Wednesday, June 17, 2009

China's Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Program: Checkmate for Taiwan?

{{UPDATE: Follow-on report posted on 23 Jun 09. Also see the excellent Project 2049 piece by Ian Easton on China's ASAT program; and Andrew Erickson's superb new Jamestown Foundation China Brief on the knowns and unknowns about China's ASBM program. Also see the Dec 09 Taiwan Link post on the PLA Air Force OTH radar system }}

The Taipei Times ran an article earlier this year highlighting that the number of Chinese conventional ballistic missiles “pointed at Taiwan” has reached 1500. Since first entering the inventory of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in first half of the 1990s, short range ballistic missiles have been one of China’s most effective tools of political and military coercion. As a symbolic metric of intent, China’s expanding arsenal of conventional ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan is intended to deter political support in Taiwan for de jure independence and coerce the island’s population to support unification with China on Beijing’s terms. Beijing has made conventional ballistic missiles a visible and central element of its Taiwan strategy.

However, it appears that leaders in Beijing are expanding their strategy. Showering Taiwan with economic carrots, Beijing’s military stick is increasingly being pointed at the United States. The reason is that the center of gravity for final resolution of the Taiwan issue may lie here in Washington D.C. rather than in Taipei. Confident of America’s military backing, Taiwan’s political leadership is able to deal with counterparts in Beijing from a position of confidence and strength. From Beijing’s perspective, U.S. arms sales and the U.S. naval presence in the western Pacific – best symbolized in the form of an aircraft carrier – have been the most important factors in preventing the unification of Taiwan with the motherland. A demonstrated capability to strike the most visible symbol of American power would be intended to create a perception in the minds of Taiwan people that their future is with China, rather than in de jure independence, indefinite separation from mainland China, or a virtual alliance with the United States.

The demonstration and deployment of a new conventional ballistic missile capability that complicates U.S. military assistance to Taiwan could coerce the island’s democratically elected leaders into capitulation much faster than expected. In an excellent article entitled "On the Verge of a Game Changer" published in the U.S. Naval Institute’s
Proceedings last month, authors Andrew Erickson and David Yang highlight the emergence of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) that “could alter the rules in the Pacific and place U.S. Navy carrier strike groups in jeopardy.” The authors note “even the perception” that the PLA is equipped with an ASBM could have “profound consequences for deterrence, military operations, and the balance of power in the Western Pacific” (see below for details on the ASBM).

But this chess game may not stop with deployment of an ASBM. Authoritative Chinese aerospace journals indicate more than a passing interest in precision strike capabilities that could enable the PLA to neutralize U.S. Air Force and Navy runways, logistics facilities, and command and control targets on Guam. Further in the decade, there could be a more capable follow-on. Subsequent modifications to existing ballistic (or even land attack cruise) missiles appear to be mirroring the U.S. Prompt Global Strike program, which is centered on the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV) that could strike targets anywhere in the world within hours. China’s success in fielding a global precision strike capability could extend the threat envelope to military facilities in Hawaii, and perhaps even space-related and other military facilities in the continental United States that are directly involved in a Taiwan-related contingency.

As time goes on, the United States may need to re-examine priorities and rely more on smaller ships, a greater number of affordable submarines able to operate in littoral areas, long range unmanned combat air platforms, and hardening of U.S. military bases facilities throughout the region, including Kadena Airbase on Okinawa and facilities on Guam and Hawaii.

An ASBM as a “Game Changer:” What It Could Mean for Taiwan

An ASBM is most relevant in a future scenario involving U.S. intervention in the event of Chinese use of force against Taiwan. As the title of the Proceedings article implies, China’s deployment of ASBMs could change the nature of the game. Beijing appears to have absorbing lessons from its launching of ballistic missiles into zones off the coast of Keelung and Kaohsiung in the run-up to Taiwan’s first direct presidential elections in March 1996. The deployment of not only one but two U.S. aircraft carriers to the east of the island provided a tremendous psychological boost to Taiwan’s population in the face of Chinese intimidation. Now, more than 13 years later, a new ability to keep US aircraft carriers away from the area of operations – way away -- could reduce confidence in the minds of Taiwan’s domestic polity in America’s ability and willingness to intervene militarily in a future crisis.

If this problem is as serious as many say it is, a “game changer” could mean “game over,” at least for Taiwan’s confidence in U.S. security assurances. Beijing appears increasingly confident of its ability to deny U.S. carrier battle groups the ability to intervene efficiently, effectively, and safely.

