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China has a lot more missiles with US warships and bases in its sights

Chris Panella   

China has a lot more missiles — with US warships and bases in its sights

American warships and bases in the Pacific are within reach of an increasingly worrying threat, a daunting missile force unlike any the US has faced in combat before.

China's ever-expanding Rocket Force is armed with thousands of missiles with ominous nicknames such as "carrier killers" and the "Guam Express."

US military leaders and officials say these weapons could make a war in the Indo-Pacific devastating for American forces. And that's exactly the message they say Beijing wants to send, that messing with China would be catastrophic.

The dangers are startling. An American air base such as Andersen on Guam that routinely hosts US bombers or a carrier strike group sailing in the South China Sea could face dozens, even hundreds, of ballistic missiles in salvos intended to overwhelm their defenses, shatter critical capabilities, and send US warships sinking into the depths. China's missiles haven't been tested in combat, but the threat is real.

In interviews with Business Insider, current and former military officials and defense analysts described the meteoric rise of China's People's Liberation Army Rocket Force as a chief concern. One senior defense official said it's changing America's appetite for war in the region, "creating a conventional deterrence capability that threatens our posture, our presence, and our activities in ways that would potentially cause decision-makers in Washington to consider the risks to be too high."

From 2021 to 2022, the Chinese military effectively doubled its stock of some missiles, including the medium-range ballistic missiles it might use to target American military bases in Japan and intermediate-range missiles that are able to reach Guam, the Pentagon said in its most recent report on the military threat from China.

The "dramatic expansion" of the Chinese missile arsenal, especially MRBMs and IRBMs, is designed to threaten US forces and allies across the Indo-Pacific region, Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a retired US Navy submarine officer, said.

What these key developments show "is that the PLA leadership has decided that the long-range missiles are a winning capability for them," Bryan Clark, a retired US Navy officer and defense expert at the Hudson Institute, said.

The current commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, said in his final public interview before he retired that during his tenure as commander, "the security environment has changed drastically and not in a good way," calling China "the most concerning security threat that exists."

China's growing, far-reaching arsenal

China's military doctrine focuses heavily on maintaining the ability to deter threats and, failing that, striking fast and hard. It also encourages maintaining an element of surprise before dealing significant damage to its foes. The People's Liberation Army Rocket Force gives it such an option.

It "is designed as a mechanism to deliver an anti-access, area-denial (A2AD) strategy to push the US and allies and partners from the region," retired Adm. Harry Harris, a former commander of Pacific Command and former ambassador to South Korea, told BI.

He said that the force's "objective is to be able to enforce the illegal and illegitimate claim of everything inside the nine-dash line as sovereign Chinese sea and airspace, as well as forcibly bring Taiwan under Beijing's control."

The nine-dash line refers to China's vast claims in the South China Sea, including its human-made islands and others it has disputes with neighbors over.

Harris said China's advancing missile capabilities concerned him more than any other Chinese military developments during his time as the 24th commander of what was then Pacific Command.

The Taiwan Strait is one area where the Pentagon has said China is strategically expanding its Rocket Force with "new missile brigades, potentially indicating an increasing number of deployed missiles."

Experts said this was part of a larger strategy to prevent the US and its allies from gaining unrestricted access to the Pacific region — whether in a war or in a scenario where US forces attempt to come to Taiwan's aid during a Chinese blockade or invasion.

With these missiles, China is signaling that it could attack US bases and ships in the region with little to no warning, Clark said. One such missile, the DF-26, has been commonly referred to as the "Guam Express" or the "Guam Killer" because it can reach US forces on the island, which is roughly 3,000 miles from Beijing.

The weapon, capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional payloads, also has an anti-ship role and another nickname: "carrier killer." The People's Liberation Army Rocket Force's DF-21D is another such missile that China could use to target US ships.

There's a lot more to the Chinese Rocket Force than these weapons, though. Other elements of the PLARF arsenal are its DF-17 hypersonic missile, short-range ballistic missiles such as the DF-15 that give it the ability to strike Taiwan with relative ease, and intercontinental ballistic missiles like the DF-5s, DF-31s, and newer DF-41s.

Newer developments, the Pentagon said last fall, "will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and will require increased nuclear-warhead production." The US Defense Department estimates China has more than 500 operational nuclear warheads, the third most in the world, and that number is expected to increase.

While some are based in silos, many of China's missiles are road-mobile assets or hidden in caves and mountains, making them harder to kill. And outside the Rocket Force, Chinese submarines carry long-range missiles. Its H-6 bombers can do the same. Any confrontation with China must account for the likelihood that many of its nuclear forces would survive direct strikes.

In regard to the Chinese "carrier killer" missiles, satellite-imagery analysts have for years been finding mock-ups of US aircraft carriers and other warships out in Chinese deserts. The suspected targets suggest that China may be relying on these mock-ups to improve its missiles or to practice locking on to and hitting American warships. China has also conducted tests at sea, at least one against a moving target.

After the Pentagon's latest report on China's military power came out, Shugart suggested the sheer number of DF-26s and launchers could turn the missile into a generic "ship killer," available for strikes on not just high-value carriers but also destroyers, cruisers, amphibious assault ships, fleet oilers, and more.

And China doesn't have to sink a ship to score a combat kill. Damaged vessels would have to limp back home, where US repair and maintenance woes could mean a slow recovery.

