” stated a briefing from RAND. That included 29 of the base’s 72 F-22 Raptors. Only 10 percent of Kadena’s parked aircraft escaped damage (planes in the air would not be damaged, obviously). Of the planes hit by the exploding missiles, three quarters would be totally destroyed.
The DF-12, with its terminal maneuvering and interceptor-defeating countermeasures, can’t make it to Okinawa, though. China has a number of other missiles for the job. But its next maneuverable missile? And the one after that? It’s only a matter of time.
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