Academic journal article Naval War College Review

USING THE LAND TO CONTROL THE SEA? Chinese Analysts Consider the Antiship Ballistic Missile

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

USING THE LAND TO CONTROL THE SEA? Chinese Analysts Consider the Antiship Ballistic Missile

Article excerpt

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For China, the ability to prevent a U.S. carrier strike group from intervening in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis is critical. Beijing's immediate strategic concerns have been defined with a high level of clarity. The Chinese are interested in achieving an antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) capability because it offers them the prospect of limiting the ability of other nations, particularly the United States, to exert military influence on China's maritime periphery, which contains several disputed zones of core strategic importance to Beijing. ASBMs are regarded as a means by which technologically limited developing countries can overcome by asymmetric means their qualitative inferiority in conventional combat platforms, because the gap between offense and defense is the greatest here.

Today, China may be closer than ever to attaining this capability. In addition to numerous outside reports suggesting Chinese efforts in this area, technical and operationally focused discussions on the topic are appearing in increasing numbers and in a widening array of Chinese sources, some clearly authoritative. This suggests that China may be close to testing and fielding an ASBM system-a weapon that no other country currently possesses, since the United States relinquished a distantly related capability in 1988. In the view of Chinese and Western analysts, even the mere perception that China might have realized an ASBM capability could represent a paradigm shift, with profound consequences for deterrence, military operations, arms control, and the balance of power in the western Pacific.

Although open sources do not claim that China currently has a proven ASBM capability, U.S. government sources have stated consistently that Beijing is developing an ASBM based on a variant of the land-based DF-21/CSS-5 mediumrange ballistic missile (MRBM). The DF-21's 1,500-kilometer-plus range could hold ships at risk in a large maritime area, far beyond Taiwan and into the western Pacific.1 According to a 2006 unclassified assessment by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, "China is equipping theater ballistic missiles [TBMs] with maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRVs) with radar or IR [infrared] seekers to provide the accuracy necessary to attack a ship at sea."2 If viable, such missiles, with "high-reentry speed (Mach 10-12) [and] radical maneuvers," would be extraordinarily difficult to defend against, whatever ballistic missile defense the United States might deploy.3 Targeting a carrier with submunitions could enable China to render it operationally ineffective without sinking it, thereby achieving its objectives with a (perceived) lower risk of escalation. If not countered effectively, the very impression of such a risk might deter carrier strike groups from entering the region in the first place (figure 1).

China has also been working on a sophisticated network of ground- and space-based sensors, including over-the-horizon radars and electronic signals detection equipment. While finding an aircraft carrier has been likened to finding a needle in a haystack, this particular needle has a large radar cross section, emits radio waves, and is surrounded by airplanes. Simply looking for the biggest radar reflection to target will tend to locate the largest ship-and the largest ship will usually be an aircraft carrier.4

While the ASBM issue has been discussed for nearly a decade in Chinese official reports and commentaries in various venues, it has only recently garnered widespread public attention in the United States, primarily in reaction to two Chinese articles;5 these articles were recently translated, posted, and analyzed on an influential blog affiliated with the U.S. Naval Institute, then covered widely by the media.6 But these articles represent merely the tip of a much larger iceberg. In what follows, we will survey open-source Chinese writings on ASBMs to investigate and assess Chinese views on developing, fielding, and ultimately (in a worst-case scenario) using such a system. …

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