Thursday, October 10, 2013

Who's Afraid of the DF-21D

USS Lake Eire fires SM-3 Block 1B
USS Boston fires Terrier SAM
      The Chinese DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod 4) anti-ship ballistic missile has become the proverbial “boogie man” for a U.S. Navy concerned about China’s evolving Anti Access/Area Denial (A2D) capability. This weapon is indeed an impressive achievement and does present a significant addition to the threat faced by warships at sea. While a major advance in military capability, it is not the first “game changing” weapon system mitigated or countered by the U.S. Navy. The naval mine, the self-propelled torpedo, the submarine, the airplane and the cruise missile all presented the same potentially lethal threat to surface warships. While naval leaders should respect the power of this weapon system, there is no reason to endow it with supernatural abilities or allow it to unilaterally limit operational thinking. As in the past, the inevitable march of technology will find an effective countermeasure or mitigating technique for this system and the DF-21D will just be another threat in a constellation of dangers inherent in the pursuit of war at sea.

     The naval mine first appeared in western warfare as the weapon of revolutionaries conducting littoral warfare against the world’s maritime hegemon. American revolutionary  David Bushnell’s naval mines, employed both from his submarine Turtle and as drift weapons briefly scattered a British naval blockade of the Delaware River in 1776 and prompted fearful British soldiers and sailors to fire on random floating pieces of wood. In the American Civil War mines claimed 27 U.S. Navy warships including relatively “capital” ships like the river ironclad USS Cairo and the monitor USS Tecumseh. Naval mines have gone on to be a highly successful weapon system and have caused more actual damage to U.S. ships since the end of the Second World War than any other system. Naval mines remain a serious threat. Future digital minefields in the littorals may have the ability to automatically re-position themselves in response to specific threats or minesweeping efforts. Despite these dangers, no one has suggested the U.S. Navy refrain from littoral operations. The most anticipated module for the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is in fact the mine warfare variant.
      Finally there is the cruise missile threat to U.S. Navy surface ships. Beginning at the end of the Second World War and continuing to the present day, the U.S. Navy has expended considerable money and brain power combating the various incarnations of the cruise missile from the Japanese kamikaze aircraft to the Russian Moskit (SSN-22 Sunburn) cruise missile. When the carrier battle group as a weapon system was threatened by a potential triad Soviet strike of air, surface, and subsurface-launched antiship cruise missiles, the  U.S. Navy aggressively responded with technological, operational and tactical measures to protect the flattop and what historian Michael Isenberg called its “Praetorian guard” of surface ship escorts. These efforts drove the creation of entire classes of warships (the Ticonderoga class cruiser and the Arleigh Burke class destroyer) and a host of weapon systems from the late 1950’s Terrier missile, to the signature AEGIS weapon system of the 1970s and the various close-in weapon systems (CIWS) designed to shoot down cruise missiles just before impact. This game of technological “leap frog” continues as cruise missiles and those systems created to shoot them down improve in capability. 
     The underwater threat is further complicated by the torpedo. Since the spar version of this weapon mounted on the Confederate submarine Hunley claimed the USS Housatonic as its first victim and the Turkish steamer Intibah was sunk by Russian torpedo boats employing motorized torpedoes in 1878, both submarine and surfaced-launched torpedoes have been a threat to capital ships. Navies countered the surface launched torpedo with a variety of technical and operational countermeasures including the torpedo boat destroyer (ancestor of today’s multi-mission warship), small caliber rapid fire guns to destroy torpedo boats before they could launch their weapons and the torpedo net that would ensnare and detonate a torpedo before it reached its target. These remedies achieved a mixed record of success. Improved weapon range and accuracy eventually rendered the surface torpedo attack more dangerous for any attacker without complete surprise on their side. The antidote to submarine-launched torpedoes proved to be more elusive, but a combination of sensory advances (sonar) and various weapons delivered from air, surface, and even other subsurface platforms has provided fleets with a suitable response. This battle between offense and defensive weapons continues today. Navies seek to develop and field “anti-torpedo” systems such as the Russian Paket E/NK system and the U.S. Navy’s Surface Ship Torpedo Defense (SSTD) program while underwater weapons sport improved sensors, greater maneuverability or high speeds in the case of the Russian-built Shkval supercavitating torpedo, also sometimes referred to as a “carrier killer.” Undersea weapons remain a significant threat to warships. The South Korean corvette Cheonan was blown in half and sunk by a probable North Korean torpedo in March 2010. A Chinese submarine surfaced amidst a U.S. Carrier battle group in 2007. Despite these events there are not a plethora of articles on the undersea threat as there are on the DF-21D.
     Warships will continue to face new and challenging threats. If the past 125 years is a guide, naval weapon designers, and operational and tactical theorists will be ready to develop systems and operational and tactical measures to counter them. The DF-21D is a new threat, but it is not likely to be an operational and tactical surprise as were the Japanese A6M Zero fighter and the 24 cm Type 93 Long Lance surface torpedo to the U.S. Navy at the outset of World War 2. Open source reporting to date indicate the DF-21D has been tested against fixed land targets but not against a large moving target at sea. The U.S. Navy on the other hand has been working to counter the ballistic missile threat for over 20 years. There is certainly time to develop an effective counter to the DF-21D. 
     When first told by intelligence officers that the Soviets had a land-based cruise missile that could strike U.S. ships at sea with impunity, President John F. Kennedy asked if the U.S. had something like it or a countermeasure. When told the U.S. had no such weapon or response system Kennedy said, “Why in hell don’t we? How long have we known about this weapon?” When Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara answered “several years” and indicated it was an interim report, Kennedy responded, “I don’t want half-assed information, go back and do your homework,” and later told aides the lack of usable information in the brief left him, “pissed off.” The U.S. response to the DF-21D should be the same as Kennedy’s was to the cruise missile. Ask why we don’t have a similar weapon on a countermeasure and instead of being fearful of its effects, take action to protect our naval assets that we want to use in operations we desire to undertake. An April article in The Diplomat by J. Michael Cole mentioned the famous quote by Japanese samurai master Miyamoto Musashi who said, “In battle, if you make your opponent flinch you have already won.” The U.S. must stop flinching before the threat of the DF-21D and get on with the time-honored business of countering its capability.

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