China’s 10 Killer Weapons: Comprehensive Strategy Targets U.S. Presence in Asia-Pacific
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — China is developing 10 killer applications designed to degrade, depress and destroy any U.S. military campaign or mission in the greater China region, including the South China Sea and Taiwan, according to experts here and in Washington.
The 10 are part of a larger anti-access/area denial strategy calculated to identify U.S. military weaknesses. Chinese military strategists described many of these efforts as “acupuncture warfare.”
These 10 capabilities being developed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are:
1. Computer network operations. Working with electronic warfare and other forms of information operations, PLA advances in computer network operations, or cyberwarfare, pose risks to U.S. command and control. Chinese cyber espionage activity over the past decade is a preliminary manifestation of China’s growing prowess in this area, said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, Washington.
“Given the centrality of computer networks in military operations, PLA success in surpassing Neighbors and the U.S. in cyberwarfare could give China a decisive advantage in a future conflict,” he said.
2. Precision-strike missiles. Conventional precision-strike missile systems, such as short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, land attack cruise missiles and extended-range anti-ship cruise missiles are difficult to defend against. High speeds, growing accuracy and inherent stealth offer the PLA an assured means of hitting almost any target within its range.
Today, this range is about 2,000 kilometers, sufficient to hit targets throughout Japan, Southeast Asia, Taiwan and northern India. Over the next 10 to 15 years, Guam may come under the gun, and perhaps even Hawaii and Australia.
The PLA’s 2nd Artillery Force is the principal force for long-range, precision-strike operations.
“A sophisticated maze of underground facilities increases the chance of operational surprise and survivability in the face of almost certain counterstrikes,” Stokes said.
Land attack cruise missiles, if operated in combination with the 2nd Artillery Force’s conventional ballistic missiles, could undermine the operational capability of Taiwan’s military airfields, said Andrew Erickson, a China defense analyst at the U.S. Naval War College.
China’s anti-ship cruise missiles, including the DF-21D ballistic missile, dubbed the “aircraft carrier killer,” are “far more than a Chinese Navy-based challenge, they are part of what some U.S. government experts have called China’s ‘anti-Navy,’ ” Erickson said.
As the DF-21D and other cruise missiles become fully operational, they “would effectively shut down the first island chain to U.S. aircraft carriers in time of conflict,” said Gary Li, an analyst at U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis.
China also is developing multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle technology for its road-mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of hitting any target in the continental U.S. with nuclear weapons.
“This will undermine U.S. extended deterrence, increasing alliance instability for the U.S.,” said Richard Fisher, an analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, Washington.
3. Advanced command, control and communications systems. “Informatization” of the PLA has become a top priority. Operational success requires exchanging large volumes of information among PLA units and commanders, Stokes said.
Significant investment in survivable networks enables the PLA to use other weapons with confidence. And there is no public debate over military decisions, as there is in the U.S.
The Central Military Commission, roughly equivalent to a combined U.S. Joint Chiefs of
Staff and National Security Council, is “not susceptible to public pressure, nor is it accountable to any public body,” Li said.
The commission is wielded as the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. “Although the level of political fanaticism is no longer as ingrained [as] in the past,” Li said, it will not be subject to budget cuts or austerity measures in the near future.
4. Counterspace. U.S. Pacific Command would heavily rely on space systems when
conducting operations in the region during a war.
“The PLA has been exploiting this reliance through investments into anti-satellite capabilities, space surveillance, satellite jammers, concealment, camouflage and deception technologies,” Stokes said.
There are fears China would use preemptive counterspace weapons early in a conflict with the U.S. Chinese military writings and doctrine appear to “emphasize early or even pre-emptive use of counterspace and cyber attack to seize the initiative, without showing much concern for China’s own vulnerability of satellites and networks,” said Phillip Saunders, director of the U.S. National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.
5. Integrated air defense. Due to difficulties in intercepting long-range precision-strike weapons in flight, U.S. and regional partners would need to interdict PLA power-projection capabilities at their source on mainland China. Increasingly sophisticated Chinese air defenses will make this mission more difficult. Integrated air defense capabilities include counterstealth sensors, over-the-horizon radar, and new air and missile defense interceptors.
Chinese anti-stealth efforts have focused on meter-wave, passive, over-the-horizon radar and infrared counters. These include the acquisition of four Kolchuga passive sensor systems from Ukraine. China’s new YLC-20 two-station passive surveillance radar is believed to be a copy of the Czech VERA-E system.
China has beefed up its inventory of Russian-built and indigenous air defense missile systems, including the S-300 and Tor M1, as well as the locally built HQ-9 and HHQ-9, said Roger Cliff, one of the authors of the book “Entering the Dragon’s Lair,” which examines anti-access/area denial strategies.
The Chinese Air Force controls the majority of ground-based air defenses, which operate under the 1999 concept of “Three Attacks” (against stealth aircraft, cruise missiles and armed helicopters) and “Three Defenses” (against precision strikes, electronic jamming, and electronic reconnaissance and surveillance), Erickson said.
6. Submarines. Stealthiness makes submarines difficult to defend against. Used in coordination with anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines increase the stress levels of U.S. combatant commanders.
Though the U.S. Navy would argue that its anti-submarine warfare capabilities are far superior to China’s, there was the embarrassing 2006 incident when a Chinese Song-class diesel-powered submarine surfaced just over four nautical miles from the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk near Okinawa.
China has been expanding its inventory of diesel and nuclear-powered submarines, such as the diesel powered Russian-made Kilo-class and the “nearly quiet Yuan-class,”
Though China has limited projection capabilities, these submarines are “good enough for EEZ [exclusive economic zone] protection and locking down the first island chain,” Li said.
7. Space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The PLA is improving its ability to hold U.S. satellites at risk. At the same time, China is making progress in deploying space-based surveillance platforms equipped with high-resolution electro-optical cameras; synthetic aperture radar for 24-hour, all-weather monitoring of surface activity; and electronic surveillance receivers that intercept electronic emissions
of U.S. and allied military operations.
“A key enabler for many PLA anti-access/area denial capabilities is the need for sensors to locate U.S. ships and guide weapons to them,” Saunders said.
8. UAVs. Providing critical ISR support for precision-strike operations, UAVs are a growing investment priority.
“A relatively new regiment equipped with long-range, high-endurance UAVs that reports directly to the General Staff Department exemplifies their strategic importance,” Stokes said.
UAV units have been or are being formed under the 2nd Artillery, Air Force, Navy and Army ground forces. Armed UAV variants, such as the Pterodactyl, will be introduced in the near future.
9. Directed-energy weapons. Technological breakthroughs in directed energy weapons, such as high-powered microwave (HPM) and lasers, could threaten U.S. military communications, space assets, ships and aircraft, Stokes said. “A weaponized HPM, while likely some years away, could shut down electronics in the immediate vicinity of its impact.”
10. Stealth fighters. Long-range, precision strike missiles can knock airbases out temporarily or sink aircraft carriers, but sustained presence in the skies over a war zone requires manned fighter aircraft. China’s next-generation fighters, such as the stealthy
J-20, are expected to be more difficult to detect on radar. China is expected to field multiple fifth-generation fighters by the mid-2020s, Fisher said.
There also have been reports out of China of research into hypersonic military space planes. “The PLA also appears to be investing significant research and development funds into advanced engines that could someday propel an aircraft at hypersonic speeds,” Stokes said.