Saturday, February 5, 2011

Keeping the Hype in Check II: The ASBM

China's drive to modernize its armed forces has routinely commanded headlines during the last two decades. Besides the J-20, the story which has attracted the most attention in the last couple of years has been the country's program to develop Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles, which have reportedly attained operational status.

As Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang note in their excellent article in the Naval War College Review, the paucity of actual detail about the system, and the vagueness of the literature, have resulted in an avalanche of conflicting speculations, but little real clarity. Still, there are grounds for reasonable guesses about some things. First and foremost, China's ASBM would appear to be a relatively cheap way of achieving sea denial, compared with the country's building the kind of navy it (and just about everyone else excepting the United States) cannot and will not build any time soon. This would be consistent with China's apparent focus on the acquisition of systems for neutralizing capabilities the country may deem threatening rather than on the acquisition of the muscle for long-range actions of its own (a capability China is clearly developing at a much more careful rate).

As might be guessed, technical feasibility's a much grayer area. Still, it's clear that building a working system of the kind described is a tall order. Implicit in such claims is China's possession of surveillance and communications capabilities advanced and robust enough to, under combat conditions, reliably locate a warship and call in timely, accurate fire on it. (This kind of thing goes off without a hitch in Tom Clancy novels, but the reality is much different, though China has reportedly made great strides in this area during the last decade.) That, in turn, would be meaningless without Chinese industry's resolving the problems in making the missile capable of tracking and maneuvering in response to a moving target in the course of its flight--the larger challenge, as it would involve a new technology nothing short of revolutionary. Ballistic missiles historically have been used to hit stationary targets, not moving ones, and an aircraft carrier can move a distance measurable in miles inside the missile's likely flight time. The intrinsic difficulty of developing an effective system of this kind aside, the fact remains that new weapons systems tend to have long teething processes, as the history of combat aircraft makes clear, and it is worth noting that the system has yet to actually be "test-fired over water at maneuvering targets."

Assuming China has succeeded in overcoming all this, actual use of the ASBM entails an additional, political problem, the same one facing American plans to use conventionally-armed ballistic missiles for quick strikes--the launches may be susceptible to misinterpretation as a different kind of strike, with potentially strategic consequences. (It is worth remembering that the 1995 Black Brant scare was started by the launch of a comparatively innocent weather rocket.) That by itself may inhibit their use in a crisis situation, as might the fact that the use of ballistic missiles by one great power against another (something that has not happened since Germany's V-2 attacks against Britain in World War II, a situation not at all comparable) would be worrisomely unprecedented. At the very least, the threat to use such missiles would increase the possibility of strikes against launch sites inside the Chinese mainland, escalating any crisis situation.

These technical and political complications do not make the existence of such a system impossible, and it should be conceded that even a system that's only partly functional would be a factor in any U.S. calculations (for instance, regarding the placement of its carrier groups in a repeat of the 1996 crisis over Taiwan). Still, they also suggest a strong likelihood the weapon is too problematic for China to get much use out of it, and perhaps simply a stopgap solution to the acquisition of a more robust conventional capability. Despite the highly publicized appearance of the J-20 fighter this month, and new talk about a carrier program, it remains to be seen that this will materialize anytime soon.

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