The prospect of an anti-ship ballistic missile and other maritime capabilities already is affecting DoD investment decisions. Chief of Naval Operations ADM Gary Roughhead testified before Senator McCain and the Senate Armed Services Committee
a few days ago. Concerns over the ASBM played a major role a decision to curtail the Navy’s DDG-1000 program. Defense News had reported on the effect that this potential ASBM is having on DoD in August 2008:

One source familiar with (a U.S. Navy) classified briefing said that while anti-ship cruise missiles and other threats were known to exist, "those aren't the worst." The new threat, which "didn't exist a couple years ago," is a "land-launched ballistic missile that converts to a cruise missile." Other sources confirmed that a new, classified missile threat is being briefed at very high levels. One admiral, said another source, was told his ships should simply "stay away. There are no options."

With “no options” in defending against this new threat, the relevance of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) should increase. Most focus on the arms sales provisions of the TRA. However, the act also has another key requirement: "to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan." Could it be time for a new Congressional requirement for a report to Congress on the capacity to resist use of force against Taiwan?

China and Its Evolutionary Path to an ASBM

China’s effort to field a system capable of striking moving targets at sea is an evolution of its overall ballistic missile program. Since deployment of its first ballistic missile in the 1960s, the PLA and China’s aerospace industry have taken constant incremental steps toward greater range, survivability, accuracy, and effectiveness against a broader range of targets. China’s ASBM program is part of a broader effort to field the means to detect, track, and strike fixed and mobile targets at sea with precision throughout the Asia-Pacific region. According to the March 2009 Report to Congress on Military Power of the People’s Republic of China:

China is developing an ASBM based on a variant of the CSS-5 MRBM as a part of its anti-access strategy. The missile has a range in excess of 1,500 km, is armed with a maneuverable warhead, and when incorporated into a sophisticated command and control system, is intended to provide the PLA the capability to attack ships at sea, including aircraft carriers in the western Pacific Ocean.

The CSS-5 is the DF-21, a solid fueled medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) that began development in the 1960s but introduced into the PLA Second Artillery in the early 1990s. The latest variant of this MRBM is the 1750 kilometer range DF-21C, which is said to be modeled after the terminally-guided U.S. Pershing II ballistic missile. The DF-21C is reported to have a CEP of around 50 meters or better. This DF-21C would be bad news against Taiwan ,and the ability of the island’s new PATRIOT PAC-3 to defend against this longer range ballistic missile hasn’t been discussed much.

The ASBM most likely would be an evolution of the DF-21C, and has been referred to as the DF-21D. For a great overview, see arms controller Dr. Jeffrey Lewis’ posts
here and here. Rick Fisher did an excellent write up of China’s new generation of conventional ballistic missiles in a July 2007 piece for the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC). It has a great picture of a DF-15 (NATO designation of CSS-6) equipped with a biconic re-entry vehicle, implying a terminal guidance capability.

It’s not unusual to take a precision strike system that was originally developed to go after ground targets and modify it for the maritime environment -- the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Sensor Fuzed Weapon (SFW) are a couple of examples. However, given its flight characteristics, it’s not so easy to modify a ballistic missile to go after moving targets at sea. Yet Chinese engineers seem pretty confident they can do it. To make matters more complicated, the ballistic missile is only one component of a “system of systems” that also would include space-based, airborne, and surface-based sensor architectures.

While not authoritative, China’s blogosphere, bulletin board systems, and popular media may offer hints into what this capability entails. Given government control over the domestic cyberspace, articles indicate how Beijing authorities would like the world – and especially Taiwan – to perceive its emerging military capabilities. Chinese cyberspace is filled with commentary regarding the ASBM. However much of it can be traced to common sources – a pair of sharp, young journalists and a technically competent blogger with a call sign of KKTT.

The authors may not have 100% situational awareness regarding the ASBM program. But on the surface, the analysis seems credible enough to warrant attention, particularly since the subject matter expertise hints at links with China’s defense industry. It’s worth remembering that as China’s economy becomes increasingly competitive, its defense industry is following suit. As the authors note, moving an ASBM program into production could be pretty expensive, as would the integrated sensor network needed to support it. As testimony to how popular the ASBM program is among the general population, China’s Ku6 social networking site has a
film clip of the ASBM, put together by a fan of the program.

Qiu Zhenwei and Long Haiyan: An Operational ASBM Scenario

A pair of writers linked with the magazine Modern Ships (现代舰船) -- Qiu Weizhen (邱玮贞) and Long Haiyan (龙海燕) --published a two part analysis in the monthly journal in December 2006 and January 2007. Qiu, switching the two characters of his first name (玮贞 to 贞玮), re-published the analysis in two blog entries (中国反舰弹道导弹发展探讨) and (中国反舰弹道导弹作战过程). These were were cited in major U.S. Navy-related blogs (click here for one example and here for another) and the Proceedings article discussed above. Qiu presumably switched the position of the characters in his first name for his blog possibly for copyright reasons, and one shouldn’t rule out the possibility of the names being pseudonyms. Regardless, the authors cite authoritative industry sources for technical background, which is commendable. In one comment, Qiu makes a plea for the world’s media to better understand the ASBM.

The articles and related blog posts are long but well worth the read. Qiu and Long note that the main impetus behind the ASBM program was China’s inability to counter U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996. Shortly afterwards, the China Aerospace Science and Technology (CASC) First Academy began conceptual design work.

While not stated, CASC First Academy's competitor -- the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) Fourth Academy -- likely was awarded the ASBM research and development (R&D) contract after completion of proof of concept work in 2002. The CASIC Fourth Academy (航天科工集团第四研究院; or 航天科工四院 for short) has been responsible for DF-21-related R&D, probably including the ASAT vehicle that was successfully tested in January 2007 and the Kaituozhe (KT) family of commercial launch vehicles for small satellites. The CASIC Fourth Academy was formed in 2002 as part of a major CASIC reorganization.

{{NOTE: One senior Chinese space engineer with direct access to details on both the ASAT and ASBM programs commented in a brief media interview that the ASAT and ASBM guidance and control packages share the same technologies. At least one funding source for ASAT guidance and control research during the late 1990s and earlier this decade appears to be the 863-409 program (and possibly the 863-706 program). Presumably, common technologies include passive imaging infrared (IIR) terminal guidance and automated target recognition (ATR) software. Among the research entities involved during the initial R&D on an ASAT kinetic kill vehicle -- euphemistically referred to as a space interceptor (
空间拦截) - was the Harbin Institute of Technology.}}

Qiu and Long note that the ASBM system builds on the DF-21C program. Inherited technologies include a sophisticated onboard computer, pneumatic control for mid-course and terminal phase maneuvering, terminal guidance, and ATR technology. ATR matches images collected through radar and infrared sensors on the missile with images collected from strategic cueing sensors and stored in the warhead's onboard computer. The most expensive portion of an ASBM would be the onboard radar, which the authors believe is as sophisticated and costly as the AN/APG-77 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The authors estimate that the unit cost of an ASBM plus launcher would U.S. $5-10.5 million.

In terms of the missile’s operational capabilities, their main source is a CASC study published in 2000, which they believe captures results of a CASC proof of concept. Citing previous work done on a DF-15C terminally-guided ballistic missile, the pair highlights one of the study’s authors – Xin Wanqing – as leading the proof of concept work for the CASC First Academy’s design department (see
this 2003 article discussing his work). Qiu and Long note China’s accelerating its program to deploy for an architecture of electro-optical (EO) and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites to coincide with the initial deployment of the first generation ASBM in 2009. Bear in mind that the analysis, which would have taken considerable time to develop, is from almost three years ago.

Cueing Systems. To counter an aircraft carrier with a 1500-kilometer strike range, China must have a 2000 kilometer range search and tracking system for ASBM cueing that covers both the western Pacific and South China Sea, down to Singapore. A system would include not only space-based EO and SAR sensors, but also electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellites and a new generation of high altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. Also included would be an over-the-horizon backscatter (OTH-B) radar system that extends out to at least 2000 kilometers (see Sean O’Connor’s
excellent summary of the ASBM and OTH-B programs). The system would include automatic identification system (AIS) technology to distinguish between commercial shipping and military targets.

Missile Defense Countermeasures. Citing a Northwest Polytechnical University and other studies, Qiu and Long believe that the ASBM would adopt sophisticated missile defense countermeasures against U.S. sea-based missile defenses, including masking of the ASBM solid fueled motor’s signature, mid-course maneuvering, decoys, coatings to reduce the warhead’s radar cross section (RCS), and on-board jamming. Equipped with a hybrid solid and liquid fueled third stage, mid-course maneuvering would involve a boost-glide or hopping trajectory concept (跳跃式弹道方案). The missile would incorporate a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) linked with inertial navigation for autonomous mid-course guidance, as well as a possible SAR/millimeter wave radar with passive infrared seeker for terminal guidance. At various stages of flight, the ASBM would adopt speed maneuvers, and means to manage blackout periods due to ionization of the atmosphere above certain re-entry speeds.

Countering U.S. Missile Defense Surveillance
and Tracking. In their detailed ASBM vs. sea-based missile defense scenario, the analysis goes through the SBIRS alert process, arguing that SBIRS would not be able to establish an impact prediction point and thus could fail to provide cueing for sea-based missile defense radar systems. They make an argument that Ground Based Radar (GBR) systems in Korea and Japan likely would be unable to establish a track. The analysis also addresses possible attempts by the U.S. High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) in Alaska could fail to jam China’s OTH-B system, implying the system has a military role.

Order of Battle Issues. Finally, Qiu and Long assert that two DF-21 anti-ship capable brigades will be deployed, with six battalions each with a total of 17 launchers. It’s not clear if new conventional DF-21 brigades would be established, or if the ASBM DF-21 variants would be upgrades to existing brigades. At the current time, the PLA Second Artillery is said to have three DF-21 brigades in eastern China. Two are subordinate to the 52 Base, the army-level Second Artillery organization opposite Taiwan. These are the
96163 Unit, aka the 811 Brigade based in the Qimen area in Anhui; and the 96161 Unit, aka 807 Brigade in Chizhou area in Jiangxi province. Another relatively new unit subordinate to the 51 Base (the 96117 Unit, aka the 822 Brigade based in Laiwu, Shandong province). It could be assumed that the Second Artillery wouldn’t mix nuclear and conventional DF-21 variants in the same brigade. {{NOTE: Reliable Chinese references indicate that a standard DF-15 SRBM brigade has six battalions with two companies per battalion. While not yet clear, it appears that existing DF-21 MRBM brigades still consist of only three battalions. These may be the units with nuclear missions. As conventional DF-21 brigades are established, it's possible that they could be organized similar to DF-15 brigades}}.

KKTT: China’s Extended Range Precision Strike Capability

Qiu Zhenwei and Long Haiyan’s analysis is only one example. Another observer who appears to be closely following the program goes by the call sign of “KKTT.” Under normal circumstances, bulletin board system (BBS) postings should be taken with a grain of salt. However, when observers cite their research and analysis with credible sources, then they may be worth paying attention to. In his main analysis published in April 2009 (China’s Development Concept for Theater Missile Strike Power; or
我国区域常规打击力量建设设想), KKTT argues that an ASBM program entails three phases.

The author implies that China has already developed a 1700-2000 kilometer range DF-21D. However key technologies needed for precision strike against a sea target are still under development. The three systems under development are: the DF-25; the DF-26; and the DF-27. (NOTE: One commentator of unknown reliability notes that the DF-26 and DF-27 are being developed separately by CASIC and CASC and only one will be downselected). Other sources claim that the DF-26 is a developmental sea-launched conventional ballistic missile). The author notes that a sea-launched variant of the DH-10 land attack cruise missile with a range of 3000 kilometers is under development. Cruise missile designers have been advocating that China’s extended range LACMs be adapted for counter-carrier operations. According to KKTT’s analysis, all four systems are supposed to be tested and fielded before 2015.

A second phase would involve development of sophisticated aerodynamic maneuvering capability that not only would enhance a missile's ability to penetrate missile defenses but also extend its range. Currently in its preliminary research stage, a boost-glide missile (助推-滑翔式导弹), based on part on 1930s technology developed by German V-2 missile engineers, would move to the R&D stage only after 2015 with deployment before 2020. A final phase, deployed before 2025, would be a hypersonic cruise vehicle for global operations.

Concluding Comments: Bring It Back to Taiwan

In short, sufficient evidence exists that China is serious about fielding a capability that could undercut the capacity of the United States to assist Taiwan in a conflict against China. However, what we do not know is if China’s aerospace industry will be successful in making an anti-ship ballistic missile available to the PLA, or when. One sign would be an ASBM demonstration -- a test that U.S. surveillance systems could detect. However, China has surprised us time and time again. One scenario is for China to conduct separate tests for the guidance package, flight vehicle, and attitude control system. Chinese references note the possibility of using hardware in the loop or other simulation systems to test an ASBM guidance package. However, PLA authorities probably would want to have a high degree of confidence that the system works before giving the aerospace industry the green to begin production. As Qiu and Long indicate, the ASBM could be pretty expensive.

Aerospace industry authorities may be ready to test anytime. The sooner the PLA customer can certify the system, the sooner China’s defense industry can lock in a production contract. And if Qiu and Long’s estimate is close, U.S. $5-10.5 million per missile is pretty good business, especially if there’s an order for a couple hundred. CASIC and/or CASC probably aren’t that concerned about the political implications.

