23 August 2010

China’s ‘Antiaccess’ Ballistic Missiles and U.S. Active Defense

Marshall Hoyler, China’s ‘Antiaccess’ Ballistic Missiles and U.S. Active Defense,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Autumn 2010), pp. 84-104.

Relations between Taiwan and China have improved recently. At the same time, U.S.-Japanese relations have worsened, partly as the result of disagreements over Futenma Marine Air Station on Okinawa. As a result, the prospects of fighting between the United States and China over Taiwan and of U.S. reliance on Okinawa bases to supplement carrier airpower in the course of such a fight appear far-fetched, disastrous for the states concerned. Of course, military professionals and the defense analytic community need to think through unlikely and unwelcome scenarios. To that end, various analysts have contributed to a lively discussion of Chinese “antiaccess” systems designed to keep the United States at bay in the event of conflict. These systems include C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets like over-the-horizon (OTH) radar and increasing numbers of satellites, a more modern air force, more submarines with better weapons, and both cruise and ballisticmissiles to hold at risk our ships at sea and our air bases ashore. This article examines ballistic missile threats to carriers and air bases and the adequacy of U.S. active defenses.

China seeks the capacity to find U.S. aircraft carriers roughly a thousand miles from the mainland and to attack them with homing ASBMs (antiship ballistic missiles). China must overcome serious technological challenges to field the systems needed to do these things. The United States faces the prospect that China might overcome these challenges, perhaps as soon as five years from now. To attack fixed targets like American air bases in Japan, China has already developed a family of road-mobile, solid-fuel, short-range ballistic missiles. One of these missiles, the CSS-6, has the range to attack Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, a U.S. Air Force facility that is in many ways the best air base ashore for U.S. operations against China.

The current U.S. response to these developments relies heavily on active defense—that is, deployment of antiballistic missiles (ABMs). To defend ships at sea, the United States is investing in Aegis/Standard Missile ABMs, and to defend air bases ashore, in Patriot PAC-3 ABMs. The Navy originally developed Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) to protect assets ashore, such as seaports of debarkation. Given China’s ASBM efforts, however, many officers see the counter ASBM mission as an important role for Aegis BMD. Indeed, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Patrick Walsh, recently characterized missile defense as “essential to our ability to operate freely.”


The U.S. ABM investments just described deserve critical scrutiny: asymmetries in the competition of Chinese ballistic missiles versus U.S. antiballistic missiles make it unlikely that active defense alone will succeed. To see why, we need to review China’s ASBM system threat to ships at sea and China’s short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) threat to U.S. air bases. …