China's Ballistic Missile Threat

By Hughes, James H. | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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China's Ballistic Missile Threat


Hughes, James H., The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


The author examines in detail the on-going Chinese build-up of ballistic missile forces, and suggests the potential impact of this build-up on the balance of forces as against, in particular, Taiwan and the United States.

Key Words: China, ballistic missiles, MIRVs, cruise missiles, United States' missile strategy, Taiwan's defense, non-nuclear weapon strategy

Ballistic Missiles as a Key Element in China's Military Transformation

China is building short, intermediate, and long-range ballistic missiles with which it could threaten the United States and numerous other countries. The situation is potentially parallel to that reached in China's relations with Taiwan, when in 1995 and 1996 it was able to threaten Taiwan with ballistic missile "test" firings. There are indications that China's ballistic missile buildup reflects a strategy of using missiles for deep, rapid strikes directed at an opponent's air and naval forces, and at radar, naval, and air bases, without first requiring air superiority.

In contrast to U.S. military strategy, which relies heavily on air power, Chinese missile strategy appears to involve the use of ballistic missiles as a counterforce strike against an opponent's military forces, seizing the initiative and taking advantage of the element of surprise. America's perception of the use of ballistic missiles in a counterforce strike appears limited, reflecting a Cold War context of nuclear-armed ICBMs targeted at missile silos, long-range bomber bases, Trident submarine bases, and command and control centers. But counterforce strategy may be applied to use non-nuclear, accurate ballistic missiles targeted at conventional air and naval forces. Such a strategy would be unusual for the United States, as the U.S. relies predominately on air power and has not encountered a similar strategy since the end of the Cold War.

With the exception of some tactical short-range multiple rocket launchers, the United States uses ballistic missiles only for deterrence. In contrast, China evidently contemplates the use of ballistic missiles both for aggression and deterrence. For example, on March 6, 2000 the PLA (People's Liberation Army) newspaper Liberation Army Daily noted China "is a country that has certain abilities of launching strategic counterattack and the capacity of launching a long-distance strike... It is not a wise move to be at war with a country such as China, a point which the U.S. policymakers know fairly well also."2

China's strategy has resulted in the development of a variety of nonnuclear weapons such as radio-frequency warheads that generate a powerful electromagnetic pulse disabling electronics, computers and radar; and cluster munitions to disable runways and air bases.3 It has developed warheads for penetrating hardened command posts; and warheads using fuel-air explosives that produce three to five times the blast damage of conventional high-explosives, similar to what the United States used in Afghanistan.4 China has, in addition, developed maneuverable warheads for its short-range ballistic missiles to evade ballistic missile interceptors like the Patriot missiles Taiwan has deployed around Taipei. It has reduced the radar signature of its short-range DF-11 and DF-15 ballistic missile warheads to evade detection. It has tested chaff, jammers, and other countermeasures.5

The variety of its warheads combined with its development of accurate missiles has given China a potent arsenal for deep penetration, first strike weapons in conventional warfare. It was would evident that China plans to use its ballistic missiles in tactical military situations - in attacking air and naval forces and bases, not just as terror weapons as seen in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. China is developing the ability to use ballistic missiles to penetrate an opponent's air and missile defenses, weakening an opponent to create a favorable playing field for the rest of its armed forces.

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