You’ve probably heard that China’s military has developed a “carrier-killer” ballistic missile to threaten one of America’s premier power-projection tools, its unmatched fleet of aircraft carriers. Or perhaps you’ve read about China’s deployment of its own aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. But heavily defended moving targets like aircraft carriers would be a challenge to hit in open ocean, and were China’s own aircraft carrier (or even two or three like it) to venture into open water in anger, the U.S. submarine force would make short work of it. In reality, the greatest military threat to U.S. vital interests in Asia may be one that has received somewhat less attention: the growing capability of China’s missile forces to strike U.S. bases. This is a time of increasing tension, with China’s news organizations openly threatening war. U.S. leaders and policymakers should understand that a preemptive Chinese missile strike against the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the Western Pacific is a very real possibility, particularly if China believes its claimed core strategic interests are threatened in the course of a crisis and perceives that its attempts at deterrence have failed. Such a preemptive strike appears consistent with available information about China’s missile force doctrine, and the satellite imagery shown below points to what may be real-world efforts to practice its execution.
The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force: Precision Strike with Chinese Characteristics
The PLA Rocket Force originally focused on nuclear deterrence. Since the Cold War, the force has increasingly focused on the employment of precision-guided conventional ballistic and land attack cruise missiles. The command now consists of about 100,000 personnel and was elevated in December 2015 to a status co-equal to that of China’s other military services.
In terms of specific missions, Michael S. Chase of the U.S. Naval War College wrote in 2014 that PLA Rocket Force doctrine calls for a range of deterrence, compellence, and coercive operations. In the event that deterrence fails, the missions of a conventional missile strike campaign could include “launching firepower strikes against important targets in the enemy’s campaign and strategic deep areas.” Potential targets of such strikes could include command centers, communications hubs, radar stations, guided missile positions, air force and naval facilities, transport and logistical facilities, fuel depots, electrical power centers, and aircraft carrier strike groups.
Chase also stated that, “In all, Chinese military writings on conventional missile campaigns stress the importance of surprise and suggest a preference for preemptive strikes.” And while most Sinologists discount the idea of a true bolt-from-the-blue attack in a crisis without first giving an adversary a chance to back down, preemptive missile strikes to initiate active hostilities could be consistent with China’s claimed overall military strategy of “active defense.” As a 2007 RAND study of China’s anti-access strategies explained, “This paradox is explained by defining the enemy’s first strike as ‘any military activities conducted by the enemy aimed at breaking up China territorially and violating its sovereignty’…and thereby rendered the equivalent of a ‘strategic first shot.’” China analyst Dean Cheng stated similarly in 2015, “From Mao to now, the concept of the active defense has emphasized assuming the strategic defensive, while securing the operational and tactical initiative, including preemptive actions at those levels if necessary.” Thus, China could consider a preemptive missile strike as a defensive “counter-attack” to a threat against China’s sovereignty (e.g., over Taiwan or the South China Sea) solely in the political or strategic realm.
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