Time to Put China's Rocketeers on Notice
A Sea-Based Pershing II missile can blunt China's A2/AD threat and help restore regional strategic balance.
Such a dispersible, fast-response firepower footprint would pose an unprecedented challenge to Chinese military planners. A modified tanker, container ship, or drillship with less drag than its commercial counterparts and capable of steaming at fifteen knots could fire missiles and, six to seven hours later, launch again from a position roughly one hundred miles away from the first, significantly complicating an adversary’s search and targeting response.
In effect, the sea-based launchers could become an important lightning rod that distracts relatively scarce Chinese long-range and prompt-strike assets from being able to focus fully on carrier groups and forward air and naval bases. Doing so would spread Chinese assets thinner, which in turn would stand to increase U.S. forces’ ballistic-missile defense capacity and create additional opportunities for offensive and counterstrike actions by forcing Chinese long-range strike platforms to confront two fundamental options: (A) engage and deplete weapon inventories, or (B) be held out of the fight.
For the reasons outlined above, the new administration should consider dusting off the Pershing II’s blueprints, tooling up the production line, and acquiring and building multiple launch vessels. The ships and their hypersonic missiles’ prompt regional strike capability would help shift the A2/AD balance in East Asia back in Washington’s favor. The point of the system would not be to destabilize—although China’s leadership might say as much. To the contrary, the Sea Pershing II system could help reinject strategic stability by raising the costs of Chinese military action in the region and commensurately bolstering U.S. allies’ belief in Washington’s strategic credibility.
A mobile, sea-based prompt regional strike capability would also have great utility for the counterterrorism missions that the new administration emphasizes as a key tenet of its foreign policy. Since ISIS and other groups lack China’s sophisticated access denial weaponry, the Sea Pershing II mother ships could come much closer to hostile coastlines and conceivably interdict targets as far as one thousand miles inland, with flight times from launch to impact of ten minutes or less. The Pershing II missile was long ago developed into a deployable weapon and could have its warhead enhanced with modern technology, several basic frameworks for building the launch ship already exist, and the system can likely be brought into service much more cheaply than new hypersonic weapons developed from scratch.
The case is strong: the new U.S. administration’s defense advisors should take a hard look at resurrecting the Pershing II, modernizing it and sending it to sea. In doing so, they should take inspiration from the very attitude that helped China achieve high-end A2/AD capabilities in the first place. In 1999, still smarting from their inability to counter American military intervention in the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, China’s leaders were shocked when an American warplane accidentally bombed its embassy in Yugoslavia. As Andrew Erickson explains in his book on Chinese ASBM development, Chinese president Jiang Zemin did not let that crisis go to waste. Instead, he used it to consolidate support for launching some of the very megaprojects that now underpin the country’s increasing formidable A2/AD capability.
That’s exactly the spirit Pentagon planners need to channel now. Consider the success that China achieved under strategic pressure and with limited resources. Now, picture what American enterprise can bring to the table. Whether or not a sea-based “Pershing-plus” ends up being a workable way of turning the tables on Chinese A2/AD, this is the kind of creative but practical thinking that will be required to get there. Critics waiting in the wings should focus on solutions and suggest affordable alternatives of their own. Consider this article a new salvo in a much-needed discussion.
Gabriel Collins is a former member of the China Maritime Studies Institute team at the U.S. Naval War College and is the co-founder of the widely regarded China SignPost™ (洞察中国) analysis portal. He can be reached at [email protected].
The opinions and positions expressed in this analysis are exclusively the author's private views and do not represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Image: Several Pershing II missiles prepared for launching at Fort Bliss McGregor Range, 1987. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain