The United States and China have found themselves engaged in a “range war” in the western Pacific, a competition over the distances their missiles and aircraft can attack targets. The fielding of new technology by one side is resulting in responses by the other, with the dimensions of the potentially contested space in the Asia-Pacific region growing with each move in this competition. Although the subject of weapons performance and missile tactics may seem tediously arcane, these details will substantially influence the policy options available to both sides during a hypothetical crisis. And the limits of those options may in turn influence the grand strategies of players across the region.
Sixty years ago, Washington’s concern about China’s ability to project firepower was limited to Quemoy and Matsu, two small island groups near the mainland garrisoned by Nationalist forces that occasionally fell under artillery bombardment from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Assistance from the United States, combined with the decrepit state of the PLA’s air and naval power, meant that Nationalist Taiwan was secure, a status that would endure for decades.
We now know that the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in March 1996 (during which the United States deployed two aircraft-carrier strike groups to the region) and the stunning tactical performance displayed by U.S. forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War persuaded China’s leaders to embark on a dramatic reform of China’s military power, centered on the development of “counterintervention” naval, air and missiles capabilities. The goal of this program, still ongoing after nearly two decades of effort, is to create a deep PLA-dominated security zone in the western Pacific that will be too hazardous for adversary forces to operate in during a future potential crisis. In 2007, just eleven year after the 1996 crisis, a study from RAND produced for the U.S. Air Force concluded that the U.S. military could lose to the PLA and its “counterintervention” forces should another such crisis occur.
China’s Latest Moves in the “Range War”
Are U.S. forces in the Pacific really “out-sticked” by Chinese missiles and aircraft with greater range? China’s ship- and submarine-launched antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs), such as the YJ-83 (range of 160 kilometers), the SS-N-22 Sunburn (up to 250 km) and the SS-N-27 Sizzler (300 km) outrange the U.S. Navy’s legacy Harpoon ASCM (124 km). In a surface naval battle, U.S. ships might have to endure a volley of Chinese missiles before surviving U.S. ships could sail within range to respond.
U.S. planners may count on their comparative advantage in submarines and undersea operations to dominate an adversary’s warships. But China’s land-based air and missile forces present another layer of trouble for U.S. and allied forces in the region. Just as with naval missiles, China has gained a range advantage with its land-based air and missile forces. China operates several variants of the Russian-designed Su-30 Flanker strike-fighter (with a combat radius up to 1,500 kilometers). In the near future, China’s Flankers could be armed with the YJ-12 ASCM (range of 400 km), thus potentially threatening targets up to 1,900 kilometers from China. This would exceed the combat radius of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier air wing (about 1,300 kilometers for F/A 18 E/F and F-35C strike aircraft armed with the Navy’s air-to-surface standoff missiles) and the Navy’s Tomahawk land-attack missile (1,600 km).
China possesses a large inventory of land-based land-attack ballistic and cruise missiles capable of suppressing U.S. military bases in the western Pacific. In addition, China has the capacity to strike fixed land targets with air-launched cruise missile up to 3,300 kilometers (past Guam and the Strait of Malacca) from China. Finally, China’s well-publicized DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (range of 1,500 km), armed with a guided and maneuvering warhead, may eventually introduce a new challenge to U.S. aircraft carriers and other warships underway in the western Pacific.
The United States Fights Back
Absent a response by the United States, China’s military planners and policymakers could come to believe that they would have the military tools to suppress U.S. airbases in the western Pacific and threaten U.S. aircraft carriers and other surface ships before they could come in range of Chinese targets. Such a perception would make a future crisis in the region highly dangerous. The U.S. has responded with a few initiatives designed to add more range to U.S. forces.
The U.S. Air Force is acquiring the Joint Air-Surface Standoff Missile–Extended Range (JASSM-ER), a smart stealthy air-launched cruise missile with a range over 900 kilometers. JASSM-ER can receive targeting updates in flight, can be programmed to autonomously search for particular targets, and can precisely strike fixed and relocating aim points. The Air Force intends to arm all of its strike aircraft with the missile, although JASSM-ER is too large to fit in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s internal weapons bay, a requirement for the attack plane’s stealthy flight.
Realizing the legacy Harpoon ASCM has now been outclassed by several Chinese models, the U.S. Navy is adapting JASSM-ER to serve as its new Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Should LRASM retain JASSM-ER’s range, it would have over seven times the range of Harpoon and leapfrog over its Chinese ASCM competition. The Navy has launched LRASM prototypes from one of its standard surface ship launchers and from an aircraft, where the missile’s sensors successfully discriminated from several ships in an underway formation to attack the intended target. U.S. aircraft and warships armed with long-range JASSM-ER and LRASM missiles might be able to engage in fights from which they were previously excluded, a development that would presumably cause Chinese military planners to recalculate their assumptions.
The Navy is also taking steps to extend the range and capabilities of the defenses that protect its aircraft carrier strike groups from air and missile attack. These measures, which include integrating new aircraft, radars, missiles, and software, are a response to the increasingly dangerous antiship missile threats.
Yet in spite of these stepped-up ship defenses, Pentagon officials and policymakers are not wholly confident that even the most heavily defended aircraft carrier strike groups will be able to “stand their ground” everywhere. Thus, a debate is now raging inside the Pentagon and the Congress over how aggressive the Navy should be with the design of its forthcoming unmanned aircraft carrier-launched surveillance and strike aircraft (UCLASS). Perhaps chastened by the severe schedule and cost overruns suffered by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, Navy and top Pentagon officials apparently prefer to limit the new robotic aircraft to mainly patrolling the skies near a carrier strike group at sea. Others, now acknowledging the substantial missile threat now menacing U.S. surface ships, are pleading for a smart stealthy robotic strike aircraft that can launch from beyond the range of enemy missiles and then fly very long distances into heavily defended airspace, autonomously finding and attacking selected targets.
If successful, such a robotic strike aircraft will sustain the relevance of U.S. aircraft carriers by greatly extending the reach of the carrier air wing, thus keeping the ship out of enemy missile range. Advocates of the smart, stealthy, and autonomous UCLASS reason that the U.S. has made a huge investment in its aircraft carriers and the surface ships that support them and that the carrier air wing needs to adapt for the future, as it always has in the past. By contrast the more cautious officials inside the Navy and the Pentagon seem highly concerned with the technical and cost risks associated with developing such a leap-ahead robotic aircraft. They likely fear that another development debacle like the F-35 could result in the cancellation of UCLASS, which would leave the Navy far worse off than if it tried only the more modest robotic surveillance aircraft first.
China’s Next Moves
We can be certain that there will be more moves in the range war. For example, once China has proven the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile system (China has apparently not yet actually tested the missile and its maneuvering warhead against a moving target at sea), it seems reasonable to assume that Chinese engineers will adapt the maneuvering warhead and its sensors to an intermediate-range ballistic missile, with a range two or three times longer than the 1,500-kilometer range of the DF-21D. If successful, such a capability would allow China to attack moving ships east of Guam, south of Indonesia, and deep into the Indian Ocean.