22 February 2011

From Bottle Rockets to Lightning Bolts: China’s Missile-centric Strategy and PLA Strategy against Military Intervention

Vitaliy O. Pradun, From Bottle Rockets to Lightning Bolts: China’s Missile-centric Strategy and PLA Strategy against Military Intervention,” Naval War College Review, 64.2 (Spring 2011): 7-38.

In March 1996, China conducted military exercises and live missile firings in the Taiwan Strait as a response to the increasingly pro-independence stance of Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui. The United States responded in turn by maneuvering two aircraft carrier groups into the island’s vicinity. China and the United States did not come to a standoff, and the issue ended peacefully, although not without ominous messages being received by all parties. China had signaled its willingness to use military force to check Taiwan’s incipient independence ambitions, and the United States had conveyed its resolve to defend Taiwan against aggression from the mainland.

The incident, which made the possibility of armed conflict between the United States and China palpable for the first time in decades, precipitated a crisis in China’s security planning. The Chinese leadership understood that if it were dragged into a military conflict with the Americans to reverse a Taiwanese declaration of independence or a like provocation, it would have no chance of prevailing in what it believes to be both a domestic issue and its most important (and increasingly volatile) security concern. The subsequent and still ongoing surge in China’s military modernization, force-posture restructuring, and doctrinal overhaul has thus been energetically focused on constructing the capability to fight and win a regional war over Taiwan with the world’s strongest and most technologically advanced military. This does not mean that China is hostile to the United States or that it expects to fight a war with the United States in the near future. However, it does mean that it sees armed conflict with the United States over conflicting regional interests as a possible and very serious contingency and that it is determined to be ready to meet it.

Nevertheless, although American analyses of China’s likely performance against Taiwan abound, to date there has been no attempt to define, map, and assess comprehensively China’s likely operational strategy and its potential for success against U.S. forces. The main reason is that the literature on Chinese security policy has been generally skeptical of China’s battlefield capabilities, leading many independent analysts to dismiss the military threat the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) poses to the American forces. Furthermore, American analysts have attributed this view to the PLA itself and therefore, rather unduly, posited its unwillingness to engage the United States in combat. Instead, the dominant view in American policy circles is that China is pursuing what has been called an “access-denial strategy,”aimed not at directly confronting U.S. forces but at circumscribing, slowing down, and imperiling their access to the theater of operation so as ultimately to delay their intervention or render it ineffective.

According to consecutive versions of the U.S. Defense Department’s (DoD’s) annual Military Power of the PRC report, “China’s approach to dealing with [U.S. military intervention] centers on what DoD’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review report refers to as disruptive capabilities: forces and operational concepts aimed at preventing an adversary from deploying military forces to forward operating locations, and/or rapidly destabilizing critical military balances.” Similarly, the Congressional Research Service argues that “consistent with the goal of a short-duration conflict and a fait accompli, observers believe, China is constructing a force that can deter U.S. intervention, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of U.S. intervention forces.” A scholar at the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concludes that “China’s military preparations for potential conflict over Taiwan have focused on delaying or slowing the deployment of U.S. forces to the theater and potentially frustrating U.S. military operations around the island if a conflict erupts.”

According to such views, China seeks to “deter,” “slow down,” “disrupt,” and “complicate” the deployment of American assets to the theater of operation rather than to engage them in combat. China’s investment in such systems as naval mines, electronic-warfare capabilities, and antisatellite weapons are given as the evidence. Notably, some works go farther, claiming China’s investment in conventional assets like submarines, aircraft, and missiles as evidence for a commitment to access denial. For example, according to a widely published retired U.S. Navy admiral, “The critical aspects of a new navy and the highly significant synergies that may develop between it and the missile and air forces warrant full attention, because they are directed specifically at deterring, delaying, or complicating timely and effective U.S. access and intervention.”

The access-denial approach thus sees China’s strategy as indirect, defensive, limited in scope and effect, and—owing to its putative reliance on disruptive technologies and conventional assets deliberately reconfigured for disruptive missions—inherently suboptimal compared to a conventional military campaign, which, this view assumes, will remain beyond China’s means for some time. Most pointedly, a recent and highly influential RAND report on China’s strategy concludes that “the possibility that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might employ antiaccess measures in a conflict with the United States is the product of the PLA’s view of the nature of modern war, its awareness of China’s military weaknesses, and its recognition of U.S. military superiority.”

Nevertheless, evidence suggests that China’s emerging strategy is actually much more ambitious, direct, and therefore dangerous for the United States. The access denial assumption largely overlooks what I believe to be the most salient, but revolutionary, developments in the Chinese military—the wide proliferation of long-range ballistic and cruise-missile technologies and the convergence of Chinese military power around a missile-centric, rather than the conventional platform-centric, model of mass-firepower combat.

In analyzing these developments further, with particular attention to evidence of the missiles’ technical capabilities and China’s emerging C4ISR architecture, it becomes clear that China’s successes in missile technology have much more significant implications than previously thought. Rather than simply compiling a loose portfolio of individual disruptive capabilities, China is pursuing an ambitious program of military innovation in air and naval warfare geared toward not harassment but paralysis and destruction of the adversary’s forces through a concerted campaign.

My thesis is not only that China’s strategy is thus increasingly methodical but that, with its organizing missile-centric focus, it promises to transform how China’s forces engage in combat in general, to supply them with previously unavailable military options against the United States, and to render irrelevant American superiority in a number of key areas. Since their first use in the 1996 Taiwan crisis, Chinese conventional missiles thus have gone from being militarily irrelevant spook weapons to highly accurate, flexible, and lethal modes of precise and concentrated firepower around which China’s military strategy is increasingly converging. I argue that the impact of this change is significant enough that, absent a major effort to offset China’s gains, the United States would no longer be able to win a regional air-naval war with China over Taiwan’s status were it to occur.

This, of course, does not mean that China itches for a war or that in a cross-strait conflict it would prefer engaging the U.S. forces in a full-on military campaign rather than deterring them from intervening in the first place. In fact, the opposite is most likely true. However, even if China in fact prefers to deter the United States from intervening or to coerce withdrawal early on by imposing limited attrition, this does not lead us back to access denial. In reality, whether the United States intervened or not would be up to the United States, not China. China is realistic enough to understand that it would not be able to assure deterrence against the world’s strongest power, with a security commitment to Taiwan, broad regional interests, and a reputation at stake. However, whereas the access denial literature is strangely silent about what China plans to do if deterrence fails or once the delayed U.S. forces finally do arrive at its doorstep, evidence in China’s weapon procurement and force structure suggests that its hopes of deterring American intervention in a Taiwan conflict altogether are underpinned by a capability not to delay and harass U.S. forces but to defeat and destroy them in a regional war. The purpose of my article is to assess this capability.

The remainder of the article is organized in the following fashion. The first section describes in some depth China’s investment in a variety of missile technologies and the convergence of its conception of firepower combat around a missile-centric model. The second section discusses targeting and asset-coordination capabilities. The third and fourth sections strive to conceptualize China’s operational performance on the battlefield and evaluate its potential for success against U.S. forces in a limited regional war. These sections address the novel combat options that missiles allow China, the mechanics of missile combat, and the level of threat it poses to the U.S. platform-centric forces. Specifically, the third section discusses operations against land-based and docked targets, the fourth—against moving targets at sea. The fifth section also assesses American missile defenses, from the perspective of Chinese missile capabilities and likely countermeasures against defenses. The concluding section offers policy considerations for the U.S. government and military. …