March 26, 2024

Deterring the Powerful Enemy

China’s Counter-Intervention Capability in a Regional Conflict


View the entire testimony from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.


Vice-Chair Price, Commissioner Schriver, distinguished members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to participate in today’s hearing. It is a privilege to testify here on matters that are important to the vital national security interests of the United States, as well as those of our other allies and partners. I will specifically address China’s military doctrine regarding the concept of “counter-intervention” within its military operations. I will then examine PRC capabilities to deter or deny U.S. and allied military intervention, points of vulnerability for China, and important points of uncertainty. Finally, I will offer policy recommendations about some of the steps that might be considered to help maintain a U.S. capability for effective military intervention.

II. “Counter-intervention” as a concept in PRC Doctrine

Chinese military doctrine identifies three primary joint-level campaigns that could trigger a U.S. (and allied) military intervention: the Joint Blockade Campaign (such as a naval and air blockade isolating Taiwan), the Landing Campaign (such as a landing on Taiwan), and the Anti-Air Raid Campaign (a defensive campaign, with offensive elements, intended to prevent strikes into the PRC from forces such as Taiwan, Japan, or the United States). PLA doctrine also identifies service-level campaigns that could support or supplement these joint-level campaigns, such as campaigns for offensive anti-ship operations, sea line of communication (SLOC) interdiction, SLOC guarding, naval base defense, coral reef seizure, air offense and defense, and conventional missile assault operations. While the concept of countering an outside military intervention against a Chinese military operation does not exist as a distinct campaign or strategy on its own, the need to be able to do so while executing the other campaigns is discussed within Chinese doctrine.

On a broader level, the PRC’s strategic documents identify key national defense objectives which could be supported by these and other campaigns, to include deterring and resisting aggression, opposing and containing “Taiwan independence”, and safeguarding what China sees as its national sovereignty and territorial integrity (though this may include territories currently disputed by or even under the control of other states), maritime rights and interests (which may include expansive maritime claims not recognized by international law), and its overseas interests.

Within publicly known PRC military doctrine, intervention against a Chinese military campaign is stated as likely to be conducted by a “powerful enemy” which, based on descriptions within the texts, can be easily understood to mean the United States and its allies. Chinese military planners are repeatedly instructed to plan to deter or deny such an intervention, particularly within the context of a campaign of forced Taiwan reunification. Chinese writings indicate a belief that whether or not the United States intervenes will largely be determined by a U.S. assessment of likely risks and costs—and that this assessment can be affected by effective Chinese war preparation and strong military capabilities. Given the possibility of such an intervention, Chinese doctrine advocates launching a war when an opponent is unprepared, and the operation is unexpected.

If deterrence of U.S. and allied intervention fails, Chinese doctrine advocates achieving “operational suddenness” against a powerful enemy, catching it by surprise to gain campaign initiative “in one blow” via asymmetric means using the “elite strengths” of China’s naval, air, and missile forces. Understanding that U.S. intervention may result in a protracted conflict, China’s planners are instructed to see a quick decision as the most important goal of a campaign, but to ready to be locked in a stalemate if necessary. If a PRC military operation has already achieved its goals at the time of a large-scale external intervention, PRC doctrine recommends terminating combat operations immediately to achieve war termination, but to continue to fight if necessary.

III. PRC “counter-intervention” capabilities

In support of deterring or denying a U.S. intervention in the region, the PLA has been engaged in what could be accurately described as the largest and most rapid expansion of maritime and aerospace power in generations. Based on its scope, its scale, and the capabilities being developed, this buildup appears to be intended to threaten U.S. forces across the Indo-Pacific, with a goal to force U.S. leaders to conclude that intervention against PRC military operations would be too risky or costly to pursue. Some of the most obvious manifestations of this can be seen in three specific areas:

1) The rapid growth of the PLA’s long range missile force: Probably the most well-known threat to U.S. and allied forces in the western Pacific is the huge arsenal of precision-strike conventionally-armed ballistic missiles fielded by the Chinese PLA Rocket Force (PLARF). Already by far the world’s largest, this force continues to grow at a rate that only makes sense for the purpose of threatening U.S. forces throughout the region. This is most apparent in China’s force of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs), arguably one of the crown jewels of the Chinese military. Specifically, the Department of Defense’s 2023 China Military Power report recently revealed that China’s rocket force now deploys 300 MRBM launchers with 1000 missiles, and 250 IRBM launchers with 500 missiles. This constitutes a more than four-fold expansion in these missile inventories in just a few years: in 2018, China was assessed to have at most 125 MRBM launchers with 300 missiles, and 30 IRBM launchers with 30 missiles. China’s MRBM inventory includes both land-attack and antiship missiles, and nearly all of China’s IRBMs are configurable to anti-ship or land-attack missions, including nuclear strike.

