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New missile gap leaves US scrambling to counter China; increased military spending, tech ended Washington's monopoly

By David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim

China’s powerful military is considered to be a master at concealing its intentions. But there is no secret about how it plans to destroy American aircraft carriers if rivalry becomes war.

At November’s biennial air show in the southern city of Zhuhai, the biggest state-owned missile maker, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Ltd, screened an animation showing a hostile “blue force”, comprising an aircraft carrier, escort ships and strike aircraft, approaching “red force” territory.

On a giant screen, the animation showed a barrage of the Chinese company’s missiles launched from “red force” warships, submarines, shore batteries and aircraft wreaking havoc on the escort vessels around the carrier. In a final salvo, two missiles plunge onto the flight deck of the carrier and a third slams into the side of the hull near the bow.

The fate of the ship is an unmistakable message to an America that has long dominated the globe from its mighty aircraft carriers and sprawling network of hundreds of bases.

China’s military is now making giant strides toward replacing the United States as the supreme power in Asia. With the Pentagon distracted by almost two decades of costly war in West Asia and Afghanistan, the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has exploited a period of sustained budget increases and rapid technical improvement to build and deploy an arsenal of advanced missiles.

Many of these missiles are specifically designed to attack the aircraft carriers and bases that form the backbone of United States military dominance in the region and which, for decades, have protected allies including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Across almost all categories of these weapons, based on land, loaded on strike aircraft or deployed on warships and submarines, China’s missiles rival or outperform their counterparts in the armories of the United States and its allies, according to current and former US military officers with knowledge of PLA test launches, Taiwanese and Chinese military analysts, and technical specifications published in China’s state-controlled media.

 New missile gap leaves US scrambling to counter China; increased military spending, tech ended Washingtons monopoly

Guided missiles are launched during a drill of the North Sea Fleet in Qingdao, Shandong province, on 17 October, 2013. Reuters

China has also seized a virtual monopoly in one class of conventional missiles — land-based, intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles.

Under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a Cold War-era agreement aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear conflict, the United States and Russia are banned from deploying this class of missiles, with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. But Beijing, unrestrained by the INF Treaty, is deploying them in massive numbers.

This includes so-called carrier killer missiles like the DF-21D, which can target aircraft carriers and other warships underway at sea at a range of up to 1,500 kilometers, according to Chinese and Western military analysts. If effective, these missiles would give China a destructive capability no other military can boast. China’s advantage in this class of missiles is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, despite US President Donald Trump’s decision in February to withdraw from the treaty in six months.

A comparison of ground-launch ballistic and cruise missile. Reuters

A comparison of ground-launch ballistic and cruise missile. Reuters

China is also making rapid strides in developing so-called hypersonic missiles, which can maneuver sharply and travel at five times the speed of sound (or even faster). Currently, the United States has no defenses against a missile like this, according to Pentagon officials.

China’s Ministry of National Defense and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation did not respond to questions from Reuters about Beijing’s missile capabilities. The US Indo-Pacific Command and the Pentagon had no comment.

China’s growing missile arsenal hasn’t yet been proven in a real-world clash, and some Chinese officials play down their advances. But under the Trump administration, Washington has come to view China as a rival determined to displace the United States in Asia. This modern-day missile gap, the administration believes, is emerging as one of the biggest dangers to American military supremacy in Asia since the end of the Cold War. The Pentagon is now scrambling for new weapons and strategies to counter the PLA's rocket arsenal.

“We know that China has the most advanced ballistic missile force in the world,” said James Fanell, a retired US Navy captain and former senior intelligence officer with the US Pacific Fleet. “They have the capacity to overwhelm the defensive systems we are pursuing.”

Fanell was sidelined by the Pentagon ahead of his 2015 retirement, after warning about the Chinese build-up at a time when former president Barack Obama was seeking cooperation with Beijing. Today, Pentagon policy hews more closely to his views that China intends to displace the United States as Asia’s dominant power.

Chinese military brass agree they can now keep American carriers at bay. Six people in China interviewed by Reuters, including retired PLA officers and a person with ties to the Beijing leadership, said China's enhanced missile capability was a great leveler and would serve to deter the United States from getting too close to Chinese shores.

“We cannot defeat the United States at sea,” a retired PLA colonel said in an interview. The United States has 11 aircraft carriers and China has just two. “But we have missiles that specifically target aircraft carriers to stop them from approaching our territorial waters if there were conflict.”

A person with ties to the Chinese leadership who once served in the military had a similar message: “If US aircraft carriers come too close to our coastlines in a conflict, our missiles can destroy them.”

