29 December 2010

China’s Military Surprises

Jason Miks, China’s Military Surprises,” The Diplomat, 28 December 2010.

I’ve written before about the common misconception when comparing Chinese and US military power that China somehow needs to go toe-to-toe with the United States to be considered a regional threat. It doesn’t …

So how would China be able to deny US ships access to the Taiwan Strait area? One way is the use of Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles, a system discussed by Diplomat correspondents Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes. As they note, missiles, ‘being relatively cheap and easy to mass produce, offer an excellent chance of evening the odds… A long-range cruise missile costs as little as $500,000 – a pittance for China – while a single US cruiser is worth around $1 billion. To put it another way, one US aircraft carrier would literally buy 10,000 missiles.’

And, according to China analysts Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, China is further advanced along this path than many had expected. Erickson emailed me a copy of a new report he has just published that states:

‘Beijing has successfully developed, tested, and deployed the world’s first weapons system capable of targeting a moving carrier strike group (CSG) from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. The Second Artillery, China’s strategic missile force, already has a capability to attempt to use the DF-21D against US CSGs in the event of conflict, and therefore likely expects to achieve a growing degree of deterrence with it.’

The report also notes the significant potential in terms of firing distance of the mainland-based missiles, which bring targets well past the first island chain and Taiwan – including the US Navy base in Guam – within range.

There is a caveat to this. The report quotes Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of US Pacific Command, as stating that China likely sees its missiles as having the equivalent of initial operational capability (IOC). What does this mean? In effect it means that although China likely has the capacity to deploy the system, it will require a degree of fine-tuning through testing, meaning it’s not clear how the system might actually perform under combat conditions.

Still, as the report notes, although it’s hard to exactly equate definitions of operational capability between different countries’ services, this approximated status is still a significant advance on ‘Initial Threat Availability’, which is typically when a system has been tested successfully, but hasn’t been deployed.

Providing a few more specifics on what all this could mean in terms of when and by whom the missiles could be operated by, Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, emailed me with his take on some of this:

‘One could quibble about how close an ASBM is to IOC. The key question to ask is whether or not Second Artillery and General Armaments Department (GAD) authorities have officially certified the space and missile industry’s design (literally, ‘set the design’ or dingxing for short). My impression is that the goal was to do so before the end of the year. Afterwards, the missile would still need to continue with testing, both for purposes of ensuring a small initial batch is OK, and then for Second Artillery unit operational test and evaluation.

‘There’s still some question regarding which brigade has been designated to be the first unit equipped.  Two new Second Artillery units in Guangdong are possible candidates (52 Base’s 96166 Unit and 53 Base’s 96219 Unit). Over the last three or four years, a dozen or so officers from the initial ASBM brigade — whichever one it is — likely have been preparing tactics, techniques, and procedures, developing simulation systems, and working closely with industry to ensure stable follow-on logistics support, and surveying launch sites, and so on. Second Artillery engineering units probably have been doing lots of tunnelling work in preparation for initial deployments as well.’

Interestingly, Erickson’s report also quotes Willard as commenting on whether the ASBM is a greater threat in terms of access denial than submarines (Willard says not). …