Chinese ASBM Development: Knowns and Unknowns

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 13

Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009, Annual Report to Congress, p. 21.

China wants to achieve the ability, or at minimum the appearance of the ability, to prevent a U.S. carrier strike group (CSG) from intervening in the event of a future Taiwan Strait crisis. China may be closer than ever to achieving this capability with land-based anti-ship homing ballistic missiles. There have been many Western reports that China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). Increasingly, technical and operationally-focused discussions are found in a widening array of Chinese sources, some authoritative. These factors suggest that China may be close to fielding, testing, or employing an ASBM—a weapon that no other country possesses. According to U.S. Government sources, Beijing is pursuing an ASBM based on its CSS-5/DF-21D solid propellant medium-range ballistic missile. The CSS-5’s 1,500 km+ range could hold ships at risk in a large maritime area—far beyond the Taiwan theatre into the Western Pacific [1]. Yet there remain considerable unknowns about China’s ASBM capability, which could profoundly affect U.S. deterrence, military operations and the balance of power in the Western Pacific.

Taiwan as the Catalyst

For the past several decades, the U.S. Navy has used aircraft carriers to project power around the world, including in and around the Taiwan Strait. The deployment of the USS Nimitz and Independence carrier battle groups in response to China’s 1995-1996 missile tests and military exercises in the Taiwan Strait was a move that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could not counter. The impetus behind Chinese efforts to develop ASBMs may be to prevent similar U.S. carrier operations in the future.

Keystone of ‘Anti-Access’ Strategy?

If fielded, the ASBM would be just one of the many new platforms and weapons systems that China has been buying and building since the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. These systems, collectively, will allow China to assert unprecedented control over its contested maritime periphery, in part by attempting to deny U.S. forces ‘access’ to critical areas in times of crisis or conflict. They do so by matching Chinese strengths with U.S. weaknesses, thereby placing U.S. platforms on the ‘wrong end of physics.’ An ASBM, however, stands above the quiet submarines, lethal anti-ship cruise missiles, and copious sea mines that China has been adding to its arsenal in its potential strategic impact on regional allies of the United States and U.S. interests in maintaining regional peace and security.

Firstly, the development of an ASBM would draw on over half a century of Chinese experience with ballistic missiles. Secondly, it would be fired from mobile, highly concealable land-based platforms. Thirdly, it would have the range to strike targets hundreds of kilometers from China’s shores. These factors suggest that China is likely to succeed in achieving a capability that is extremely difficult to counter and could impose ‘access denial’ in strategically vital sea areas well beyond its 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

U.S. Technological Influence?

The United States does not have an ASBM. It did have a distantly related capability, in the form of the Pershing II ground-to-ground theater-ballistic missile, but Washington relinquished this capability when it ratified the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Moscow in 1988. Interestingly, some Chinese sources state that previous advances in the now-abandoned Pershing II program inspired Chinese research and development relevant to an ASBM [2]. The Pershing II has adjustable second stage control fins for terminal maneuver. U.S. Government sources, and many Chinese sources, state that a Chinese ASBM would be based on the CSS-5. While positively identified photos of a CSS-5 outside its launch canister are not known to exist, at least one version of China’s related CSS-6/DF-15 missile has a reentry vehicle virtually identical in appearance to the Pershing II’s [3]. Based on this strong visual resemblance, it is possible that the CSS-6 employs terminal maneuvering technology similar to that of the Pershing II, and it is reasonable to assume that the CSS-5 does too. This is because the reentry vehicle that China obviously has could easily be mated with the CSS-5 booster, which might then produce an effective ASBM, assuming that its radar has the ability to track moving targets at sea.

Making an ASBM Work

Chinese schematic diagrams show an ASBM flight trajectory with mid-course and terminal guidance [4]. Second stage control fins would be critical to steering the ASBM through terminal maneuvers to evade countermeasures and home in on a moving target. This makes an ASBM different from most ballistic missiles, which have a fixed trajectory.

Yet how do Chinese experts envision the “kill chain”—the sequence of events that must occur for a missile to successfully engage and destroy or disable its target (e.g. an aircraft carrier)—beyond the five steps that they commonly list: 1) detection, 2) tracking, 3) penetration of target defenses, 4) hitting a moving target, and 5) causing sufficient damage? A single broken link would render an attack incomplete, and hence ineffective. What would work based on what is known about China’s capabilities today, and in the future?

