02 June 2014

Report: Chinese Cruise Missiles Could Pose Biggest Threat to U.S. Carriers

Wendell Minnick, “Report: Chinese Cruise Missiles Could Pose Biggest Threat to U.S. Carriers,” Navy Times, 2 June 2014.

Saturation strikes from Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles could become the biggest threat to Navy carrier strike groups (CSG), according to a paper issued by the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University.

The paper, “A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions,” draws from both Western and Chinese-language open source documents and concludes, “experienced Aegis warriors will respect China’s emerging capabilities.”

Written by cruise missile specialist Dennis Gormley, and China military specialists Andrew Erickson and Jingdong Yuan, the paper states that, due to the low cost of developing, deploying and maintaining cruise missiles, the Chinese believe that cruise missiles possess a 9:1 cost advantage over the expense of defending against them. China assumes that “quantity can defeat quality” by simply saturating a CSG with a variety of high-speed, low-altitude, cruise missiles.

For complete details on the book highlighted 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 sources to analyze the challenges Chinese cruise missiles pose for the U.S. military in the Western Pacific. It details Chinese efforts to develop new antiship and land-attack cruise missiles, discusses their current capabilities and thinking about employment, and considers the potential impact on a Taiwan scenario and proliferation implications. The study draws on over 600 Chinese language sources and is the best open-source work on this important topic.

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


“China probably has several thousand increasingly effective anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), while its stock and quality of land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) are also growing, according to the authors of a new study on the weapons programs. If China can overcome the considerable challenges in employing the weapons, then the implications for U.S. carrier strike groups (CSGs) are clear: ‘They would not be able to operate with impunity in areas close to China in certain contingencies and might have to maneuver to avoid danger,’ the authors say. Chinese land-attack cruise missiles are directed primarily against Taiwan, the authors say. ‘But the growing ranges of China’s land and air-based launch platforms can also threaten Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and the U.S. territory of Guam as well as several other locations,’ say researchers Dennis Gormley, Andrew Erickson and Jingdong Yuan, whose book, ‘A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier,’ appears to be the first comprehensive study of China’s efforts in this type of weaponry. … The operational challenges are considerable… Yet the unknowns are not only on the Chinese side. While it may be argued that China’s combat effectiveness in a maritime conflict has yet to be tested, the authors note that ‘the same may be said of U.S. CSG forces in terms of their ability to defend themselves from concerted attacks.’”

Bradley Perrett, “China Strongly Pushing Cruise Missile Capability,” Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, 22 May 2014, 4.

“could not come at a more important time. …each of these authors has extensive experience and a deep résumé covering the Asia-Pacific. Together their insights have produced a monumental work. … The most important part of this book… is the clarion call to recognize China’s cruise missile (CM) threats. These threats do not earn the respect they genuinely deserve… nor have these threats engendered action on cruise missile defense (CMD). … This book offers the first English-language analytical guide to the topic… 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… 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. … 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. … the authors provide an excellent discussion of the key PLA challenges … 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’ … ‘Some sources claim cruise missiles are superior to ballistic missiles for certain missions, particularly in the area of general use, agility, and target selection’ … 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. … 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. … This is a must-read publication for many audiences. … 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.” 

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.

“This is the best unclassified work on the subject, and covers Chinese progress in developing anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles and Chinese thinking about cruise missile employment, including in a Taiwan scenario.”

Dr. Phillip C. Saunders, Director, Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs; Distinguished Research Fellow, Center for Strategic Research; Institute for National Strategic Studies; National Defense University


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.