China’s anti-ship ballistic missile capability in the South China Sea
In August 2020, China laid off what would have been anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) in the South China Sea. The missile fire was the second time that China has launched such missiles into the disputed waters. The first happened in June 2019, when China fired six ASBMs in the region. It is not known whether the two missile hits were fired against moving or predetermined targets at sea, but it is likely that the ASBMs involved were DF-21D medium-range or DF-26 medium-range ballistic missiles. And since China normally conducts its missile tests in the Bohai Sea and the fact that US naval forces operated in the South China Sea during the weeks leading up to the missile fire, China likely conducted them not just to test. its ASBM capabilities, but also to deter what it considers US interference in its waters.
Still, missile launches alone, however successful, do not mean that China can reliably strike ships at sea with ASBMs. This is because the missiles and warheads above them are only one part of a greater chain of destruction. Just as a rifle and bullet need a reliable human eye to hit the intended target, Chinese ASBMs and their warheads need reliable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to hit intended targets at sea. such an ISR capability is not easy. But China regularly assembles the components necessary for its development in the South China Sea.
The targeting problem
While ASBMs have come a long way since the Soviet Union launched them (and then abandoned them) in the 1970s, the way they are supposed to operate remains the same. A conventionally armed ASBM is designed to take advantage of its ballistic trajectory through the upper atmosphere to propel its warhead (or warheads) at hypersonic speeds so that they can penetrate any anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. edge that its targets have deployed. Traveling at several times the speed of sound, the warhead of an ASBM would clearly give a defending ABM system little time to react. Considering the mass of a warhead and the speed of its descent, even a successful interception with an ABM missile might not be enough to stop it. To make matters worse for the defender, China has sought to design manageable warheads that would further complicate the task of ABM systems.
All of this, however, assumes that China’s ISR collection assets can detect, identify, track and target vessels at sea with sufficient precision for its ASBMs to locate and hit their targets. This is not trivial, especially because the waters of the South China Sea contain one of the busiest maritime traffic in the world. Equally problematic is that ships at sea tend to be constantly on the move. In 10 minutes even cruise ships can travel 10 km (at around 30 knots). In addition, they can change course (maybe more than once) or come to a complete stop. While a maneuvering warhead may be able to adjust its flight path to reduce the need for absolute ISR accuracy, there is a physical limit to what steering ASBM warheads can do while traveling at high speeds. hypersonic speeds.
Of course, Chinese rocket forces could attempt to mitigate any targeting error by firing a salvo of multiple missiles and warheads against a single target. They could also use a mix of warheads with different terminal seekers to improve the chances that one sort or another could overcome defenses aboard ships. Covering an area with such warheads would undoubtedly increase the likelihood of hitting a ship at sea. But it could also increase the risk of hitting other nearby ships, including neutral ships, especially if the plasma sheaths that collide. formed around the warheads during their descent into the atmosphere blind their researchers. In any case, the repeated launch of ASBM bursts would deplete China’s missile supply much faster than the launch of a small number of well-targeted missiles. Therefore, a robust ISR capability will always play an important role in any effective ASBM system.
Fusion for precision
China has dramatically expanded its sea-facing ISR with an array of aerial, land, sea and space collection assets. Chinese commanders now have more means to detect, identify, track and target ships offshore than ever before. Paradoxically, however, the great diversity of collection assets can make it more difficult for these commanders to merge the data they contain into a single common operational picture. Creating the necessary infrastructure to deconflict multiple data streams and present information in a way that enables commanders to make quick decisions is a major technical challenge. But with enough financial investment, China can be expected to overcome it eventually.
What could present a bigger challenge for the ISR merger in China is organizational. First of all, it takes repeated practice (and therefore time) to smooth out the creases. The United States took decades to properly merge its joint ISR resources after creating its Unified Combatant Commands; on the other hand, China did not reorganize its military regions into unified “theater commands” until 2017. Second, for the merged ISR data to be useful, it must be combined with the centralized authority to act, but this goes against Beijing’s traditional preference to disperse authority in its military to ensure its submission to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Proof that, for more than 70 years, the Chinese army has operated under a dual command system, where decision-making is shared between senior officers and political commissars. As three decades of reform transformed the Chinese military into a much more professional fighting force, Chinese Secretary General Xi Jinping’s desire to eliminate all traces of dissent (even among the main CCP leaders) shows how easily he could go back.
Missiles and researchers
If China overcomes the challenges of merging (and using) its ISR data, the South China Sea will likely be the first sea area where Chinese commanders have sufficient ISR fidelity to support ASBM targeting. As for the ASBMs themselves, the missiles most often considered to have an anti-ship role are the DF-21D and DF-26. The DF-21D would have a range of 1,500 km and the DF-26 a range of 4,000 km. From their launch sites on the Chinese mainland, the DF-21D could cover most of the South China Sea as well as its approaches from the Pacific Ocean via the Straits of Bashi and Luzon. The DF-26 could cover not only the South China Sea, but also large parts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and beyond.
But the longer the range of an ASBM, the more accurate the ISR data must be to target a ship at sea, as a greater distance would give the ship more opportunities to get out of harm’s way. For example, China has equipped its DF-21D ASBMs with handy warheads which are guided by terminal researchers. That way, even with slightly inaccurate ISR data, the terminal finder could aim a warhead at its target, as long as the seeker can identify that target and the guidance it provides is within the warhead’s maneuverability. Of course, creating such a researcher is no easy task. It will have to operate not only at hypersonic speeds, but also when trapped in the plasma that forms around a warhead as it plunges into the atmosphere.
Of course, the types of terminal finders that China might use are also important. One type is an electro-optical finder, which uses the spectral signature (i.e. image) of a target to identify it. Unfortunately, weather conditions (i.e. clouds) and hours of darkness can often get in the way. An infrared researcher can overcome these shortcomings by using a target’s thermal signature for identification. However, even the best infrared researcher is open to impersonation with technology that masks or mimics thermal radiation. A third type is an active radar finder, which identifies a target using its radar cross section; it too can be deceived. While an ideal terminal finder is probably one that combines multiple sensors, such a finder would be more difficult to manufacture, given the size and weight constraints of a warhead.
Certainly, China’s potential adversaries are aware of its ambitions to target ships at sea with ASBMs. They have again started training their navies to strictly manage their electronic emissions in order to evade China’s ISR collection assets. In the South China Sea, however, the time when these basic countermeasures suffice may decrease. While it is never publicly known whether China’s 2019 or 2020 ASBM fire in the South China Sea was directed against moving or stationary targets (or whether or not they were successful), it does. that the missile fire occurred so close to the waters where commercial and naval ships often commute suggests that China was reasonably convinced that its missiles would not hit these ships. Of course, that doesn’t imply that China’s ASBM capability has become operational – it implies that it could be one more step.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-reasoned, policy-oriented articles on foreign policy and security. American national. priorities.
 Jeff W. Benson and Zi Yang, Party on the bridge: the political commissioners of the Chinese navy (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2020), p. 26-30, 34.
 Chun Han Wong, “Xi’s China Stepping Up Its Will to Stifle Dissent,” the Wall Street newspaper, November 28-29, 2020, p. A1, A10.
 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 (Washington, DC: US Department of Defense, September 2020), p. 56.
 Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, p. 56.