19 May 2014

Dr. Carl Rehberg, Headquarters, US Air Force, reviews “A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions” for Air Force Research Institute

Dr. Carl D. Rehberg, Headquarters, US Air Force/A8, review of  Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2014); Air Force Research Institute, 15 May 2014.

A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions by Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jing-Dong Yuan. National Defense University Press, 2014, 186 pp., download free from http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/Books/force-multipler.pdf.

The US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific theater is now in its third year. With tensions rising between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands and with other Asian countries over maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions by Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jing-Dong Yuan, could not come at a more important time. Furthermore, each of these authors has extensive experience and a deep résumé covering the Asia-Pacific. Together their insights have produced a monumental work.

Some experts believe a major goal of China is to emerge as a regional hegemon quietly and without fanfare until it achieves that status as a fait accompli. One route to that end is through the buildup of asymmetric capabilities that do not garner the negative political attention of, for example, ballistic missiles. The most important part of this book, and the major point of my review, is the clarion call to recognize China’s cruise missile (CM) threats. These threats do not earn the respect they genuinely deserve from the United States, its allies, and partners, nor have these threats engendered action on cruise missile defense (CMD). This essay highlights key chapter particulars and key strategic insights in and across the chapters.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has written about cruise missiles for well over a decade (see Cruise Missiles—The “Assassin’s Mace” in High-Tech Warfare [Beijing: Military Arts Press, 2002] et al.), but these developments have received less attention than corresponding advances in Chinese ballistic missile capabilities. This book offers the first English-language analytical guide to the topic and goes well beyond Dennis Gormley’s first book on CMs, Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008), by chronicling the PRC’s dramatic growth in CM capability and capacity. More importantly, the contents give an exposé of how CMs have become an “assassin’s mace” or “silver bullet” weapon for the PLA. This exposition is distinct from many books on the PRC/PLA with the careful and comprehensive research of open-source publications in Mandarin.

The authors provide eight intriguing chapters of great breadth and depth, a number of appendices, and a rich array of footnotes, making this an authoritative work. Without hyperbole, they lucidly take the reader through the pedestrian information essential for those with little or no background on the subject. An outstanding “Introduction and Overview” lays out the cogent points (some more prominently than in the full chapters). Chapter 1 offers a short history of the PLA CM programs, to include both the institutions and organizations that made it possible, with additional material in the appendices. The authors have separate chapters for both antiship CMs (ASCM) in chapter 2 and land-attack CMs (LACM) in chapter 3. The LACM chapter also includes important information on the PLA’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs.

Chapter 4 provides a detailed journey on the different types of CM launch platforms. This chapter is precedent-setting—I know of no other book that assimilates and details this information. Both the novice and the expert will find useful, new information. Chapter 5 covers new ground regarding the underlying roles CMs will play by analyzing PLA CM employment doctrine and training. The authors rely on Chinese military publications believed to reflect PLA doctrine analysis, including the most definitive work: Zhang Yuliang et al., eds., Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006). Appendix D contains excerpts from Science of Campaigns applicable to CMs.

Chapter 6 is somewhat unique in that Gormley, Erickson, and Yuan apply their knowledge of CMs to a possible Taiwan campaign with several branches and sequels. From this section they glean a number of insights along with some key US and Taiwanese vulnerabilities. One weakness they highlight is the increasing vulnerability of carrier strike groups (CSG) and how ASCMs fit into the overall picture; most of the Western press focus has been on the DF-21D (a.k.a., “the carrier killer”), highlighted by a Proceedings cover several years ago depicting a blazing carrier. It becomes vividly clear and increasingly probable that CMs could play a prominent role in pushing back CSGs from Taiwan and the Chinese coastline. Chapter 7 gives an update specifically on PRC CM proliferation (Gormley’s first book was on CM proliferation writ large). This chapter closes with a discussion on the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and China’s prospective membership, which should be important to policymakers who want to mitigate Chinese CM proliferation. In Chapter 8 the authors explain their methodology with the limitations and uncertainties of their work.

