Conventional Guided Missiles In May 2018, Russia reported that a new air-defense system destroyed a target that was almost 500 kilometers away and claimed that its radar could detect both advanced stealth aircraft and incoming ballistic missiles. In the summer of 2019, China said it destroyed a moving target in the South China Sea with two ballistic missiles. The test sent a strong signal to the United States and its partners. The traditional dominance of their aircraft carriers and warships was about to come to an end. The warheads of such ballistic missiles approach their targets much faster than most anti-ship missiles that fly low over the water. Both tests are examples of Russia and China’s desire to overcome adversaries well beyond their borders.
This paper reviews the role of conventional guided missiles in this pursuit: tactical ballistic missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, and air defense missiles. Chinese and Russian military modernization is broad, encompassing everything from the infantry platoon to super-heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But guided missiles expand the options for conflict escalation.
Especially when launched from trucks on land, they are cheap and difficult to counter. That is perhaps the main advantage of the two continental powers today. If their main adversary, the United States, relies on expensive platforms, China and Russia can use the full strategic depth of their territory and develop diffuse networks of missiles and sensors. The debate about conventional missile systems is relevant in the larger discussion about geopolitics. Across the land mass, regional powers seek to extend their sphere of influence and to keep military rivals at a distance.
Friction between Eurasia’s continental giants and maritime powers is a returning theme in the history of world politics. Each era comes with new defense systems: from Vauban’s coastal battery fortresses over Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic wall, to Admiral Gorshkov’s vision of saturation attacks against “enemy ground objectives and the protection of one’s territory from the strikes of his fleet.”1 Today, experts speak of anti-access and area-denial, or A2AD, an effort, primarily of Russia and China to respond to American dominance along the maritime fringes of Eurasia.
The geopolitical dilemma is straightforward. To enhance their freedom of maneuver in an extended sphere of interest; Beijing and Moscow need to limit America’s. In its most defensive form, this pursuit is about regime security and territorial sovereignty. Less defensively, it is about enforcing claims in contested areas and to achieve regional dominance, which can give way to broader power projection. If the United States were to lose its freedom of action and its military advantage around the Eurasian landmass, the two continental powers would be unchecked. Power unchecked incites assertiveness and arrogance. The preservation of a balance between maritime and continental power projection is thus important for the security in Eurasia and beyond.
While there exist many detailed studies about individual weapon systems, this paper offers a wide-ranging review of Russia and China’s evolving guided missile capabilities. It builds on existing literature and complements it with insights from Chinese and Russian sources. The first part of the paper explains the relevance of guided missiles in light of China and Russia’s vision of active defense. The next four chapters discuss three categories of missiles, yet start with an evaluation of the capacity to detect targets with surveillance radars. Active defense A2AD is a Western concept, coined in the early 2000s. It captures the endeavor of countries like China and Russia to destroy enemy ships and aircraft, and to deter and defeat enemy presence in their vicinity. Specific about this stage of Eurasian military pushback, is the use of advanced weapons with a longer range and greater accuracy. A2AD is a continuation of a century-old phenomenon with new technological possibilities.
The idea of denying adversaries access to a sphere of interest bears resemblance to the Chinese and Russian notion of active defense. But that concept is also fluid. On the one hand, it holds that threats need to be engaged before they reach the border. But the horizon of engagement has expanded throughout the last decades.
On the other hand, it implies pre-emption and initiative.
But what exactly needs to be preempted, ranges from threats against sovereignty to obstructions against the advancing of core national interests. Active defense aims at military strike capacity in an extended neighborhood. It thus implies a sphere of military dominance. In modern China, it has its origin in the transformation of Mao Zedong’s civil war mode of deep defense, into the involvement of the juvenile People’s Republic into the Korean War, a brief border war with India in 1962, and the invasion of Vietnam in 1979. After the Gulf War, active defense was combined with limited war under high-tech conditions. This entails a focus on countering weapon systems such as cruise missiles launched from ships, stealth bombers, and so forth. A useful starting point for analyzing what contemporary active defense means, is where the Soviet Union left it at its collapse. The Soviets had a broad vision of winning small wars in their vicinity, to destroy forward bases, to interdict access to sea lines of communication, and to go after naval platforms that could launch long range missiles. As all that happened under the specter of nuclear retaliation, conventional active defense was about increasing the range of options for escalation.
