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China Missiles, Weapons Threaten U.S. Ships, Satellites: Analysts

By | December 4, 2006

      China constitutes a burgeoning threat to U.S. military and commercial satellites and weapons platforms, analysts said.

      While China isn’t yet able to project military power globally, it is poised to develop space and missile capabilities that will be able to deny sea access to U.S. military forces in just two to five years, analysts predicted.

      They spoke at a panel symposium of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington think tank focused on defense and other issues, that was held at the National Press Club.

      One question is whether China is developing sufficient missile capabilities that it could overwhelm, say, U.S. Navy air and missile defense capabilities, according to retired Army Col. Larry M. Wortzel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission, who also is with Asia Strategies and Risks LLC in Williamsburg, Va.

      For example, if there were 100 small Chinese weapons platforms with eight missiles each, chances would be great that some of them would get through to U.S. ships, he said. “We’re in deep trouble,” he said.

      As Chinese military capabilities develop further, they will “impede or make more difficult American naval and air operations, and …. Japanese naval and air operations,” Wortzel predicted.

      While some Pentagon leaders downplay the threat, Wortzel said the truth is that this is a major concern to U.S. military planners.

      For example, there was the recent incident where a Chinese submarine surfaced abruptly within torpedo striking range of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

      It’s time for U.S. military leaders to have some firm talks with their Chinese partners, so that “the next time a … submarine rose to the surface, it doesn’t do it under the Kitty Hawk carrier battle group. … We need to talk to them about that,” Wortzel warned.

      He also said he is “somewhat dismissive of the [U.S.] Navy people who say, ‘They’ll never get near us.'” The fact is, “They got near us,” Wortzel noted.

      To be sure, China is not a global superpower of the first rank, equal to U.S. armed forces, at least not yet, he noted.

      For example, to provide broadly regional capabilities, China will have to orbit tracking satellites, which Wortzel said he expects to occur within two to five years.

      But China is developing the capability to deny sea space to U.S. ships.

      China is fielding missiles with a range of 1,500 miles, “just about where they hoped to be in terms of an anti-access capability,” able to deny sea space to U.S. weapons platforms, he said.

      But that is from fixed points. “They can’t do it globally,” Wortzel said, at least not now.

      If China were to take out a U.S. aircraft carrier, that would involve a major American asset with a crew of 5,000 on the aircraft carrier alone, let alone other ships in the group, while the number of personnel that the United States lost in the attack on Pearl Harbor was half that, Wortzel noted.

      Given these facts, “the United States ought to be engaged in a very serious defense” posture response, Wortzel said.

      One happy note in all this, however, is that as China moves to gain capabilities and fields systems in some areas rivaling sophistication of the American assets, “they [Chinese forces and systems] become more vulnerable” to attack, Wortzel observed.

      Satellites Vulnerable

      Another concern is the capability of Chinese forces to wage electronic warfare against the United States, such as the capability that China has demonstrated that it can target a U.S. satellite with a laser, or disrupt communications of a satellite.

      China could devastate the U.S. economy by attacking satellites, according to Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst, CNA Corp. Project Asia

      For example, if China somehow disabled enough satellites that carry data on credit card transactions that there wouldn’t be any backup satellites remaining operative, that could devastate the economy, he noted.

      Such a crisis could prompt asset prices in securities markets to nosedive, he said.

      The reason that China is pressing ahead with exploitation of space (rising missile development, a space exploration program including manned missions, and other initiatives) is more than just military in its aim, according to Cheng.

      Rather, it is about pride, clout and influence as well.

      “Space isn’t just about space. Space is about national prestige and national power,” Cheng said. Space is an area where no nation possesses an overwhelming, insurmountable lead, and therefore space “is an area where they [the Chinese] can compete.”

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