China’s mock-up US aircraft carrier target is message to Washington, experts say

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China’s new weapons-testing range containing a mock-up US aircraft carrier is aimed at deterring military intervention by Washington in regional security issues, defence observers said.

Satellite images taken by Maxar Technologies showed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had built targets in the shapes of an American aircraft carrier and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers at a new shooting range in the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang, hinting that China’s Rocket Force was resuming tests of its anti-ship ballistic missiles.

“Compared with their previous tests and based on the sizes of warship mock-ups, [the images suggest that] the PLA has stepped up tests to target smaller and more mobile vehicles this time,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.

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“Judging by the [new shooting range’s] distance from the PLA rocket force’s launch sites in Inner Mongolia and Gansu, the new range for missile tests is over 2,500km [1,550 miles], meaning not only American warships would be targeted, but also the US military bases in Yokosuka and Guam.”

The anti-ship missile testing programme is led directly by General Zhang Youxia, the second in command in the Central Military Commission, chaired by President Xi Jinping, according to a military insider.

“China wants to show the US that the PLA is able to hit its warships at sea and military bases in the Indo-Pacific precisely,” said the insider, who requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing, said the vessel mock-ups and previous anti-ship missile drills were aimed at increasing the PLA’s deterrence and warning the US not to intervene in regional security issues by deploying aircraft carrier strike groups.

“The message from Beijing to the Americans is, don’t believe aircraft carrier strike groups are unbeatable, and now even the US naval bases in the region are under the coverage of the PLA’s DF-26 and other medium-range ballistic missiles,” Zhou said.

“China hopes to make the US aware of the huge cost of intervention in the Taiwan issue, as well as China’s territorial disputes.”

But Lu said the PLA would prefer to only warn the US military, not actually enter into major military conflict.

“A mock-up drill in 2017 showed the PLA had been testing how to neutralise runways in airbases and aircraft carrier decks with submunition warheads – a limited attack tactic aimed at leaving some leeway for negotiation,” he said.

US vs China: who has the stronger military?

China has conducted several anti-ship ballistic missile tests in recent years. In the latest one, in August last year, a moving ship in the South China Sea was hit by two “aircraft carrier-killer” missiles, launched from the northwestern Qinghai and eastern Zhejiang provinces.

In July 2019, the PLA Rocket Force launched six DF-21D missiles into waters north of the disputed Spratly Islands, the first-ever confirmed live-fire drill by Beijing, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on China’s defence development.

The DF-21 has a range of about 1,800km, with state media describing the most advanced in the series, the DF-21D, as the PLA’s first anti-ship ballistic missile, while the DF-26 has a range of 4,000km and can be used in nuclear or conventional strikes against ground and naval targets.

Dubbed “Guam killer” in Chinese military reports, the DF-26 dual-capable missile is a type of weapon banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by the US and Soviet Union towards the end of the Cold War. When the US withdrew from the treaty last year, it cited China’s deployment of such weapons as justification.

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