China adds precision strike to capabilities

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

China has been developing and purchasing weapons for precision-strike warfare. This is the hard edge of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) doctrinal drive toward using increasingly sophisticated information technologies such as C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to improve the capabilities of weapon systems (DTI March, p. 39). The PLA’s near-term goals appear to be greater asymmetric capabilities to target U.S. naval assets in the western Pacific and in space as part of an anti-access strategy. Long-term, however, greater precision will be a feature of most new weapon systems.

China’s growing C4ISR capabilities were demonstrated in March by its coordinated two-fleet operation to intercept two U.S. Navy ocean survey vessels. Chinese ships found and harassed the USNS Victorious, operating in the Yellow Sea, and USNS Impeccable, which was about 75 mi. south of Hainan Island. The fallout was diplomatic, as Washington and Beijing clashed over interpretations of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which Beijing contends gives it rights to deny access to military survey missions. This incident, though, was reminiscent in timing and scope to the April 2001 clash that saw China “capture” a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic intelligence aircraft off Hainan.

China’s aggressive challenge of Japanese claims in the East China Sea, plus Washington’s refusal to cease its survey missions could be flashpoints. In February, a provincial Communist Party newspaper contained a threat to sink U.S. survey ships.

In this second of three articles on China’s growing regional power, DTI examines the country’s efforts to improve its ability to target and destroy threats.

Since the early 1990s, Chinese military scholars have been warning of the need for China to prepare to defend against, and if necessary, conduct military operations in space. In late 2006 reports emerged of China’s use of high-power ground-based lasers to “dazzle” U.S. surveillance satellites. On Feb. 11, 2007, China launched the first successful intercept by its SC-19 direct-ascent antisatellite (ASAT) system, derived from its KT-1 solid-fuel space-launch vehicle, with an interceptor stage whose development was likely aided by China’s micro-satellite programs. A target FY-2 weather satellite was probably illuminated by large phased-array radar developed for tracking Shenzhou manned space capsules. A far less-noted potential co-orbital ASAT demonstration occurred on Sept. 27, 2008, when the Shenzhou-7 manned spacecraft, which had just launched a BX-1 nanosatellite, passed within 45 km. (28 mi.) of the International Space Station. Following the U.S. Navy’s shootdown of an errant satellite on Feb. 21, 2008, and a Mar. 5, 2008, announcement that Russia would resume ASAT development, it is likely that China will continue ASAT testing.

China’s direct-ascent ASAT also proves that it is capable of developing a long-range antiballistic missile (ABM) system, a U.S. pursuit that China has opposed. China had an ABM program from 1963-80 that produced a short-range interceptor prototype and long-range radar. Chinese sources told DTI at the recent IDEX expo in Abu Dhabi (see p. 16) that they have tested the new FD-2000 surface-to-air missile (SAM) in an antitactical ballistic missile (ATBM) mode. Developed with help from Russia’s Almaz-Antey Co., the FD-2000 also draws from the earlier passive-guided FT-2000 SAM, which reportedly benefited from U.S. Patriot SAM technology. These indigenous SAMs are entering PLA service, and will complement about 1,000 Almaz-Antey S-300/PMU-1/PMU-2 SAMs purchased since the early 1990s, giving the PLA air force the most formidable air-defense network in Asia. The PLA has also developed short-range SAM systems—including man-portable air-defense systems—for tracked vehicles and trucks. Among these is the TY-90 Yitian for trucks and armored personnel carriers that was disclosed in 2005, but displayed for the first time at IDEX this year.

Increasing precision is also the hallmark of new PLA surface-to-surface missiles and air-launched weapons. New Chinese nuclear ballistic missile warheads feature smaller sharp-tip warheads, signifying higher precision. One warhead configuration for the 12,000-km.-range DF-31A ICBM places at least one warhead on a delivery bus that is apparently capable of radical maneuvering to evade ABM defenses.

Medium- and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) are also being upgraded for greater precision. The U.S. and Japanese navies have long been concerned with the PLA program to create an antiship ballistic missile, by placing a maneuverable terminally guided warhead on the 2,400-km.-range DF-21, and likely, on the 600-km. DF-15. Asian military sources are also concerned that a new 3,000-km. version of the DF-21 may have multiple terminally guided warheads.

