U.S. Challenged to Defend Against Chinese Missiles
China’s inventory of advanced missiles would be one of the thorniest problems facing U.S. military forces in the event of a conflagration in the Indo-Pacific region over the fate of Taiwan or other flashpoints. National security experts are recommending steps the United States can take to mitigate the threat before it’s too late.
Beijing’s land-based missile systems are managed by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. Its inventory includes a variety of conventional mobile, ground-launched short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles, with the capability of conducting precision strikes against ground targets and naval targets, according to the Pentagon’s latest report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.”
“The PLARF is a critical component of the PRC’s … strategy to deter and counter third-party intervention in regional conflicts,” the study said.
In 2020, the rocket force began fielding its first operational hypersonic weapon system, the DF-17, the report noted. Hypersonic weapons can fly faster than Mach 5 with a high level of maneuverability that makes it challenging for traditional missile defense systems to defeat them.
“The investments that we’ve seen the Chinese make in hypersonics are frankly startling,” said Dr. Mark Lewis, executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute, and former director of defense research and engineering for modernization at the Pentagon.
“To a certain extent I have to tip my hat to them,” he said during a recent panel hosted by the Hudson Institute. “It has given them a capability that … is increasingly concerning.”
Last year, Beijing tested what has been dubbed a fractional orbital bombardment system, which reportedly circled the Earth before deploying a hypersonic glide vehicle that landed in China.
“It was a difficult thing to do technically, so it shows that the Chinese have clearly developed a level of technical prowess that is notable,” Lewis said.
“But it also shows intent,” he added. “To me, it signals that the Chinese are looking at technologies that not only allow them to control the space in their immediate domain [in the Indo-Pacific]. They’re looking at global capabilities, and they’re using technologies to enhance that.”
The PLA has developed a strategy that focuses on using offensive strikes to gain a military advantage at the beginning of a conflict and maintain that momentum. The rocket force figures prominently in that strategy, according to Timothy Walton, a fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology.
“They talk about conducting preventive attacks … and preemptive attacks of various kinds. So, essentially conducting lots of surprise attacks to gain the initiative operationally,” he said.
The PLA already possesses thousands of missiles and is expected to continue boosting its arsenal, he noted.
Why are leaders in Beijing so keen on acquiring these types of systems?
“They recognize it’s a very effective class of weapons” that are highly accurate and can target adversaries’ key military nodes, Walton said.
In addition to being based in mainland China, such systems can also be stationed at overseas outposts or onboard deployed platforms such as PLA Navy ships, he noted.
The Pentagon in its report said: “In the near-term, the PLAN will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the PRC’s global power projection capabilities.”
Lewis, speaking at another panel hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he’s most concerned about adversaries’ tactical hypersonic weapons.
“Those are the ones that I think are the real impactful systems, because those are the ones that … have strategic implications,” he said.
“Imagine a hypersonic missile swarm that can sink an aircraft carrier — that’s really quite a capability.”
Walton painted a bleak picture of the current situation.
“On the whole, the current U.S. air-and-missile defense capabilities are relatively brittle,” he said. “It’s an architecture that I think could be relatively easily neutralized or paralyzed by an adversary like China.”
“We need to stop … just admiring the problem of defense of Guam, defense of Okinawa, defense of any other location, and actually move to resourcing the most promising capabilities and concepts to address the challenges moving forward,” he added.
What steps might that include?
Fielding advanced interceptors and non-kinetic systems such as high-powered lasers could be helpful, Walton said. However, “that’s going to take some more time” to develop and integrate the required technologies, he noted.
In the meantime, there are other options that he considers “low hanging fruit.” They include dedicating more personnel to the air-and-missile defense mission, acquiring more software to improve networking, and buying “off-the-shelf” systems that are currently available.
Right now, the bulk of U.S. air-and-missile defense investments go toward “active” defenses such as interceptors and their supporting technologies. However, more funding for “passive” defenses is needed, Walton said.
That could include building additional infrastructure so vulnerable forces could be dispersed; hardening air bases and other critical sites; camouflage, concealment and deception; and deploying reconstitution capabilities to enable faster recovery from an attack.
“Analyses after analyses have proven that [passive defenses] are very effective in terms of forcing adversaries to increase the salvo size they would need to launch, which at the very least imposes an opportunity cost at the tactical and operational level,” Walton said.
In November, the Pentagon completed its classified global posture review, but officials have said little about what changes might be afoot in the Indo-Pacific region to improve survivability.
“Maybe a decent number of these projects probably should be classified or at least shouldn’t be publicly released,” Walton said. “But regardless, if we are acting with the haste and urgency we need, we should be seeing a lot more being done in terms of posture and new projects being launched.”
Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has been banging the drum about the need to address the Chinese missile threat.
PLA leaders “have noticed it’s quite obvious that we depend upon a small number of assets, including forward air bases, to conduct operations,” he said at a recent event hosted by the Center for a New American Security. “They’re fixed, they’re easily targetable, and they’ve built the assets to come after them. So, we have got to respond to that.”
Hypersonics are creating new vulnerabilities and pose unique challenges for U.S. defenders, experts say.
Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu has been tasked by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III to come up with solutions.
“I’ve created a whole list of asymmetric ways” to counter hypersonics in a cost-effective manner, she said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December. She declined to provide details because they are classified.
Later during a Defense Writers Group meeting in January, Shyu told reporters she had recently briefed Austin on her ideas.
“He loved it and concurred,” the R&E chief said, noting that there will be funding for the efforts in the fiscal year 2023 budget request, which as of press time had yet to be released. Shyu will be “sprinting” to pursue the desired capabilities, she added.
Tom Karako, director of the missile defense project at CSIS, said countering hypersonics is a “difficult but ultimately tractable problem.”
However, “relative to the legacy ballistic missile defense system, these new threats will require considerable change to be sure, to include different defense designs, new sensing and interceptor capabilities, different concepts, and doctrinal and organizational changes, as well as modified policy expectations for the defended asset list, much of which is already underway,” he said.
The Missile Defense Agency has been examining a variety of technologies that could be part of an integrated air-and-missile defense architecture, said Stan Stafira, MDA’s chief architect.
“We’re looking at a lot of different capabilities, kinetic and non-kinetic, and also near term and far term as we look at what can we get out there quickly to the warfighter as fast as we can … and evaluating capabilities that are more long term to be able to handle this threat as it evolves in the future,” he said.
MDA’s recommended setup for countering hypersonics would include: elevated infrared sensors; integrated command, control, battle management and communications; and layered defenses with “effectors” that can engage enemy systems in both the glide and terminal phases of flight.
“First, I need to use all the sensor capabilities I have to detect that threat because … since it’s maneuvering, I need to know where it’s at,” Stafira said. “I need to be able to pass that data to the right guys to be able to engage it. And then I need to have effectors out there to be able to do that.”
Effectors could include kinetic “hit-to-kill” interceptors, directed energy weapons such as lasers and high-powered microwaves, or other tools like blast fragmentation warheads that could detonate in the vicinity of the target and disrupt it.
MDA is developing a space-based prototype of hypersonic ballistic tracking sensors that are slated to be launched in 2023. That capability is expected to provide high quality fire-control data that could be passed down to weapon systems for target engagement.
Experts emphasize the importance of having a layered defense, especially against hypersonics.
“We need to be able to engage that threat throughout its phases of flight,” Stafira said.
MDA is pursuing a glide phase interceptor that could take out targets at longer ranges. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also has a program underway known as Glide Breaker that has a similar aim.
If missiles can’t be neutralized in their glide phase, terminal phase interceptor capabilities such as ship-based Standard Missile-6 systems could be employed, Stafira said. The Pentagon plans to make improvements to the technology with the sea-based terminal program, he noted.
The missile defense architecture needs to be flexible and capable of dealing with a wide range of threats including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and hypersonics. Some modifications to the existing command, control, battle management and communication system, or C2BMC, will be needed, he said.
“We’re working with the department as we go forward … to make sure that we’re looking at that whole spectrum,” he added.
A variety of interceptors, directed energy systems, sensors and other capabilities could be in the mix.
“We’re looking at all that stuff to see what makes the best sense as part of the architecture,” Stafira said. “We want to be able to … take any of that stuff and be able to plug it into the architecture to be able to handle the threat in layers.”
Some of the capabilities under consideration will take years to deliver, noted Kelley Sayler, analyst for advanced technology and global security at the Congressional Research Service.
The glide phase interceptor program is intended to deliver capability by the mid- to late-2020s, according to Sayler. Directed energy systems might not be available until 2030 or “potentially much later than that.”
In the meantime, the Pentagon needs to accelerate its own offensive hypersonic weapons programs — which include air-, land- and sea-based systems — and build the platforms in large quantities, Lewis said.
The U.S. military has not yet fielded any of the hypersonics it’s working on, although it hopes to begin doing so in 2023.
“The best defense may in fact be a strong offense, and we can’t lose sight of that. These two sides of the coin are very, very much coupled,” Lewis said. “By developing our own offensive systems, that will give us the knowledge that we need to defend against them. But also, it is possible that at the end of the day the only [effective] defense we have is taking out a hypersonic launch system or launch capability with our own hypersonic weapon system.”
Topics: Missile Defense