That changes considerations for US Navy vessels when operating in the Indo-Pacific and raises questions about the role of aircraft carriers in a conflict with China, as they may not be able to get within the strike range for F/A-18s or F-35s.

At a certain range, Clark said, "you're going to have to expend so much effort trying to conceal your presence and prevent targeting by Chinese forces, it's going to constrain your ability to do air operations" from a carrier. And the jets might not even be able to reach their targets.

China's missiles could also influence how the Navy arms its warships, forcing them to carry more air-defense missiles at the expense of other weapons that may be useful in land-attack missions or a confrontation with China's larger navy.

Better defenses, but more work to do

In the vast Indo-Pacific region, the Rocket Force is one of the US military's top concerns "because of its unique capabilities to execute long-range precision fires while not exposing large numbers of personnel to danger," a senior defense official told BI, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence observations of threats in the Indo-Pacific.

Facing this threat and others from China, the US has expanded its training exercises and strengthened connections with its Pacific allies and partners to counter not only PLARF but also the broader Chinese military, the official added.

Experts and analysts have long called for the US to respond to the challenges from China in a way that recognizes the scale of the threats at hand, which goes far beyond the Rocket Force, as frequent risky and unsafe intercepts of US and allied aircraft by China have shown.

Harris said one of the best ways to counter PLARF would be to make "robust" air and missile defenses a reality this decade in the region, with the US positioning land-based, medium-range ballistic-missile systems there, working closer with allies, and not letting China determine US foreign policy in the area, especially with Taiwan.

The US has beefed up its air defenses in the region, employing Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries in South Korea and working with Japan's navy on ballistic-missile interceptors such as the SM-3 Block IIA as part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. And in Guam, the Army has fast-tracked a new project and office for the island's defenses. But experts argue that more is needed.

Robert Peters, a research fellow on nuclear deterrence and missile defense for the Heritage Foundation, wrote in January that the US should station Aegis Afloat cruisers near Guam that are equipped to defeat ballistic missiles. Peters said the US couldn't afford to lose Guam, and the land-based Aegis defense option is likely years from deployment.

"Should a war with China break out, conventional thinking is that China would launch a large salvo of cruise and ballistic missiles at Guam to destroy military bases there that are key to US military operations throughout the Pacific," he wrote, adding that an attack would be a "modern Pearl Harbor" that could hinder power projection and logistics.

Beyond strengthening air defenses, the US can also harden bases in the Pacific so that infrastructure, such as critical runways, could survive a barrage and still launch aircraft. But the disaggregation and dispersal of forces is also important. Fixed bases are targets that can only brace for an attack, not avoid them.

The US Air Force turned to a new doctrine in August 2022 that assessed: "New weapons systems now place bases at risk that were previously considered sanctuaries." That shift led to the creation of Agile Combat Employment, which looks to atypical approaches to keep key assets from being destroyed.

Agile Combat Employment considers highways, fields, beaches, and more as nontraditional runways to create "a network of smaller, dispersed locations that can complicate adversary planning and provide more options for joint-force commanders." China can target runways at air bases, but it can't hit every piece of concrete in the Pacific.

US ground forces in the region are also keeping an eye on the Chinese Rocket Force, but they're less concerned than the other service branches that China more clearly has in its crosshairs.

The US Army Pacific commander, Gen. Charles Flynn, told BI that while the growth of the Chinese Rocket Force had been "meteoric," PLARF's missiles were "primarily designed to defeat naval and air power."

"I'm always worried about rockets," Flynn said, but they're "not there primarily to defeat distributed, dispersed, mobile, some fixed and some unfixed, reloadable, and meshed land-forces network," which his command and its allies in the Pacific have been developing and prioritizing.

That said, he added, there are many ways for ground forces to create a "dilemma" for Chinese missile forces, such as masking signatures, hiding in different environments, and undermining PLARF's ability to find, locate, and target them.

Beyond defensive measures, the US has various offensive options for combating the Rocket Force.

Difficult-to-detect American submarines can, for instance, fire cruise and ballistic missiles. Stealth bombers, like the B-2 Spirit, can also avoid being spotted while on missions to knock out China's weapons. The US doesn't have the missiles to counter China in this theater of operations, though these systems are in development.

Weak points in the missile game

PLARF may be, as Shugart has said, the "crown jewel" of the Chinese military, but it's not without its limitations. Recent high-profile cases of corruption across the army, in particular in PLARF, have raised questions about how widespread graft may be — and whether that's affecting readiness in the short term.

US intelligence has documented several cases of supposed corruption, including missiles filled with water rather than rocket fuel and problematic silos. Military leadership shake-ups, too, have sparked concerns, as many senior officers and bigwig defense leaders were replaced with little to no explanation.

That said, the US and its allies can't afford to assume the Rocket Force won't be ready should conflict come.

"They now have the world's largest navy, the largest air force in the region," Clark said, "but they invest substantially in these long-range missiles because it's clear that they see that as a more reliable capability."

But clarity on the threat gives the US options. Knowing that China could lean on its missiles in a Pacific showdown allows American forces to train and adapt to work around such a threat.

"Deterrence is a combination of a country's capability and willingness to use that capability," Harris said, "and an adversary's perception of both." In other words, how the US prepares itself and adapts to the Chinese Rocket Force gives it the best shot at avoiding a fight altogether. But there's no guarantee deterrence holds.

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