China’s People’s Liberation Army has transformed itself from a large but antiquated force into a capable, modern military. It has improved its relative capabilities in many critical areas, especially in the Navy. China’s efforts to build new surface combatants, upgrade submarines, and develop an aircraft carrier program have created public attention. In a recent discussion at the National Security Center of George Mason University, many experts believe China is transitioning to war with a “kill chain” around the first island chain that can saturate attacks.
Anti-ship ballistic missiles are one of the weapon acquisition programs in China’s modernization effort. The DF-21D, a road-mobile ASBM with a range of more than 1,500 kilometers, and the DF-26, a road-mobile, multi-role intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with a maximum capacity of about 4,000 kilometers. According to China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress report, “capable of conducting both conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets as well as conventional strikes against naval targets.” In combination with broad-area maritime surveillance and targeting systems, such missiles would permit China to attack aircraft carriers. This is the cornerstone of the Chinese naval strategy to pose a comprehensive threat against the Carrier Strike Group, the center of gravity (COG) of the U.S.Navy.
China already operates several types of anti-ship cruise missiles, but an ASBM would provide the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with a new type of anti-ship capability, especially ASBM “kill chain,” a sequence of events that need to be completed to carry out a successful ASBM attack. This sequence includes detection, identification, and localization of the target ship, transmission of that data to the ASBM launcher, firing the ASBM, and having the ASBM reentry vehicle find the target ship.
The IISS estimates that China has three Type-055 Renhai cruisers in service, with a further five hulls launched. Each cruiser is equipped with a 14 x 8-cell VLS, providing significant magazine depth compared with cruisers in service with other navies in the region.
Many people questioned if China’s ASBM could be a significant “game-changer.” Zhou Ziding, a current affairs commentator for The Epoch Times, said that although the PLAN’s new weapons have increased attack capabilities, they have not been able to break through the strength of the anti-missile system of the U.S.
The U.S. Navy, in recent years, has taken several actions to counter China’s naval modernization effort. There are several potential approaches for countering an ASBM, and these approaches could be used in combination. The ASBM is not the first “game-changer” that the Navy has confronted; the Navy in the past has developed counters for other new types of weapons, such as ASCMs, and is likely exploring various approaches for countering ASBMs.
In 2016, Yahoo reported that John Richardson, former Chief of Naval Operations, stressed, “Have no doubt, the U.S. navy is prepared to go wherever it needs to go, at any time, and stay there for as long as necessary in response to our leadership’s call to protect our strategic influence.”