Cruise Missiles: China’s Real ‘Carrier Killer’

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Cruise Missiles: China’s Real ‘Carrier Killer’

U.S. military analysts warn of the growing threat Chinese cruise missiles pose to the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region

Cruise Missiles: China’s Real ‘Carrier Killer’
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A new report by U.S. military analysts warns of the growing threat Chinese cruise missiles pose to U.S. and allies in the Asia-Pacific region.

“A key element of the PLA’s investment in antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities is the development and deployment of large numbers of highly accurate antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) on a range of ground, air, and naval platforms. China’s growing arsenal of cruise missiles and the delivery platforms and C4ISR systems necessary to employ them pose new defense and nonproliferation challenges for the United States and its regional partners,” the report states.

The report, entitled A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions, was put out by the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the Institute for National Strategic Studies. It was written by Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson and Jingdong Yuan.

In the report, the authors warn of a number of advantages that cruise missiles provide the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). For example, they note that cruise missiles can be launched from land, sea or air-based platforms. Furthermore, their compact size and limited support requirements allows them to be highly mobile (and thus highly survivable) when launched from ground-based platforms. The authors also note that cruise missiles have a low infrared signature, allowing them to escape detection from missile defense systems.

“The potentially supersonic speed, small radar signature, and very low altitude flight profile of cruise missiles stress air defense systems and airborne surveillance and tracking radars, increasing the likelihood that they will successfully penetrate defenses.”

Moreover, cruise missiles can be produced cheaply, allowing China to acquire large quantities of them. This is important because it could allow the PLA to exploit simple arithmetic in overcoming U.S. and allied missile defense systems. That is, the PLA could launch enough cruise missiles to simply overwhelm existing missile defense systems. Indeed, the report states Beijing believes that cruise missiles possess a 9:1 cost advantage over defenses against them. Thus, the PLA might exploit a quantity over quality approach, the exact opposite of the kind of force structure the U.S. military has outlined for its future.

“Employed in salvos, perhaps in tandem with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles could saturate defenses with large numbers of missiles arriving at a specific target in a short time,” the report notes.

Despite the attention the PLA’s so-called “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, has received in recent years, the authors of the report (as The Diplomat has pointed out before) note that China’s anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) might ultimately pose the biggest threat to U.S. carrier groups (CSG).

“Chinese platforms may be able to deliver lethal, multi-axis saturation strikes against a CSG at extended ranges. Hamstrung by limited ASCM load-outs, Aegis defense of the CSG may be disadvantaged vis-à-vis PLAN opponents…. the growing preponderance of Chinese ASCMs could well affect where and how U.S. CSGs are able to operate in the future,” the report states. Once again, ASCMs hold a crucial advantage over the DF-21D in that they can be used in larger quantities and perhaps offer greater survivability both before and after being launched.

The report underscores that besides acquiring more sophisticated cruise missiles, China is also procuring an increasingly diverse array of the missiles themselves as well as their delivery systems. This too in many ways stands in stark contrast to what the U.S. military, and the U.S. Navy in particular, has been doing in recent years and for the foreseeable future.

Employing cruise missiles effectively, however, requires strident doctrine and organization. Equally important, it requires sophisticated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. While China is making great strides in this area, the authors also note that over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting remains a challenge for the PLA. Furthermore, OTH radars themselves remain vulnerable and could be knocked out or rendered useless early in a conflict. Furthermore, the authors point out that China’s own surface vessels remain vulnerable to ASCMs.