China's Cruise Missile Program

By Lum, Geoffrey T. | Military Review, January-February 2004 | Go to article overview

China's Cruise Missile Program


Lum, Geoffrey T., Military Review


DURING OPERATIONS Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the U.S. Navy launched 288 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles. Eighty percent hit their targets. (1) The Tomahawk is so accurate that after a 1,600-kilometer (km) journey, its 454-kilogram (kg) warhead usually impacts within 3 meters of the aim point. (2) The People's Republic of China took note of the magnificent performance of these weapons and focused its efforts on acquiring cruise missiles.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, China also learned that the United States is too powerful to be challenged directly by military means. Having a stockpile of cruise missiles would enable China to influence U.S. decisions without becoming involved in a major conflict. Cruise missiles would offer China a precision-strike capability at a much lower cost than developing and training a modern air force would. Missiles require less maintenance than a fleet of modern jet aircraft; are suitable against land- and sea-based targets; are relatively cheap and reliable; and have few vulnerable parts. (3) Cruise missiles also do not entail political risks because, unlike disgruntled pilots, they cannot defect. (4)

China's effort to acquire cruise missiles is a disturbing development. Robert Walpole, a national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, testified before Congress that "[w]e may not be able to provide much, if any, warning of a forward based ballistic missile or land-attack cruise missile threat to the United States. Moreover, land-attack cruise missile development can draw upon dual-use technologies." (5)

Missile Acquisition

Technologies available on the commercial market have eliminated many of the barriers to cruise-missile proliferation, and many components used in cruise missiles are common to commercial aircraft. Companies manufacture cruise missile airframes using the same technologies as for manufacturing light aircraft. A country like China, which can build manned aircraft, can easily produce cruise missiles. China is also acquiring these systems by direct purchase and indigenous development.

Direct purchase. The best option for acquiring missiles is to procure the entire cruise missile system directly from another country. The National Air Intelligence Center (NAIC) estimates that by the end of the decade, at least nine countries will be capable of producing land-attack cruise missiles. (6) Many such countries will offer their cruise missiles for export in order to maintain their military industrial complex because their nation's defense budgets are in decline. This rapid increase in the number of cruise-missile suppliers means that China will find itself seeking cruise missiles during a "buyer's market." Purchased missiles will give China an immediate precision-strike capability and the opportunity to use a proven system.

Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and the curtailment of U.S. foreign military sales to China, China has turned to Russia to acquire most of its current weapons systems and has cloaked its military development in secrecy. China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) subscribes to Deng Xiaoping's strategy of hiding capabilities to maximize options for the future. (7) It is difficult, therefore, to assess the full extent of China's cruise missile acquisition program. However, the open literature suggests that China has purchased the Russian Kh-41 Moskit supersonic, sea-skimming, anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM).

As an air-launched ASCM, the Kh-41 Moskit has a range of 250 kilometers, can attack ships at speeds greater than Mach 2, carries a 200-kg payload, and can make 10-G turns to defeat a ship's defensive capabilities. (8) The Kh-41 can "defeat U.S. Navy Aegis ship defense systems and destroyers," which is daunting because the U.S. and Japan expect the Aegis to play a key role in any future Japanese or U.S. theater missile defense system. (9) New Su-27 fighters and Su-30 long-range interceptors equipped with Kh-41s give China the capability to sink U. …

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