Chinese Land Attack Cruise Missile Developments and their Implications for the United States

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 24

Chinese LACMs

Much scholarly attention has been devoted to China’s rapidly growing ballistic missile force in recent years, but relatively little has been written on China’s development of its land attack cruise missile (LACM) capabilities. Considering the rapid increase in the number and sophistication of Chinese short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), the deployment of China’s DF-31 and DF-31A road-mobile inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and the development of conventionally-armed medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), including one intended to target aircraft carriers and perhaps other surface ships, it is understandable that Chinese LACM developments have been overshadowed to some extent by these impressive ballistic missile force modernization efforts. The development of Chinese LACM capabilities is clearly worthy of greater analytical attention, however, especially given its potential strategic implications for the United States. Drawing on a variety of sources, including Chinese scientific and technical journal articles, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) newspapers, and unclassified U.S. government reports on Chinese military modernization, this article examines Chinese writings on the advantages and disadvantages of LACMs and evaluates China’s evolving LACM capabilities. It also assesses some of the potential implications for U.S. defense planners and policymakers.

Chinese Writings on the Employment of LACMs in Recent Conflicts

Chinese analysts have studied recent U.S. military operations very closely and quite a few authors have published their views on the employment of land attack cruise missiles in recent conflicts. The employment of Tomahawk cruise missiles in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan has been of particular interest to Chinese writers, and they have noted what they see as both the advantages and the weaknesses of U.S. cruise missile capabilities. Many Chinese articles emphasize the importance of enhancing China’s ability to defend itself against cruise missile attacks, but some also discuss the use of cruise missiles more broadly, perhaps providing some hints as to how China would plan to employ its own cruise missiles in a regional conflict. Indeed, Chinese writings on the employment of Tomahawak cruise missiles by the United States in the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq not only reflect a deep interest in drawing on the “lessons learned” from these conflicts to improve the PLA’s ability to defend against cruise missile strikes, but also reveal that Chinese analysts have devoted considerable attention to analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of cruise missiles as precision strike weapons.

Chinese Views on the Advantages of LACMs

Chinese analysts highlight the long range, accuracy, multi-directional attack capabilities, and ability to launch from a variety of platforms as some of the key advantages of LACMs. Cruise missiles can be used to penetrate enemy air defense networks at low altitudes. They are highly accurate, highly maneuverable and can be used to attack a target from any direction [1]. Among the other stated advantages of cruise missiles are that they are often difficult to detect and track. Similarly, analysts from the PLA Air Force Engineering University highlight detection of enemy cruise missiles as one of the main challenges of cruise missile defense. In their words: “Detection by land-based radar is difficult because cruise missiles use low-altitude defense measures and stealth technology, and detection is affected by the curvature of the earth.  The effect of land and sea clutter is also an important factor in reducing the probability of detection and identification” [2]. In addition, Chinese analysts have also pointed out that cruise missiles (and ballistic missiles, for that matter) are relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to manned strike aircraft [3].

Chinese analysts conclude that these advantages make cruise missiles an ideal weapon for long-range precision strikes and that this is why the U.S. military has employed cruise missiles extensively to conduct such strikes in a number of recent conflicts, including the Gulf War, Desert Fox and Kosovo. Chinese writers have also noted that cruise missile strikes are often among the opening shots of a conflict. Another assessment that discusses the first strike role of cruise missiles points out that they are often use to enable follow-on strikes by manned aircraft, but may also be used on their own. “With development in modern air defense weapons,” according to the authors, “the traditional method of using aircraft to breach defense has been replaced by using cruise missiles to ‘clear the way’ first and then using aircraft and cruise missiles jointly to attack targets; sometimes, only cruise missiles are used to achieve air attack objectives” [4].

Chinese writers have also highlighted the employment of cruise missiles in Operation Desert Fox as a form of “non-contact warfare” [5].  Overall, therefore, it is fair to say that the Tomahawk cruise missile generally receives high marks from Chinese writers. In the words of one Chinese analyst, for example, “The ‘Tomahawk’ cruise missiles on which the U.S. relied from the Gulf War and the war in Kosovo in the ’90s to the recently-concluded war in Afghanistan can be said to have performed in a dazzling manner” [6].

Despite the attention devoted to the Tomahawk’s advantages and the favorable evaluations of its use in recent conflicts, however, Chinese authors also highlight some perceived weaknesses of cruise missiles. According to one source, “Developed in the 1970s, the U.S. ‘Tomahawk’ cruise missiles have displayed some vital weak points, including a low cruise speed, a small combat body, a large size, and so on. In all previous battles, the U.S. ‘Tomahawk’ cruise missiles had been shot down by the enemy” [7]. Similarly, other Chinese authors highlight the vulnerability of Tomahawk cruise missiles to “hard kill,” “soft kill,” and deception [8].