Overall, the authors provide an excellent discussion of the key PLA challenges: achieving adequate C4ISR; orchestrating a complex, multifaceted missile campaign over an extended period; and optimizing their CMs to achieve the desired mission objectives. They further analyze PLA responses to these challenges that intimate they are not insurmountable but neither is the PLA omnipotent.

Throughout the book, the authors highlight critical CM issues that need to become central in US national security discussions but in some cases are somewhat reserved (e.g., chap. 8)—seemingly very cautious with the evidence and impact. Nevertheless, they astutely state, “Chinese analysts assess that cruise missiles will not create undue political risk thereby allowing military modernization to stay, for the most part, below the geopolitical radar” (p. 7)—ergo the “boiling frog syndrome” (or frog in the kettle). In addition, “Some sources claim cruise missiles are superior to ballistic missiles for certain missions, particularly in the area of general use, agility, and target selection” (p. 6). These two findings combined may be the most striking strategic issues the authors posit. DoD officials do not appear to understand the implications, as there are no visible or discernible changes in strategies or programs that even remotely address these findings or the subsequent impact on defending forward air and sea bases. This seems somewhat disconcerting given the United States is in the midst of the rebalance to Asia-Pacific, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently published Joint Integrated Air Missile Defense: 2020 Vision (5 December 2013).

The Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, released on 4 March 2014, certainly reaffirms the importance of the rebalance to Asia-Pacific in a number of places and highlights that “growing numbers of accurate conventional ballistic and cruise missile threats represent an additional, cost-imposing challenge to U.S. and partner naval forces and land installations” (p. 7). That is a major step in the right direction. Unfortunately, whenever QDR 2014 mentions “missile defense,” every specific example deals with ballistic missile defense. Albeit, there appears to be one “Easter egg” for CMD capabilities: “The QDR prioritizes investments that support our interests and missions, with particular attention to space, cyber, situational awareness and intelligence capabilities, stand-off strike platforms and weapons, technology to counter cruise[emphasis added] and ballistic missiles, and preservation of our superiority undersea” (p. 61).

The DoD is largely dependent on the US Army to organize, train, and equip (OTE) for land-attack cruise missile CMD. However, the two foremost Army programs that addressed these threats writ large were cancelled in the FY-2011 President’s Budget: the joint land [attack CMD] elevated netted sensor (JLENS) and the surface-launched advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (SLAMRAAM). Furthermore, there are no new alternatives to JLENS and SLAMRAAM on the immediate horizon. The lack of a JLENS alternative is alarming since CMs defy easy detection. They do not produce prominent infrared signatures, which means “they are not detectable by existing space warning systems” (p. xi). Effective indications and warning (I&W) may be one of the most important elements in any set of comprehensive countermeasures. Sadly, it appears CMs are, or have become, the “Rodney Dangerfield” of threats since they seemingly get no respect, and it is evident CMD appears to be a very low DoD priority.

For the last several years, China experts have emphasized the importance of staying in Phase 0 when it comes to crisis management and crisis stability. This has serious implications for the DoD and the services. At the very least, there should be a comprehensive review of operational responses (e.g., CONOPs), I&W, force posture and presence, and active and passive countermeasures in the Asia-Pacific; a flow of forces into the region to counter this capability is problematic and could likely lead to PLA preemption. There must be a meaningful discussion and analysis on what needs to be in theater day-to-day. In addition, Gormley, Erickson, and Yuan point out that the PLA has determined CMs are “cost imposing,” in that they are much cheaper for the attacker than the defender (p. 94). They also lay out a daunting task: “The challenge will be to develop effective countermeasures that are also affordable and thus do not place the United States on the ‘wrong end’ of an arms race” (p. 96).

