Report: China Builds Mockups of U.S. Navy Ships for Missile Target Practice

Image of Chinese mockup of US ship. Screenshot via Twitter @georgepbush
Screenshot via Twitter @georgepbush

Satellite photos of the Taklamakan desert in central China published on Sunday revealed the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has constructed full-sized mockups of several U.S. warships, including an aircraft carrier, apparently for missile target practice.

The photos were taken by satellite imaging company Maxar Technologies and reviewed by AllSource Analysis, a geospatial intelligence firm. Maxar is a major supplier of satellite intelligence information for the U.S. government.

The photos made public on Sunday depicted the latest developments at a Chinese military facility in the Taklamakan desert, located in China’s central Ruoqiang region.

Previous satellite photos showed the facility was constructed in the spring of 2019 near the location of a target range employed in the development of China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, dubbed the “carrier killer” by analysts because it was evidently developed to give the PLA a land-based method of eliminating the U.S. advantage in aircraft carriers.

The new facility was rebuilt several times over the course of some nine months, largely dismantled in December 2019, and then reactivated in September 2021. It now appears to boast three full-sized mockups of U.S. Navy ships, including one aircraft carrier and two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

The mockups appear to be fairly detailed, including structures that represent the bridge, weapon systems, and flight decks of the American ships. The aircraft carrier model looks to be mounted on rails so it can be moved back and forth. The photos show all of the models equipped with poles that could hold sensors during weapons tests. According to satellite data, the mockups do a very good job of mimicking the radar profiles of the carrier and destroyers.

Two other, less sophisticated target areas in the shape of a U.S. aircraft carrier were detected by the satellites, and more rails that could be used to move targets around during such tests.

“The mockups of several probable U.S. warships, along with other warships (mounted on rails and mobile), could simulate targets related to seeking/target acquisition testing. This, and the extensive detail of the mockups, including the placement of multiple sensors on and around the vessel targets, it is probable that this area is intended for multiple uses over time,” said the AllSource analysis, as quoted by USNI News on Sunday.

AllSource noted the PLA has conducted live-fire tests of land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and South China Sea, although the Chinese government has not officially acknowledged all of those tests. 

The PLA is also reportedly working on anti-ship missiles that could be launched from its H-6 heavy bombers, and those missiles are large enough to potentially carry hypersonic warheads, an advanced missile technology China recently demonstrated surprising proficiency with.

Research fellow Collin Koh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told Channel News Asia (CNA) on Monday the seemingly abandoned Taklamakan desert facility might have been hastily reactivated and refurbished in September because the PLA was not satisfied with the results of its live-fire missile tests in the Pacific.

“They are still far from creating an accurate ASBM [anti-ship ballistic missile]… 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,” said Koh.

Koh speculated that if a new round of testing in the desert produces satisfactory results, the PLA will resume live-fire naval testing.

On the other hand, Bloomberg News suggested China built its targeting range at a location it knows is “clear to satellites” because “Beijing is trying to show Washington what its missile forces can do.”


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