China too had such a vision, but had much less capabilities at that time. Xiao Jingguang, for instance, wrote about offensive saturation campaigns, to annihilate, weaken, deplete, tire out, and divide the enemy.” Liu Huaqing developed on this vision, with his famous island-chain-based spheres of military domination and much more emphasis on missiles.
Active defense today shows both qualitative and quantitative changes. China has immensely increased its mass maneuver capacity, by means of world class transport infrastructure, large numbers of landing-ships, aircraft, potent light armored vehicles, and much better trained soldiers. Russia follows, but more modestly. Second, both China and Russia possess increasingly advanced early warning and surveillance, which help diminish the freedom of maneuver of other countries’ high-value platforms, including submarines and stealth aircraft. Third, China and Russia expand and modernize their theater ballistic, air defense, anti-ship, and land attack cruise missile strike capacity.
While missiles are only a part of Russian and Chinese active defense, their large number, scattered over a large surface of land, their ongoing modernization, and the attempt to deploy them “networked” is creating a unique capacity that could alter the military balance further. Missiles in active defense But what role do guided missiles play in Chinese and Russian active defense? Russian and Chinese active defense is broad and comprehensive. It does not count on a single assassin’s mace, but a combination of several advanced weapon systems, and, most of all, the readiness to use overwhelming force and large numbers of troops.
“At the end of the day, war in the Asia-Pacific will be about hundreds of thousands of PLA soldiers dashing into Taiwan and ready to sacrifice,” a Chinese officer put it, “Planes, missiles and other weapons are important, but the key is whether you are ready to fight. I don’t think the West is ready to fight.”
Technology is an enabler for large-scale maneuvers, invasion forces, and so forth.6 This is the case of China and its visions for a war over Taiwan, but also has been demonstrated in recent Russian campaigns in the Caucasus and various large exercises. It is not just about stopping adversaries, but about advancing, getting boots on the ground in contested areas, and to do so with the intention to stay. Missiles, electronic warfare, and many of the other high-tech systems are innovative enablers for time-tested endeavors of gaining ground – and holding it. Guided missiles remain enablers. “Contactless wars,” the Russian Ministry of Defense posited, “do not exist.” 7 Let us now review the use of missiles in Chinese and Russian active defense in more detail.
Two sets of open sources allow us to attempt to answer that question. On the one hand, there are various public military writings that give a broad impression of how the two countries expect to fight. In the case of China, these include important volumes such as the Science of Military Strategy (2013), and the Science of Campaigns, and Science of Second Artillery Campaigns. In case of Russia, we cannot possibly sidestep recent views of Chief of Staff Gerasimov, as well as some authoritative studies by senior Russian military officers, including Missile Forces Commander Vladimir Zaritsky’s essays and Chekinov and Bogdanov’s review of Russian military sources on new generation war.
Another source concerns recent missile exercises. Military and civilian high-value targets. In both countries, conventional guided missiles’ primary advantage is that they can destroy high-value land-based assets at the beginning of a campaign, such as parts of the command and control chains, sensors, and air bases, but also civilian targets including railway nodes, energy facilities, and ports. The Chinese armed forces envision the use of conventional missiles against “strategic and theater command centers, communication systems, radars, and other information targets, missile systems, air bases, naval bases and targets like campaign airfields, railway stations, bridges, large army persist in the strategic thinking of active defense, perfect the connotation of our times.
Russia and China consider conventional guided missiles important to seize the initiative, to surprise, and to prevent the enemy from getting itself organized. In the case of Russia, active defense is a continuation of the multi-layered vision of defense and counterstrike of the Soviet Union. “Troops will be able to inflict significant defeat on the enemy with long range fire long before direct contact.” Gerasimov adds: “Acting quickly, we must pre-empt the enemy with our preventive measures, timely identify its vulnerabilities, and create a threat of unacceptable damage to him.”
Chinese strategists observed that the detect-locate-strike-time has diminished from 100 minutes in the Gulf War, to 40 minutes in the Kosovo War, to below 10 minutes today. Hence, they conclude, it is vital “to disturb the adversary’s operational pace and … to firmly grasp the time initiative.” Deep and broad. A third feature is that missiles help engage the enemy across a wide and deep theater. Remarks Zaritsky: “Nowadays, the trend is towards a significant increase of the depth of the instant destruction of enemy troops, the preventive strikes, and to inflict damage in depth.” In this regard, Zaritsky also highlights the need for deep reconnaissance. Chekinov and Bogdanov speak of “striking adversary targets in all areas and along the full depth and width of his territory.”15 Chinese sources underscore the importance of missiles in integrated intermediate-range precision or stand-off strikes, and to strike strategic targets along the full depth of the theatre.16
The Science of Second Artillery and the Science of Military Strategy both put a lot of emphasis on the fact that broad and deep defense requires the missile units to be well-integrated in theater commands. Saturation and precision. A fourth characteristic is that they combine saturation with precise strikes. Zaritsky put it thus: “In an initial stage, the (missile forces) participate in massive and concerted blows; in a second occasion, they focus on multiple single strikes… to have constant impact.”
