U.S. Wary of China's Anti-Ship Missiles

Taiwanese naval vessels conduct exercises off the coast of Taiwan last month. Patrick Lin / AFP-Getty Images

China's fiercest anti-ship missile, designed by Russia and dubbed the Sizzler by NATO, has a 300-kilometer range and accelerates to roughly three times the speed of sound as it nears its target. The Sizzler can reach farther and fly faster than the West's top anti-ship missiles, America's Harpoon and France's Exocet. Russia has also sold Sizzlers to India and possibly Iran, and Syria and Algeria have expressed interest, widening the threat. "Everyone in the Western world is wondering how you defeat it," says John Patch, a professor at the U.S. Army War College.

China sees missiles such as the Sizzler—and a missile currently in development known as the Dong Feng (DF)-21D—as key to its growing naval power in Asia. The Sizzler can be launched from submarines even when submerged, which could turn part of China's sub fleet from a manageable threat to a "very problematic" one, says Patch. The DF-21D, a ground-launched ballistic missile with a 1,500-kilometer range—is being redesigned by China to dive from space, traveling at about two kilometers per second, to cripple an aircraft carrier. As of today, the U.S. has no reliable countermeasures. With the DF-21D likely to be ready for a flight test in two years or less, the West is suddenly regarding China's anti-ship capabilities as "pretty daunting," says Eric McVadon, a former U.S. Navy rear admiral and defense attaché to Beijing.

China's new missile technology comes at a time when tensions between Washington and Beijing are decidedly strained, and when the U.S. Navy has never been so threatened by weapons systems since the end of the Cold War. In May, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed reluctance to build new carriers, pointing to the growing range and accuracy of the anti-ship missiles of potential adversaries. For its part, Beijing is likely to continue to beef up its missile capabilities, and already boasts the world's most active ground-launched programs, according to a recent Department of Defense report.

But China's missile program could backfire by driving rattled neighbors like Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand to request closer naval cooperation with the U.S., says Ramli Nik, a former Malaysian defense attaché to the United Nations. By talking tough while developing formidable anti-ship weapons, China is undercutting its own goal of keeping America out of its region, says Paul Giarra, a former Asia expert in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Much, however, depends on the American response, the experts say. To maintain its credibility as a reliable shield in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. Navy needs an answer to China's new generation of anti-ship missiles.