According to the authors of one article, “a ‘hard kill’ means using weapons such as SAM, air, and air-to-air missiles, or AAA and machine guns, for a fire intercept of a cruise missile [9]. A number of Chinese military analysts have stated that Tomahawk cruise missiles are vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire [10]. Chinese analysts also discuss “soft kill” methods, such as electronic jamming. According to one article, electronic jamming “keeps the cruise missile from receiving the GPS navigation signal, keeps it from exchanging guidance signals between launch platforms, and makes the missile radar guidance head and altimeter malfunction, making the Tomahawk ‘deaf’ and ‘blind,’ finally leaving it ‘deranged’” [11]. Denial and deception are also seen as potentially effective countermeasures [12].

Finally, Chinese analysts have noted that simply having deployed some cruise missiles is not enough to carry out long-range precision strikes effectively. They point out that there are many requirements beyond the missiles themselves. The strikes must be supported by effective intelligence collection and analysis and battle damage assessment capabilities. Indeed, Chinese analysts have highlighted the importance of timely and accurate intelligence information to effective targeting of cruise missile strikes [13].

This level of attention to the shortcomings and vulnerabilities of cruise missiles may be largely a function of China’s strong interest in improving its own cruise missile defense capabilities.  This is a high priority for the PLA given the threat of cruise missile attack against high-value targets by the United States or perhaps Taiwan in the event of a cross-Strait conflict. As the authors of one article published in Jeifangjun Bao put it, “Cruise missiles pose a serious threat to our important targets,” and cruise missile defense “is a critical issue with bearings on the overall operation” [14].

Nonetheless, Chinese writings that address the limitations of the Tomahawk and other cruise missiles suggest that these assessments of cruise missile vulnerabilities may also influence China’s plans for the employment of its own land-attack cruise missiles in future conflicts. For example, Chinese writers have clearly recognized that cruise missiles are much easier to intercept than ballistic missiles [15], suggesting that this would be taken into account in their planning for future military operations.

Chinese Land Attack Cruise Missiles

Not surprisingly, given that Chinese analysts view cruise missiles as very effective weapons, China is developing and deploying air- and ground-launched land attack cruise missiles (LACMs) to contribute to the enhancement of the PLA’s conventional long-range precision-strike capabilities. China’s current and emerging land attack cruise missile capabilities include ground-launched land attack cruise missiles and air-launched land attack cruise missiles. It is also possible that China will deploy nuclear-armed land attack cruise missiles.

Ground-launched Cruise Missile Capabilities

Ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) appear to form the cornerstone of China’s emerging LACM deployments. According to the 2008 Department of Defense report to Congress on Chinese military power, “The PLA is acquiring large numbers of highly accurate cruise missiles, such as the domestically produced ground-launched DH-10 land attack cruise missile (LACM)” [16]. Specifically, the 2008 Department of Defense report estimates that China has deployed 50-250 DH-10 LACMs and 20-30 launchers [17].   In addition, the report states that the DH-10 has a range of at least 2,000 km [18].  

Air-launched Cruise Missile Capabilities

China is also developing air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) capabilities. According to the Department of Defense, “China is upgrading its B-6 bomber fleet (originally adapted from the Russian Tu-16) with a new variant which, when operational, will be armed with a new long-range cruise missile” [19].

Possible Nuclear-armed Cruise Missile Capabilities

Chinese air- and ground-launched cruise missiles may also be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. If armed with nuclear warheads, the PLA’s emerging LACM capabilities could supplement China’s strategic ballistic missile forces, which are currently being modernized to enhance their survivability and striking power. According to the 2008 Department of Defense report, “New air- and ground-launched cruise missiles that could perform nuclear missions would … improve the survivability, flexibility, and effectiveness of China’s nuclear forces” [20].  Whether China will ultimately choose to deploy nuclear-armed GLCMs or ALCMs, however, appears to remain an open question.  Indeed, as Jeffrey Lewis has noted, the most recent edition of the Department of Defense report to Congress does not state that China has deployed nuclear-armed LACMs; it simply indicates that some Chinese cruise missiles may be capable of carrying nuclear warheads [21]. Whether China ultimately deploys an exclusively conventional LACM force or some conventional and some nuclear systems, however, China’s development of LACM capabilities will have strategic implications for the United States and its allies and friends in the Asia-Pacific region.

