BEIJING - When the National Day parade rolls down Beijing's streets next week, foreign observers will look beyond the goose-stepping soldiers for signs that China is developing a new missile able to threaten U.S. aircraft carriers.
If China is able to mount systems that support an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), it could force the U.S. carrier fleet to keep a greater distance, American defense analysts said, changing U.S. strategy for defending Taiwan should war break out.
On October 1, all eyes will be on the Avenue of Eternal Peace to see if China displays a Dongfeng 21-D missile, with maneuverable fins to help it find a moving target at sea, as well as a more finalized launch vehicle.
The ASBM is far from operational, but it is close enough to make a splash, said Eric McVadon, a retired rear admiral whose 35-year naval career included a defense attache post in Beijing.
It is something big. It represents the ability to make the U.S. think twice before sending carrier strike groups into the Western Pacific.
China is using the parade, which involves hundreds of thousands of marchers, to celebrate its modernization and the spectacular economic growth of three decades of reform.
Ten years ago, the military parade showcased new fighter jets and a model of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
This one will highlight achievements like the budding space programme -- illustrated in a topiary display along the route -- and the army's rescue work after a devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.
New weaponry and priorities will stand out. This week, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie outlined plans to transform naval and air forces to project power far from China's shores [ID:nPEK236704].
EYE ON TAIWAN
Current warming ties between China and Taiwan make a military confrontation less likely, but both sides are still heavily armed against each other. The United States has committed to help the island defend itself in case of war [ID:nPEK217256].
The United States uses its carriers to maintain a presence near Taiwan and in much of the Pacific. It sent a carrier group through the Taiwan Strait to counter Chinese saber-rattling a few months before Taiwan's 1996 presidential election.
A weapon like an ASBM -- or even a credible threat -- that could keep U.S. ships far out at sea for longer would buy China the time to overwhelm Taiwan's defenses in the event of conflict.
An ASBM deployed from Chinese territory would have a range of about 1,500 km (930 miles), enough to reach far beyond Taiwan and cover much of Japan and the Philippines.
An ASBM would be an asymmetric weapon, since a carrier group has inadequate direct defense against it, especially if confronted with multiple missiles, unlike the more traditional submarines or bombers which a carrier group can counter.
McVadon credits China for choosing to develop missiles, rather than take the more uncertain route of trying to directly match the U.S. strength in ships and submarines.
China's great success has been that it went to missiles, said McVadon, now director for Asia Pacific Studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Washington.
It was a prudent decision to get around our strengths. They really made the right call.
Other analysts caution that successfully modifying the Dongfeng series missile to hit ships would not be enough to successfully hold an aircraft carrier at bay.
Seeing it in the parade is not hard evidence that the missile is operative, said Matthew Durnin, a Beijing-based researcher with the World Security Institute. He recently coauthored a paper on the challenges of developing the systems -- including satellites -- needed to properly guide an ASBM.
But U.S. intelligence believes that if this is credibly developed and deployed, it would change carrier strike group deployments.
Durnin predicts China will test the missile within the next two years, to prove it can hit a ship at sea. He estimates it will be about five years before China has the satellites in place to fully track a moving target on the vast Pacific.
It will be very expensive to develop all the supporting infrastructure for such a system, and whether the Chinese will make the necessary investments is fundamentally a political question, said David Yang, a political scientist at RAND Corp. who has also written on the ASBM system.
Minister Liang said the Second Artillery Corps, which holds the keys to the country's nuclear weapons, would soon also control some conventional weapons. American strategists believe the ASBM could fall under that service's remit.
Even without full satellite cover, the threat to carrier groups is credible if China is able to launch multiple missiles and cripple, but not necessarily sink, a carrier or its escorts.
I'm not forecasting its usage. They are doing it hoping it will deter, and never be used in combat, McVadon said.
We may never know how well it works.
(Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim)