The Real Military Threat from China: Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles

January 22, 2015

National Interest:
During the 1982 Falklands War, Argentina possessed a measly total of five Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles with which to face down the Royal Navy in the South Atlantic. Had that number been more like 50 or 100, that conflict might well have had a very different ending. This important lesson has not been lost on China’s military chiefs. Indeed, China has placed great emphasis on anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) development over the last three decades and is now set to reap the strategic benefits of this singular focus.

Western defense analysts have taken up the habit of fixating on the “whiz-bang” aspects of Chinese military modernization, such as the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), or threats that are largely hypothetical, such as Beijing’s supposedly fearsome cyber arsenal. However, it will be unwise to ignore certain more mundane threats of proven lethality. These concern, at least in part, China’s emergent naval air arm and not the carrier-based part of that air-arm – which continues to be the red herring of Chinese naval development, at least for now. Flying from bases in the Mainland out to longer ranges with more sophisticated search radars and electronic countermeasures, the large fleet of land-based aircraft will now deploy some of the world’s most advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to boot. This rather mature capability might be described as “air-sea battle” with Chinese characteristics.

his edition of Dragon Eye probes a survey from the October 2014 issue of Mandarin-language defense magazine 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] of “中国海军空基对海打击力量” [The Chinese Navy’s Air-Based Maritime Strike Force]. The magazine is published by a Zhengzhou institute of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), a primary actor in China’s ongoing naval modernization process.

Hardly Satisfied

The background sketch of this force reveals a keen appreciation by the Chinese analyst of the PLA Navy’s early difficulties in developing a naval air strike force. It is noted that the absence of such a force was plainly revealed during the 1974 battle with Vietnam for the Paracels in which Chinese supporting forces were totally absent in the air above the sea battle. With the initial deployment of the stubby Q-5 attack aircraft, as well as the low-performing H-6 bomber and J-7 fighter-bomber, China could be said to have a strike force, though admittedly one with rather pathetic capabilities. The Q-5 could hardly muster a combat radius of 300 km, the H-6 was too expensive, and the J-7 suffered from a weak radar, low survivability, and backward electronic systems.

A turning point in Beijing’s quest to develop a credible “air-sea battle” strategy occurred in 2004 with the arrival of 24 Su-30MK2s from Russia. For the first time ever, the Chinese Navy possessed a modern, capable strike platform. Not only could this aircraft fly well beyond the first island chain to a radius of about 1,300km, but these imported planes came equipped with the highly prized Mach 3 KH31 ASCM. At the same time, Chinese military leaders were not content to rely on imported weaponry and during the late 1990s pursued extensive upgrades for both the H-6 bomber and the J-7 fighter bomber….

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