Strategy and Potential Targets

According to the 2008 edition of the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report on Chinese military power, “China is developing air- and ground-launched LACMs, such as the YJ-63 and DH-10 systems for stand-off, precision strikes” [22]. Indeed, the deployment of highly capable LACMs will give the PLA a number of options to conduct strikes against targets in Taiwan and Japan, especially if the PLA is able to successfully integrate its emerging LACM forces with manned aircraft and ballistic missile force capabilities. Indeed, land-attack cruise missiles are an important part of China’s growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities. Chinese LACMs could threaten regional bases as well as transportation, communications, and logistics targets. Chinese LACMs would probably be employed in conjunction with short-range ballistic missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, special operations forces, manned aircraft, and computer network attacks [23].

Manned bombers carrying air-launched cruise missiles could eventually pose a serious threat to targets as far away as Guam. As the Department of Defense report to Congress notes, “Strike aircraft, when enabled by aerial refueling, could engage distant targets using air-launched cruise missiles equipped with a variety of terminal-homing warheads” [24]. Even a relatively small number of bombers could carry enough cruise missiles to conduct a potentially serious attack against a target like Anderson Air Force Base. Moreover, the capability to provide fighter escorts for the bombers would enhance this threat considerably.


Although much greater attention has been devoted to China’s rapidly increasing ballistic missile capabilities, the PLA’s development of LACMs will also have strategic implications for the United States in a number of areas. First, cruise missiles will contribute to a growing threat to facilities in Taiwan and Japan, including U.S. military bases. Indeed, Chinese cruise missiles will pose a serious threat to a number of critical bases. This threat will become especially serious if China is able to successfully integrate cruise missile strikes into plans that also incorporate manned aircraft strikes and ballistic missile attacks.

Second, cruise missile capabilities may transform Guam from a potential sanctuary into a possible target for long-range precision strikes. China may eventually field LACMs along with launch platforms such as manned bombers that would enable the PLA to conduct long-range conventional attacks on regional targets that it historically has been unable to reach with conventional weapons, including U.S. military facilities on Guam. Indeed, it appears that this option is motivated primarily by the desire to deny the U.S. military the opportunity to use Guam as a sanctuary during a high intensity conflict with China. The implication for U.S. planners and policy makers is clear: Guam will not be a sanctuary once the PLAAF has a credible ability to conduct attacks with manned bombers carrying air-launched cruise missiles.

Third, there is a possible risk of inadvertent escalation if China deploys both conventionally—and nuclear-armed LACMs. The PLA’s emerging LACM capabilities could also augment China’s strategic forces if some of the cruise missiles were to be armed with nuclear warheads, but if China deploys both conventional and nuclear variants of its LACMs this could increase the possibility of inadvertent escalation in a regional conflict, especially if an adversary were to accidentally strike nuclear-armed LACMs or their supporting command and control systems in the course of operations intended to target conventionally-armed systems.


1. Zhao Jiandong and Zhao Yingjun, "Analysis of U.S. Military Precision-Guided Weapons and Counterattack Technologies" Feihang Daodan (Winged Missiles Journal), June 2007, pp. 12-16.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Li Jie and Gong Zhiming, “Where Should the Focus of Air Defense be Located,” Jiefangjun bao, 7 March 2000, p. 6.
5. Zhang Zhaozhong, "’Desert Fox’ in Perspective," Jiefangjun Bao, 12 January 1999, p.
6. Tang Baodong, "US Intensifies Weaving of New ‘Space Net’ — From TMD and NMD to CMD," Jiefangjun Bao, 25 Dec 2002, p. 12.
7. Zhang, "’Desert Fox’ in Perspective.”
8. Liu Jiangping, Zhu Weitao, and Hu Ziwei, "Three Ways To Counter Cruise Missiles: Soft Kill, Hard Destruction, and CleverInducement," Jiefangjun Bao, 15 September 1999, p. 7.
9. Ibid.
10. Yang Yulin, "Antiaircraft Artillery — Magic Weapon Against Tomahawk," Jiefangjun Bao, 20 July 99, p. 6.
11. Liu, Zhu, and Hu, "Three Ways To Counter Cruise Missiles.”
12. Ibid.
13. Zhang, "’Desert Fox’ in Perspective.”
14. Li and Gong, “Where Should the Focus of Air Defense be Located.”
15. Tang, "US Intensifies Weaving of New ‘Space Net.’”
16. U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2008, p. 2.
17. Ibid., p. 56.
18. Ibid., p. 56.
19. Ibid., p. 5.
20. Ibid., p. 25.
21. See Jeffrey Lewis, “DH-10,” 14 July 2008, As Lewis points out, “the language is could and would, not do and will.”
22. U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, p. 24.
23. Ibid., p. 23.
24. Ibid., p. 23.