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? 

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.”

Special Characteristics

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.

Land-Attack Cruise Missile Developments

China has deployed two subsonic LACMs, the air-launched YJ-63 with a range of 200 km and the 1,500+ km-range ground-launched DH-10. Both systems benefited from ample technical assistance from foreign sources, primarily the Soviet Union/Russia. The first-generation YJ-63 employs a fair weather electro-optic seeker with man-in-the-loop steering via data link. The second-generation DH-10 has a GPS/inertial guidance system but may also use terrain contour mapping for redundant midcourse guidance and a digital scene-matching sensor to permit an accuracy of 10 m. Development of the Chinese Beidou/Compass navigation-positioning satellite network is partly intended to eliminate dependence on the U.S. GPS for guidance. Beijing has purchased foreign systems and assistance to complement its own indigenous LACM efforts. It has received Harpy anti-radiation drones with standoff ranges of 400 km or more from Israel. China might even possess the Russian Klub 3M-14E  SS-NX-30 LACM, which can be launched from PLAN Project 636M Kilo-class submarines and deliver a 400-kg warhead to a range of 300 km. Time and dedicated effort will increase the PLA’s ability to employ LACMs even in challenging combined-arms military campaigns.

While current DH-10 ground-launch cruise missiles and YJ-63 air-launched systems would be largely constrained to focus on a Taiwan contingency, there are strong signs that China wishes to expand its cruise missile ambitions to include both air-launched and ship-launched LACMs. An air-launched version of the DH-10, the “CJ-10,” has reportedly been test launched from the new H-6K bomber, which can carry four CJ-10 LACMs externally. On such critical parameters as range and CEP, CJ-10 reportedly matches those of the Block-IV Tomahawk. Chinese media suggest that H-6K bombers can fire CJ-10 LACM salvos on Japanese military targets, thereby offering strategic deterrence. Some Chinese sources even contend that a nuclear-capable “CJ-20” LACM variant remains under development and will also be carried by the H-6K.                   

A Chinese navy test vessel has recently experimented with on-deck canister launchers that likely contain either YJ-18 ASCMs or DH-10 LACMs for at-sea testing. Although most PLAN surface combatants have a limited capacity of eight-to-sixteen canister launchers—meaning tradeoffs between ASCMs and LACMs—China’s apparent interest in a sea-launched DH-10 strongly suggest that future PLAN destroyers, such as the new Type 052D, will likely be equipped with a new vertical launching system with a greater capacity to carry both ASCMs and LACMs. Already, YJ-18 launchers could replace YJ-62 launchers aboard the Type 052C. Should China add large numbers of air- and sea-launched LACMs to its already substantial inventory of ground-launched cruise missiles, it would significantly extend the range of the PLA’s capacity to employ LACMs to deal with contingencies beyond Taiwan and the rest of its immediate maritime periphery.

Potential Employment in a Taiwan Scenario

Chinese ASCMs and LACMs could be used in conjunction with other A2/AD capabilities to attack U.S. naval forces and bases that would be critical for U.S. efforts to respond to a mainland Chinese attack on Taiwan. While cross-Strait relations are relatively stable at present, Beijing worries that that could change, and in any case wants to deter independence in peacetime by threatening unacceptable costs. Operating in tandem with China’s huge inventory of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, LACMs could severely complicate Taiwan’s ability to use its air force to thwart Chinese attack options. Chinese military planners view LACMs as particularly effective against targets requiring great accuracy (for example, airfield hangars and command and control facilities). They also view large-salvo attacks by LACMs and ballistic missiles as the best means to overwhelm enemy missile defenses. Chinese planners emphasize the shock and paralytic effects of combined ballistic and LACM attacks against enemy airbases, which could greatly increase the effectiveness of follow-on aircraft strikes. China currently has 255–305 ballistic missile and LACM launchers within range of Taiwan, which are capable of delivering sustained pulses of firepower against a number of critical airfields, missile defense sites, early warning radars, command and control facilities, logistical storage sites, and critical civilian infrastructure such as electrical distribution. This could impact not only Taiwan itself, but also U.S. and/or Japanese forces if they attempted to defend the island.

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.