The Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile system has been touted as the great “game changer” mainly by commentators outside China. There’s however some confusion about the status of this ASBM system. PACOM CINC Admiral Willard in December 2010 stated that it was operational. But the Pentagon has held back from even confirming this. There’s for good reasons huge question marks hanging around it. Except now a high-powered team from NIAS (National Institute for Advanced Studies) – the Ramanna-founded outfit under the aegis of DRDO and led by a rocket propellant expert Rajaram Nagappa yesterday briefed a gathering of mostly Navy and DRDO types. The team, after doing fine work of gleaning DF-21D missile characteristics from published photographs and using data on the Chinese Yaogon constellation of satellites and the accompanying OTH radar that will facilitate the targeting of US Carrier Strike Groups, ran a simulation exercise and, in essence, validated the workability of the ASBM system. The DF-21D is expected to fly a ballistic course for most of its flight path, but change to boost-glide to target, in its terminal phase. It was suggested by VADM (ret) Ravi Ganesh, former head of the ATV (SSBN) program, introducing the NIAS study that the conventional warhead on the missile was meant to prevent a retaliatory escalation by the US forces to the nuclear stage and thus lengthen the nuclear fuze. As a panelist along with RADM (ret) Raja Menon, discussing the strategic ramifications of the Chinese ASBM, in the afternoon, I brought up that old problem — how is the targeted country to know the missile is conventional and not N-warheaded, and will it wait around for the missile to impact, meaning take out the Carrier, before mounting retaliation? Absent new and novel technology able to distinguish the type of warhead on an incoming missile, the reaction to any launch of a ballistic missile, including ASBM, by an adversary state and so detected, will, in the first instance, result in an immediate counter-launch of an N-missile.
The trouble here, I pointed out, is that the US has actually muddied the waters by equipping its Ohio-class SSBNs with conventional ICBMs in its strategy of “global strike”, which does not make any sense whatsoever. But neither does the Chinese ASBM, except as a means of creating turmoil in the US Navy, and unsettling America’ senior armed service — a psychological ploy to unhinge the enemy!! This last is something China is phenomenally good at doing. There’s no reason, as Raja Menon said that the OTH cannot be turned Bay of Bengal-wards, and the Yaogon satellites re-oriented. In which case, I wondered if the original plan for a small carrier/AD ship at 28,000 tons, wouldn’t have served Indian interests better? The carrier now being built at Kochi is getting onto 45,000 tons plus.