New satellite images released over the weekend revealed the construction of a U.S. aircraft carrier-shaped target and other U.S. warship shapes at a missile range in China’s northwest Taklamakan Desert.
“JUST IN: The Chinese military has built targets in the shape of an American aircraft carrier and other U.S. warships in the Taklamakan desert as part of a new target range complex – Imagery by Maxar,” Insider Paper tweeted with an image of the aircraft carrier target next to an overlay of the footprint for the new U.S. Gerald R. Ford-class of aircraft carriers.
Reuters reported additional satellite photos revealed construction for at least two U.S. Arleigh-Burke class missile destroyer shapes as well as a 246-foot ship-sized target mounted on a 20-foot-wide set of rails.
Reuters reported the rail system is likely intended to simulate a moving target.
One Twitter user said the particular rail-mounted target is located in China’s Ruoqiang region. The new ship targets are near a site once used as a test range for early versions of China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, which it has dubbed a “carrier killer” missile.
China is not the only country to construct targets in the shape of U.S. warships. In July 2020, Iran placed a replica U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz and practiced attacking it with land-based, sea-based and shoulder-fired missiles.
USNI News reported that, unlike Iran’s relatively crude carrier replica, China’s replica warships show signs of a sophisticated target range. While China’s aircraft carrier target appears to be a flat surface representing the rough outline of a new U.S. aircraft carrier, other targets feature more elaborate structures. On some targets, there are numerous upright poles. The poles could be instrumentation or they may be used for radar reflectors to simulate the superstructure of the warships they represent.
In July 2019, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) conducted the first-ever confirmed live-fire tests of its DF-21D anti-ship missiles, firing six of the missiles into the South China Sea in an area north of the disputed Spratly Islands.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told Reuters that the 2019 missile tests were likely one-part in an ongoing effort to improve the missile and turn it into an accurate anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). Koh said, “They are still far from creating an accurate ASBM.”
Koh predicted this new desert test facility also won’t be the end of China’s efforts to improve the missile. “I don’t think the desert targets are going to be the final stage. It’s meant for further refinement.”
The desert conditions won’t be able to fully replicate the sea environment China’s anti-ship missiles will need to operate in, but Koh said for now “the best way to test it and keep it out of the prying eyes of the U.S. military and intelligence assets is to do it inland.”