Given that China’s conventional MRBM/IRBM missile capability has been known about for years, one might be tempted consider its deployment to be already “baked in” to considerations of regional deterrence, and of the U.S.’s ability to intervene in a conflict at acceptable risk and cost. But the apparent scale of the Chinese rocket force’s expansion matters: going from what had been probably dozens of medium-range missiles a decade ago, to a force that now includes hundreds of much longer-range ones, will drive changes on a number of different levels. Quantitative changes of this magnitude will drive qualitative effects in a number of ways.

First, the number of available Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs) has likely already broadened the PLARF's antiship mission from what has been thought of as a "carrier-killer" role to a broader and more generic "ship-killer" mission. China itself describes the DF-26 as capable against large and medium-size ships, and we have now seen what look like mockups of U.S. guided missile destroyers on China’s ballistic missile testing ranges. With so many more ASBMs at hand, smaller groups or individual warships–and especially logistics ships–could become “ASBM-worthy”.

Another way in which a PLARF equipped with large numbers of longer-range IRBMs could change things would be through its much greater reach, and in particular specific additional areas that it could strike. In the Philippine Sea, areas of relative sanctuary beyond the range of China’s shorter-range MRBMs lie well within range of the DF-26 IRBM (See Figure 1). These areas have mattered in how American and allied defense thinkers have looked at China’s counter-intervention capability, having previously posited the ability to operate forces reasonably safely outside the First Island Chain as a means to enable episodic operations closer-in to defend locations such as Taiwan. Looking further southwest, Chinese strategists have obsessed since the early 2000s over the "Malacca dilemma", referring to the vulnerability to interception of China's oil imports from the Middle East. With large numbers of IRBMs, the PLA could have the ability to strike U.S. and allied warships attempting to intervene by maintaining such a blockade across southeast Asia. Similar missile coverage could extend across the vital sea lanes leading from the Middle East to Asia and Europe, with coverage extending from PLARF bases in western China (see Figure 2).

One related factor that may be supporting the PLARF’s growth in long range missiles is the apparent deployment by the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) of a new long-range Multiple Launch Rocket System, the PCL-191, that appears capable of ranging either much or all of Taiwan, depending on the variant. By putting weapons in the hands of the PLAGF that are capable of conducting strikes across Taiwan, some of the shorter-range units of the PLARF may have converted to longer-range missiles, accelerating the transition of the PLARF from a force mostly focused on striking Taiwan with short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to one capable of broader goals such as deterring or denying U.S. intervention in potential conflicts across the Indo-Pacific.

To be sure, as has been discussed by U.S. leadership before, the range arcs of the PLA's missiles are not impenetrable, and the PLARF is not the first area denial challenge that the Navy and Marines have dealt with. There will, without a doubt, be a back-and-forth between seeker and jammer, hider and finder, that will mitigate—to a degree—the threat of the PLARF’s long range missiles. But it is hard to deny a substantially increased level of risk, and over a much larger area.

The challenges to U.S. and allied intervention are by no means restricted to U.S. maritime power projection, as the story is perhaps even worse for land-based tactical aircraft and bombers. Ships are at least moving targets, whereas fixed land bases exist at a known latitude and longitude, only a few keystrokes away from targeting. In 2017, a colleague of mine and I at the Center for a New American Security estimated that a pre-emptive Chinese missile strike on U.S. bases in Asia could crater every runway and runway-length taxiway at every major U.S. air base in Japan, and destroy more than 200 aircraft on the ground. We also estimated that, in addition to shorterrange missiles, an inventory of approximately 60 DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles would be necessary to conduct such a strike. Considering the scale of the inventory of medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles discussed above, the missile threat has become far graver than we estimated at that time.

