China's military conducted a flight test of an anti-ship ballistic missile in the contentious South China Sea last weekend in violation of a pledge four years ago by President Xi Jinping not to militarize the waterway.
"Of course the Pentagon was aware of the Chinese missile launch from the man-made structures in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands," Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Washington Free Beacon.
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"What's truly disturbing about this act is that it's in direct contradiction to President Xi's statement in the Rose Garden in 2015 when he pledged to the U.S., the Asia-Pacific region, and the world, that he would not militarize those man-made outposts," Eastburn stated, referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
China's behavior in conducting the provocative missile test is contrary to Beijing's claim to want to bring peace to the region, he added. "And obviously actions like this are coercive acts meant to intimidate other [South China Sea] claimants," Eastburn said.
Defense officials said the flight test took place over the weekend and the Chinese could conduct additional tests since the announced period of sea and air closures in the region is in effect until Wednesday.
It was the first time the U.S. government has confirmed China's test of a new high-technology maneuvering anti-ship ballistic missile.
The United States has deployed warships to the South China Sea as part of efforts to challenge Beijing's claims to own 90 percent of the 1.3 million-square-mile sea that is used for some $3 trillion in annual trade.
The Spratly Islands are a network of small islets and reefs near the Philippines that have become one focal point for China's efforts to gain control over the South China Sea. The other area is the Paracels near Vietnam.
Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, said the covert takeover campaign by Beijing has resulted in de facto control. The four-star admiral said in 2018 congressional testimony that "China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States."
Pressed by then-president Barack Obama in September 2015 on construction of runways and military facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi promised that the reclaimed islands would not be militarized. "Relevant construction activities that China is undertaking in the Nansha [Spratly] islands do not target or impact any country and China does not intend to pursue militarization," Xi said, using the Chinese name for the Spratlys.
However, China violated that pledge by continuing construction and in April 2018 began deploying both anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on the disputed islands. Electric jamming equipment also has been deployed to the islands.
The flight test was carried out as U.S.-China trade tensions appeared to subside with the announcement last week that talks on a deal would resume. President Trump announced on Twitter after meeting Xi that he would not increase tariffs on Chinese goods and agreed to ease sanctions on China's Huawei Technologies to allow American technology companies to sell some products to Huawei.
The type of anti-ship ballistic missile was not identified by the Pentagon.
China in 2012 took over Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, which is one of three islands that have been militarized. The others are Subi Reef and Firey Cross Reef. The islands are claimed by China, the Philippines, and several other states. Despite requests for help from the Manila government that year under the U.S.-Philippines defense treaty, the Obama administration took no action in what analysts say was a failure that emboldened further Chinese regional island-building hegemony.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed the Obama-era policy by announcing in March that the United States would defend the Philippines in the South China Sea.
John Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, testified to Congress in April 2018 that China's anti-ship ballistic missiles "pose a direct threat to U.S. aircraft carriers."
China has two types of anti-ship ballistic missiles.
The main Chinese missile for attacking ships at sea is the DF-21D. The Pentagon's latest annual military report on China states that the DF-21D "gives the PLA the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean."
"The DF-21D has a range exceeding 1,500 km (932 miles), is fitted with a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) warhead, and is claimed to be capable of rapidly reloading in the field," the report said.
A second and longer-range anti-ship ballistic missile is the new DF-26 that the Pentagon says is capable of conducting both conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets and conventional strikes against naval targets in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans and the South China Sea.
In support of long-range strikes against ships in the western Pacific, the PLA is expanding a network of sky wave and surface wave over-the-horizon (OTH) radars.
"In conjunction with reconnaissance satellites, these OTH systems provide targeting capabilities at extended distances from China to support long-range precision strikes, including employment of anti-ship ballistic missiles," the report said.
The missiles are unique in that most anti-ship missiles are sea-skimming cruise missiles. The technology for anti-ship ballistic missiles requires high-technology surveillance, reconnaissance, and guidance systems for maneuvering warheads that enter space atop boosters, reenter the atmosphere at very high speeds, and then maneuver in striking warships sailing at sea.
The United States has no similar missile systems and its capabilities to defend against them are limited.
Robert Behler, director of operational test and evaluation within the office of the secretary of defense, told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee in May that the SM-6 anti-missile interceptor was being enhanced to better counter anti-ship ballistic missiles.
"By expanding the capability of the SM-6 missile and associated Aegis weapon system changes, we are delivering capability to maritime forces to protect against anti-ship ballistic missiles and provide a layered defense for forces ashore," he said.
The test launch was first reported by CNBC that quoted a defense official as saying the test was a concern and that U.S. warships were in the sea but not near where the test took place.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said China's rocket forces could deploy ASBMs to the Spratly and Paracel islands.
"On some of these base islands there are tall hangar buildings that might accommodate the DF-21D," he said.
The anti-ship missile test could lead to a speed up of deployment of Chinese aircraft and ships to bases in the Paracels and the Spratlys, which so far have been taking place but infrequently.
"With this anti-ship ballistic missile test China is now showing the world that this long-expected capability is now real, and that the age of the aircraft carrier is in real danger, barring new types of defenses," Fisher said. "Or at a minimum, the United States must redouble its efforts to make its own ASBMs so that any Chinese ASBM attack can result in the near immediate sinking of most of China's navy."
Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the government had not disclosed any tests of anti-ship ballistic missiles until this week.
"Many tests can be assumed to have happened over land, in part to help conceal missile system and targeting method data from U.S., Japanese, and Taiwanese [electronic intelligence] systems," he said.
The PLA Rocket Force troops last conducted an exercise in the South China Sea in January with the PLA Navy. No missiles were reported as having been fired during that exercise but it’s likely the forces simulated anti-ship ballistic missile coordination.
On U.S. defenses against the missiles, Fisher said the DF-21D may be vulnerable to SM-3s deployed on U.S. warships.
"But if the PLA Rocket Force were to fire a large number of ASBMs, 10 or more, some would likely get through," he said. "The Navy will not have effective close-in defenses against ASBMs like this until it deploys much more powerful laser weapons or rail guns—which appear to be lagging behind China's developments."
Fisher urged a rapid development and deployment of U.S. anti-ship ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons to deter any Chinese attacks.
China also may have conducted the provocative missile test in reaction to the recent U.S.-Japan naval exercises in the South China Sea.