June 28, 2017

First Strike: China's Missile Threat to U.S. Bases in Asia

You may have 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 have 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 likely 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 threaten U.S. bases in the region.

In a time of rising geopolitical tension in Asia, U.S. leaders and policymakers should understand that in the event of an unforeseen U.S.-China crisis, especially one that appears to threaten China’s claimed core strategic interests or the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, a preemptive missile strike against the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the Western Pacific could be a real possibility. This might be the case particularly if China perceives that its attempts at deterrence of a major U.S. intervention – say in a cross-strait Taiwan crisis or in a brewing dispute over the Senkaku Islands – have failed. Driven partly by distinct first-mover advantages associated with the employment of modern long range precision weaponry, such a preemptive strike appears consistent with available information about China’s missile force doctrine and military strategy, and satellite imagery shown below points to what may be real-world Chinese efforts to practice its execution.

But does China have the missile forces necessary to execute a preemptive missile strike, and would it work against U.S. and allied missile defenses in Asia? We conducted an analysis to attempt to answer these questions. The results of our modeling and simulation, which show the potential for devastation of U.S. power projection forces and bases in Asia, are deeply concerning – and a call for action.

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force: Precision Strike with Chinese Characteristics

Officially founded in 1966 as the PLA Second Artillery Corps (SAC), China’s ballistic missile force originally was focused primarily on nuclear deterrence. Informed by China’s analysis of the startling success of U.S. precision strike cruise missiles against Iraqi forces during the 1990–91 Gulf War, the force transformed from a strictly nuclear strategic force to one with both nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles, through a strategy of “Dual Deterrence and Dual operations.” Adopting what was described in 2013 by Ian Easton of Project 2049 as a “projectile-centric strategy,” this has resulted in China focusing on the delivery of precision strike munitions via individual projectiles (such as cruise and ballistic missiles) rather than the platform-based strike forces (such as aircraft, ships, and submarines) that are the hallmark of U.S. power projection. This strategy minimizes China’s disadvantages in platform capabilities, and takes advantage of asymmetric factors such as theater geography (U.S. and allied lack of strategic depth in Asia), financial asymmetries (low costs of Chinese munitions production), and gaps in international law (China’s nonparticipation in the U.S.-Russia Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty). The PLA Rocket Forces recognized early on that this new approach would be fundamental during what China refers to as a “local war under modern, high-technology conditions,” and that it would require an improvement in both the quality and the quantity of their missiles. Growing in size throughout this transformation, the Chinese missile force now consists of about 100,000 personnel – by comparison roughly ten times that of the U.S.’s primary ballistic missile force, the U.S. 20th Air Force. And in 2015, what had been the Second Artillery Corps was elevated to a status coequal to that of China’s other military services and officially renamed as the PLA Rocket Force.

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 would 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 outlined, “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 to be a defensive “counterattack” to an adversary’s threatening of China’s sovereignty (e.g., claims to Taiwan or the South China Sea) solely in the political or strategic realm.

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.’

In some ways, the PLA Rocket Force’s doctrine may parallel what Western analysts have learned about Cold War–era Soviet plans to deal with NATO’s maritime forces. Soviet doctrine took a holistic view of anti-carrier and antisubmarine warfare, with an emphasis on coordinated action against both enemy operating forces and the logistical and command centers that support them. In a nuclear conflict, Soviet doctrine emphasized the use of nuclear cruise and ballistic missiles to strike ships in port along with other key installations. But by the end of the Cold War, Soviet analysts considered that modern high accuracy conventional weapons had become “comparable in combat effectiveness with low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.” An examination of a 1975 RAND corporation study of low-yield nuclear weapon effects seems to confirm this idea: When weapon accuracy is improved to a few meters (or tens of feet), the estimated likelihood of destruction for some “soft” targets by conventional weapons (perhaps equivalent to a .001kT warhead) appears roughly equivalent to the effects of typical tactical nuclear weapons, which were likely to miss their targets by several hundred feet. By marrying great accuracy with numerous ballistic missiles, China may have developed a capability that the Soviet armed forces never had: the ability to strike effectively, in a matter of minutes, U.S. and allied bases, logistical facilities, and command centers without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons, and without having established air superiority. As Ian Easton stated in 2013, 

"The Chinese military may achieve strategic effects that until recently were only achievable through the use of nuclear weapons...during the Cold War, both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces tasked nuclear missile units with the mission of destroying the other’s key air bases. The PLA plans to achieve the same effect with a relatively small number of ballistic missiles armed with conventional runway penetrating submunitions."