The authors are trailblazers (at the unclassified level) by illustrating the CM threats in several new dimensions with detail one would expect from the intelligence community. Although the book gives insight into new areas (e.g., doctrine and training), there is an absence of information on CM submunitions, and there is little information on how this impacts the air forces (both USAF and Navy), space, and cyber domains. The authors do not provide any substantive steps or solutions (chap. 8) for the United States or its allies and partners on how to move forward—but the delineation of CM threats is important enough.

This is a must-read publication for many audiences. More importantly, it is hoped this review will start a conversation about the implications upon force posture, presence, CMD, countermeasures, and new operational concepts.

Like all complex national security problems, the very first step—and most important step—is admitting there is a major problem, hopefully long before the frog boils. Nevertheless, this book should set the stage for solutions to emerge. But this will not happen unless strategic-minded leaders (military and civilian) understand the implications and take meaningful action; the DoD and others need to move forward rapidly to prioritize this threat and develop solutions while initiating in-depth analysis in a few specific areas without “analysis paralysis.” A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier is a definitive and seminal treatise on CMs—tour de force; it is critically important reading for all those concerned about the Asia-Pacific region and the future security of the United States.

Carl D. Rehberg, PhD

Headquarters, US Air Force/A8

For further information on the book reviewed here, see Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2014).

China’s military modernization includes ambitious efforts to develop antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities to deter intervention by outside powers. Highly accurate and lethal antiship cruise missiles and land-attack cruise missiles carried by a range of ground, naval, and air platforms are an integral part of this counter-intervention strategy. This comprehensive study combines technical and military analysis with an extensive array of Chinese language sources to analyze the challenges Chinese cruise missiles pose for the U.S. military in the Western Pacific.

Click here to read the full text, complete with structural and genealogy graphics, photographs, and order of battle matrices.


Dennis Gormley is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and an internationally recognized expert on cruise missiles.

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor at the Naval War College and an associate in research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

Jingdong Yuan is an Associate Professor in the Centre for International Security Studies at Sydney University and is an expert on arms control and nonproliferation who has written widely on Asian security issues.


China’s military modernization is focused on building modern ground, naval, air, and missile forces capable of fighting and winning local wars under informationized conditions. The principal planning scenario has been a military campaign against Taiwan, which would require the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to deter or defeat U.S. intervention. The PLA has sought to acquire asymmetric “assassin’s mace” technologies and systems to overcome a superior adversary and couple them to the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems necessary for swift and precise execution of short-duration, high-intensity wars.

A key element of the PLA’s investment in antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities is the development and deployment of large numbers of highly accurate antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) on a range of ground, air, and naval platforms. China’s growing arsenal of cruise missiles and the delivery platforms and C4ISR systems necessary to employ them pose new defense and nonproliferation challenges for the United States and its regional partners. This study surveys People’s Republic of China (PRC) ASCM and LACM programs and their implications for broader PLA capabilities, especially in a Taiwan scenario. Key findings are presented below.

The Military Value of Cruise Missiles

  • Cruise missiles are versatile military tools due to their potential use for precision conventional strike missions and the wide range of employment options.
  • Modern cruise missiles offer land, sea, and air launch options, allowing a “two-stage” form of delivery that extends their already substantial range. They may also be placed in canisters for extended deployments in harsh environments.
  • Because cruise missiles are compact and have limited support requirements, ground-launched platforms can be highly mobile, contributing to prelaunch survivability. Moreover, cruise missiles need only rudimentary launch-pad stability, enabling shoot-and-scoot tactics.
  • Since cruise missile engines or motors do not produce prominent infrared signatures on launch, they are not believed to be detectable by existing space-warning systems, reducing their vulnerability to postlaunch counterforce attacks.
  • The potentially supersonic speed, small radar signature, and earth-hugging flight profile of cruise missiles stress air defense systems and airborne surveillance and tracking radars, increasing the likelihood that they will successfully penetrate defenses.
  • Employed in salvos, perhaps in tandem with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles could saturate defenses with large numbers of missiles arriving at a specific target in a short time.
  • Optimal employment of cruise missiles requires accurate and timely intelligence; suitable and ideally stealthy and survivable delivery platforms; mission planning technology; command, control, and communications systems; and damage assessment.

