Analysts: China's Missile Program the Greatest Long-Term Threat to U.S. Security

By Allyson Versprille

By Allyson Versprille

The advancement of China's ballistic missile modernization program may pose the greatest risk to the United States' long-term security, analysts said Aug. 19.

"Deterrence of China is absolutely critical," said Mark Schneider, a senior analyst for the National Institute for Public Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "It's not the largest current threat to the United States but it will in the foreseeable future become that."

According to the Pentagon's annual report to congress, "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2015," the current Chinese arsenal includes 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles and 50 to 60 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

"I expect all these numbers understate actual Chinese capability," Schneider said, noting that it is hard to pinpoint a precise number because most nuclear weapons are sheltered in a 3000-mile tunnel known as China's underground "Great Wall."

China has introduced double-digit increases in defense spending in 18 of the last 20 years, he said during a panel discussion at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

A 2013 report from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center found the Pacific nation has the most "active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world," expected to expand in both size and variety. Within the next 15 years the number of Chinese ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States could grow to more than 100, it said. Currently the nation boasts four types of ICBMs and two types of submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The nation is also developing MIRV, or multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, variants of its ballistic missiles, Schneider said. These variants have a payload containing several warheads, each capable of being aimed at separate designated targets.

"We've got a very serious threat out there that we're not adequately dealing with," he said. U.S. policies on China are not working and there have been signs that the country would not adhere to its "no-first-use" doctrine regarding nuclear weapons, he added.

An important conventional capability that China has developed is the DF-21, or CSS-5 Mod 5, anti-ship ballistic missile, nicknamed the "carrier killer." 
It "is clearly and specifically targeted at our carrier battle groups," said Henry Obering III, executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and former director of the Missile Defense Agency. "This missile is a formidable threat, which represents very advanced technology."

He also noted successful tests executed by China for its WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle, which is capable of speeds at about Mach 10. The most recent and fourth test of the WU-14 was conducted in June.

To address these threats, the United States needs to invest more in next-generation systems such as "advanced kill vehicles, directed energy weapons and space-based capabilities," Obering said. The U.S.military also has to develop more integrated approaches across the entire defense architecture enabling the use of sensors to track enemy warheads from birth to death, he added.

In addition to the threats posed to the homeland, the dangers of Chinese missiles to U.S. forward-deployed forces and allies in the western Pacific cannot be overlooked, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

"We can't discount the threat to our forward-deployed forces when we focus on the ballistic missile threat to the United States," he said. "The Chinese objective, strategically, is to try to reinforce a belief on the part of our allies that we would not be able to come to their aid were the Chinese to pursue some aggressive act against them," he said.

Within the next few years the number of surface-to-surface missiles the Chinese military currently has, about 1,500, is expected to grow at a faster rate than the U.S. programs of record for missile defense. This growth "will overcome our ability to defend against it relatively soon," Clark said.

Chinese airstrikes are another concern because in the event of a war the nation would layer its attack, following up a missile assault with airstrikes, he noted. "Their strategy is to use missiles — both ballistic and cruise missiles — from long range in an attempt to paralyze U.S. bases and ships from places where we would project power and then follow up with airstrikes to annihilate."

Current U.S. strategy does not defend well against this approach because the Navy does not distinguish between airplanes and missiles when defending against an enemy system, Clark said.

"When an airplane or a missile comes at a U.S. base or U.S. forces, we treat them all relatively equally and we try to shoot them all down using the defensive systems at hand [from] as far away as possible," he said. U.S. forces "could end up in that situation using all of our best missile defenses against relatively cheap and numerous missiles that the Chinese could develop."

The U.S. military is also at a distinct disadvantage when shooting down enemy platforms — ships, airplanes and missile launchers — because Chinese anti-ship missiles tend to have longer ranges than U.S. anti-ship missiles, Clark said.

To address this problem the Navy should shift its strategy to better allocate defensive weapons against offensive threats, using larger, more expensive weapons to destroy platforms, and less expensive weapons to shoot down missiles at shorter distances, he said.

In certain situations, the Navy could use interceptors such as the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 or new technology such as electro-magnetic and directed energy weapons when engaging enemy missiles from shorter range, he said. These could be less expensive but still effective alternatives.

Topics: Ballistics, International

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