China has met and raised America's carrier gambit in the South China Sea, firing 'carrier killer' missiles into the region as a show of deadly force. Credit: US Navy.

The war of words, and missiles, and ships, and spy planes and god knows what else, continues between the US and China. Soon, they will be throwing kitchen sinks.

The US Department of Defense said on Thursday that Chinese test launches of ballistic missiles in the South China Sea were a threat to peace and security in the region, Al Jazeera reported.

Confirming reports that China had launched as many as four ballistic missiles during military exercises around the Paracel Islands, the Pentagon said the move called into question the country’s 2002 commitment to avoiding provocative activities in the disputed seas, Al Jazeera reported.

“Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintaining stability,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “The PRC’s actions, including missile tests, further destabilize the situation in the South China Sea.”

“Such exercises also violate PRC commitments under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,” the Pentagon statement added.

According to an anonymous US defense official cited by Bloomberg, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched four anti-ship ballistic missiles into the South China Sea in a military exercise.

The missiles landed in the sea in an area between South China’s Hainan Island and the Xisha Islands, according to the report.

Citing an anonymous source “close to the Chinese military,” the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post claimed that China launched a DF-26 missile from Northwest China’s Qinghai Province and a DF-21D missile from East China’s Zhejiang Province.

“China is signaling to the US, its allies and partners that China has an answer to America’s aircraft-carrier strike groups, an answer that is always available and not dependent on deployment schedules,” said Carl Schuster, an adjunct faculty member of Hawaii Pacific University’s diplomacy and military science program.

“In effect, China is saying, ‘If the US puts two carriers in the South China Sea, we send aircraft carrier-killer missiles there.’”

Disputes over control of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest trade routes, are a growing irritant in Beijing’s relations with Washington and its southern neighbors, Military Times reported.

The Trump administration this year rejected most of Beijing’s claims to sovereignty over the majority of the disputed sea, portions of which also are claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and other governments.

Wednesday’s launches followed Chinese complaints that a US U2 spy plane entered a “no fly zone” declared by Beijing during a military drill off its northern coast.

China’s DF-26 and DF-21D are the world’s first ballistic missiles capable of targeting large and medium-sized vessels, earning them the title of “aircraft carrier killers.”

Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on Thursday that using different missiles launched from different regions in attacking targets in the same area showed the PLA tactic of saturated attack.

China can use different ways to attack one or more targets at the same time, so the enemy will not be able to intercept these attacks, Song claimed, noting that despite US aircraft carriers’ air defense capability, they cannot defend themselves against ballistic missiles — an ability that some military analysts continue to dispute.

On Wednesday morning, the time of the reported missile launches, the US sent an RC-135S ballistic missile-detection plane to the South China Sea. Chinese military analysts speculated that the US believed the PLA would launch anti-ship ballistic missiles and are eager to study them.

China’s rapid progress on hypersonic missiles has taken the Pentagon by complete surprise. 

Retired Admiral William McRaven, the former head of US special forces, once called China’s intensifying military build-up “a holy shit moment for the United States.”

However, US officials and military experts have repeatedly downplayed China’s sabre rattling over its ability to actually sink an aircraft carrier. The issue, in fact, is open to debate.

According to The National Interest, technology in this area is rapidly advancing, and for every weapon, there is always a way of deflecting it or stopping it. Most, if not all, of these projects are highly classified.

There are other factors to consider.

The reported range of these kinds of Chinese carrier killer missiles does not present as serious of a threat to closer-in carriers unless it has precision-guidance systems and an ability to track and hit moving targets. Any break in this so-called “kill chain” would render the weapon useless.

Secondly, the Navy continues to make rapid strides arming its surface ships with new laser weapons and advanced EW systems likely to “jam” incoming missiles, stopping them, destroying their trajectory or simply throwing them off course. 

Furthermore, the Navy’s layered defense system not only includes new longer-range aerial, space and ship-based sensors, but deck-fired interceptors that continue to receive software upgrades for improved accuracy.

In short, despite Chinese claims that its carrier killer missiles form a deadly and unstoppable saturated attack, it seems reasonable to say that aircraft carrier battle groups remain a serious threat, and, to put it simply, would put up a hell of a fight.