However, a more likely scenario is for China’s civilian leaders to wait for a propitious time to approve a full, integrated flight test. The year 2011 -- a year before Taiwan’s presidential elections in March 2012 – could be a propitious time. After a successful test, it probably would take a while for word to leak out from the U.S. intelligence community. But the timing of a test could be intended to influence popular perception in Taiwan in the run-up to the March 2012 elections. The 1995-1996 tests were threatening to that portion of Taiwan’s population that doesn’t take brute force demonstrations very well. However, an ASBM test likely would be subtle, with no need for an official declaration or acknowledgement. Yet it could be cast in the U.S., Taiwan, and Chinese media as directed against aircraft carriers. Tests would not be directed against Chinese compatriots on Taiwan, so nothing to worry about, or so the line could go.

Regardless, the primary driver for an ASBM is Taiwan. From Beijing’s perspective, the goal is to create the conditions for cross-Strait unification on terms favorable to Beijing. The United States is viewed as the principle remaining roadblock to unification. Along these lines, a goal could be to create the perception within Taiwan of U.S. weakness and vulnerability, as well as a real capability to complicate America’s capacity to intervene on behalf of Taiwan in a future crisis.

Visible deployment of a growing arsenal of ballistic missiles is intended to create a sense of vulnerability and psychological pressure among the majority of Taiwan’s population who may be inclined toward supporting political movements and leaders associated with Taiwan independence. However, much of that public sense of vulnerability is mitigated through popular confidence in American willingness and ability to intervene on behalf of Taiwan in a crisis situation.

The next opportunity for Taiwanese to express support for dejure independence or an illusive status quo through the election of political leaders at the national level is 2012, and therefore may serve as a milestone for demonstrating a capability.

In short, Beijing appears to be placing a premium on undercutting Taiwan’s confidence in the U.S. as a reliable security guarantor by demonstrating military capabilities that could derail military intervention. And a demonstrated ASBM capability, without a clear and visible sign of American ability to deal with it, could indeed serve as a game changer.


Anonymous said...

Good article. Any explanation for how a ballistic missile turns turns into a cruise missile? And any more detail on the link between ASAT and ASBM?

I'm skeptical that China can hit a carrier. The Soviets tried it in the 1970s and failed. And we have SM-3 now.

Taiwan Matters to America said...

I appreciate the feedback. I've had enough off line comments to warrant a follow-on post later.

For now, one explanation for the blurring of lines between a ballistic missile and a cruise missile could be the trajectory. The literature indicates an interest in an ASBM's upper stage or warhead adopting a kind of depressed trajectory, or a trajectory in which the missile skips off the upper atmosphere and glides toward its sea based target. Even here, however, there are a number of concepts that are being evaluated. I suspect these different variations of a boost-glide capability are something down the road a bit.

Commonalities in ASBM and ASAT probably would be in the funding source of some of the key technologies. The 863 Program had a number of projects focused on imaging infrared terminal guidance for a kinetic kill vehicle, MMW antennas and communication systems, high speed digital signal processors and ASICs, MEMS-based accelerometers, passive missile defense countermeasures, L-Band SAR satellite development, SAR/IR automatic target recognition, just to name a few.

As an aside, the literature indicates that the ASAT test was an intermediate step in developing a missile defense interceptor. Chatter on Chinese bulletin board systems has labeled the ASAT/KKV as the HQ-19, although this would be really hard to verify. A DoD briefer referred to the ASAT as the SC-19 back in 2007. The "S" in "SC" could be the character "shen," as in "Shenzhou," which is used as an internal designation for a range of major developmental programs. "HQ" is the designator for CASIC Second Academy surface-to-air missile systems. And it looks like the Second Academy's Second Design Department is doing quite a bit of work on what they call "air defense/space defense" systems.

Anyway, IMHO, it's dangerous to underestimate Chinese technological capabilities. The Soviets were operating with old technology and a stove-piped, rigid defense industrial system. And whatever technological lessons they did absorb could easily be passed on to Chinese industrial counterparts. In fact, given parallels with what Russian missile designers are doing today with terminally-guided ballistic missiles, one shouldn't discount technical cooperation and pooling of resources in devising means to counter U.S. missile defenses.

Along these lines, I'm not sure how effective sea-based missile defenses would be against a Chinese medium range ballistic missile, such as the DF-21. The SM-3 may be effective against rudimentary systems such as those the North Koreans are working on. But Chinese ballistic missiles are a different level.

More to come!

monkeyfish said...

hi great blog and good info for what all the talk about missile please can you ping some more info this needs to be given a better explanation.

onlinemedia said...

disturbing information on the threat china will pose over the next 2 years. Lets hope these are never used.