Countering China’s Missile Defense Options: Shaping a Way Ahead


2015-03-03 By Richard Weitz

Recent weeks have seen China reenergize its campaign against the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea.

The reasons for Chinese concern is puzzling, since the U.S. and South Korean governments have not held any formal talks on such a deployment. Even if the U.S. deployed a THAAD battery in South Korea, it could hardly threaten Chinese enormous missile arsenal—not even its limited number of ICBMs, whose fast speed, dispersed location, and mobile launchers would make an elusive target.

Perhaps the Chinese are using the issue as a Red Herring to divert attention from their own missile defense programs.

China has been researching BMD for years, though on a low-key basis and with no clear commitment to deploy a national missile defense system like the United States.

Still, it is possible that China might eventually deploy strategic ballistic missile defenses to defend the Chinese homeland from a limited number of adversary long-range missiles.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is studying the issue, while U.S. government officials have begun to address the question of Chinese BMD in public.

On February 20, 2015, Frank Rose, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance at the State Department, discussed the issue at a FAS workshop.

In his presentation, Rose correctly argued that limitations on technology and resources would prevent China from developing defenses sufficient to make the Chinese homeland from a U.S. nuclear strike. He therefore addressed the issue primarily from the perspective how China’s interest in BMD policies could affect general strategic stability between China and the United States.

 China's HongQi-9 (HQ-9) launcher was part of China's 60th anniversary parade, Oct. 31, 2009. The HQ-9 is the domestic version of the FD-2000 missile that Turkey appears to be having second thoughts about purchasing.  (photo by Jian Kang)

China’s HongQi-9 (HQ-9) launcher was part of China’s 60th anniversary parade, Oct. 31, 2009. The HQ-9 is the domestic version of the FD-2000 missile that Turkey appears to be having second thoughts about purchasing. (photo by Jian Kang)

In particular, Rose hoped that China would engage in a comprehensive and sustained dialogue on the issue with Washington.

U.S. officials have long sought such strategic security discussions with China to promote military transparency and reduce misperceptions and mistrust. Until recently, the focus on the China-U.S. strategic dialogue has been on both countries’ nuclear forces and policies.

But U.S. officials have begun briefing the Chinese about U.S. BMD plans and programs, and are eagerly awaiting Chinese reciprocation.

Rose said that the administration wants to discuss other capabilities that could affect mutual strategic stability, to include “space-related issues, conventional precision strike capabilities, and nuclear weapons.”

The Chinese military has been improving its capabilities in all these areas.

In this context, Rose expressed most concern about China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) program, which can escalate crisis and threaten the long-term space security. China’s 2007 ASAT test created an enormous debris field that still endangers space satellites and astronauts. The United States, China, and other countries rely heavily on access to space for communication; navigation, intelligence, meteorology, and other critical military and civilian functions.

He warned that Sino-American space cooperation would remain limited as long as China pursued ASAT capabilities.

Yet, the United States would probably have to make some military response should China deploy even modest strategic missile defenses. The Congress and some media commentators would demand some countermeasures, and any administration would therefore find it politically challenging not to respond.

In addition, U.S. allies in Asia that perceive a threat from China would expect a U.S. countermove and would likely communicate that to Washington, at least in private.

The United States has pledged to defend Japan and other U.S. allies from a foreign military attack by China or other countries, with U.S. nuclear weapons if necessary.

A Chinese BMD system could, along with other factors, deepen worries about the credibility of such extended deterrence guarantees.

These assurances are generally less credible than threats to retaliate for a foreign attack on the United States itself.

In some cases, even limited Chinese missile defenses could enhance China’s ability to threaten neighbors close to the United States. For example, a Chinese BMD shield that extended over Taiwan would facilitate PLA offensive military operations by reinforcing its multi-layered anti-access strategy, which tries to thwart any U.S. effort to come to the island’s defense.

The U.S. has tried to make its security guarantees more credible by making official statements reiterating these pledges, placing U.S. conventional forces in these countries, and taking other measures. For example, the United States has kept U.S. forces in South Korea to deter a North Korean attack against the Republic of Korea.

Among other concerns, if U.S. allies came to doubt the credibility of U.S. deterrence guarantees, they would more likely pursue unilateral measures to assure their defense, such as developing their own nuclear deterrents, or try to reduce foreign threats by distancing themselves from the United States.

The United States could take a number of measures to decrease even the theoretical threat from Chinese missile defenses to the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

For example, the Pentagon could add more penetration aids to U.S. ballistic missiles, such as decoys, balloons, chaff, flares, and cooled shrouds placed over warheads.

The United States is also planning to deploy a new long-range strategic bomber whose cruise missiles and other weapons systems might be optimized for attacking Chinese BMD systems.

The U.S. might also develop novel ways of delivering warheads against China that could overcome standard BMD systems—these might include faster burning missiles, hypersonic delivery systems, or maneuvering warheads and reentry vehicles. The U.S. might also be able to disrupt Chinese missile defenses through cyber attacks.

Another U.S. response option is to deploy more U.S. missiles capable of hitting China.

Adding more ICBMs would prove difficult given Russian-U.S. arms control treaties, which restrict their number, though China’s refusal to accept similar limits weakens this barrier.

However, the United States might decide to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Forces (INF) Treaty in order to place more missiles within range of China and thereby more easily saturate any Chinese defenses.

This option has become more credible given that Russia has been violating the Treaty, which bans missiles having ranges of 500-5500km.

Although the United States would need at least one Asian country to agree to host such missiles, they could more easily overcome Chinese defenses from their launch sites in Asia than can ICBMs based in the United States.

The Chinese undoubtedly know of these countermeasures, since they and the Russians have been researching most of them to overcome U.S. missile defenses.

Still, discussing them is useful to remind Beijing of the risks of developing any military systems that can threaten the United States and its allies.

Editor’s Note: Photo Credit:

According to a piece published by the George C. Marshall and Claremont Institutes:

The Hongqi-9 (HQ-9) is a long-range, high-altitude, surface-to-air missile system developed and manufactured by China.

It is designed to track and destroy aircraft, cruise missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and tactical ballistic missiles. It incorporates technology from the Russian S-300P (NATO: SA-10 Grumble), the U.S. Patriot missile, and preexisting Chinese systems.

The HongQi 9 is currently used in both the PLA Air Force (SAM corps) and also in the PLA Navy in the form of ship-based HaiHongQi 9 (HHQ-9).

Ironically, Beijing has ranked among the most vociferous opponents of U.S. missile defense, having denounced various U.S. initiatives during the Clinton administration, and more recently, the Bush administration’s decision in 2002 to withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty.

Yet in recent years, China has followed a comprehensive two-track plan to bolster its own air and missile defenses:

  • The purchase of Russian surface-to-air missiles
  • The development of its own missile defense systems.