China’s pursuit of a reliable counter to US and allied multi-domain power projection platforms like carrier strike groups has resulted in the development of an increasingly complex web of anti-access/area denial (A2AD) systems. The development and widespread introduction of advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile systems have served to enhance the lethality of the A2AD system.
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For China, the catalyst for such developments came in the form of the uncontested US response to renewed Chinese aggression towards Taiwan in the mid-1990s. The arrival of two US carrier strike groups highlighted the limitations of the People’s Liberation Army to not only respond to such an intervention, but also actively deter the US and its allies from intervening in what the rising Asian power terms as 'internal affairs'.
Contemporary A2/AD doctrine leverages both offensive and defensive platforms, ranging from integrated command and control, long-range land, air and sea-based precision fire and ballistic missile capabilities to, as Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) summarises, prevent the uncontested access to its air and maritime approaches by potential adversaries.
As the technology has evolved, the balance of power between the attacker and defender has been countered by a combination of doctrine, bold command decisions, personnel and platforms that provide a quantum leap in capability. Successfully developing a capable A2/AD system requires an intimate understanding of a potential adversary’s strengths and weaknesses, while maximising one’s own key technological, geographic and doctrine advantages to dictate the momentum of a confrontation.
China’s island building program, while according to Beijing is peaceful, has drawn international condemnation, particularly following the militarisation of facilities and increasing hostility by the Chinese Armed Forces in recent years.
Developments at both the Spratly Islands and Fiery Cross Reef have seen the construction of immense military facilities, accommodating nuclear-bomber capable airfields, deep water ports for Chinese naval vessels, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance facilities and batteries of advanced anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and advanced integrated air and missile defence systems.
Dr Davis explained, "2018 has been an interesting year in the South China Sea. It started fairly early on with the basing of anti-ship cruise missiles on reclaimed islands in the SCS, the basing of the upgraded, H-6K nuclear capable bomber on Woody Island and more recently the USS Decatur (DDG-73) incident really reinforces that China is not backing down from its territorial ambitions."
A ship is a fool to fight a fort
Taking a page from the post-Second World War Soviet strategic planning playbook, modern China sought to establish a series of man-made islands to serve as strategic buffers between potential adversaries and China's interests and vulnerable sea-lines-of-communication in the western Pacific and mainland China.
The core of China's growing A2AD capabilities is the nation's growing arsenal of advanced anti-ship and traditional ballistic and cruise missiles, designed as a more flexible and survivable complement the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force's deterrence-focused intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) forces with a focus on countering the strategic and tactical power projection forces of the US and its regional allies.
Intermediate range ballistic missiles:
- DF-26: Designed with an estimated range of 3,000-5,471 kilometres, and may be used in the nuclear, conventional and anti-ship strike roles. These capabilities enable the missile to target key US Pacific facilities, namely the fortress island of Guam. Like many of China's ballistic missile capabilities, the DF-26 is road-mobile, increasing both the survivability and deterrence capability of the system, enabling the system to evade retaliatory or pre-emptive strikes.
Medium range ballistic missiles:
- DF-21: China's first successful land-based, solid fuel rocket system, the DF-21 represents the pinnacle of the nation's anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities. The DF-21D variant is designed specifically to counter advanced area air defence systems like the Aegis combat system used to protect major surface combatants ranging in size from frigates to aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships, like Australia's Canberra Class vessels. The DF-21 has an estimated range between 1,500 and 1,700 kilometres, with the potential for an extended range of up to 2,150 kilometres, and is capable of being fitted with either a conventional or nuclear strike capability.
- DF-17: A currently in development hypersonic glide vehicle, expected to be introduced into service by 2020 – the DF-17 is designed to deliver both nuclear and conventional payloads with options for the addition of a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle, making defending against such systems an increasingly difficult task.
- DF-16: Introduced in 2015, the DF-16 is designed to specifically counter Taiwan's MIM-104 PAC 3 Patriot system and is road-mobile with an estimated range of 700-1,000 kilometres, reducing the system's exposure to retaliatory or pre-emptive strikes by Taiwan or the US in the advent of any forced reunification.
- CJ-10: Derived from the Cold War-era Soviet Kh-55 cruise missile, the CJ-10 is the premier cruise missile of the PLA and the individual branches – estimated to have a range of between 1,500 and 4,000 kilometres. The YJ-100 is a subsonic anti-ship missile with an estimated range of 800 kilometres and is designed the be air-launched by the H-6K bomber and used in the vertical launch systems of the Type 055 guided missile destroyers.