The People’s Republic of China’s ( PRC) numerous, increasingly advanced cruise missiles have attracted far less attention than its ballistic missiles—yet their impact on regional security, deterrence, and potential military operations may be similar in magnitude. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has limited itself severely in both the type and quantity of its own anti-ship cruise missiles ( ASCMs). It is therefore simply amazing that such a formidable set of weapons has generated so little open source analysis; indeed that may be precisely part of its appeal for China. This article attempts to rectify this surprising foreign neglect by surveying PRC cruise missile programs and their implications for broader People’s Liberation Army ( PLA) capabilities, especially in a Taiwan scenario—although they can also have significant impact elsewhere on China’s increasingly contested maritime periphery.
China’s military modernization is focused on building modern ground, naval, air, and missile forces capable of fighting and winning local wars under “informatized conditions.” The principal planning scenario is a military campaign against Taiwan, which would require the PLA to deter or defeat an intervention by the United States. The PLA has sought to acquire asymmetric “assassin’s mace” technologies and systems to overcome a technologically and numerically superior adversary and couple them to the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems necessary for swift and precise execution of short-duration, high-intensity wards. A key element of the PLA’s investment in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities is the development and deployment of large numbers of highly accurate anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) on a wide range of ground, air, and naval platforms. Chinese sources assert that LACMs enable the PLA to reach targets as far as away as Guam, Darwin, and Diego Garcia . China’s growing arsenal of cruise missiles and the delivery platforms and C4ISR systems necessary to employ them pose a pressing defense challenge, and to a lesser degree a nonproliferation challenge, for the United States and its regional partners. This is part of a larger challenge: as the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) emphasizes, “Growing numbers of accurate conventional ballistic and cruise missile threats represent an additional, cost-imposing challenge to U.S. and partner naval forces and land installations.”
Cruise missiles are versatile military tools due to their potential use for precision conventional strike missions and the wide range of employment options. Modern cruise missiles offer land, naval, and air launch options, allowing a “two-stage” form of delivery that extends a missile’s already substantial range. They may also be placed in canisters for extended deployments in harsh environments. Because cruise missiles are compact and have limited support requirements, ground-based platforms can be highly mobile, contributing to prelaunch survivability. Moreover, cruise missiles need only rudimentary launch-pad stability, enabling shoot-and-scoot tactics. Some potential combination of supersonic speed, small radar signature, and earth-hugging flight profiles can enable cruise missiles to stress naval and ground-based air defense systems as well as airborne surveillance and tracking radars, increasing the likelihood that they will successfully penetrate defenses. Employed in salvos, perhaps in tandem with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles could saturate defenses with large numbers arriving at a specific target in a short time. Optimal employment of cruise missiles requires accurate and timely intelligence; survivable delivery platforms; mission planning and command, control, and communications systems; and the accurate means of damage assessment.
Understandably, Chinese analysts pay close attention to global and regional development and deployment of cruise missiles, especially in countries such as the United States. A recent assessment notes that due to sequestration, the Pentagon postponed R&D and procurement of new-generation of cruise missiles; instead, modification and upgrading of existing systems will enhance their capabilities and therefore help the U.S. maintain global dominance. A recent RAND report proposing, perhaps optimistically, that the U.S. deploy anti-ship cruise missiles in key Western Pacific choke points and maximize A2/AD capabilities with allies to confine the PLAN within the first island chain has received widespread attention in China .
Anti-Ship Cruise Missile Developments
Like other nations, China has come to regard ASCMs as an increasingly potent means of shaping the outcome of military conflicts. China has developed its own advanced, highly capable ASCMs (the YJ series) while also importing Russian supersonic ASCMs, which have no operational Western equivalents. China is capable of launching its ASCMs from land, aircraft, ships, and submarines, providing redundant multi-axis means of massing offensive firepower against targets at sea (or at least against their predicted locations). Virtually every new surface ship and conventionally powered submarine in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) can launch ASCMs, allowing these platforms to serve as what Naval War College professor William Murray terms “aquatic TELs” ( Transporter-Erector-Launchers). PLAN training has become more diverse and realistic in recent years with increasing focus on cruise missile operations.
Beijing has furnished its ASCMs with improved guidance and has started to implement satellite navigation capabilities. Still, over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting remains a challenge. Chinese researchers are studying how to best overcome Aegis defenses and target adversary vulnerabilities. ASCMs are increasingly poised to challenge U.S. surface vessels, especially in situations where the quantity of missiles fired can overwhelm Aegis air defense systems through saturation and multi-axis tactics. More advanced future Chinese aircraft carriers might be used to bring ASCM- and LACM-capable aircraft within range of U.S. targets. A consistent theme in Chinese writings is that China’s ships are themselves vulnerable to cruise missile attack. But Beijing appears to believe it can compensate by further developing its ability to threaten enemy warships with large volumes of fire.