The Rocket Force

Xi Jinping, who has seized direct control of the world's largest fighting force, has played a pivotal role in the ascendancy of Chinese missile forces. This series, “The China Challenge,” examines how Xi is transforming the PLA and challenging US supremacy in Asia. He has delivered a powerful boost to the prestige and influence of the elite unit responsible for China's nuclear and conventional missiles, the PLA Rocket Force.

The Chinese leader has described the missile forces as a “core of strategic deterrence, a strategic buttress to the country’s position as a major power and a cornerstone on which to build national security.” Xi has brought senior missile force veterans into his closest circle of military aides as he has consolidated his grip on the PLA with a sweeping purge of senior officers accused of corruption or disloyalty.

The Rocket Force has always enjoyed strong support from the ruling Communist Party. But under Xi, the once secretive unit, formerly known as the Second Artillery Corps, has been thrust into the limelight. Since he took power in 2012 with a pledge to rejuvenate China as a great power, the Rocket Force’s latest nuclear and conventional missiles have played a starring role at some of the biggest military parades held in the Communist era.

In one of these displays, in 2015, the designations of new missiles, including the “carrier killer” DF-21D, were painted on the sides of the projectiles in big white letters. The bold labels were aimed directly at foreign audiences, according to Western military analysts monitoring the parade in Beijing. At a parade Xi presided over to mark the 90th anniversary of the PLA in 2017, missiles were also prominently displayed.

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles travel past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing on 3 September, 2015. Reuters

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles travel past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing on 3 September, 2015. Reuters

This elaborate, choreographed showcasing of the newest and most powerful missiles has provided a backdrop for Xi as he burnishes his credentials as China’s supreme military leader. Coverage of test launches, new warheads and technical breakthroughs dominate the state-controlled military media.

But it’s not mere theater. This concerted advertising of China’s ability to deliver long-range conventional strikes without risking aircraft, ships or casualties is a key element of PLA strategy under Xi. Foreign military analysts say it sends a signal that China has the capacity to resist interference as it expands control over vast swathes of the South China Sea, intensifies naval and air sorties around Taiwan, and extends operations into territory it disputes with Japan in the East China Sea.

To be sure, while China's missile fleet has indisputably grown more formidable, the reliability, accuracy and payloads of its weapons have yet to be tested in battle. China hasn't fought a war since invading Vietnam in 1979. The US arsenal of air and sea-launched missiles, by contrast, has been tried and proven repeatedly in wars over the past two decades.

It is also unknown if the PLA missile systems could survive electronic, cyber and physical attacks on launch facilities, guidance systems and command-and-control centers. Military analysts point out that there is still some doubt about whether China has mastered the know-how that would allow a “carrier killer” ballistic missile to detect, track and hit a moving target far from the Chinese coast.

US military commanders and PLA watchers also acknowledge that there could be elements of subterfuge involved in the publicity about Chinese missiles. Deception is traditionally a key element of Chinese military strategy. The PLA is well aware that America and other potential rivals would be closely monitoring their test sites, according to satellite imagery specialists.

Some retired PLA officers who spoke to Reuters played down the capability of China’s missiles.

“US missiles are superior to ours in terms of quality and quantity,” the former PLA colonel told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic with the foreign media. “If we were truly more advanced than the United States,” said a Chinese military analyst, “we would have liberated Taiwan.”

Still, current and former US military officials say they are convinced from close monitoring of China's numerous test firings that PLA missiles are a genuine threat.

The range war

What makes Chinese missiles so dangerous for the United States and its Asian allies is that the PLA is winning the “range war,” according to Robert Haddick, a former US Marine Corps officer and now a visiting senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies based in Arlington, Virginia. While the United States was taking what Haddick describes as a “long holiday” from missile development in the aftermath of the Cold War, China was shooting for distance, developing missiles that can fly further than those in the armories of the United States and its Asian allies.

The Pentagon has begun to publicly acknowledge that in missiles, at least, China has the upper hand. “We are at a disadvantage with regard to China today in the sense that China has ground-based ballistic missiles that threaten our basing in the Western Pacific and our ships,” the former commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, said in testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee in March last year.

US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the White House in Washington on 8 December, 1987. Reuters

US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the White House in Washington on 8 December, 1987. Reuters

At the time, Harris explained that the United States was unable to counter with similar missiles because of the 1987 INF Treaty with Russia, which banned these weapons.

The treaty constraints have left the United States with no equivalent to weapons like China’s DF-26 ballistic missile, which has a range of up to 4,000 kilometres and can strike at the key US base at Guam. China says the missile has a carrier-killer variant that can hit a moving target at sea. US bases in South Korea and Japan are within range of another PLA projectile, the CJ-10 land attack cruise missile, which has a range of about 1,500 kilometres, according to Pentagon estimates.

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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2019 21:52:11 IST