21 June 2011

Thomas G. Mahnken, “China’s Anti-Access Strategy in Historical and Theoretical Perspective,” Journal of Strategic Studies (June 2011)

Thomas G. Mahnken, China’s Anti-Access Strategy in Historical and Theoretical Perspective,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 34.3 (June 2011): 299 – 323.

This article views China’s development of anti-access capabilities against the backdrop of the theory and history of military innovation. It begins with a discussion of the process of military innovation, as well as the indicators that may appear at different stages of that process. It then discusses the barriers to recognizing new ways of war and applies that framework to China’s development of advanced ballistic missiles, to include precision-guided conventional ballistic missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). It concludes with several suggestions for how to improve the ability to recognize and understand foreign military innovation. …

Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles

Perhaps the most innovative system that China seeks is the ability to attack moving ships at sea far from China’s shores. …

…history shows that there is a strong tendency to underestimate the military capabilities of rising powers. Moreover, it appears that China’s ASBM program has proceeded faster than expected. As Scott Bray, the Office of Naval Intelligence’s senior intelligence officer responsible for China, stated in November 2009, ‘ASBM development has progressed at a remarkable rate. In a little more than a decade, China has taken the ASBM program from the conceptual phase to nearing an operational capability.’43 …

Openly available evidence suggests that China has moved beyond the speculation and experimentation and has begun the implementation of an anti-access strategy.

At the speculation stage, one would expect to see the formation of groups to explore these new approaches to combat, as well as to collect information on foreign activities of interest. There is robust evidence that China has been doing this for some time regarding both precision- guided ballistic missiles and ASBM.

Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang have argued that Chinese leaders and strategists have been thinking of using land-based missiles to hit targets at sea for nearly 30 years. In April 1972, for example, Vice Premier Zhang Chunqiao declared ‘We are continentalists. Now guided missiles are well developed. Installed on shore, they can hit any target, and there is no need to build a big navy.’45

As would be expected, the Chinese also paid close attention to the development of precision-guided conventional ballistic missiles, first and foremost the American Pershing II, which featured a MaRV. Erickson and Yang, for example, have catalogued over 50 related commentaries on the subject, even though the missile was withdrawn from service more than two decades ago as a result of the Intermediate- Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. According to Chinese authors, the missile had an influence on China’s development of precision-guided ballistic missiles.46

Although it is difficult to determine the transition from speculation to experimentation from open sources, it appears that the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis accelerated China’s interest in advanced missiles. The deployment of the USS Nimitz and Independence carrier battle groups in response to Chinese missile tests and military exercises demonstrated China’s inability to counter American sea power. As Colonel Larry Wortzel (ret.), US Army attaché in Beijing from 1995 to 1997, recently testified:

The first time a senior Chinese military officer of the General Staff Department mentioned ballistic missiles attacking carriers was after our two carriers showed up, and he put his arm around my shoulder and said we’re going to sink your carriers with ballistic missiles, and we had a long conversation about it. I don’t know if they were doing research before that, but . . . the first time it got thrown in my face was 1996.47 …

Official military doctrinal publications are written by leading professional military education institutions under the editorial guidance of high-ranking active duty officers. Several doctrinal publications of the PLA as a whole and of the Second Artillery Corps discuss a variety of ways in which to use conventional ballistic missiles to strike air bases and deter or strike carrier strike groups (CSGs). The Science of Campaigns and The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns deserve special attention as the most authoritative statements available in PLA doctrine concerning the operational and tactical use of ballistic missiles. Each has been ‘printed and distributed to all military forces, colleges, and universities as a training and learning reference’.49

The Science of Campaigns, written by researchers at China’s National Defense University, includes an overview of the use of conventional ballistic missiles to ‘implement sea blockades’ and ‘capture localized campaign sea dominance’ by ‘implementing missile firepower assault or firepower harassment attacks against important targets that the enemy depends on for . . . sea-based maneuvering’. This is envisioned to be part of a joint campaign with such organizations as the PLA Navy and the PLA Air Force, with which there is supposed to be ‘extremely close coordination’, although in unspecified contingencies the Second Artillery might operate independently.50

The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, published by the PLA Press in March 2004, provides an even more detailed discussion of advanced ballistic missiles. The book, which serves as a handbook for command personnel in the Second Artillery and PLA in general, is believed to represent the institutional position of the PLA as a whole and has thus been accepted by China’s civilian leadership.51 The 406- page volume contains astonishingly vivid details of the conditions under which China might seek to launch conventional missile strikes against outside intervention. … The document also describes the use of ASBMs against carriers in detail and without suggesting that the capability is theoretical or aspirational. Indeed, the section describing their potential employment states that ‘conventional missile strike groups’ should be used as an ‘assassin’s mace’ (or silver bullet) – a term commonly used in both PLA and less authoritative documents to describe weapons that match Chinese strengths with an enemy’s weaknesses.53 The volume describes five methods of using ASBMs against CSGs, the central pillar of ‘military intervention by a powerful enemy’ and thus the proper ‘focal point for attacks’. Such tactics as firing intimidation salvos, destroying shipborne aircraft with submunitions, or disabling with electromagnetic pulses the sensor systems of Aegis destroyers are designed to make CSGs retreat or render them inoperable.54

The second category of written sources consists of technical analyses by military and civilian specialists of specific systems and operations relevant to advanced ballistic missiles, such as calculations of the maneuvering range of reentry vehicles.55 These sources offer additional strong indications that China is pursuing advanced ballistic missiles seriously.

There is robust evidence that China has moved from speculating about advanced missiles to at least experimentation, if not deployment and implementation. China has conducted numerous tests of its precision-guided conventional munitions. Moreover, the Asian giant has moved beyond talking about ASBMs to testing them. …

Beyond experimentation, there is at least some openly available evidence suggesting that China has progressed to deploying advanced ballistic missiles. At this stage, one would expect to see the establishment of units to exploit new ways of war, the revision of doctrine to include new missions, the establishment of new branches and career paths within the military, changes to the curriculum of professional military education institutions, and field training exercises to practice and refine concepts.

As noted above, both precision-guided ballistic missiles and ASBMs already appear to be integrated into PLA doctrine. Moreover, it appears that the issue of which service will control these weapons has been decided. The PLA’s Second Artillery, which controls China’s nuclear ballistic missiles, also controls the country’s conventional missiles. It also appears that the Second Artillery will control any Chinese ASBMs. Analysts have noted that individuals associated with the Second Artillery Engineering College in Xi’an are responsible for the vast majority of available technical articles devoted to ASBM issues, further suggesting that the institution may be playing a major role in ASBM development. They have also noted many articles from the Second Artillery Equipment Department in Beijing and the Second Artillery Equipment Research Institute, suggesting that some procurement, or at least consideration of procurement, is underway.57 …


43 Quoted in Andrew S. Erickson, ‘Ballistic Trajectory: China Develops New Anti-Ship Missile’, Jane’s Intelligence Review (Feb. 2010), 2.

45 Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, ‘Using the Land to Control the Sea: Chinese Analysts Consider the Antiship Ballistic Missile’, Naval War College Review 62/4 (Autumn 2009), 55.

46 Ibid.

47 Cited in Erickson and Yang, ‘Using the Land to Control the Sea’, 56.

49 Cited in Erickson and Yang, ‘Using the Land to Control the Sea’, 60.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

53 Erickson and Yang, ‘Using the Land to Control the Sea’, 60–1.

54 Ibid., 61–2.

55 Ibid., 58.

57 Erickson and Yang, ‘Using the Land to Control the Sea’, 63–4.