As a side note, China’s cyber doctrine also stresses that “striking first and striking hard” is essential, with a similar focus on preemptive strikes and offensive dominance. Given China’s mutual vulnerability to cyber disruption of command and control networks, notably those of the somewhat dispersed PLA Rocket Force, the dynamics of the new cyber domain of military operations may work additively with the other first-mover advantages associated with precision kinetic strikes. This could further drive Chinese decisionmaking toward preemptive strikes, both kinetic and non-kinetic, in the event of a crisis. 

Coming of Age

According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s recently-released annual report to Congress on the Chinese military, China currently fields about 1,200 conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs, 300-1000 km range), 200 to 300 conventional medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs, 1000 to 3000 km), an indeterminate number of conventional intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs, 3000-5,500 km), and 200-300 ground launched cruise missiles (GLCMs, 1500+ km). A 2015 RAND study provided 2017 inventory estimates of similar scale, and also estimated that improvements in the accuracy of China’s ballistic missiles may allow them to strike fixed targets in a matter of minutes with an accuracy of a few meters. RAND assessed that key U.S. facilities throughout Japan already could be within range of thousands of difficult-to-defeat advanced ballistic and cruise missiles (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

And in recent years, the PLA Rocket Force appears to have been making real the specific targeting capabilities necessary to support execution of the preemptive strike discussed above. As examples, a 2009 RAND study of open-source literature suggested that flechette submunitions likely would be used against missile launchers, parked aircraft, fuel tanks, vehicles, air defense weapons, and ships in port. Penetrating munitions would be used against airfield runways, aircraft shelters, and semi-underground fuel tanks. In terms of sequencing, the study suggested that an initial wave of ballistic missiles would neutralize air defenses and command centers and crater the runways of military air bases, trapping aircraft on the ground. These initial paralyzing ballistic missile salvos could then be followed by waves of cruise missiles and aircraft targeting hardened aircraft shelters, aircraft parked in the open, and fuel handling and maintenance facilities.

Figure 2

These capabilities already may have been tested at a ballistic missile impact test site (see Figure 2) located on the edge of the Gobi Desert in western China. Commercial satellite images seem to show a range of test targets representing just the sort of objectives discussed in the doctrine above, including groups of vehicles (perhaps representing mobile air and missile defense batteries – see Figure 3), aircraft targets parked in the open (Figure 4), fuel depots (Figure 5), runway cratering submunition tests (Figure 6), electrical power facilities (Figure 7), and the delivery of penetrating munitions to hardened shelters and bunkers (Figure 8) and command centers (Figure 9). Of note, the 2007 RAND study mentioned above stated that submunitions are generally not capable of penetrating the hardened shelters used to house fighter aircraft at many air bases, that China’s ballistic missiles lack the accuracy to ensure a high percentage of direct hits using unitary warheads, and thus, “fighter aircraft in hardened shelters would be relatively safe from Chinese ballistic missile attack.” This clearly appears no longer to be the case, and the demonstrated ability to precisely deliver penetrating warheads to facilities such as command centers in a matter of minutes also could provide a key capability to destroy them, with their command staffs, in the initial waves of an attack.

Figure 3

China has not been shy about displaying the advancing capabilities of the PLA Rocket Force. Beijing openly displayed some of its latest missiles (such as the DF-26 “Guam-killer” missile) in its 70th anniversary parade in 2015 and painted the missiles’ identification on their sides in Western characters, in case anyone missed the point.26 The PLA Rocket Force also put out a recruiting music video and other TV footage showing the employment of multiple coordinated missile launches, as well as the use of submunitions.

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

Figure 9

The full report is available online.

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  • CDR Thomas Shugart, USN

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