When Maps Mislead

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When Maps Mislead

Military maps can be useful. But ones showing the range of China’s missiles underscore their shortcomings.

Writing in Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Richard Bush takes stock of cross-strait affairs. Bush issues a guardedly optimistic verdict on the island’s future while observing that ‘dysfunctional politics’ hampers efforts to meet pressing challenges. In passing, he speculates about ‘one area in which China may be showing restraint—the deployment of short-range ballistic missiles,’ or SRBMs. As evidence, he proffers the Pentagon’s annual reports on Chinese military power. Last year, the authors refrained from upping their estimate of the number of missiles positioned opposite Taiwan. They pegged the total at 1,050-1,150 birds in both the 2009 and 2010 reports. (Spokesmen in Taipei typically give a higher figure. 1300 is an estimate bandied about on the island.)

Bush maintains that the evident pause in new Chinese Second Artillery Corps SRBM deployments ‘is less significant than it seems.’ Just so. He notes that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rocketeers have an increasing array of cruise missiles at their disposal. For example, the PLA added some 100 cruise missiles to the inventory in 2009-2010, a sum not included in SRBM figures. Bush also points out that ‘China’s ability to frustrate US intervention to defend Taiwan increases apace,’ meaning that Beijing is increasingly comfortable with its strategic position vis-à-vis prospective foes. Why add surplus capacity? And the Second Artillery has continued upgrading the quality of its missile force, boosting its birds’ accuracy and lethality. In short, the PLA has apparently kept augmenting its combat capability despite the lull in fielding new SRBMs. There’s more to combat strength than raw numbers of weapons.

Let me add to Bush’s sound military analysis. The Defence Department’s China reports usually include a map of Asia depicting the ranges of various ballistic missiles fielded by the PLA. Colour-coded swathes of the map show the areas adjoining China’s borders that can be reached by missiles stationed along the frontier. The width of this belt equals the range of a given missile. This is an excellent way to chart the growing capability of such weaponry as the Second Artillery’s new CSS-5 antiship ballistic missile, or ASBM. A glance at the map reveals that truck-fired ASBMs positioned along the frontier could strike well beyond the ‘first island chain,’ throughout the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, and well into the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the entire Bay of Bengal and parts of the northern Arabian Sea now fall within the ASBM threat arc.

But the Pentagon’s map misleads in a way.

That is, the map implies that Chinese missiles are located at fixed sites around the periphery. In reality, they can remain well inland while retaining their ability to strike at important targets, whether on Taiwan, at US bases in Japan, or on the high seas. If Chinese commanders contented themselves with menacing shipping in the waters immediately surrounding Taiwan, they could do so from ASBM launchers positioned hundreds of miles inland. Or, they could have it both ways. Since mobile ballistic missiles are mobile, the Second Artillery can reconfigure its missile deployments with relative ease. This increasingly flexible capability means that the PLA could conduct strikes on Taiwan with far more birds than the SRBM figures suggest. The force will only become more flexible as Chinese weapons engineers refine their hardware, further extending the range—and thus the combat punch—of PLA missiles.

PLA commanders derive a host of benefits from holding part of the missile force well inland. Concealment is an obvious advantage. Detecting and targeting mobile launchers within vast territories is a challenge the US military has never fully solved—witness the largely fruitless ‘Scud hunt’ in western Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, or the minimal damage inflicted on Serbian ground forces in Kosovo during NATO’s 1999 clash with Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. China’s sheer geographic size magnifies the survivability of the force. By exploiting China’s massive strategic depth, furthermore, PLA commanders can play head games with antagonists. Striking at coastal sites is one thing for an American president—sending US warplanes into action over China’s deep continental interior, or even ordering cruise-missile raids into the hinterland from US Navy warships, is another thing entirely.

In effect, Beijing can dare an enemy to attack targets well inland—and risk escalating a limited maritime conflict to a full-blown war whose perils and costs could far outstrip that enemy’s presumably limited political goals. The PLA could deter intervention through this simple expedient. Bush, it seems, may understate the scope of the Chinese missile threat to Taiwan and its friends. Along with many US and Asian strategists, moreover, he may be setting a false standard by which to measure the Chinese threat to the island. As the Second Artillery improves the range of its missile force, PLA commanders could withdraw part—or eventually all—of the SRBM force from opposite Taiwan without sacrificing much striking power. Beijing could fan impressions that peace is breaking out in the Taiwan Strait while preserving and expanding its military options. That’s a win-win solution for Beijing.

While maps enlighten, then, they can also obscure subtle operational and strategic realities.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.