Chinese Antiship Cruise Missile Developments

  • China, like other nations, has come to regard ASCMs as an increasingly potent means of shaping the outcome of military conflicts.
  • China has developed its own advanced, highly capable ASCMs (the YJ series) while also importing Russian supersonic ASCMs, which have no operational Western equivalents.
  • China is capable of launching its ASCMs from a growing variety of land, air, ship, and undersea platforms, providing redundant multi-axis means of massing offensive firepower against targets at sea (or at least against their predicted locations).
  • Virtually every new surface ship and conventionally powered submarine in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) can launch ASCMs, allowing these platforms to serve as “aquatic TELs” (Transporter-Erector-Launchers). Navy training has become more diverse and realistic in recent years with increasing focus on cruise missile operations.
  • Beijing has furnished its ASCMs with improved guidance and has recently begun selling satellite navigation capabilities. Still, over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting remains a challenge.
  • Chinese researchers are studying how to best overcome Aegis defenses and target adversary vulnerabilities. ASCMs are increasingly poised to challenge U.S. surface vessels, especially in situations where the quantity of missiles fired can overwhelm Aegis air defense systems through saturation and multi-axis tactics.
  • Possible future uses of Chinese aircraft carriers might include bringing ASCM- and LACM-capable aircraft within range of U.S. targets.
  • A consistent theme in Chinese writings is that China’s own ships and other platforms are themselves vulnerable to cruise missile attack. But China appears to believe it can compensate by further developing its capacity to threaten enemy warships with large volumes of fire.

Chinese Land-Attack Cruise Missile Developments

  • China has deployed two subsonic LACMs, the air-launched YJ-63 with a range of 200 kilometers (km) and the 1,500+ km-range ground-launched DH-10. Both systems benefited from ample technical assistance from foreign sources, primarily the Soviet Union/Russia.
  • The first-generation YJ-63 employs combined Global Positioning System (GPS)/inertial navigation systems complemented by an electro-optical terminal sensor to achieve 10–15 meter (m) accuracy.
  • The second-generation DH-10 has a GPS/inertial guidance system but may also use terrain contour mapping for redundant midcourse guidance and a digital scene-matching sensor to permit an accuracy of 10 m.
  • Development of the Chinese Beidou/Compass navigation-positioning satellite network is partly intended to eliminate dependence on the U.S. GPS for guidance.
  • Beijing has purchased foreign systems and assistance to complement its own indigenous LACM efforts. From Israel, it has received Harpy antiradiation drones with stand-off ranges of 400 km or more. China may also have the Russian Klub 3M-14E SS-N-30 LACM, which can be launched from some PLAN Kilo-class submarines and deliver a 400-kilogram (kg) warhead to a range of 300 km.
  • Time and dedicated effort will increase the PLA’s ability to employ LACMs even in challenging combined-arms military campaigns.

Potential Employment in a Taiwan Scenario

  • Chinese ASCMs and LACMs could be used in conjunction with other A2/AD capabilities to attack U.S. naval forces and bases that would be critical for U.S. efforts to respond to a mainland Chinese attack on Taiwan.
  • Operating in tandem with China’s huge inventory of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, LACMs could severely complicate Taiwan’s capacity to use its air force to thwart Chinese attack options.
  • Chinese military planners view LACMs as particularly effective against targets requiring precision accuracy (for example-, airfield hangars and command and control facilities). They also view large-salvo attacks by LACMs and ballistic missiles as the best means to overwhelm enemy missile defenses.
  • Chinese planners emphasize the shock and paralytic effects of combined ballistic and LACM attacks against enemy airbases, which could greatly increase the effectiveness of follow-on aircraft strikes. These effects depend significantly on the number of launchers available to deliver missiles.
  • China currently has 255-305 ballistic missile and LACM launchers within range of Taiwan, which are capable of delivering sustained pulses of firepower against a number of critical airfields, missile defense sites, early warning radars, command and control facilities, logistical storage sites, and critical civilian infrastructure such as electrical distribution.

