Going Ballistic: China's long-range ballistic-missile program is a key component of its anti-access/area-denial strategy. (Agence France-Presse)
TAIPEI — Though everything in China’s military is classified secret, including lunch menus at base canteens, Western analysts have been able to peel away some of the secrecy of several programs geared at defeating a US military campaign in the South China Sea or a Taiwan scenario.
Anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) has become a focal point for China’s military since 1996, when the US sent two aircraft carrier groups as a show of support for Taiwan during Chinese missile tests designed to intimidate voters. The deployment of the aircraft carriers enraged Beijing, leading to efforts to deter US military operations that challenge China in the future.
The most obvious A2/AD program under development is the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which has entered the initial operational capability stage.
The missile is unique in that no other country has successfully developed a conventional ballistic missile capable of hitting a ship. There is a debate within the Western analytical community about whether this missile is capable of performing this task without the proper targeting satellites and electronic countermeasures.
US Navy officials have said they are working on ways of defeating the DF-21D along the kill chain. One possible solution is a plan to replace the AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare system, which is aboard nearly every US Navy warship, with a prototype system dubbed SLQ-59. Analysts are unsure whether the SLQ-59 is intended as a counter to China’s ASBM and anti-ship cruise missile threats, or is simply part of the US Navy’s Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP), possibly the SLQ-32 Block 3T (Transportable EW Module).
In a document dated Jan. 11, the US Pacific Command made an “unusual and compelling urgency” request for 24 prototype SLQ-59s. The document stated that this is a “priority effort due to a newly discovered threat and the need to provide a protective capability to naval ships and their crews in a critically short timeframe.”
“Based on the law of averages, truth to be found somewhere in the middle, no doubt,” said Bob Nugent, vice president of advisory services at AMI International. Nugent said he tends to lean toward the SLQ-59 being part of the SEWIP, “but there may be some specific threat devices that need a gap filler.”
China also has been developing anti-satellite missiles and lasers designed to damage or destroy US satellites. According to Michael Raska, a research fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, China is working on the Shenguang (“Divine Light”) laser project for inertial confinement fusion, which aims to use high-powered lasers to produce a sustained nuclear fusion reaction.
Raska said the program — officially designated as an alternative energy project — could have two military applications: improving China’s next-generation thermonuclear weapons and advancing its directed-energy laser weapon programs.
China’s A2/AD strategy is intended to force the US military to operate farther from the mainland and make it difficult for US strike missions to knock out China’s military eyes and ears.
China’s massive complex of advanced underground facilities is part of the effort to impede the US from destroying command-and-control nodes during a war. Any attempt by the US to use its stealthy F-22 fighter jets and B-2 bombers to cripple underground facilities would face China’s ongoing attempts to defeat stealth technology.
This includes stealth technology acquired by espionage, such as B-2 secrets provided by former Northrop Grumman engineer Noshir Gowadia and others. Gowadia, whom the US convicted in 2010, provided China with the lock-on range for infrared-guided missiles against the B-2 and information that allowed China to develop a low-signature cruise missile exhaust system.
There also are other indications China is developing radar capabilities that will allow it to identify and shoot down stealth aircraft. This includes the development of meter-wave, passive over-the-horizon radar and infrared countermeasures in cooperation with the Ukraine-based Lviv Radiotechnical Science and Research Institute and the Iskra Scientific and Production Complex, said Vasiliy Kashin, a China military specialist at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
China also has acquired Kolchuga passive sensor electronic warfare systems and mobile 3-D 36D6-M1 airspace surveillance radars from Ukraine, he said.
China’s new YLC-20 two-station passive surveillance radar is possibly a copy of the Czech VERA-E system. There also are indications China plans to procure the 400-kilometer-range Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which for the first time would give China complete air defense coverage of Taiwan. China uses the indigenously developed HQ-9 and Russian-built S-300 land-based mobile systems.
Even if US bombing missions can escape China’s improving surface-to-air missile capabilities, the US still must locate and destroy the underground facilities that reportedly make up hundreds of miles of tunnels throughout China.
China’s underground facility program is “by its very nature inherently strategic and secretive,” said Ian Easton, a researcher at the Project 2049 Institute. To make those facilities survivable, China has invested a “tremendous level” of resources to “adapt an ancient defense method to a modern battlefield,” he said.