China has also been working on a sophisticated network of ground-and-space-based sensors, including over-the-horizon (OTH) radars and electronic signals detection equipment, which can assist ASBM detection and targeting [5]. While locating an aircraft carrier has been likened to finding a needle in a haystack, this particular needle has a large radar cross section, emits radio waves, and is surrounded by airplanes. Active radar is the most likely ASBM sensor, since its signals can penetrate through clouds. Simply looking for the biggest reflection will tend to locate the largest ship as a target, and the largest ship will usually be an aircraft carrier (if the pre-launch targeting was good).

And Proving that it is Workable

Critical questions remain with respect to missile sensors, however. Does China have multiple sensors that it is currently capable of applying to ASBM detection and targeting? Even in the absence of relevant space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), is there another way to cue the missile accurately enough so that the possible parameters of where the carrier could move in the missile’s brief flight time can be accounted for within the “window” of its seeker? As for the seeker, how would it work? How would it accomplish target discrimination? Is this a challenging issue? Does it hinge on the large size of a carrier? Could smaller ships also be targeted effectively?

What do Chinese experts fear could go wrong, and perhaps even render an ASBM unusable? Missile defense? Other things? Considerable Chinese research on irregular (“wavy”) ASBM/ballistic missile trajectories and penetration aids (PENAIDS) to defeat missile defense suggests that this is an area of ongoing concern.

With respect to testing, what would be the bare minimum necessary to make the PLA feel that it had some rudimentary operational capability—and hence, perhaps, some deterrence ability? Are there any testing/targeting plans? Demonstration plans? What is the target audience (domestic/foreign public vs. PLA/foreign military’s eyes only)? The U.S./Taiwan/Japanese military, public, or all of the above?

The Service in Charge

The Second Artillery, China’s strategic rocket force, already responsible for China’s land-based nuclear and conventional missiles (the latter since 1993), would likely control any ASBMs that China develops. Relatively small, technologically-focused and extremely secretive, the service is ideally suited to such a mission. It has been studying the ASBM issue for some time, having published what appears to be a conceptual feasibility study in 2003, and a major doctrinal publication the following year [6].

This still leaves critical questions of joint operations, and bureaucratic coordination, however. How are sensors prioritized and coordinated? Which organization(s) control which sensors (e.g. OTH radar), and how are they used? Is there a risk of seams between services (e.g. Second Artillery, Navy, etc.)? What about problems with bureaucratic “stovepipes,” particularly during general wartime crisis management? How to overlap areas of “uncertainty” from different sensors, and thereby accomplish data/sensor fusion? How to accomplish bureaucratic “data fusion”—a task beyond even the most competent engineers? Finally, which authorities would need to be in the decision-making loop, and what are the time-to-launch implications?

Doctrinal Guidance

How does the second artillery conceive of using ASBMs in operational scenarios? The service’s authoritative high-level handbook, Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, describes in some detail the use of ASBMs against carriers. It in no way suggests that such an approach is merely aspirational or beset with insurmountable technical difficulties. In fact, in introducing the section describing their potential employment, it states that “conventional missile strike groups” should be used as an “assassin’s mace” (silver bullet), a term commonly used to describe weapons that match Chinese strengths against an enemy’s weaknesses.

According to its handbook, the Second Artillery is thinking seriously about at least five ways to use ASBMs against U.S. CSGs, at least at the conceptual level:

• “Firepower harassment [strikes]” (huoli xirao) involve hitting carrier strike groups.

• “Frontal firepower deterrence” (qianfang huoli shezu) involves firing intimidation salvos in front of a carrier strike group “to serve as a warning.”

• “Flank firepower expulsion” (yice huoli qugan) combines interception of a carrier strike group by Chinese naval forces with intimidation salvos designed to direct it away from the areas where China feels most threatened.

• “Concentrated fire assault” (jihuo tuji) involves striking the enemy’s core carrier as with a ‘heavy hammer.’

• “Information assault” (xinxi gongji) entails attacking the carrier strike group’s command and control system electromagnetically to disable it [7].
All this does not mean that China necessarily has an ASBM capability already, but it strongly suggests that related research and development has high-level approval from China’s military and civilian leadership.

Concept of Operations?

The above document offers general insights into the Second Artillery’s conception of conventional deterrence. It adds that the Second Artillery will work with the PLAN to “execute focused naval blockades” and “achieve command of the seas.” Approaching enemy CSGs are envisioned to be the principal maritime targets, but “large vessels or large ship formations” more broadly are mentioned as well. Coordination and precision are seen as essential for “deterring and blocking enemy carrier strike groups”; such “operational activities need to be coordinated without the slightest difference in time.” Coordination with the PLAN is also emphasized in the location of sea targets, as well as with regard to the notification and demarcation of blockade areas: “the naval intelligence department should ‘relay promptly’ the information obtained by its reconnaissance about enemy ship activities to the Second Artillery campaign large formation.” In particular, “information regarding carrier battle groups … should be gathered on a real time basis.” Potential sources of “real-time target intelligence” include “military reconnaissance satellites, domestic and foreign remote sensing satellites, and established satellite reconnaissance target image information processing systems.”  