Chinese strategists speak of the importance of rendering the enemy “unable to see, unable to hear clearly, unable to connect” through incessant follow-up strikes.18 Science of Campaigns advises saturation attacks from multiple directions and to use massive and concentrated conventional missile deployment against limited targets.19 Attrition.
A fifth element is the use of guided missiles to wear out the enemy, by inflicting damage to both civilian and military targets, and to destroy its morale. “Intensive strikes against centers of national and military power, as well defense-industrial targets… will undermine the capacity of the adversary’s troops and population to resist.” Chinese sources specify: “[Conventional missile strikes] not only destroy or weaken the enemy’s military.
Both China and Russia see missile attacks as an important step in broadening the escalation options below the nuclear threshold. One Russian paper speaks of non-nuclear deterrence. It advances a three-tier concept of deterrence, with intercontinental nuclear missiles as the first tier; regional nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence as a second tier; and local non-nuclear as a third tier. “Strategic non-nuclear capabilities are viewed as a flexible instrument of countering threats, including local nonnuclear threats to the military security of Russia and its allies.” Chinese sources refer to an integrated whole-deterrence capability.The Chinese Science of Military Strategy mentions the conventionalization of deterrence.
What remains unaddressed in most papers, however, is that the blurring between tactical and strategic, conventional and nuclear might in the end not only increase the options below the nuclear threshold, but also lower the nuclear threshold, as the ambiguity could prompt countries to adjust their nuclear strike trigger alert. Dispersion and multidimensional strike. Both countries are aware of the fact that missile launchers and their sensors are vulnerable, but that the immensity of their territory could allow for dispersion and creating strategic depth. The Russian chief of staff stated: “Mobile ground missile systems have all the necessary advantages of blending in a large area and to launch from an unexpected position. Military science needs to develop and specify a system of complex enemy destruction.”
Chinese sources often underline the importance of radiation and multidimensional strike: “The inner land theaters conduct the necessary radiation and extension to outside the border while the coastal theaters expand and extend to the oceanic direction.” Breaking maritime preponderance.
If the missiles render land-based facilities in the neighborhood vulnerable, it still leaves Russia and China exposed to standoff attacks from destroyers, attack submarines, and aircraft carriers. Active defense, hence, comes with growing interest in using missiles against ships. While the range and survivability of traditional subsonic anti-ship missiles is limited, a combination of supersonic short- to medium range anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship (“cruise”) missiles can target surface ships. China’s Science of Campaigns speaks of closely coordinated naval, airborne, and land based “missile attacks and harassment attacks” against ships and to use missiles for naval blockades.30 This was also asserted in the Science of Second Artillery Campaigns.
To control the sea from the land remains prominent in Chinese thinking. Various publications testify of precise saturation attacks against naval forces, or multi-direction saturation attacks. We see anti-ship missile attacks being tested in the Gansu Province test range. The delimitations of an aircraft carrier deck show various types of impacts at different moments between 2004 and 2013. One target (image 4) seems to reveal an attempt to land missile warheads along the expected course of a moving target. Altogether its 24 hits, large and small ones, can be seen along a 1.3 km “trajectory”. Chinese ballistic missiles were tested against sea-based targets in 2019 and 2020. Russia, meanwhile conducted various tests with new families of anti-ship cruise missiles, among which the hypersonic Zircon, which was first launched from a ship in 2020.
The importance of defense. Long-range air and missile defense systems are also part of this active defense strategy. Characteristic of these systems is that they detect and engage aircraft at a distance, before they can use standoff-weapons. In its last strategic doctrine, Russia explicitly stated that it considers the development of missile defense with like minded shore-to-ship missile, offshore defense super killer.
Electronics, Optics and Control. Summer, 2015. countries a priority and recently agreed to work with China towards an integrated air defense system.34 Chinese and Russian air defense is first of all about recognizing the complexity of this warfighting domain by combining a wide range of sensor systems, with various ranges and bands that can find different sorts of targets, with different radar frequencies, speeds, and so forth. Next comes the engaging of targets from different directions, as far as possible from the border, and to quickly protect air defense systems by limiting engagement radar activity, relocating systems, to counter jamming, and to factor in redundancy.35 Russian and Chinese sources affirm the importance of guided conventional missiles in active defense. But they never come alone. The best way probably to summarize their use is mass precise missile campaigns in support of mass maneuver. The ultimate goal in warfighting is to get boots on the ground and to prevent adversaries from stopping it. It is hard to say to which extent active defense will remain.
Many aspirations that the West finds offensive, towards Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Arctic, and the Baltic, for instance, are seen as just and legitimate from the standpoint of Beijing and Moscow. What will partially determine China and Russia’s readiness to advance in these areas, is whether they continue to alter the military balance. Conventional missiles in that regard remain key.
Looking for Active defense is impossible without looking far ahead. China and Russia have modernized capabilities to monitor their borders and neighborhood. “We did not even know where the Japanese and Americans were,” a Chinese officer once remarked, “They could literally operate just before our coast without being detected.”36 Russia too saw its surveillance capacity diminish, because a part of the littorals of the Baltic, Black Sea, and Caspian Sea came under control of independent states and because former Soviet capabilities fell in disrepair. That has changed. Both Russia and China now field a broad range of capable channels through which they can acquire and process intelligence.
Human intelligence is a factor often overlooked. But besides regular human intelligence gathering, both China and Russia have an outspoken propensity to use their diaspora and civilian assets – from fishing boats to merchant ships – for security purposes. Air – Both China and Russia field significant numbers of dedicated patrol and early warning aircraft. Since the early 2000s, China has had a limited early warning and control capacity, based on the Russian Il-76 and the Y-9 platforms. Since, various testbeds have been finalized. About 30 KJ-200 and KJ-500 AWACS and 10 KQ-200 maritime patrol aircraft have become operational. New variants are being developed. The compact Y-9-based systems allow China to monitor most of its adjacent waters.
The Hong-6 continues to serve as a long-range surveillance aircraft and maritime bomber. Russia has long continued to use Soviet legacy aircraft, such as the A-50 AWACS and the Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft. It slowly prepares replacement with A-100 AWACS and the Il-114 maritime patrol aircraft.
These manned aircraft operate alongside a rapidly growing fleet of long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. Chinese drones such as the BZK-005 and the new WJ-700 have a range of over 2,000 kilometers and an endurance between 20 and 40 hours. The BZK-005 is intensively used for reconnaissance missions above the South and East China Seas. Since 2015, Russia has operated the medium-range Forpost drone above adjacent seas. In 2020, it has started introducing the Altius long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle. Traditionally, Russian multirole fighters feature potent long-range multirole radars such as the Bars and Irbis.
Russia might fit modern fighter jets with Byelka radar system features X- and L-band arrays that allow for the detection of small objects at a range of 3-400 kilometers. Most Chinese fighters still fly on less advanced radars, but this will change with multi-function radar systems like KLJ-5, KLJ-7A (X-band), developed on Russian radars, and the highly compact and powerful LKF601E (x-band), which have detection and search ranges between 150 and 220 kilometers. Sea – The Russian navy equips its corvettes with the Zaslon active X- and S-band and additional passive L- and Ku- radars. Both systems have substantial EW capacity.
Modern frigates are equipped with a modern 5P-27 Furke radar and a secondary 5P-20K Poliment air defense radar. Chinese navy ships have seen a stellar improvement in surveillance radar capacity. The introduction of the Type-346 and especially its B-variant equips powerful surface combatants with powerful C-, S- and X-band antennas with a range up to 500 kilometers.
Smaller radars are the Type-515, 382, and- 360. All radars are expected to be robust in EW-contested environments. Surveillance capacity will be enhanced by forward deployed stationary sonar systems. China is known to have deployed sonar systems as far as the Mariana Islands, is very rapidly developing a network of seabed sensors in the South China Sea, and has a broad “transparent ocean” programme involving various undersea sensor systems.38 Russia, meanwhile, has deployed stationary sonars, type MGK-608E, in the Baltic Sea. A Russian surface wave glider was recovered as far as Scotland. Land-based – Since 2010, Russia has started to build a multi-layered network of air and ballistic defense early warning radars. The nine Voronezh radars can detect hundreds of small-signature airborne targets thousands of kilometers away.