In addition, since we issued our report in 2017, open-source imagery now indicates that China’s ballistic missile forces may be developing the ability to target specific U.S. and allied high value aircraft. Imagery from the PLARF’s ballistic missile impact range in western China (see Figure 3), shows the use of what appears to be a mock target specifically designed to imitate a parked E-3 Sentry airborne early warning aircraft (AWACS). Similarly, a test target seen in 2022 seems to represent an E-767 AWACS aircraft, an aircraft type only operated by Japan (see Figure 4). While previous aircraft targets at this test range were mostly older Chinese models, sufficient to test the efficacy of ballistic missile warheads targeted at a specific location, the use of a mock target built to represent specific U.S. and Japanese aircraft types (no other nation in the region operates them) may indicate the development of a warhead with the capability to recognize and home in on specific aircraft, rather than having to blanket an entire airfield with munitions.

Further backstopping its conventional ballistic missile, China is now engaged in a massive expansion of its nuclear force, including the construction of hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos, construction of additional ballistic missile submarines. In a fairly short amount of time, China’s missile has gone from having a “minimal deterrent” force structure with perhaps dozens of ICBM launchers to a force with more than the United States possesses. While there has been much ongoing speculation about China’s reasons for commencing this nuclear force expansion (China has been largely quiet on the topic), one clear possibility is that by having a survivable and robust nuclear deterrent force, China may feel empowered to take more aggressive conventional action against U.S. forces and bases in the region, with less worry of U.S. nuclear retaliation.

2) The modernization and growth of China’s long-range bomber force: In recent years, China has also dramatically increased the capability of its force of long-range strike aircraft, producing brand-new, long-range aircraft seemingly purpose-built to strike American and allied bases well away from China’s borders, and to overwhelm U.S. carrier strike groups.

Before the last decade, China’s bomber force had fairly limited capabilities. Centered around the Xi’an Aircraft Company’s H-6, a dated copy of the Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-16, its aircraft only carried a small number of missiles of fairly limited capability and could deliver them to a limited range. This began to change in 2009 with the introduction of the H-6K, a major redesign and update of the basic airframe. Equipped with completely new engines and avionics, the H-6K enjoys a much longer combat radius (about 3500km), and is capable of carrying three times the number of missiles (6 compared to 2 each in previous versions), with each land-attack cruise missile having a much longer range compared to previous versions.

Incorporating the improvements provided by the PLA Air Force’s H-6K, the PLA Navy gained its own maritime strike-focused version of the aircraft—the H-6J. First seen in 2018, the H-6J is capable of carrying 6 YJ-12 longrange supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), again three times as many as its predecessor. In 2023, the PLA Navy’s H-6J-equipped bomber regiments were transferred to the PLA Air Force, supporting increasing jointness in conducting maritime strike operations. China has revealed the development of a new model, the H- 6N, which is capable of aerial refueling and carries a single, air-launched ballistic missile, with what appears to be a hypersonic glide vehicle. While it is not yet clear what targets the H-6N’s new missile is intended to strike, with the range extension provided by refueling the reach of China’s bomber force will grow ever further. This is to say nothing of China’s ongoing development of its own stealth bomber, the H-20, which Chinese state media claims will be publicly revealed soon.

It is important to note that it is not only in individual platform capability that China’s bomber force has been improving, but also in numbers. China has not merely replaced older bombers with improved ones; it appears to have grown the size of the force as well. Prior to the introduction of the H-6K, most estimates were that China’s H-6 inventory was in the mid to low-100s, with a total production run since the early 1960s of about 200 aircraft. By my count using commercial imagery, there were more than 230 H-6’s of all types in 2020; given that China has a number of recently-built or upgraded H-6 bases which have shelters for their aircraft, the actual numbers may be higher if bombers there were parked under cover. When combined with its potent conventional ballistic missile force, China’s long-range striking power will be vastly greater than would be necessary to deal with any regional challenger, and seems clearly directed at gaining the ability to deny U.S. forces the ability to operate with reasonable risk at ranges from which they could deliver effective support to our allies within the First Island Chain.

