The Dragon's Spear: China's Asymmetric Strategy

By Loro Horta

Over a decade ago the Federation of American Scientists described the Chinese missile program as a pocket of excellence in an otherwise problematic indigenous military industry. In 2010 the Chinese military was reported to have started tests on its most ambitious missile project, the DF-21A, an anti-ship ballistic missile. In early 2013 several reports claimed that the missile had begun to be deployed in small numbers in Southern China. The DF-21A is reportedly designed to be an aircraft carrier killer aimed at deterring US aircraft-carrier battle groups from interfering in case of conflict over Taiwan and other flashpoints like the South China Sea.

China's decision to use ballistic missiles for anti-ship warfare is unusual considering that targeting moving ships with a missile on a ballistic trajectory is much harder and requires more sophisticated navigation than cruise missiles. The People's Liberation Army decision to opt for an anti-ship ballistic missile, or ASBM, reflects the growing confidence and sophistication of its military industries.

Analysts are divided over the implications of the new system for the US military. Some, not surprisingly, claimed that it is a game-changer and a threat to US forces in the region. Other analysts observed that the US military has several ways of defeating the ASBM such as using decoys and by targeting Chinese support and communication systems. While both sides of the debate have raised valid points, one should not see the Chinese ASBM in isolation, but as part of larger process of military modernization and a changing doctrine in the PLA.

Chinese military strategists have for millenniums been fascinated by asymmetric methods of warfare. China has no illusions about its military inferiority vis-à-vis the United States and knows that the status is likely to endure for at least two decades.

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As such the PLA has been developing a full range of asymmetric strategies to deter the US until its military reaches maturity. Aware of the US dependence on space and satellite communications to conduct even the most basic military operations, the PLA has for the past decade invested significant amounts to develop anti-satellite weapons. In January 2007 China fired its first anti-satellite missile destroying one of its own aging satellites in outer space. In May 2013 China fired a rocket carrying no payload over 10,000 kilometers into outer space, the highest launch since the mid-1970s. The absence of a payload such as a satellite could suggest the rocket is designed as an anti-satellite weapon.

In addition to ballistic missiles and rockets, China has also experimented with green and blue laser weapons with the US military accusing China of firing several laser beans at its satellites. Laser pulses can disrupt satellite communication and depending on the strength could destroy it.

China's missile program has also progressed steadily in the area of cruise missiles with accuracy and range improving rapidly. Progress in missiles, which one would expect as a result of greater advances in China's space program, is demonstrated by the growing number of satellite launches and the program's growing sophistication. China's lunar program is a further reflection of the priority it attaches to space.

The PLA's asymmetric warfare strategy is not limited to the domain of outer space, but extends to the other domains of battle - land, sea, air and cyberspace. For instance at sea, the Chinese PLA Navy is not focusing on matching the US carrier for carrier or ship for ship as some might expect. China has been deploying a growing number of attack submarines, both conventionally powered and nuclear powered, with submarines accounting for 45 percent of its naval combatants, the highest percentage among the world's major navies. In addition to submarines, the Chinese navy is deploying thousands of land-based missiles, both ballistic and cruise types. The navy is also developing dozens of stealth fast-attack missile craft and corvettes such as the Hubei class catamaran. In narrow seas and close coastal environments, these vessels can be quite effective against larger craft, particularly if deployed in swarm tactics.

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Loro Horta is a graduate of the People's Liberation Army National Defense University senior officers' course, the US Naval Post Graduate School and the US National Defense University. He has won several awards for his research on Asian security issues. © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

(AP Photo)

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