As a second layer, Russia has deployed at least two large Konteyner radars with a reported range of 3,000 kilometers and eight Rezonans-N early warning radars that can detect and small-signature airborne targets as far 1,000 kilometers. Five such radars are in Russia, one in Iran, Egypt, and Algeria. A new Vitim radar is expected to complete this early warning radar network.39 This early warning network is followed by a network of mobile air defense radars; such as the 91N6 Tombstone, 59N6 Protivnik, 64N6 Big Bird, 76N6 Clam Shell P-18-2 Prima, Nebo-SVU, and the Struna1/Barrier. It is the combination of these surveillance and acquisition radars that constitute a formidable second layer of surveillance against large numbers of stealth aircraft and fast incoming missiles (as far as 400-600 kilometers).
A third layer of static and mobile coastal surveillance radars designed to monitor shipping and air traffic. The Podsolnukh (Sunflower) and Laguna-M radars do so with a range up to 200 and 450 kilometers. 40 The mobile MYSM1E and Monolit-B also have a range up to 200 and 450 kilometers. The volume of data generated by these sensors is massive. Mobile command and control systems, such as 55K6, are expected to support this process, to be connected via new data links such as OSNOD and to feed into the new Automated Command and Control System (ASU/ YeSU-TZ) that Russia is rolling out, bringing it with difficulties. 38 Video (link). 39 Corporate brochure (link). 40 Corporate brochure (link). China too is enlarging its land-based surveillance capabilities. Two JL-1A X-band radars with a presumed range of 5,000 kilometers are built near Huanan and Hangzhou.
The systems seem similar to the Russian Voronehz. Another variant, presumably P-band, is built in Shandong Province. Three surface-wave installations (emitters and receivers separated) with a range of at least 3,000 km were commissioned in 2016. The static Russian Podsolnukh is built for targets as far as 300 km. China has about 15 stations, managed by the State Oceanic Administration, which are tasked to monitor the dense maritime and air traffic inside China’s exclusive economic zone.41 China’s third layer of mobile surveillance radars is developing faster. The JY-27A (VHF band), JH-26 (VHF-UHF), YLC8B (UHF), SLC-7 (L-band), YLC-2 and -2V (L, S-band), JYL-1 (S band) are now all operational and can identify airborne threats as far as 450 kilometers. Satellites also remain indispensable for surveillance. They are used for traditional surveillance, but also increasingly for detecting and tracking targets that travel long distances, such as missiles and ships.
Military surveillance is best served by a combination of satellites that collect optical images, radar images, radio signals, and infrared images. The capacity of earth observation is influenced by the number of satellites, which determines the surface that can be monitored, their accuracy, the frequency of passages, which determines the permanency of monitoring and the capacity to track moving targets, and the data processing capacity. Both quality and quantity matter. The United States and its allies had an important advantage in this regard, owning most earth observation satellites. Russia inherited various optical and radar observation satellites from the Soviet Union, but modernization efforts have been limited. In 2016, the plan was announced to increase the number of state-owned remote sensing satellites from eight to twenty.
But this programme only advanced slowly.
In 2019, there were still only 11 satellites. Sixty percent of the Russian territory was not effectively covered. But the plan was reiterated. China, by comparison, has moved faster. In 2006, China launched the first Yaogan satellite. It is the largest remote sensing satellite programme in the last decades, consisting of 33 satellites or constellations.
They combine optical, radar, and electronic intelligence. In 2010, China started building the High-Definition Earth Observation Satellite (Hdeos) network, followed by the High Resolution Earth Observation System (Cheos). It consists of fourteen optic satellites or constellations. The majority of the satellites are positioned to focus on the Pacific. A leading expert commented that China has obtained 85 per cent self-sufficiency in remote sensing and that the resolution of both optical and radar satellites range between 0.1 to 1 meter, but that the capacity to provide all-weather and dynamic surveillance on the extended neighborhood would require an increase to at least one hundred remote sensing satellites and a much stronger communication system. “A Chinese satellite captured the location of pirates (in the Indian Ocean), but we had to wait until it traveled back over China to download the information. By then, five hours later, the pirates were gone.”45 So, while satellite remote sensing is probably emerging in the Western Pacific, broad dynamic coverage demands further investment. Land-attack guided missiles Long range precision strikes are no magical bullet. Conventional missiles remain vulnerable, can miss their target, and need to be fired in large numbers to destroy extended targets, such as ports, military bases, airports, and so forth.46
Even hypersonic missiles have limitations. It usually requires dozens of conventional high-explosive missile warheads to destroy an air base.47 Long-range precision strikes are still most effective against high-value point targets such as radar systems and single platforms, such as ships and aircraft. But as those come in large numbers and are usually also dispersed, it still requires significant quantities of missiles. As part of its global power projection capacity, the United States, for instance, is reported to have a stockpile of several thousands of cruise missiles. While the United States possesses a vast arsenal of long-range cruise missiles, China has a large stock of short- and medium-range conventional ballistic missiles: between 750 and 1,500 DF-11, DF-15, relying for about 250 launchers, and between 230 and 510 medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles for 230 launchers, type DF-21, DF-16, DF-17.48 Recent types are reported to be accurate and more capable of penetrating defense systems.
Medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles usually carry warheads that are heavier than those of cruise missiles. The DF-17 has a hypersonic maneuverable warhead. Most of China’s conventional ballistic missiles are land-based. Launched from continental China, they can hit targets from Taiwan to Guam. China’s arsenal of conventional ballistic missiles is sizable. In addition, China is rapidly enlarging its cruise missile stockpile. Today, China has around 270- 540 ground-based long-range cruise missiles, type DH-10 and DH-10a Russia’s offensive capabilities have been steadily growing since the turn of the century. The most dramatic change has been the introduction of advanced missile systems. Russia now fields about 12 rocket brigades with each about 16 launchers, each holding 2 missiles, typeIskander 9M723 (Stone).49 This solid-fuel ballistic missile has a range of 500 kilometers and features advanced combined guidance. Those missiles would engage high-value targets and could do so at this stage in volleys of over 32 missiles per brigade. Reload time varies between 20-30 minutes. Any such strike would most likely involve dozens of mobile launchers – out of a national total that could reach 190. Since 2017, Russia has deployed the 9M728, a medium range cruise missile with a range of around 490 km. At least four battalions are equipped with these missiles, each likely comprising four launchers.%%
The combination of significant numbers of land-based road-mobile ballistic and cruise missiles, dispersed over a large theater, poses a significant challenge, particularly if those launchers are flanked by air defense systems. Russian experts indicated that this is not yet sufficient and that more missiles are required to destroy military bases in a single salvo.52 But the value of long-range precise ground-based missiles has been proven in Syria. More important is its inclusion in Russia’s warfighting doctrine and training practices, which allows the capacity to be scaled up flexibly, depending on the conflict intensity and scale. The doctrinal shift, so far, is as important as the operational shift. New variants, such as the hypersonic land-based Kalibr 3M54 and Zircon 3M22 could continue to improve both range and survivability in the future. Active defense holds that attacks are carried out from the motherland. This gives China and Russia an advantage. Road-mobile cruise and ballistic missile launchers are relatively cheap and can be easily dispersed. For the United States, the cost to project power in the margins of Eurasia is higher. Its partners, such as Japan and most European countries, also have rather limited land-attack missile capabilities.
Active defense campaigns, limited wars under hightech conditions, will most likely be concentrated attacks supported by dispersed missile launchers, whereas the defense will have to be executed by a limited number of platforms against a very large number of targets. Concepts such as mosaic seek to remedy this to some extent, but it will take time to put it into practice. The upper estimation of Russia’s land-based land-attack (cruise and ballistic) missiles is 400-500; for China, this is already 2,500-3,000. This comes close to the current US inventory of +4,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Anti-ship guided missiles China is rapidly expanding its shore-, air- and ship-launched anti-ship cruise missile (ascm) capacity. The extent to which these missiles are tested, used in exercises, and their factory production lines have expanded. The stockpile of modern anti-ship missiles, primarily the supersonic YJ-12 and the subsonic YJ-83, must be impressive. The ship-based capacity, for now, is primarily spread over about 130 small ships. The T-022 and T-056 missile boats and corvettes have a combined 870 dedicated anti-ship missile launchers. This equals the full launch capacity of ten American destroyers. These small boats once more allow for dispersion, are designed for attacks from the vicinity of China’s cluttered coast, and hence increase the burden on adversaries in terms of ISR. Increasingly, this small-ship strike power is complemented by larger ships. China’s future fleet of destroyers and frigates will have at least 3,100 launchers, usually for both anti-ship, land-attack and surface-to-air missiles.
