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Facing A New Missile Threat From China

This column was written by Andrew Erickson.

Authoritative Chinese military documents suggest that Beijing has taken a serious interest in anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs).

U.S. government sources state consistently that Beijing is pursuing an ASBM based on a variant of the DF-21/CSS-5 medium-range solid propellant ballistic missile (MRBM). The DF-21's 1,500 km+ range could hold ships at risk in a large maritime area, far beyond Taiwan into the Western Pacific.

If fielded, the ASBM would be just one of a dizzying array of new platforms and weapons systems China has been buying and building since the late 1990s-systems which, taken as a whole, will allow China to assert unprecedented control of its contested maritime periphery.

The ASBM, however, differs markedly from the quiet submarines, lethal anti-ship cruise missiles, and copious sea mines which China has been adding to its inventory. It would draw on over half a century of Chinese experience with ballistic missiles, would be fired from mobile, highly concealable platforms, and would have the range to strike targets hundreds of miles from China's shores.

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While probably intended with U.S. carrier strike groups (CSGs) specifically in mind, Chinese ASBM development could have deeply destabilizing consequences that would reverberate far beyond U.S.-China strategic relations.

The first damage from a demonstrated Chinese ASBM might be to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) between Washington and Moscow, which has prevented both nations from possessing conventional (and nuclear) ground-launched ballistic (and cruise) missiles with ranges of 500 and 5,500 km. Various Russian civilian and military leaders have recently questioned the treaty's relevance to Moscow's national interests, particularly in light of U.S. ballistic missile defense development and Chinese nuclear MRBM capabilities (e.g., the DF-21).

Chinese demonstration of the strategic value of missiles with precisely the parameters banned by the treaty might generate considerable pressure in Moscow and even Washington for its revision or outright abandonment.

Additionally, other nations in the region, particularly Japan, which feels increasingly vulnerable strategically yet remains reluctant to develop nuclear weapons, might feel pressured to develop similar capacity of their own. At the very least, the resulting strategic tension would generate additional military procurement and energize long-term investment to counter or balance against Chinese ASBM capabilities in some fashion, a phenomenon that would leave all parties worse off than before.

At the political level, then, Washington must emphasize to Beijing that ASBM development on its part would have implications inimical to both U.S. and Chinese interests.

Responding to the unprecedented strategic challenge presented by an ASBM capability would require the U.S. military and civilian leadership to face hard truths. The most perilous approach would be to insist that the U.S. maintained its ability to keep the peace, when in fact the military capabilities that underpinned that ability were diminishing, at least in a relative sense.

Such a discrepancy between rhetoric and reality would erode America's regional credibility and fuel Chinese overconfidence. The prospect of documenting that discrepancy publicly might motivate China to conduct a demonstration of an ASBM; a successful test could create the impression that U.S. power projection capabilities-and the regional credibility that depends on them-had been dramatically diminished.

To prevent these negative outcomes, the U.S. must redouble its efforts to promote peace and cooperation, while ensuring that its own capabilities remain strong. Land-based air power will not solve the problem, because China's strategic rocket forces already hold all useful air bases at risk with surface-to-surface missiles simpler and more reliable than an ASBM.

Defensive measures to increase the stealth of the CSG, such as decoys, obscurants, and electronic countermeasures, may buy some time, but would the U.S. bet a CSG on their effectiveness? More importantly, it would be difficult to credibly demonstrate defensive measures without compromising their effectiveness; China and the region may perceive an erosion of U.S. strength and credibility, even if the CSG can defend itself against the ASBM.

Ultimately, it may prove necessary to shift U.S. combat power from massive, vulnerable platforms that present very lucrative targets, to platforms which are more concealable, survivable, dispersed, or disposable. Investment in submarines, stealthier ships, long-range aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles may present options for maintaining credibility even in an environment where the aircraft carrier is perceived as vulnerable. This would require a fundamental cultural shift away from a carrier-centric navy.

These challenges underscore the importance of maintaining positive cross-Strait relations, which have improved markedly since Ma Ying-jeou assumed Taiwan's presidency last year. Meanwhile, Washington and Beijing are increasingly pursuing tremendous shared interests, from deterring Somali pirates to averting a financial tsunami. They could do more to ensure that bilateral military relations are similarly productive.

This column was written by Andrew Erickson, Associate Professor,
China Maritime Studies Institute, Naval War College. These are his personal views. For further details, see "On the Verge of a Game-Changer," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2009.

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