China’s Cruise Missiles: Flying Fast Under the Public’s Radar

May 12, 2014 Topic: Security Region: China

China’s Cruise Missiles: Flying Fast Under the Public’s Radar

Should Asia and America be worried? 

Proliferation Implications

If China’s past record of proliferating ballistic missiles and technology is any indication of its intentions vis-à-vis cruise missile transfers, the consequences could be highly disruptive for the nonproliferation regime by spreading A2/AD capabilities. China has sold ASCMs to other countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Myanmar. Beijing is suspected of furnishing Pakistan with either complete LACMs or components for local assembly.

China is not a full member of the 34-nation Missile Technology Control Regime MTCR). It began to seek MTCR membership actively in 2004 but has thus far been denied due to concerns about its technology transfer approaches and poor proliferation record. Beijing has agreed to adhere to MTCR behavior guidelines but existing members doubt this pledge, particularly in regard to cruise missile and UAV proliferation, and export control enforcement. Not only will China need to greatly improve its willingness to correct previous shortcomings, but it also will need to work with exporters on improving compliance and enforcement requirements and increase its own governmental capacity to deal with the burgeoning exporting industries across China’s huge landmass. This may well require a Herculean effort on China’s part; yet, should China become a fully compliant MTCR member, it would be a salient achievement in limiting widespread LACM proliferation.

Key PLA Challenges

The ability of China to employ its growing arsenal of ASCMs and LACMs to maximum advantage depends on several challenges, three of which merit particular emphasis. First, a key question is whether China possesses the C4ISR to make the best use of its ASCMs. China has to know where mobile targets are, and has to communicate that information in a timely manner to whatever firing units are tasked to launch. As William Murray explains, “Nearly every tactical method of accurately firing long-range ASCMs, by any vessel or aircraft, relies on remote is reasonable to assume China has assessed what is necessary, and is investing aggressively to satisfy those requirements. The PLA’s Over the Horizon (OTH) radar and ever-improving constellation of reconnaissance satellites are strong indicators of this.” Murray notes that China would also need to be able to pass targeting data to the platforms tasked with firing the ASCMs. In the case of attack submarines, this might involves the use of satellite, High Frequency (HF), or Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio transmissions.

Chinese sources assert the need for further improvements. DH-10 (land-based CJ-10) LACMs, due to their subsonic speed, for example, are said to require more than one hour to reach target at 1,500 km range and could be shot down in flight, especially by those countries with sophisticated radar and air-defense systems. As of the late 2000’s, YJ-62 ASCMs also lagged behind U.S. systems and were of late 1980s vintage in terms of precision, range, and “warhead attack capability” [战斗部打击力]. Further improvement of certain key components, such as the “miniature turbofan engine” [微型涡轮风扇发动机], are essential in enhancing its capabilities. Its overall capabilities will also be affected by the performance parameters of the Beidou-2 satellite navigation system.

The second challenge is the careful orchestration of a complex, multifaceted air and missile campaign—potentially over many days of execution. A successful campaign depends on both human and technical factors—well-trained military personnel who have practiced these tasks in diverse ways over many years and the command and control architecture needed to handle complex combined-arms operations. Chinese planners envision establishing a Firepower Coordination Center (FCC) within the Joint Theater Command, which would manage the application of air and missile firepower. Separate coordination cells would be created to deal with missile strikes, air strikes, special operations, and ground and naval forces. Absolutely critical to achieving the delicate timing between waves of missile strikes designed to leverage the effectiveness of subsequent aircraft attacks, from an American perspective, is the skill to coordinate and de-conflict large salvoes of missiles and waves of aircraft operating in multiple sectors. It is unknown whether China is confident that it can successfully orchestrate such a complex joint campaign. Of course, it is conceivable that Chinese planners might not feel obliged to do so, and might conclude the risk of fratricide is not worth the cost of de-conflicting strikes.