This seabased capacity is completed with mobile shore-based YJ-12b launchers, also placed on some of the islands in the South China Sea, and an air-launched variant. In the coming years, the YJ-100, a supersonic missile with a range over 1,000, will come into service. The latter will be similar to the Russia Bastion mobile coast-based missile batteries. An important development in the Russian Navy is the continued expansion of a fleet of small corvette-size platforms with significant long-range missile fire power. With mostly Redut-type launchers that can fire R-500, Zircon, Kalibr and other cruise missiles. Even if these ships feature limited sensor capacity, when deployed in a network with larger surface combatants or aircraft, the sheer number of ships complicates the outlook. The Soviet debate about naval strategy focussed a long time on the choice between many small ships and few large ocean-going ships. Today, that debate continues. Experts acknowledge that a “mosquito fleet” of small ships is useful to defend Russia’s vicinity, but those need to be combined with large platforms, submarines, and shore-based batteries. Media reports suggest that the introduction of Kalibr missiles has been slow, that the production plant has difficulties, and that the Russian military only receives around 100 of such missiles on an annual basis.
The current number of cruise missiles is still dwarfed by American fire power. In the future, anti-ship strikes might be executed with ballistic missiles. While the DF-26, -21D are reported to be highly accurate and their maneuverable warhead designed against seabased targets, many specifics of these missiles remain unknown. The testing of these missiles against a sea-based target in the South-China Sea, in August 2019, confirmed the expectation to deploy such missiles from launchers spread over Chinese territory, their accuracy, but not yet the supporting ISR systems or active radar-homing on highly defended moving targets in cluttered theatres.56 For now, the missiles reveal an important vector in China’s plans for anti ship capabilities, which will also involve hypersonic glide vehicles (type DF-ZF), but not yet warfighting readiness. This is also acknowledged in some Chinese sources.57 The aim of China is to deploy such missiles in so-called multi-missile cooperative attacks or multi-direction saturation attacks, in other words, to build in redundancy and to enhance survivability. To force adversaries to use more launch systems for missile defense also reduces their offensive capacity, especially because reloading air defense missiles at sea is not evident.58 Multi-direction saturation attacks also involve the deployment of anti-ship cruise missiles. The Chinese example has inspired Russia. New sea-launched cruise missile will weaken the strike potential of the Russian Navy.
China and Russia field a large number of short to long-range surface-to-air-missiles. Russia inherited from the Soviet Union over 1,900 road-mobile long-range missile launchers, good for over 7,000 surface-to-air-missiles. Today, the inventory of Russian long-range missile launchers is closer to 1,100, good for over 5,000 missiles. These primarily include modern S300 variants and about 180 S-400. These long-range missiles come on top of large quantities of short-range and point defense missile systems. The main change since the Cold War has been the introduction of advanced radars – type 76N6 and so forth, missiles against low-altitude targets, such as the 9R31M and 48N6, and long-range anti-radiation missiles.
China catches up, although it has less experience. In 2000, it still only had a few dozens of Russian S-300 launchers.61 Today, it fields around 1,000 long-range air-defense missile launchers, atop a very large number of medium to short-range systems, mainly type HQ-9 and S-300, and, in small numbers, the recent HQ-22.62 While no defense system is impenetrable, these air defenses are vast. Russia and China could collectively have over 2,000 land-based mobile long-range air defense launchers, which are capable of firing 8,000-10,000 missiles, before being reloaded. These systems severely limit the freedom of action of older combat aircraft, still the bulk of Western air forces, and complicate operations of fifth generation combat aircraft.63 The situation is further complicated because air defense missiles will also have to stand up to long-range missile strikes, not only to aircraft. On the other hand, however, air strikes will also be countered air-to-air by fighter aircraft. Chinese and Russian air defense is forward leaning. Air defense radars in places such as the Crimea, Belarus, the islands of the South China sea, and, especially in case of China, on a growing fleet of large surface combatants, gives them an advantage in response time.