An early 2009 Taiwanese estimate places the DF‑15, DF-11 Mod2 and new land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) of the second artillery missile force targeting Taiwan at more than 1,500, with newer versions having navigation satellite (navsat) guidance. In 2007 a Chinese source told DTI that the PLA will also be using two new shorter-range SRBMs, the truck-mounted 250-km. B-611M and 150-km. air-transportable P-12. Both are maneuverable, navsat-guided weapons with modular warheads. The PLA is also developing longer-range artillery rocket-based SRBMs, like the 200-km. navsat-guided WS-3. Some Chinese sources indicate that an antiradar or passive-guided 300-km. version of the WS series is possible.

Asian sources say the PLA has developed two families of strategic-range LACMs: the DH-10, which equips new units of the Second Artillery, and YJ-62/C-602, which equips PLA navy destroyers and land-based antiship missile units, and is to be developed into an air-launched version for the PLA air force. The air force is expected to equip a new version of the 1950s-era Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 Badger bomber, the Xian H-6K, with the weapon. The H-6Ks modified with more powerful engines, now have a potential 3,000-km. radius—enough to reach Guam. Rumors have long surrounded a potential long-range bomber program at Xian Aircraft Co., and a new stealthy version of Xian’s JH-7A fighter bomber is also in development.

Tactical combat aircraft in the PLA air force and navy are receiving new Russian and indigenously designed air-to-air and ground-attack weapons. The air force’s first Sukhoi Su-27SK fighters had the helmet-sighted Vympel R-73 missile a decade before the Raytheon AIM-9X entered U.S. service. The BVR self-guided Vympel R-77 followed the Su-30MKK into PLA service early this decade. But new Chengdu Aircraft Corp. J-10 and Shenyang Aircraft Corp. J-11B multirole fighters will carry air-to-air missiles designed by Luoyang Opto-Electric Co. (LOEC), which include the self-guided PL-12, thought to have a range approaching 100 km. in lofted delivery. Chinese sources also indicate LOEC is developing a high off-boresight air-to-air missile (AAM) similar to the South African Denel A-Darter, and a long-range ramjet-powered AAM.

Russian Su-30s in PLA service have been equipped with several guided munitions, including the Zvezda Kh-31 antiradar and antiship ramjet missile, Zvezda Kh-59 interdiction missile and optical image-correlation-guided KAB series bombs. At the 2005 Moscow air show, a Russian source disclosed that Russia had assisted China’s development of electro-optical targeting pods, which have been photographed on J-10, JH-7A and some Hongdu Q-5 fighter-bombers. These will help guide two new families of laser- and navsat-guided bombs developed by LOEC and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC). The latter’s FT family includes the 500-kg. (1,100-lb.) FT-1 navsat-guided bomb, the FT-2, which adds range-extending wings, the 250-kg. FT-3 and the 100-kg. FT-5, which is reportedly comparable with Boeing’s Small Diameter Bomb. At last November’s Zhuhai air show, LOEC revealed a dual-optical navsat-guided bomb. CASC’s bombs can be expected to follow suit.

Precision is being packed into smaller munitions like the new 45-kg. AR-1, a laser-guided missile designed for the CH-3 unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), similar in capability to the U.S. Predator-1. Guizhou Aircraft Co. has likely developed a larger turbofan UCAV comparable to the MQ-9 Predator-B/Reaper.

Most of China’s new precision-strike systems are for sale. Pakistan and Iran have benefited from China’s ballistic and cruise missile technology, and from sales of conventional systems. Many more countries are likely to consider the $22-million Chengdu FC-1 and $41-million J-10 fighters, especially when equipped with precision-guided munitions like the PL-12 and FT-1. This form of power projection will soon be joined by the PLA’s increasing power-projection capabilities, the subject of the final installment.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr., is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center of Arlington, Va., and author of China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach (Praeger, 2008).

Photo: Richard D. Fisher, Jr. for DTI

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