20070724_06aA few of us  (here and over at Galrahn‘s site) have been banging the drum for the last few years re. the potential threat posed by China’s ASBM (Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile) which appears to be a variant of the DF-21 (itself, an apparent derivative of the Pershing II MRBM).  There has been limited releasable (e.g., unclassified) information from DoD agencies, most of it in the annual DoD report on China’s capabilities.  What little else can be gleaned from the open press is primarily Chinese in origin and oft times, in Chinese.  Most of the extensive writings have tended to be more generalistic as a result, focusing at the strategic-political level on the implications and challenges such a weapon would pose in a future Taiwan Straits scenario (or some other that takes place at or inside the first island chain).  Chief focus has been on the aspect of sea denial to US carriers and the attendant impact that would have on providing tactical airpower in the face of land-based PLAAF forces conducting bluewater ASUW and land attack strikes.  The most recent open press article was that found in the May 2009 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings

With the autumn 2009 issue of the Naval War College Review, that body of knowledge has been significantly expanded via two articles.  The first, “Using the Land to Control the Sea?” (link directly downloads a PDF of the article) addresses the larger technical and political challenges, opening with an argument is a familiar to readers of this and the aforementioned blogs:

For China, the ability to prevent a U.S. carrier strike group from intervening in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis is critical. Beijing’s immediate strategic concerns have been defined with a high level of clarity. The Chinese are interested in achieving an antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) capability because it offers them the prospect of limiting the ability of other nations, particularly the United States, to exert military influence on China’s maritime periphery, which contains several disputed zones of core strategic importance to Beijing. ASBMs are regarded as a means by which technologically limited developing countries can overcome by asymmetric means their qualitative inferiority in conventional combat platforms, because the gap between offense and defense is the greatest here.

Today, China may be closer than ever to attaining this capability. In addition to numerous outside reports suggesting Chinese efforts in this area, technical and operationally focused discussions on the topic are appearing in increasing numbers and in a widening array of Chinese sources, some clearly authoritative.  This suggests that China may be close to testing and fielding an ASBM system—a weapon that no other country currently possesses, since the United States relinquished a distantly related capability in 1988. In the view of Chinese and Western analysts, even the mere perception that China might have realized an ASBM capability could represent a paradigm shift, with profound consequences for deterrence, military operations, arms control, and the balance of power in the western Pacific.

Discussion that follows is worth the read, but of particular interest is the end analysis where the authors contemplate the impact a range of US responses would have, spanning from indifference to measured and then major response,and what the implications would be if the Chinese were to go ahead and conduct an operational tes:

Responding to the unprecedented strategic challenge presented by an ASBM capability would require the American military and civilian leadership to face hard truths, and continue to develop innovative new capabilities. The United States has many options here, and it must be prepared to exercise them. The most perilous approach would be to neglect such military innovation while continuing to insist that the United States maintained its ability to keep the peace, when in fact the military capabilities that underpin that ability were diminishing, at least in a relative sense. Such a discrepancy between rhetoric and reality would erode America’s regional credibility and fuel Chinese overconfidence. The prospect of documenting that discrepancy publicly might motivate China to conduct a demonstration of an ASBM; a successful test could create the impression that American power projection capabilities—and the regional credibility that depends on them—had been dramatically diminished. Managing the proper response to this potential “game changer” will demand close scrutiny from scholars, analysts, and policy makers alike, as it will critically influence America’s place in the Pacific for decades to come.

Two events point to the efficacy of such a scenario: one, the operational ASAT test conducted in 2007 and the other (and used by the authors) – the bombing tests off the VACAPES prompted by General Billy Mitchell and carried out by Army and Navy aircraft against stationary capital ship targets.  In the case of the former, it clearly illuminated not only China’s tchnological capabilities, but some have said that it also demonstrated a certain ascendancy of the military and its ability to veto civilian policy makers who were not favoring an operational test.  In the case of the latter – there were major budgetary, policy and even changes in tactics as the nascent Army Air Corps received substantive funding boosts, the Navy began to seriously investigate the use of dive bombers as a means to attack ships and other nations, notably Japan, began to redraw their force structures.

But what of the system itself?  How much of it is real and how much is just vaporware?  Maskirovka designed to confuse and direct US allocation of forces and funding down blind alleys?  The second article, “China’s Antiship Ballistic Missile: Developments and Missing Links” (same warning as above re. the hyperlink) takes a systemic approach to assessing this ‘system of systems’ by an extensive analysis of available open-press Chinese literature.  It is worth noting that when conducting a content analysis, one not only focuses on what is found in the body proper of individual texts, but as that body grows, there are larger trends and directions that can be ascertained and from which,  judgments as to the status and progress of a program may be made – even absent declaratory supporting statements.  As the authors point out, for example, early literature tends to view the problems presented in the complex kill chain of an ASBM with a wider aperture, with wide-ranging, generalist discussions that identify problem areas.  As sub-groups of supporting literature grow in number while parsing ever-finer details, say in developing algorithms used to detect, identify and track large surface vessels using space-based assets, or there is wider discussion of the problems associated with exo-atmospheric maneuvering while maintaining targeting (as is the case in the civilian space program and the problems associated with unmanned docking), the fact that such bodies of literature exist lends credence to assessments of the state of development and deployment of a weapons system.