The main strength of Chinese and Russian air defenses is the combination of range, dispersion, and redundancy. The sheer number of systems and their range way beyond the national borders demands hundreds, if not thousands of missiles, or vast EW capacities, to be pinned down on those air defense batteries alone. Air defense missile redundancy becomes even more pronounced when the inventory of combat aircraft owned by the competitors of Russia and China continues to fall. To date, competitors of Russia and China only have a few dozens of fifth generation aircraft permanently deployed in Asia or Europe. Acknowledging shortfalls, China and Russia agreed to work together to build a modern integrated air defense system. 64 Production sustainability Both Russia and China are expanding their conventional guided missile capacity. Russia essentially relies on new design bureaus on Soviet factories that have hardly expanded in the last twenty years. Russian sources also continue to complain about limited production output and delays. There is no evidence that these production limitations have been or will be addressed. This is different in China. Beside fast modernization of PLA Rocket Forces facilities 60 Bronk, Justin, 2020. Modern Russian and Chinese Integrated Air Defense Systems.
The new type of anti-aircraft missile of the People’s Liberation Army is exposed!
The U.S. Army’s New Gallium Nitride Radar Deployed with a Detection Range Several Times the HQ-9 Radar. Sina Military, 30 October 2019. and launch bases, there is a lot of evidence of rapidly growing production capacity. A key facility for China’s conventional guided missile production is the Fangshan missile factory, southwest of Beijing. At this side, multiple missile systems are assembled. Between 2010 and 2020, the plant surface expanded by at least 30 percent. Based on the images of mobile missile launchers being fitted out, it must deliver over 100 missile launchers a year. This also goes for the vast facilities of Factory 211, south of Beijing, and one of the main assembling sites of large ballistic missiles, and the Yongdong Road missile factory cluster.
Conclusions For China and Russia, the nineties were a strategic wake-up call. Operation Desert Storm showed the advanced long-range strike capabilities of the United States and some of its allies, but also the limitations of Iraq’s backward Scud-missiles system. The intervention in the Yugoslav War largely confirmed this concern and the exposure of countries to America’s global strike power. While China and Beijing pursued a strategy of active defense, they seemed no match in local high-tech wars. This triggered a continued effort to modernize capabilities, to work towards networked warfare, and, most importantly, to try to deter the dominant maritime power from entering their sphere of interest. Active defense turned hightech and extended its range. The foremost aim was territorial defense, but also to guarantee freedom of maneuver whenever other core interests were challenged. Think of Taiwan, the South China Sea, and so forth. Conventional guided missiles were increasingly embraced as an important enabler of active defense. They were deemed indispensable to target critical infrastructure in the Chinese and Russian vicinity, damage command and control systems, but also to inflict so much damage to nearby adversaries that it would lead to demoralization. Those missiles also could bring an element of surprise and pre-emption in active defense campaigns, to stretch the battlefield. Both Chinese and Russian sources highlight the combination of saturation (mass) and precision, of dispersing missile systems and multi-dimension strike.
Since recent years, Moscow and Beijing have also put emphasis on using missiles to undermine the naval preponderance of the United States and its allies, by means of hypersonic missiles and ballistic anti-ship missiles. Conventional guided missiles are considered a precious tool for broadening deterrence and increasing escalation options. The two countries have added large numbers of missiles to their stockpiles.
The upper estimation of Russia’s land-based land-attack (cruise and ballistic/short-intermediate-range) guided missiles is 400-500; for China, this is already 2,500-3,000. They have commissioned many small ships that carry hundreds of anti-ship missiles. If the United States and its allies deploy a large number of mainly surface combatants with land-attack cruise missiles, China and Russia have long focussed on what some call a mosquito-approach. Yet, in this domain too, China is moving quickly and could soon have a fleet of destroyers and frigates with at least 3,100 launchers. This does not yet equal America’s global maritime strike capacity, but for concentrated active defense, that capacity is already significant. A third very important dimension of Russian and Chinese conventional guided missiles concern air-defense systems. In this domain, the two countries field unequaled numbers of launchers and missiles. Russia and China could collectively have over 2,000 land-based mobile long-range air defense launchers, which are capable of firing 8,000-10,000 missiles, before being reloaded. These severely limit air force maneuvers in their neighborhood, as well have a BMD-relevance. Moscow and Beijing also work towards integrated air defense,but the evaluation of this specific domain goes beyond the scope of this paper.
While the approach of Russia and China is similar, China rapidly leaves Russia behind in missile quantities. Recent tests, exercises, and especially its booming production facilities underscore the enduring importance attached to conventional guided missiles in future warfare and their relevance in weakening the traditional power projection advantages of its adversaries.
Written by Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels and serves as a reserve officer in the Belgian Armed Forces.