While the jury is still out on whether China’s J-20 stealth aircraft will serve as a long-range bomber, there is mounting evidence that the Chinese military is developing the means to launch combat operations well beyond its shores and against targets that hitherto were beyond the reach of its conventional military forces.
The latest indication, which again comes courtesy of pictures on military websites, is that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may be testing a navalized version of the 4,000km-range Dong Hai-10 (DH-10) land-attack cruise missile (LACM), which relies integrated inertial navigation, GPS guidance, terrain contour mapping, and scene-matching terminal-homing to reach its target.
At present, only the Second Artillery Corps and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) have a LACM capability (the air force’s variant is known as the CJ-10A). Although the PLAN has anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), its vessels do not currently have the means to attack ground targets — a surprising weakness for a power with growing ambitions.
The high-tech displays during the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the Kosovo War of 1999 had a tremendous impact on the direction of Beijing’s force modernization. Ship-launched BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles were used extensively in operations against Baghdad and Belgrade, providing long-distance precision attacks at almost zero risk to casualty-wary coalition forces.
Given the types of contingencies the Chinese military will likely face in the future, it is hard to imagine that the PLA would not fully appreciate the advantages of having a navalized LACM as part of a “cruise missile triad.” In fact, some analysts believe that the Chinese have had plans for a ship-launched LACM all along, which may also have been influenced by the Hyunmoo IIIC developed by the South Korean Navy, as Richard A. Bitzinger points out in a recent study of the Chinese Navy.
In addition to their long range, accuracy (the DH-10 has a 10m circular error probable), and the difficulty of tracking them, LACMs give a belligerent the ability to launch multidirectional attacks to penetrate enemy air defense networks at a low altitude. Furthermore, unlike other services in the military, the Navy can deploy almost anywhere and linger in a manner than is arguably less threatening than, say, H-6K/M long-range bomber sorties accompanied by cover groups and mid-air refueling tankers.
As the PLAN becomes a major component of China’s “rise” to regional power status, the ability to launch pre-emptive, quasi-surprise attacks against land targets — including command-and-control systems, radar sites, and airstrips — could play a decisive role in battle. Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, a key base for U.S. operations in the Asia Pacific, as well as Okinawa, would be appealing targets for a multi-directional LACM offensive, especially as both are said to be severely lacking in air defense and hardening, leaving aircraft and critical infrastructure exposed to a devastating surprise attack.
“No one, including the U.S., has ringed their countries with enough SAM [surface-to-air] batteries to defend against all the azimuths that a low-flying cruise missile might approach from,” Rear Admiral (Ret) Michael McDevitt, now a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, told The Diplomat. “This is especially true of islands.”
Other scenarios in which PLAN vessels equipped with LACMs could play a major role include a Taiwan contingency, with the ability to surround the island and overwhelm its modern, albeit limited, air defenses (consisting of PAC-3 and Tien Kung “Sky Bow” batteries), as well as many of the disputes China faces in the South China Sea over islets and oil/gas resources there.
The pictures seen in late July showed a missile canister on the 892 PLAN test vessel that was almost identical to the land-based DH-10. Based on the picture, the launchers would be installed in a similar way to the YJ-62 or YJ-83 anti-ship missile canisters currently used on Type 052C destroyers, which would have the advantage of necessitating little, if any, structural modification. If that were the case, as many as eight navalized DH-10 launch tubes could be installed on a Type 052C, and possibly more on the Type 052D rumored to be under development. To ensure minimal defense against enemy ships, a destroyer could also use a LACM/ASCM combination, while another option would be to deploy a mixed group comprising LACM-equipped destroyers accompanied by a cover group armed with ASCMs.
So far it is not known whether the PLAN envisions a vertical-launch system (VLS), such as that used for South Korea’s Hyunmoo IIIC, for its navalized DH-10. Among other things, VLS allows 360-degree targeting regardless of a vessel’s orientation. How the Type 052D evolves could provide clues on this issue (a VLS on existing Type 052Cs is unlikely, as this would entail structural modifications). There also is no indication that China has begun work on a submarine-launched version, though that could logically follow.
Capabilities alone are not a failsafe indicator of intention, but current trends in Chinese military development certainly point to the realization by Chinese strategists that the PLA must have the ability to launch surprise and multidirectional attacks against land targets that lie well beyond its historical area of operations.