Still, this leaves critical questions unanswered concerning how the PLA might envision the basing location, number, employment, and strategic effects of any ASBMs:

•    Base of operations. Where would the ASBMs themselves be based? What would be the expected range from the target?

•    Nature of arsenal. What would be the relative size of the ASBM inventory? Size might have implications for operational possibilities and willingness to expend ASBMs in conflict.

•    Concept of operations. It is one thing to call for ASBM capabilities, but how would they be realized in practice? What would an ASBM firing doctrine look like, and what would be the objective? Target destruction or mission kill (the equivalent of ‘slashing the tires’ on carrier aircraft)? What to shoot at, and when? Would the PLA fire on a carrier if it knew the planes were off of it? Would it rely on a first strike? Would the PLA plan to fire one ASBM, several, or a large salvo? If a salvo, then some combination of saturation (many shots in the same space, to overload missile defense), precision (firing many shots in a pattern to compensate for locating error on the target and to get the CSG in the seeker window of at least one of the missiles), or both? What type of warhead: unitary, EMP, or sub-munitions? How might salvo attacks, or multi-axis attack coordination, be envisioned? Do Chinese planners think that the Second Artillery could handle the mission by itself, or would it be part of a high-low, time-on-target attack with both ASBMs and cruise missiles?

•    Concept of deterrence. Deterrence would seem to be a clear purpose of any ASBM development, but what does one have to show to deter? PLA doctrinal publications mention firing ‘warning shots’ in front of carriers—how does the Second Artillery think the United States would respond? How would the United States know it was a warning shot and not just a miss? What if the United States did know and called China’s bluff? Finally, from a technical perspective, how to actually fire a warning shot and miss by an intentional margin (versus having the seeker home in on the actual target)?

From Chinese sources, it can be inferred that Chinese leaders seek not to attack the United States, but to deter it. They want to defend what they perceive to be their state’s core territorial interests and to ensure a stable environment for domestic economic development. If they develop an ASBM, they would likely hope that it could prevent U.S. projection of military power in ways that are inimical to China’s security interests, which appear to be expanding beyond the First Island Chain. Yet the strength of Chinese equities, combined with vital U.S. interests in East Asia, make ASBM development for this purpose a complex and risky proposition. Should Beijing pursue such a course to its logical conclusion—a demonstrated ASBM capability—only robust strategic dialogue could hope to alleviate the substantial tensions that are certain to ensue. Until Beijing is willing to discuss in detail its progress and intentions in this area, however, it will be essential to search for answers to the questions outlined above—not just for a select group of government bureaucrats and the leaders they advise, but also for the publics in Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, who fund military development and who must ultimately live with its consequences. Regional peace and stability, and mutual strategic trust, demand no less.


1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009, Annual Report to Congress, pp. 21, 48.
2. Qiu Zhenwei, “A Discussion of China’s Development of an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile,”; “Special Dispatch: ‘Aces’ in ‘Dongfeng’ Family—Miniaturization, Solidification, and Mobility,” Ta Kung Pao, 2 October 1999, p. A11, OSC FTS19991114000862.
3. See This could be a case of covergent evolution; it is possible that the RVs look alike because they solve similar problems.
4. Tan Shoulin and Zhang Daqiao, Second Artillery Engineering College, Diao Guoxiu, PLA Unit 96311, Huaihua; “Determination and Evaluation of Effective Range for Terminal Guidance for a Ballistic Missile Attacking an Aircraft Carrier,” Command Control & Simulation, Vol. 28, No. 4 (August 2006), p. 6.
5. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009, Annual Report to Congress, pp. 21, 48; Sean O’Connor, “OTH Radar and the ASBM Threat,” Information Dissemination,
6. Huang Hongfu, “Conception of Using Conventional Ballistic Missiles to Strike Aircraft Carrier Formation,” Scientific and Technological Research, Scientific and Technological Committee of the Second Artillery Corps, 2003, No. 1, pp. 6-8; Yu Jixun, chief editor, People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Corps, The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (Beijing: PLA Press, 2004).
7. Yu Jixun, chief editor, People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Corps, The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (Beijing: PLA Press, 2004), pp. 401-402.