The third factor is a less obvious but nonetheless an essential element to successful use of cruise missiles in warfare: the optimization of missiles to achieve their desired mission objective. Conventional wisdom has it that the revolution in information technology easily enables the precision delivery of conventional payloads over great distances in the form of LACMs aided by advances in satellite navigation technologies. To be sure, the advent of precision navigation such as GPS has eased the process somewhat for states wishing to employ LACMs effectively. But the process of becoming truly proficient requires more than simple access to technology. In this regard, effective and accurate bomb damage assessment (BDA) is a critical component.

What is unique about today’s Tomahawk LACM, even its latest Block IV version, is the extent to which its performance has benefitted from years of feedback from system diagnostics collected ever since the first Tomahawk was introduced in the 1970s. Virtually each and every Tomahawk, in peace and war, is analyzed to determine precisely what accounted for the missile’s performance, no matter whether the missile crashed after taking off or hit precisely where it was programmed to hit. Learning from such successes and errors has required that missile developers have not only the kind of sophisticated diagnostic equipment that provides hints about system performance but also highly skilled systems integration specialists who possess specialized knowledge accumulated over years of interaction with other skilled missile developers. The use of Tomahawks in multiple contingencies since Operation Desert Storm in 1991 has facilitated the creation of an enormously valuable store of knowledge that lends itself to steady improvement in LACM performance.

While China surely will not need over three decades to develop high confidence in LACM performance, it will require time and dedicated effort before it can expect to have high confidence that its LACMs will perform as desired, particularly in combined arms campaigns. Presumably, China’s lack of combat experience limits its ability to incorporate feedback into its own learning process. It remains uncertain to what extent China can achieve its command and control objectives until it has gained more experience under realistic training circumstances.


China has invested considerable resources both in acquiring foreign cruise missiles and technology and in developing its own indigenous cruise missile capabilities. These efforts are bearing fruit in the form of increasingly advanced ASCMs and LACMs deployed on a wide range of older and modern air, ground, surface-ship, and sub-surface platforms. To realize the full benefits, China will need additional investments in all the relevant enabling technologies and systems required to optimize cruise missile performance. Shortcomings remain in intelligence support, command and control, platform stealth and survivability, and post-attack damage assessment, all of which are critical to mission effectiveness.

ASCMs and LACMs have significantly improved PLA combat capabilities and are key components in Chinese efforts to develop A2/AD capabilities that increase the costs and risks for U.S. forces operating near China, including in a Taiwan contingency. China plans to employ cruise missiles in ways that exploit synergies with other strike systems, including degrading air defenses and command and control facilities to enable follow-on air strikes.

Forces increasingly threatened by PRC cruise missiles, such as those of the U.S. operating in the Western Pacific, would be well served by increasing their defenses and developing countermeasures—both defensive and offensive—to these systems. Given the many potential advantages of ASCMs, for instance, the degree to which the United States has neglected to deploy them is striking. U.S. Navy surface forces’ ASCM inventory consists solely of Harpoons and not in great quantity. While the U.S. Navy and its Chinese counterpart have different forces and operational priorities, it would seem ill advised for the United States to limit itself so severely in both the type and quantity of ASCMs. The 2014 QDR “prioritizes investments that support our interests and missions, with particular attention to space, cyber, situational awareness and intelligence capabilities, stand-off strike platforms and weapons, technology to counter cruise and ballistic missiles, and preservation of our superiority undersea.” Defenses and other responses to PRC cruise missile capabilities exist, but will require greater attention and a focused effort to develop technical countermeasures and effective operational responses.

Dennis Gormley is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and an internationally recognized expert on cruise missiles.

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor at the Naval War College and an associate in research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

Jingdong Yuan is an Associate Professor in the Centre for International Security Studies at Sydney University and is an expert on arms control and nonproliferation who has written widely on Asian security issues.

Image: Wikicommons. 

This article draws on the authors’ book A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions published by National Defense University Press. The views herein are solely those of the authors, and do not represent the policies or estimates of any organization of the U.S. government.