China’s military is getting its ducks in a row for what many experts see as a realistic competence at destroying US aircraft carriers during a confrontation scenario over Taiwan.
In a recent issue of the Chinese-language state-run China Youth Daily newspaper, a report claims that the Gaofen-4 geostationary earth observation satellite will be launched by the end of this year with the express purpose of hunting US aircraft carriers. The satellite is equipped with a visible light imager at 50 meters and infrared staring optical imager at 400 meters.
During the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, the Chinese military was flustered by the presence of two US aircraft carriers sent to protect Taiwan during missile exercises designed to intimidate the island.
Since then, the military has created the means of holding at risk US aircraft carriers with two new anti-ship ballistic missiles, the DF-21D and the new DF-26. However, locating US aircraft carriers is not easy, and China has developed a variety of airborne and space-based sensors to ease the search.
“The Gaofen series of satellites, as the first series of satellites developed under the Medium and Long-term Development Plan for Science and Technology, plays an important role in building this system,” Kevin Pollpeter, senior research analyst on China at Defense Group Inc., said. “As China develops and deploys long-range, precision strike assets, it recognizes the need for an effective C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] platforms, to take imagery of large swaths of the ocean to attempt to locate targets such as aircraft carriers.”
Pollpeter said that during the time that it would take to process the imagery, the aircraft carrier would have moved, but its general location would have been fixed.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project, agrees that the Gaofen-4 will have limitations, but “China does not need to track every single US aircraft carrier around the globe — only those within striking range of China.” For knowledge of a carrier’s location to be useful for operators of the DF-21D, the satellite would have to be able to relay that information, more or less, continuously to the guidance system for a DF-21D to be able to strike the carrier.
The Gaofen appears to be another important piece in China’s evolving space-based monitoring capabilities — a network that will work together to locate, target and destroy aircraft carriers and destroyers.
The tragedy, according to Ian Easton, a China military specialist at Project 2049 Institute, is that China has made clear its intention to target US carrier groups with ballistic missiles.
“Yet the Obama administration chose not to issue a diplomatic demarche or raise the issue with [Chinese President Xi Jinping] at the White House,” Easton said. “By default, the White House is legitimizing China’s military buildup, which is aimed at [the US] and [its] friends. Any other sovereign country in the world would protest full throatedly. America’s silence on this issue is self-defeating.”
In early September, Beijing commemorated the 70th anniversary of its victory over imperialist Japan with a parade that unveiled both the DF-21D and the new DF-26. The DF-21D is operational and deployed; the status of the DF-26 is unclear.