Beyond the ASBM, the authors see far-reaching impacts on the larger military capabilities and force structure.  Developing, building and deploying an operational ASBM with all of the technical, operational and even political challenges posed along the way would have reverberating effects throughout – from Command and Control, to multi-spectral imaging, rapid re-targeting, battle assessment and more – every bit a modern revolution in military affairs and industry as the US experienced in the late 80’s and 90’s with technology crossovers from the space and micro-computer industries.

Points to ponder while working on a “balanced” approach to forces


  1. xformed

    I recall a few not so real, but seemingly real systems in the Regan years that caused the Soviets to try and buy the countering capability, which broke their banks.

    Deja vu all over again?

  2. claudio

    Comment left at USNI Blog

    As most know, this Chinese effort has been ongoing for years. Still, so many questions, yet not enough answers, real answers not speculation. The Chinese are working on a potentially game changing weapon. We can’t stop their development, yet we can work on answering the challenge posed.

    A couple of assumptions here,

    The Chinese are progressing towards ASBM capability. Eventually, they’ll have something working, which they’ll probably test. I say test it so we can get some good collections.

    Targeting, C4IR, lacking, but working on it; space based, OTHR, SIGINT, UAV, ELINT, etc. all in development. Eventually they’ll get something, and we will know what it is, or what combination gives them the best location elipse. And we’ll work on ways to detract from these capabilities.

    When would China use it? Last month I attended a conference on China, basically looking ahead at 2025. Lots of experts, lots of good information, also lots of questions. Question I had there, which I still do, is what would prompt China to attack a US Carrier group, specifically a carrier with an ASBM. Got the same answer I received before, which is kind of vague. Basically they would attack the carrier IF they think Attack on Chinese Mainland is IMMINENT, or if they’ve attacked Taiwan and we’re coming to Taiwan’s aid.

    I’m still internally debating those answers and have not come up with an accurate decision point when China would attack a US Carrier, and maybe sink it and kill over 5000 American souls. I hope this has been answered at some levels. What would be our response and what would be the escalation point from here? Would China take that kind of risk to keep from saving face vis a vis a Taiwanese bold move towards independence? The economic impact considerations, on both sides? Again, a lot more questions than answers.

    Looking at these considerations, ASBM almost becomes more of a deterrent weapon than an actual available arrow in the quiver. A means to maybe prevent us from coming within 1500 km of the coastline when they want to take some actions that maybe would not escalate to invasion. If China had these capabilities last decade, would we have sent the carriers there in 96?

    Considering all that, once we have a good idea on the decision point for ASBM employment by the Chinese, I’m assuming that then we would take whatever actions necessary to negate them that possibility. And our range of options is pretty varied, once the decision to engage and negate capability is made.

    Our range of options would range from limiting their targeting abilities by either taking out OTHR, strikes, Jamming, spoofing, meaconing, cyberwarfare, etc, ranging up to ASATs. All depends on what we need to impact and whether it is overtly or covertly.

    On the other hand, also must have considerations on defeating the weapon. If we are confident on capabilities to defeat the weapon, then kinetic, overt action to limit targeting is not required. Like SJS mentioned, there is a number of limited ATBM capabilities, especially looking at shipbased systems. We have to look at all available options.

    Like my hero Forest Gump stated, “I’m not a smart man”, but just of the top of my head something like a Nulka SRBOC on steroids.

    Stop laughing now. What follows is like the fry guy at McD telling a brain surgeon which artery to cauterize.

    Assuming a 50km radius for terminal guidance area (between 20km and 100km radius in PRC literature), the circle is not going to be a perfect circle due to ASBM speed, angle of attack and slow down maneuver. So basically we’re looking at an elongated elipse with the extended lobe behind the carrier. Assuming prompt notification via national sensors and other cues, CV kicks it in the butt at 35kts, towards axis of attack, the shorter lobe. The missile can and will go long due to slow down maneuvers. It cannot go much shorter due to inertia and flight profile. In 15 mins (launch to impact) the carrier should move about 16km, thus the area the ASBM can target is about 34km or less. Launch a series of chaff missiles at 19km altitude and progressively lower in order to blind the seeker. Higher if needed to blind midcourse targeting. At that altitude, the cloud radius need not be that large to blind the area needed to obscure the CV. Combine this with jamming, some false targets etc on the long (non blinded) side of the elipse and it may have some effect. Again, like I stated, sure there are better, more efficient ideas but they don’t need to be exotic. Now, if they use an EMP warhead, then will see how good our EMP protected equipment holds out. Oh, and the COTS stuff too.

    So, too make a long story short, they are developing the ASBM system. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems as a system vs just the weapon. Look at the big picture and come up with solutions, both simple and exotic. We’ve done it for over 200 years. Will do it again.

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