Time to Put China's Rocketeers on Notice

Several Pershing II missiles prepared for launching at Fort Bliss McGregor Range, 1987. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

A Sea-Based Pershing II missile can blunt China's A2/AD threat and help restore regional strategic balance.

Speed kills. This simple but powerful concept applies in spades to strike assets—particularly when speed and lethality can be obtained at sufficiently low costs to be deployed at scale. Consider, for instance, China’s intensive investment in ballistic missiles as part of its ongoing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy aimed at restricting U.S. forces’ capacity to operate and project power along the country’s maritime periphery during a potential conflict.

The current crop of U.S. precision-strike platforms, especially those with the standoff range to cope with an increasingly deadly People’s Liberation Army integrated air-defense system, tend to be expensive or launched by scarce and expensive aircraft and fly slowly. To blunt China’s growing asymmetric advantage and retain strategic credibility with regional allies, U.S. forces need a prompt regional strike capability that is reliable, cost-effective and legal. Modernizing and improving the MGM-31 Pershing II medium-range ballistic missile design and deploying it at sea would fulfill all three requirements.

First, the Pershing system uses a fully developed, 1980s-vintage airframe that could be resurrected, mated with modern guidance and warhead systems, and pressed into service much more rapidly and cost-effectively than new hypersonic weapons systems built from scratch. The core challenge in producing Pershing II missiles, or a modernized follow-on version, centers on retooling and training the workers responsible for the manufacturing process, rather than developing entirely new systems and technologies from the ground up, which is what the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike program is doing with the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. The fact that a Pershing II derivative can likely be brought into service more quickly than other hypersonic strike systems would allow it to play an important “gap filler” role as the Pentagon builds out a full hypersonic weapons portfolio.

Second, the Pershing II would also likely be more cost-effective than other regional hypersonic weapon options, both in terms of the cost of the missile and the cost of the associated launch infrastructure. A 1983 Congressional Budget Office report suggests the unit cost of the Pershing II was $4.2 million, or approximately $10.1 million in 2016 inflation-adjusted dollars. In other words, each Pershing II round could likely be had for the price of a single Standard SM-3 ballistic missile interceptor or two Standard SM-6 missiles—both of which would likely be tasked to defend against China’s DF-21D antiship ballistic missile.

The Sea Launch commercial space launching platform gives a sense of potential “high-end” launch system costs, while the modification of the USS Ponce gives a sense of the time and costs that a simpler capability might entail. Sea Launch aims to provide equatorial ocean-based space launch services. To do so, the company utilizes a converted semisubmersible drilling platform that has been extensively retrofitted to support the launches of massive, liquid-fueled Zenit rockets.

Replicating Sea Launch’s path of converting a semisubmersible drilling platform would be the more expensive route. A fairly recent data set from ODS-Petrodata (via the U.S. Energy Information Administration) showing construction costs for semisubmersible platforms and drillships reveals that the ninety-three semisubmersibles in the dataset cost an average of $593 million, while the 140 drillships carried an average price tag of $700 million. If the structure of the vessels was changed from the outset with a mission of missile launching in mind, then that would allow the yard to forego adding the drilling rig and fitting other labor-intensive internal equipment needed for a vessel to drill reliably in harsh deepwater environments. The potential reduction in vessel cost from building the ship frame without the drilling equipment suite is not clear, but it seems reasonable that it would knock at least $125 million, if not more, off the cost numbers found in the ODS-Petrodata data set.