China on the launch pad
By Michael Raska
SINGAPORE ― Behind a veil of secrecy, China’s development of strategic and tactical missiles is well into its third generation of modernization. While the development of Chinese long-range missile and nuclear forces has traditionally been characterized as conservative, incremental, and slow, it has taken place against a backdrop of steadily growing official emphasis on the country’s defense-industrial complex, particularly its aerospace sector.
This process has been accelerated by a confluence of defense-industry reforms, comprehensive military upgrading, and integration of innovative operational concepts. The net effect is a growing capability of China’s strategic missile forces and military space platforms.
Various reports suggest that China is selectively enhancing its strategic and tactical missile capabilities by developing solid-fuel motors; diversifying its range of warheads and increasing their accuracy; deploying missiles with multiple warheads; and upgrading its ballistic-missile defense countermeasures, such as decoys, chaff, jamming, and thermal shielding, and possibly maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRVs) and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs).
In particular, China is developing, testing, and deploying a new generation of solid-propellant, road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). These include the DF-31 and DF-31A, which are equipped with nuclear payloads. It is also designing and developing new classes of conventional short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), such as the DF-21 ― mobile, solid-propellant, longer range, more accurate, and able to exploit vulnerabilities in ballistic missile-defense systems.
As part of its missile and nuclear-force modernization, China is also focusing on developing its sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) such as the JL-2, testing the DF21-D as an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) for maritime strikes, and further developing its anti-satellite weapon capabilities (ASAT).
The purpose behind China’s continuous modernization of its strategic assets is to enhance the credibility of its deterrent threat by improving the survivability of its nuclear forces. Thus, China is diversifying its missiles in terms of their strike capabilities and mobility, and formulating innovative anti-access/area-denial asymmetric warfare concepts to close the gap with technologically more advanced adversaries and near competitors – principally the United States, Russia, and Japan.
China’s progress in modernizing its strategic assets and capabilities owes much to the ongoing transformation of China’s defense industries, particularly the aerospace sector, over the past decade. Since the late 1990s, China’s government has gradually introduced elements of competition and globalization, with the aim of overcoming the entrenched monopoly of China’s traditional defense-industrial conglomerates.
The reforms have been guided by two broad concepts: the “Four Mechanisms” ― competition, evaluation, supervision, and encouragement ― and yujun yumin, or identifying military potential in civilian capabilities, with defense industries integrating into the broader civilian economy.
The reforms have essentially enabled China to streamline research and development efforts, as well as technology transfers between selected components of its civil and commercial space programs. As a result, China has also been able to bypass existing export controls and restrictions on the transfer of sensitive military technologies, particularly aerospace and satellite components and know-how.
Indeed, China’s military use of space is increasingly dependent and interlinked with civilian and commercial space activities, infrastructure, and human capital. Its space launch vehicles (SLVs) can be used for satellites with a range of applications ― including communications, weather, observation, and navigation ― which may significantly enhance the effectiveness of China’s military space operations and systems. While ballistic missiles have generally different rocket engines, basing profiles, and launch methods, their guidance and control systems may use similar components, and SLVs may use stage components based on ballistic missiles.
The trajectory of China’s ballistic missile R&D and production shows a gradual transition from copying and reproducing first-generation Soviet ballistic-missile technologies to adapting and modifying smaller, mobile, solid-propellant ballistic missiles and their follow-on second-generation systems. China is now an independent producer and technological innovator of selected missile systems and related aerospace technologies.
Ultimately, China views its military, civil, and commercial space programs as being at the forefront of its national defense, economic development, and geostrategic influence. The rest of the world should regard China’s aerospace capabilities as an important part of its future power projection.
Michael Raska is Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. For more stories, visit Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).