3) China’s world-class naval expansion: In recent decades China has grown to be the world’s premier sea power by most measures. In three of the pillars of maritime power—fishing fleets, merchant shipping, and maritime law enforcement—China holds already holds first place. China’s shipbuilding industry dwarfs that of the United States, building 26 million tons of shipping in 2022 compared to just over 70,000 tons from American yards. The same is true in maritime law enforcement, with China building coast guard cutters and “maritime safety” vessels weighing over ten thousand tons, larger even than the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyers. China’s huge fishing fleet, also the world’s largest, is depleting fish stocks worldwide. In the vanguard of the fishing fleet is a force of government-subsidized and directed maritime militia, with vessels specifically constructed to be able to successfully ram others.

It is only in the realm of hard naval power that the United States has retained superiority, though the trend lines even there are distinctly negative. In addition to its growing regional air and missile strike forces described above, in recent years China has engaged in a naval buildup unlike any seen since the U.S. “600-ship Navy” effort of the 1980s. Xi Jinping has declared on more than one occasion that China must have a “world-class naval force”, and a program of naval construction appears to be underway to make that a reality. The U.S. Department of Defense revealed in 2020 that China’s navy is now the “largest navy in the world” in terms of the sheer number of ships (see Figure 5). Chinese shipyards have been seen churning out large numbers of warships, including aircraft carriers, state of the art multi-mission destroyers, and cruisers that are the world’s largest current-production surface combatants. This naval buildup does not appear to be unbalanced in nature, as China has also been constructing modern at-sea replenishment ships and amphibious assault ships to carry its rapidly-expanding Marine Corps.

Many commentators have pointed out, and not incorrectly, that China’s warships have been on average much smaller; that the U.S. Navy remains much larger in terms of its overall tonnage, i.e., the sheer heft of the force. Assuming that combat power at sea has a somewhat comparable density among modern warships, tonnage may indeed be a better measure than the number of hulls. But by that measure the trend lines are little better. By my calculations, from 2014-2023 China launched more than 1.1 million tonnes of warships, roughly fifty percent more than the United States launched over the same time period (see Figure 6). While the U.S. Pacific Fleet is currently larger than the PLA Navy by tonnage, my rough calculations indicate that, on current trend lines, the PLA Navy will reach near-parity on this basis as well in ten to fifteen years. Given that there are ongoing or planned major expansions both at the primary shipyards that build China’s surface combatants and aircraft carriers, and at the one that builds its nuclear submarines, it seems that the pace of Chinese naval shipbuilding is unlikely to slow over the long-term.

When we consider China’s historic economic expansion over recent decades, this naval buildup should not surprise us—it follows the pattern laid out more than a century ago by the seminal American naval thinker Alfred Thayer Mahan: that “the flag follows trade”. Vigorous and growing trading nations like China gain overseas interests and become dependent on trade routes, and then work to gain the means to protect them. This is a selfreinforcing cycle where the Chinese economy’s ever-growing appetite for energy and raw materials, as well as a growing array of Chinese overseas economic interests and investments, drive increased Chinese perceptions of insecurity. This feeling of insecurity is most clearly illustrated by what was described by Hu Jintao in 2003 as China’s “Malacca dilemma”, a recognition that China’s energy supplies could be interdicted by hostile foreign nations in strategic locations. Prior to China’s industrial development, no such dilemma existed; but as China’s economy continues to grow and become ever-more-dependent on access to overseas resources and markets, this feeling of insecurity, as well as the resulting appetite for the military means to solve it, continues to grow—and it is a process that is not going to stop or go away. As U.S. Naval War College professors Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes stated in their seminal work on the modern Chinese Navy, Red Star Over the Pacific:

“China’s maritime presence and activism are permanent because the forces impelling it to the seas are structural in nature. They are basic to contemporary China. A thoroughgoing socioeconomic transformation has reoriented the nation toward the seas since paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched his reform and opening project four decades ago. After decades of integration into the global economic order—defined as it is by maritime commerce—the Chinese state and society have come to depend on free access to and free use of the seas for their well-being and even their survival. That reliance has compelled Beijing to develop durable commercial and military means to nurture and protect the nautical sources of China’s wealth and power.”