Proliferation Implications of China’s Cruise Missiles

  • If China’s past record of proliferating ballistic missiles and technology is any indication of its intentions vis-à-vis cruise missile transfers, the consequences could be highly disruptive for the nonproliferation regime and in spreading A2/AD capabilities.
  • China has sold ASCMs to other countries, including Iran.
  • Beijing is suspected of furnishing Pakistan with either complete LACMs or components for local assembly.
  • China’s current adherence to the principles of the 34-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is especially problematic in regard to cruise missiles and UAVs.
  • China has sought unsuccessfully to become a full member of the MTCR since 2004. However, should China become a fully compliant MTCR member, it would be a salient achievement in controlling widespread LACM proliferation.


China has invested considerable resources both in acquiring foreign cruise missiles and technology and in developing its own indigenous cruise missile capabilities. These efforts are bearing fruit in the form of relatively advanced ASCMs and LACMs deployed on a wide range of older and modern air, ground, surface-ship, and sub-surface platforms. To realize the full benefits, China will need additional investments in all the relevant enabling technologies and systems required to optimize cruise missile performance. Shortcomings remain in intelligence support, command and control, platform stealth and survivability, and postattack damage assessment, all of which are critical to mission effectiveness.

ASCMs and LACMs have significantly improved PLA combat capabilities and are key components in Chinese efforts to develop A2/AD capabilities that increase the costs and risks for U.S. forces operating near China, including in a Taiwan contingency. China plans to employ cruise missiles in ways that exploit synergies with other strike systems, including using cruise missiles to degrade air defenses and command and control facilities to enable follow-on air strikes. Defenses and other responses to PRC cruise missile capabilities exist, but will require greater attention and a focused effort to develop technical countermeasures and effective operational responses. …


“Cruise missiles are key weapons in China’s A2/AD arsenal, providing a lethal precision-strike capability against naval ships and land-based targets. The authors use hundreds of Chinese language sources and expertise on cruise missile technology to assess China’s progress in acquiring and developing advanced antiship and land-attack cruise missiles and to consider how the People’s Liberation Army might employ these weapons in a conflict. Essential reading for those who want to understand the challenges China’s military modernization poses to the United States and its allies.”

DAVID A. DEPTULA, Lieutenant General, USAF (Ret.), Senior Military Scholar, Center for Character and Leadership Development, U.S. Air Force Academy

“This volume is a major contribution to our understanding of Chinese military modernization. Although China’s ballistic missile programs have garnered considerable attention, the authors remind us that Beijing’s investment in cruise missiles may yield equally consequential results.”

THOMAS G. MAHNKEN, Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security, U.S. Naval War College

“This book provides an excellent primer on the growing challenge of Chinese cruise missiles. It shows how antiship and land-attack cruise missiles complicate U.S. efforts to counter China’s expanding A2/AD capabilities and are becoming a global proliferation threat. The authors also demonstrate just how much progress China has made in modernizing and upgrading its defense industry, to the point of being able to develop and produce world-class offensive weapons systems such as land-attack cruise missiles. This book belongs on the shelves of every serious observer of China’s growing military prowess.”

RICHARD A. BITZINGER, Coordinator, Military Transformations Program, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore


A 3,000-word summary of this book is offered in: Dennis GormleyAndrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, “China’s Cruise Missiles: Flying Fast Under the Public’s Radar,” The National Interest (12 May 2014).

Andrew S. Erickson and Jingdong Yuan, “Antiaccess and China’s Air-Launched Cruise Missiles,” in Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, eds.Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 275-86.