China is developing and deploying a broad-based long-range precision strike capability that will in the near-term enable Beijing to project power regionally, and in the mid-to-long-term, provide global reach. Alongside an already potent force of land-based conventionally-armed precision-guided short and medium-range ballistic missiles, China has also deployed a dual-capable (that is, conventional and nuclear) precision-guided intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), the DF-26, and a long-range cruise missile, available in ground-launched (CJ-10), air-launched (CJ-20), and sea-launched variants. China is also reported to be developing two air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBM), at least one next-generation bomber, and hypersonic strike systems. Moreover, China is investing in advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, including innovative unmanned air systems (such as the Xianglong), that provide the critical targeting support essential to long-range precision strike.
The core of China’s long-range strike capability is currently provided by the precision-guided ballistic missiles operated by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), and a growing cruise missile capability, at presented centred on the PLARF CJ-10 and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) CJ-20-equipped H-6K Badger bomber. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will increasingly contribute to China’s long-range strike potential as new cruise missile-armed submarines and surface combatants enter service. The PLARF currently operates four ballistic missile systems capable of long-range strikes: the 600-900 km range DF-15; the 800-1,000 km range DF-16; the 2,100 km range DF-21C; and the 4,000 km range DF-26. The PLARF also operates the 1,500 km range DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM); the DF-26 is capable of operating in the ASBM role. The DF-15, DF-16, DF-21 and DF-26 are dual-capable, road-mobile systems incorporating terminal guidance systems and either feature control surfaces or a manoeuvring re-entry vehicle to improve accuracy.
A DF-26 medium-range ballistic missile as seen after the military parade held in Beijing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. (Image Credit: Wikimedia)
The PLARF also operates the 1,500 km range CJ-10 ground-launched cruise missile. The missile is deployed on a road-mobile launcher equipped with three rounds. An air-launched variant of the CJ-10, the CJ-20, equips the H-6K Badger (up to six missiles can be carried). The H-6K has a combat radius of 3,500 kilometres; the CJ-20 thus extends the reach of the Badger to 5,000 km. A naval variant of the CJ-10 has also been deployed. The Type 052D Luyang III-class destroyer, of which 13 are in service with the PLAN, is equipped with the CJ-10, the new Type 055 ‘destroyer’ will be equipped with the cruise missile, whilst the Type 093B and future nuclear-powered attack submarines are likely to be armed with the missile.
China is actively developing hypersonic technologies and is likely to deploy in the near-term, that is, within the next two to three years, a hypersonic cruise missile and hypersonic glide vehicle. In December 2017 it was reported that China had successfully tested a new ballistic missile armed with a hypersonic glide vehicle. The new missile, the DF-17, is believed to be a medium-range ballistic missile with a range of 1,800-2,500 km and potentially based on the DF-16: the missile may enter service around 2020. In May 2018, a scramjet test vehicle, the Lingyun 1, was publicly exhibited for the first time in Beijing; first flown in 2015, the Lingyun 1 could serve as the basis for a hypersonic cruise missile. In August 2018, China successfully tested a hypersonic waverider test vehicle, the Xing Kong-2, which attained a speed of Mach 6, and may be intended for operational deployment.
The PLAAF is in the midst of efforts to develop a significantly enhanced long-range strike capability. This is focused on the development of at least one new bomber and air-launched missiles, including two ALBMs, one of which may be an air-launched variant of the DF-21D ASBM – the CH-AS-X-13, and one may be nuclear-capable. The CH-AS-X-13 is believed to have a range of 3,000 km and will equip a new variant of the H-6, the H-6N. China is reported to be developing a new strategic bomber to replace the H-6. Referred to as a ‘new-generation long range strike bomber’ by then-Commander of the PLAAF, Ma Xiaotian in 2016, the new bomber is believed to be a large subsonic flying-wing or cranked-wing stealth aircraft with a combat radius in excess of 5,000 km, and capable of carrying a payload potentially of between 10 and 20 tons, including nuclear weapons. The aircraft, possibly designated H-20, will likely feature a significant electronic warfare capability, potentially employ defensive directed energy weapons, and act as an airborne command, control, communications and ISR node. The H-20 is likely to enter service in the first half of the 2020s. A second bomber may also be under development, and in contrast to the H-20, may be intended to principally operate in the regional strike role. A concept for a supersonic stealth strike aircraft with a combat radius of perhaps 1,500-2,000 km, has been observed and been the subject of rumours since 2013; whether an actual development programme exists is uncertain.
China is making significant progress toward the development of a robust long-range precision strike capability, providing Beijing with the means to prosecute strikes against targets on land and sea across the Asia-Pacific region. Further, China will increasingly be capable of conducting strikes globally as new systems, particularly the next-generation strategic bomber and cruise missile-armed ships and submarines enter service. The introduction of catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery-configured aircraft carriers into PLAN service in the 2020s, potentially embarking unmanned combat air systems such as the Lijian, will also enhance China’s long-range strike capabilities. A potential interest in developing an arsenal ship and equipping surface combatants with ASBMs and hypersonic glide vehicles has been reported. The combination of air-, ground-, and sea-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, together with anticipated developments in hypersonic capabilities, carrier airpower, unmanned combat air systems, and a new strategic bomber, will enable China to conduct multi-axis strikes, including in otherwise denied airspace, in the Asia-Pacific, and albeit on a smaller-scale, beyond.
Notably, China is likely to acquire the means to conduct precision strikes against targets within the US (for example, via submarine-launched cruise missiles, and potentially the H-20). This is likely to have significant implications for US-China relations, in particular in terms of deterrence and escalation control: for example, would China seek to deter US intervention in the Asia-Pacific with the threat of targeting the continental US? If the H-20 does indeed have an unrefuelled combat radius of 5,000 km (effectively 6,500 km if armed with the CJ-20), would China seek to deter the US through the threat of horizontal escalation via strikes against US interests outside of the Asia-Pacific? In this regard, the long-term strategic implications of China’s investment in long-range strike capabilities can be discerned, that is, an enhanced ability to project power and a wider choice of force employment options available to Beijing. Ultimately, how China’s long-range strike capabilities are employed will be dependent on the character and trajectory of Chinese national policy.
Dr James Bosbotinis is a UK-based specialist in defence and international affairs, and Co-CEO of JB Associates, a geopolitical risk advisory. Dr Bosbotinis has written widely on British defence issues, Russian strategy and military modernisation, China’s evolving strategy, and regional security in Europe, the Former Soviet Union and Asia-Pacific.