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U.S. Navy Missile Defense: The Evolving Chinese Ballistic Missile Threat

U.S. Navy missile defense, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Part 9

Volumes have been written about the evolving strategic relationship between the United States and China, and much of that informed discussion has been carried on this website. And on any given day, it is impossible to scan national or international media and not read several articles regarding this strategic balance. This is understandable, because for many, how this relationship evolves could well be the defining issue of the 21st century – the stakes are that high. In a 1,500-or-so-word post it’s not possible to discuss all aspects of this complex issue. Instead, the focus will be solely on the Chinese ballistic missile threat.

Here again, many words have been written by experts in the field on this subject alone. But what I’ll try to do is tease out the most important and compelling threads regarding China’s growing capabilities in this area that affect the United States, especially with regard to the widely discussed U.S. “Pivot to Asia.”

President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao of China attend a meeting with business leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Jan. 19, 2011. The relationship between the United States and China is evolving. Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao of China attend a meeting with business leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Jan. 19, 2011. The relationship between the United States and China is evolving. Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

To put what follows into context, it is important to understand that China has dramatically increased its military spending. Its military budget rose by more than 11 percent this year, to greater than $100 billion. Other estimates, such as one from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put the level even higher, reporting that China spent $142 billion on defense in 2011. The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, reported that China’s official military expenditure in 2011 was more than two-and-a-half times the 2001 level (and growing by an average of approximately 11 percent per year), that Asia now spends more on defense than Europe, and that China alone accounts for 30 percent of Asian defense spending.

Other studies, such as a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, document an even more pronounced increase in Chinese military spending, noting, for example, that the Chinese defense budget has quadrupled since 2000. As an October 2012 Agence France-Presse article, “China Leads Rise in Asia Military Spending” put it, quoting the CSIS study, “In 2011, Beijing spent $25.8 billion on new weapons and related research and development, up from $7.3 billion.” Some predict China’s defense budget will double over the next five years.

Chinese Ballistic Missile Threat: One Capability in a Vast Arsenal

Clearly, China’s ballistic missiles represent just one arrow in a quiver of offensive and defensive weapons in China’s arsenal. And just as there is danger in attempting to address this capability in isolation, it is also not especially useful examining U.S. capabilities to defend against these missiles in a stovepiped manner. In any conflict – and even in the context of saber-rattling – it is important to examine the total force each nation brings to the table today, and perhaps more importantly, in the future.

Chinese sailors render honors to Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus during a visit to the People's Liberation Army Navy hospital ship Peace Ark (866), Nov. 29, 2012. Mabus was visiting China to discuss the United States' new defense strategy, deepening our military-to-military engagements, rebalancing toward the Pacific and fostering a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers

Chinese sailors render honors to Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus during a visit to the People’s Liberation Army Navy hospital ship Peace Ark (866), Nov. 29, 2012. Mabus was visiting China to discuss the United States’ new defense strategy, deepening our military-to-military engagements, rebalancing toward the Pacific, and fostering a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers

That said, it is possible to drill down and examine this one capability in detail as a means of understanding not only China’s strategic intent today, but also its likely course in the future, and perhaps most importantly, the measures the United States it taking to enable the U.S. military to address this threat today and tomorrow. Again, there is a vast body of work in this area, and I’ll highlight only the most important aspects, especially from a naval point of view.

We addressed some of the top-level aspects of China’s capability and intent in the post immediately preceding this one, and I’ll repeat none of that here. However, at its core, China’s impressive store of missiles hedges against any conflict with Taiwan while simultaneously supporting its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) efforts in the Asia-Pacific region. Importantly, these capabilities are focused in the maritime arena. While some question China’s strategic intent regarding its maritime interests, a recent Center for Naval Analysis study, Uncertain Waters: Thinking About China’s Emergence as a Maritime Power, summarized China’s approach to this strategic challenge, noting, for example:

China continues to have vital interests that touch on questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity in maritime areas near the mainland. Until these issues are resolved, a key component of how Chinese policymakers think about maritime power is their need to develop the means necessary to prevent de jure independence for Taiwan, prevent an attack on the Chinese mainland from the sea, and defend China’s territorial and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims. The United States is perceived as the single most important potential security threat and the one actor that could prevent China from attaining its goals with regard to Taiwan and other disputes in regional seas.

The international media has extensively covered China’s emerging ballistic missile threat. Almost two years ago, The Economist noted, “The Pentagon has described China’s programme as ‘the most active land-based ballistic- and cruise-missile programme in the world.’ Missiles are good value. Compared with a fully equipped aircraft-carrier, which might cost $15 billion-$20 billion, a missile costs about $1 million … And American strategists are closely watching an experimental anti-ship ballistic missile with a manoeuvrable warhead, which could make it hard for American fleets to approach the Chinese shore.”

As much as one statement can, this conveys much of the “why” behind China’s strategic intent. This is challenging for Americans to understand. It has been almost seven decades since the continental United States faced any threat from the sea, and that was in the form of a few German and Japanese submarines sinking ships off our coast, not enemy battle fleets surging toward our shores in the same fashion China might imagine U.S. carrier strike groups attacking the Chinese mainland. Getting our brains around this strategic perspective is an important first step in coming to grips with how to address the threat.

