Sep 5, 2015 | 13:01 GMT

5 mins read

China Flaunts Its Missile Arsenal

Chinese missiles loaded onto trucks in Tiananmen Square during a military parade Sept. 3 in Beijing.
(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Military watchers around the world eagerly anticipated China's Sept. 3 military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II. The parade was the largest since at least 2009, when the Chinese Communist Party celebrated 60 years in power. Considering that China is a nation with a fast modernizing military, Stratfor watched the events closely, keeping an especially attentive eye out for the potential display of new weaponry and equipment.

China showed off a large number of cruise and ballistic missiles during the parade, highlighting the scale of its expanded missile arsenal. The designations of these missiles were written in non-Chinese characters, indicating that Beijing wanted to show the world its missile prowess.

During this year's parade, the most notable weapons on display were the cruise and ballistic missiles. Tanks, self-propelled artillery and other armored vehicles also rolled by while large numbers of fighter aircraft (including the J-15 carrier-based fighter) and helicopters flew overhead. Unlike the missiles, however, no completely new design was included among these formations. Missiles that were previously closely guarded were also shown, such as the DF-16 short-range ballistic missile, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-10A land-attack cruise missile and the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile.

China, unlike the United States and Russia, is not a party to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The treaty forbids the deployment or development of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges, defined as 500-5,500 kilometers (300-3,400 miles). Thus, unlike the Russians and Americans, the Chinese have been able to invest heavily in developing and modernizing their intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missile inventory — an important part of China's preparation for potential conflicts in its near seas.

The Deterrence Factor

Ballistic and cruise missiles, especially those in the very long-range categories, are a crucial part of Beijing's nuclear deterrence doctrine. For instance, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles form the primary leg of the Chinese nuclear triad. Shorter-range Chinese ballistic missiles (up to intermediate range) as well as cruise missiles also play a key role in China's conventional deterrence strategy. Armed with non-nuclear warheads, ballistic and cruise missiles give the Chinese the ability to strike at a heavily defended enemy from a considerable distance, degrading the enemy's fighting ability before an invasion, neutralizing enemy airpower by knocking out airfields and even striking at naval vessels at sea. When used as part of a layered strategy in conjunction with other weapons and forces, ballistic and cruise missiles can be highly effective.

The Chinese have been steadily amassing short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles — nearly 1,500 are in stock now — within range of Taiwan. In the event of a potential Chinese conflict with the island, China's DF-16 short-range ballistic missiles and DF-10 land-attack cruise missiles can now strike Taiwanese air defenses, ports, vessels, airfields, command and control centers and infrastructure in a first salvo. Given the rapid speed at which these missiles travel, the Chinese would benefit from a slower Taiwanese reaction time (especially in a surprise attack) as well as greater survivability against Taiwanese defenses. The Chinese can then, at least theoretically, mount an air and naval campaign against a Taiwan with weaker defenses.

The Chinese also can use these missiles as part of a layered strategy in hopes of deterring, delaying or degrading an external response, particularly one from the United States. China could try to deter or degrade any U.S. intervention by aiming an array of missiles, such as the DF-21C and DF-26, at U.S. airbases in the region (especially Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa and Andersen Air Force Base in Guam), as well as by aiming YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles and DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles at U.S. carrier battle groups.

China has found a particularly effective advantage in leveraging its land-based cruise and ballistic missile arsenal, and the Chinese undoubtedly will continue to build on this advantage as a key part of military modernization. It is therefore little surprise that these missiles were so prominent in the much-heralded parade.

Vulnerabilities in the Strategy

However, China's conventional missile buildup is hardly a guarantee of success. It certainly complicates the strategies of the country's potential adversaries, including the United States, Taiwan and Japan, but these missiles are not invulnerable. The missiles can be defended against — not only after they are launched but prior to their launch as well. For instance, the missiles rely heavily on pre-existing targeting infrastructure that can be interfered with, preventing the missiles from acquiring their targets. The missiles can also be targeted on their bases or their launch pads — although because they would likely be launched from China, that option could lead to a dangerous escalation.

After Chinese missiles are launched, several steps could be taken to defend against them. Anti-ballistic missiles or surface-to-air missiles could be used. Jamming could spoof maneuverable or smart warheads into missing their targets. Hardening of airfields and their aircraft shelters could also be extended to better protect against these missiles; rapidly deployed, trained airfield repair crews could bring a damaged air base back into service. With the Chinese increasingly investing in their missile arsenal, voices in the U.S. and Russian military establishments have also increasingly called for a departure from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty so the United States and Russia could build their own land-based missile inventories.

The Chinese undoubtedly will continue to invest heavily in their conventional ballistic and cruise missile arsenal. These missiles will become more capable over time, giving Beijing a powerful tool it can use to threaten, deter or target its potential enemies. As China's missile arsenal becomes more prominent, the United States and its allies in East Asia will continue developing means to mitigate this threat. The continuing development of Chinese missiles and U.S. and allied countermeasures will remain an important component in the evolution of the security balance in the Pacific.

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