As the international scope of China’s economic interests has expanded over time, the horizons of China’s strategic thinking have broadened correspondingly. In the 1980s, China’s leaders established a timeline with three broader goals for the PLAN: by 2000, developing forces sufficient to exert control over the sea regions within the First Island Chain; by 2020, extending control out to the Second Island Chain, running from New Guinea up through the Mariana Islands to northern Japan; and by 2050, to develop a truly global navy. In 2004, President Hu Jintao provided a further update to the PLA’s guidance with a declaration of “New Historic Missions” that broadened the PLA’s goals to encompass “far seas defense”, covering seas past the First Island Chain. In more recent years, the PRC’s 2015 Defense White Paper explicitly included defense of overseas interests and sea lines of communication in its goals, to be accomplished by the added mission of “open seas protection”, signaling a need to be able to project maritime power wherever China’s interests lie. As outgoing PLA Navy chief Admiral Wu stated upon his departure from office in 2017, “wherever the scope of the nation’s interests extends, that is where the perimeter of our combat development will reach…”

Some observers might consider that China’s understandable desire to protect its overseas interests and defend its maritime trade is an anodyne one. After all, such a statement on the part of other nations (and many do say similar things) would raise little alarm. But this is largely because of what would be assumed to be benign intent on the part of other nations or, in almost all cases, a lack of any real ability to do so on a large-scale basis. But in the case of China, we see a nation that seems to have the motivation, maritime industrial might, and iron will to power to give its words an entirely different meaning: a stated strategy that, if actualized, would take the form of military—and especially naval—capability of a scale that many Western observers have not quite come to fully apprehend, and that is only now taking shape before us as I have described above.

In summary, when one considers a Chinese military that includes an ever growing and highly threatening ballistic missile force, the development of a large force of long-range strike aircraft, and a highly capable and rapidly growing blue-water navy, it hardly seems like a defensive force intended only to uphold Chinese sovereignty, prevent piracy, etc. Rather, China’s military seems like a force being forged specifically to be able to deter or deny U.S. military intervention to defend our allies and partners, and to eventually be able to seize and maintain control of key maritime routes across the region.

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  1. “In their Own Words: Science of Campaigns (2006)”, China Aerospace Studies Institute, December 2, 2020, 307-394.
  2. “Science of Campaigns”, 593-728.
  3. “In their Own Words: China’s National Defense in the New Era, The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, July 2019”, China Aerospace Studies Institute, March 16, 2021, 6-7.
  4. “Science of Campaigns”, 376.
  5. “Science of Campaigns”, 122, 129, 354, 610, 719; “In their Own Words: Science of Military Strategy (2013)”, China Aerospace Studies Institute, February 8, 2021, 122, 124, 165; “In their Own Words: Science of Military Strategy 2020”, China Aerospace Studies Institute, January 26, 2022, 140, 192; “China’s National Defense in the New Era”, 7.
  6. “Science of Military Strategy (2013)”, 124.
  7. “Science of Military Strategy 2020”, 192.
  8. “Science of Campaigns”, 105, 354.
  9. “Science of Military Strategy (2013)”, 165.
  10. Science of Military Strategy 2020”, 259.
  11. “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2023”, U.S. Department of Defense, October 2023.
  12. “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018”, U.S. Department of Defense, August 2018.
  13. H I Sutton, “China Build Missile Targets Shaped Like U.S. Aircraft Carrier, Destroyers in Remote Desert,” USNI News, November 7, 2021.
  14. Thomas Shugart and Javier Gonzalez, “First Strike: China’s Missile Threat to U.S. Bases in Asia” (Center for a New American Security, 2017), 13.
  15. Rod Lee, “PLA Naval Reorganization 2023”, China Aerospace Studies Institute, July 2023.
  16. “President Xi calls for establishment of world-class naval force,” CGTN, April 12, 2018.
  17. “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020”, U.S. Department of Defense, Sep 1, 2020.
  18. Factors that could cause this to be more likely would include similarities in warship design and capability, sufficiency of fleet logistics, and the state of personnel and materiel readiness. Factors that could cause divergence might include significant differences in munitions capability and magazine depth, effectiveness of C2 and fleet employment, and the ability to cope with battle damage.
  19. Yoshihara and Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific, 6.
  20. Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2018), 132.
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