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China built a 2nd US aircraft carrier missile target in the desert

Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D) "carrier-killer" anti-ship ballistic missile. (IceUnshattered, Wikimedia Commons/Released)
November 10, 2021

Days after satellites captured images of a U.S. aircraft carrier-shaped target on a Chinese missile test range, satellites captured photos of a second apparent test site with another aircraft carrier-shaped target about 300 miles away.

According to photos taken by Maxar and provided to USNI News late Tuesday, this second missile test range is located miles from a town in China’s western Xinjiang region.

Based on an analysis of past satellite imagery, work on this latest aircraft carrier target began sometime on or before June 25, and then the main portion of the target construction was carried out in October and just recently finished.

Like the previously discovered target, this new target bears the approximate shape of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Unlike the first target, however, this one is not full-sized. The aircraft carrier target appears to be about 568 feet long; just over half the 1,092-foot length of a U.S. Nimitz-class or Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier

Unlike the first aircraft carrier target — located in China’s Taklamakan Desert — this second target appears to be more anchored into the ground.

The first aircraft carrier target was only a flat shape laid out on the ground. This second smaller target has a clear structure resembling the island command center on actual aircraft carriers.

This new target is also outlined with upright poles mounted with what may be small radar reflectors or measuring instruments. Similar upright poles were spotted on Arleigh Burke-class destroyer-shaped targets at the first Taklamakan site.

USNI News reported it is unclear whether this second site is fully finished, or if additional target shapes will be added like at the Taklamakan site. This new site also appears to lack the level of range instrumentation as the Taklamakan site, according to the photos, which could indicate that it is not yet fully operational.

The Taklamakan Desert site was previously used as a test range for China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which China has dubbed a “carrier killer” missile. The Taklamakan site also has a 246-foot ship-like target mounted on a 20-foot-wide set of rails; which could be used to simulate a moving target at sea.

Reacting to the discovery of the first Taklamakan site, researcher Collin Koh told Reuters that this latest effort was to improve their ASBM technology. “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.”