The Other China Missile Threat
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

The Other China Missile Threat


China's military has multiple missile platforms beyond the "carrier killer'" DF-21D. Assistant Editor Harry Kazianis spoke with Roger Cliff, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, about China's missile system developments, their origins and possible uses if conflict occurred

Much has been written on Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs) like the DF-21D. But China’s cruise missile technology capable of targeting valued land based assets hasn’t received as much coverage. One example is the DH-10 cruise missile, which has a vast range. Would you consider this an overall greater threat to China’s neighbors and U.S. forces if conflict occurred? Would “hardening” U.S. or allied facilities be a possible defensive strategy?

It’s hard to say which system is a greater threat as neithercan be considered in isolation. Both are only effective as part of a complex of systems. The DF-21D is primarily a threat to U.S. carrier air power, but is most effective when combined with attacks from submarines, surface ships, and aircraft. The DH-10 is primarily a threat to land-based air power as well as other fixed targets such as logistics and communications facilities, and is most effective when combined with ballistic missiles and aircraft.

When attacking an air base, for example, ballistic missiles can be used to damage the runway and destroy unprotected aircraft in the open, but to destroy aircraft parked in concrete shelters or other “point” targets (such as command posts, communications facilities, etc.) requires a more precise weapon with a high probability of directly hitting the target, such as a precision-guided munitions launched from an aircraft or a cruise missile. Land-attack cruise missiles have the advantage: they are generally longer-ranged than aircraft and can be sent into air defense environments that are too risky for manned aircraft. Both the DF-21D and land-attack cruise missiles, of course, are dependent on sensors to find, identify, and fix the locations of their targets; communication systems to transmit that information to a command post; computers and/or humans to integrate the data from different sensors and issue a command to attack the target; and more communications systems to transmit that command and targeting data to the missile launch battery.

Hardening facilities is a possible defensive strategy. “Hardening” can consist of active defenses such as surface-to-air missiles and passive defenses such as stronger shelters. Unfortunately, a couple years ago the Defense department inexplicably cancelled the SLAMRAAM program, which was specifically designed to provide short-range defense against cruise missiles. Now they are talking about not buying MEADS, a mobile air and missile defense system that is a joint venture with Germany and Italy. It’s possible to make buildings, including aircraft shelters, strong enough to resist an attack by a cruise missile, though it can be expensive (i.e., several million dollars each). The problem is, there are hardly any shelters at all at most bases in the Asia-Pacific. Kadena Air Base, for example, has a grand total of 15 shelters, enough for at most 30 fighter aircraft if you squeeze two into each. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, also on Okinawa, has no aircraft shelters. There are also no shelters at MCAS Iwakuni and Yokota Air Base on Honshu, or Andersen Air Force Base.

With Chinese advances in both ballistic and cruise missiles, it seems there would be an inherent advantage to utilize such missiles in an offensive way if hostilities were to begin with Taiwan, the United States or a neighboring country. Would it be safe to assume that Chinese forces have moved to a more offensive mindset given its advantages in cruise missiles weapons and ballistic missiles? Would U.S. forces have options to defend against what many scholars feel would be combined ‘swarm’ attacks from both ballistic and cruise missiles? Have the Chinese developed the operational doctrines and strategies to decide when a missile should be fired?

I don’t think that Chinese forces have moved to a more offensive mindset due simply to the development of cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. Back in the 1960s and 1970s they had a doctrine of “people’s war,” which was essentially defensive in character, but beginning in the 1980s their doctrine was changed to one of “local war under modern conditions,” then in the 1990s to “local war under high technology conditions” and now “local war under conditions of informationization.” All three of these doctrines, although they assume that China will be the victim of aggression by another country, emphasize going on the offensive early. As China’s military capabilities improve, Chinese military leaders may have greater confidence in their ability to actually conduct offensive operations. But that’s a result of improvements across the board, not just in cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.

U.S. forces have a variety of options to defend against large scale coordinated attacks by ballistic and cruise missiles. In the case of attacks on air bases, for example, the solution may be to base aircraft at greater distances from China, to operate from multiple airfields rather than just one or two, to build concrete shelters for aircraft, to have robust runway repair capabilities at each airfield, and to deploy missile defense systems near airfields. In the case of attacks on aircraft carriers and surface ships, options include jammers and decoys to confuse Chinese forces about the location of the ships; jammers, decoys, and obscurants (smoke, chaff) to prevent the missiles from hitting the ships; and missile defenses to shoot down the missiles. In either case, no single solution is likely to be sufficient. An effective defense will require combinations of most or all of the things I mentioned (as well as things I haven’t mentioned).

The Chinese appear have developed detailed operational doctrine for deciding when missiles should be fired. Their doctrine is classified so we are not able to assess it directly, but we are able to examine enough related documents to conclude that their doctrine seems to be logical and rational. In any given conflict, of course, exactly when and how missiles will be used will be up to the individual commanders.

What role has foreign technology played in the development of Chinese cruise missile advances? Many academics and commentators have pointed for example at Chinese adoption of Russian technology. Can China, in the area of cruise missile technology, indigenously develop its own weapons and technological advances at this point?

It’s hard to precisely assess the role foreign technology has played in Chinese cruise missile advances. I have read of alleged Russian assistance, but verifiable specifics aren’t available. The key technologies required for cruise missiles are small turbofan engines and guidance systems. Large turbofan engines have presented a problem for China, but apparently they’ve mastered small turbofans. Undoubtedly further efficiencies, meaning greater range, can be achieved, but the DH-10/CJ-10 has a range of 1,500 -2,000 kilometers, so they aren’t doing too bad as it is. The guidance problem is simplified by the existence of GPS and other navigation satellite constellations. Cruise missiles used to have to navigate by matching radar images of the ground below them with digitally stored maps, a technologically challenging task. Now all they need is a good GPS receiver, though I’ve heard – and I don’t know if it’s true or not – that the CJ-10 also uses digital scene matching. In any case, China has lots of smart engineers, access to advanced commercial technology, and the resources to fund indigenous development. Though it’s always faster and cheaper to get someone else to show you how to do something, if the Russians have nothing more to teach the Chinese, or are unwilling to do it, I’m sure China can continue to develop its cruise missile technology, albeit at a slower pace.

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