 

China’s Ballistic Missiles and the Maritime Arena

China has a vast arsenal of short-, medium-, long-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and as the United States seeks ways to deal with this threat, much of the focus of is on the maritime arena, and specifically on how China might use these missiles to support its A2/AD strategy focused on the United States. And given the U.S. military’s recent embrace of the Air-Sea Battle Concept (more on that in a future post) as a way to deal with this A2/AD threat, China is developing ballistic missiles specifically to deal with U.S. Navy carrier strike groups that could threaten China.

A Chinese DF-21A transporter erector vehicle at the "Our troops towards the sky" exhibition at the Beijing Military Museum. Photo by Max Smith via Wikimedia.

A Chinese DF-21A transporter erector vehicle at the “Our troops towards the sky” exhibition at the Beijing Military Museum. Unlike the DF-21A, the DF-21D is thought to carry a conventional warhead rather than nuclear. Photo by Max Smith via Wikimedia.

One ballistic missile, the widely discussed, DF-21D, “carrier killer,” is a convenient metaphor for understanding why China is developing ballistic missiles at such an aggressive pace and what the United States is focusing on to counter this threat. This missile is discussed with increasing-frequency in the international and defense media, and there are a growing number of experts in this field who have enriched this dialogue.

Perhaps one of the most prominent experts on the capabilities of the DF-21D – and where it fits into China’s A2/AD capabilities – is Dr. Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College. Widely-published and interviewed on the subject (see, for example, Andrew Erickson and David Yang, “On the Verge of a Game Changer,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2009, and Andrew Erickson and David Yang, “Using the Land to Control the Sea: Chinese Analysts Consider the Antiship Ballistic Missile,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2009, and “China’s Ripples of Capability,” an interview with Andrew Erickson (AOL Defense), accessed at: http://defense.aol.com/media/editor-david-axe-small.gif on Aug. 30, 2011, for some of his views on the DF-21D).

But Erickson is just one of a growing body of experts pointing out the compelling nature of this threat. As Marshall Hoyler notes in his article, “China’s ‘Antiaccess’ Ballistic Missile and U.S. Active Defense,” in the autumn 2010 Naval War College Review, “China seeks the capacity to find U.S. aircraft carriers roughly a thousand miles from the mainland and to attack them with homing ASBMs (anti-ship ballistic missiles). The most prominent aspect of this threat is China’s development of the world’s first anti-ship ‘carrier killer’ ballistic missile, the DF-21D.” Noted national security expert Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, has opined in Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China, and the South China Sea, “The missile can be fired from protected land-based bastions far away, travels at high speed, and provides mid-course correction and a maneuverable reentry vehicle with great precision and lethality … The DF-21D is the ultimate carrier-killer missile.” And China is demonstrating increasing commitment to this missile, with Keith Bradsher of The New York Times reporting in August 2012 in an article, “China is Said to be Bolstering Missile Capabilities,” “Western forecasts vary on how many of the Dongfeng-41 [DF-21D] missiles China will produce, with 20 to 32 mobile launching systems planned. The mobile launchers make it harder to find and destroy a missile before it is launched. If each missile has 10 nuclear warheads that could result in a few hundred to several hundred nuclear weapons.”

Twenty-six ships from the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force are underway together after the conclusion of exercise Keen Sword 2013, Nov. 16, 2012. Keen Sword 2013 is a biannual exercise held in order to enable the U.S. and Japan to train in coordination procedures and heighten interoperability needed to effectively defend or respond to a crisis in Japan and the Asia-Pacific region. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jennifer A. Villalovos

Twenty-six ships from the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force under way together after the conclusion of exercise Keen Sword 2013, Nov. 16, 2012. Keen Sword 2013 is a biannual exercise held in order to enable the U.S. and Japan to train in coordination procedures and heighten interoperability needed to effectively defend or respond to a crisis in Japan and the Asia-Pacific region. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jennifer A. Villalovos

Indeed it’s interesting to note that this year the world’s most widely read newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, ran an article largely focused on the DF-21D. As Julian Barnes, Nathan Hodge, and Jeremy Page point out in their article, “China Takes Aim at U.S. Naval Might,” “China’s state media has said its new missile, called the DF-21D, was built to strike a moving ship up to about 1,700 miles away. U.S. defense analysts say the missile is designed to come in at an angle too high for U.S. defenses against sea-skimming cruise missiles and too low for defenses against other ballistic missiles.” And more recently, this summer in their article, also in The Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Missile Shield Plan Seen Stoking China Fears,” Brian Spegele, James Hookway, and Yuka Hayashi note how simply the deployment of an early warning U.S. X-band radar to Japan (a long-term U.S. ally) has dramatically increased tensions between the China and the United States. As pointed out in their article, as well as elsewhere in the international media, China views developments such as this as a direct counter to their ballistic missile capabilities.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...