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The PLA's modernization and its implications - Part I: Anti-ship ballistic missiles

ZeEa5KPul

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I think that with the recent publication of the Congressional report on the PLA, now would be a good time to distill some of my recent thoughts on China’s military development, its strategies, and the PLA’s overall trajectory. I want to first discuss what’s been called by Pentagon planners the “anti-access, area denial” strategy and the systems and doctrines associated with it before pivoting to the burgeoning “blue water”, power projection capabilities of the PLAN. Finally, I’d like to bring these two strands together and discuss how I think China’s strategic posture and capacity will evolve in the coming decades.

A good place to start the discussion on China’s realization of the A2AD concept might be the apex of that concept’s development (and what sets China apart from every other military): the anti-ship ballistic missile. We should first proudly note that China has invested enormous sums of money and decades of hard work – displaying remarkable innovation and grit – in solving the formidable technical challenges associated with fielding weapons of this kind. At the time of this writing, China’s military is unique among its counterparts in possessing mobile ballistic missiles capable of targeting large and medium-sized warships at sea thousands of kilometers away.

To get a sense of the areas these weapons allow China to cover, consider this map

of China’s ballistic missiles, and note the 4,000 km circumference of the DF-26 and the areas of the Pacific and Indian Oceans it encloses. The missile can also cover the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, even the eastern portions of the Mediterranean from launch positions in western China! In short, this single system has the range to defend essentially all of China’s sea lines of communication carrying hydrocarbons from its suppliers in the Middle East and seaborne trade with Europe.

Of course, the doubters and haters will say that it’s one thing to launch a missile with that range at a stationary target and another thing altogether to hit a moving, defended target. While there is some merit to this argument, especially when we consider using the DF-26 to the maximal extents of its range and in waters where China lacks supporting ISR assets, there are some very interesting and ingenious solutions Chinese designers have incorporated into these missiles. There have been conflicting reports of a recent test that might hold interesting clues to just what kinds of tricks these missiles have up their sleeves…

It is accepted that China launched a number of AShBMs on August 26 at an unspecified target southeast of Hainan Island, as shown by this illustration

What is unclear is exactly how many missiles China fired. It seems evident from the diagram that two missiles were fired (which would also demonstrate China’s capability to accurately coordinate strikes from different PLARF bases and units), but some reports claim four missiles were fired. It might be a simple error in reporting, or it might be an indication of an interesting capability these missiles are speculated to have.

It’s been hypothesized that the AShBM bus launches a targeting probe as the warhead descends to fix the target’s location and communicate it to the warhead so that it can perform corrective manoeuvres. This would be an ingenious solution to multiple problems with AShBM targeting: it would carry a larger sensor package than the warhead can fit in its nosecone, which would allow for scanning a larger area more comprehensively (which also frees up volume and weight in the warhead to pack more explosive). By remaining above the atmosphere, the probe would avoid being blinded by plasma formed from the heat of re-entry and can remain in contact with the warhead by transmitting data to its much cooler rear.

To an observer with no knowledge of this system, this would look like the missile launching two warheads – hence two missiles mistakenly being reported as four.

Tactical ingenuities aside, the DF-26 and its lesser counterparts’ greatest impact is at the strategic level. By credibly threatening enemy capital naval assets at such vast ranges and with such vastly asymmetrical costs, they transform China into a continent-sized ‘coastal’ fortress and blur the line between “continental” and “maritime” power. More importantly, they purchase the time and strategic space for China to develop its blue water navy, with its attendant supercarrier fleets, free from molestation and interference.
 

Figaro

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@ZeEa5KPul thank you so much for spending the time and research on making these! I have seen your contributions here, SDF, and on Reddit and I think you do a fantastic job! Keep up the great work :enjoy:
 

Figaro

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Of course, the doubters and haters will say that it’s one thing to launch a missile with that range at a stationary target and another thing altogether to hit a moving, defended target. While there is some merit to this argument, especially when we consider using the DF-26 to the maximal extents of its range and in waters where China lacks supporting ISR assets, there are some very interesting and ingenious solutions Chinese designers have incorporated into these missiles. There have been conflicting reports of a recent test that might hold interesting clues to just what kinds of tricks these missiles have up their sleeves…
I just wanted to add something here. Just because we do not have photographic evidence of the DF-26 or DF-21D hitting a moving target on the sea does not mean it has not hit one on land. It is almost 100% certain the PLARF has set moving targets on land as to avoid intel collection and possibly provoking other countries. Do these jokers really think they would not test these missiles on moving targets when it is literally designed to hit moving targets? Also, there are rumors that the two launched last week did indeed strike a moving target (IIRC some decommissioned ship).
 

ZeEa5KPul

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@ZeEa5KPul thank you so much for spending the time and research on making these! I have seen your contributions here, SDF, and on Reddit and I think you do a fantastic job! Keep up the great work :enjoy:
Thanks! There's been too much trolling and not enough writing of late. I want to continue along this vein in a subsequent piece where I take a look at the PLAN's growing power projection, and the subject of combined PLARF/PLAN operations which I feel hasn't been explored.
 

Figaro

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Thanks! There's been too much trolling and not enough writing of late. I want to continue along this vein in a subsequent piece where I take a look at the PLAN's growing power projection, and the subject of combined PLARF/PLAN operations which I feel hasn't been explored.
Your analysis and insights are similar to that of Blitzo's. Besides posting on SDF, he started on PLA RealTalk and he wrote a collection of articles analyzing things like this. Perhaps you should too start some sort of blogpost. Only through this will mainstream media finally gain an accurate understanding of Chinese weaponry instead of the typical SCMP, National Interest, Popular Mechanics, and Businessinsider BS. The good thing is now people like Blitzo and Deino are frequently referenced by these mainstream outlets.
 

ZeEa5KPul

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Your analysis and insights are similar to that of Blitzo's.
I'm flattered by the comparison. While I greatly respect and admire Blitzo's work (he pretty much wrote the book on PLA watching), especially his tour de force on upcoming PLAN submarines
I feel he's a little too diffident to his opponents, especially given that they seldom argue in good faith. He also tends to shy away from political discussions, particularly when they have the potential to become disputatious. Oh, well, that's just the man's style and I can't fault him for it.
 
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FairAndUnbiased

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China's ASBM battle concepts have already been defeated. Whether you accept that or not, has little bearing on Chinas fate.
Depends on the cost of the NEMESIS system, if it even works according to design. Just look at the LCS or Zumwalt.

If it costs equal or more than the number of ASBMs required to take it down, then the simplest solution is more missiles.

And that is assuming it can fool not only RF and acoustic sensors but also imaging ones - such as video imaging satellites and IR cameras. Fooling imaging sensors is far, far harder.
 

ZeEa5KPul

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Depends on the cost of the NEMESIS system, if it even works according to design. Just look at the LCS or Zumwalt.

If it costs equal or more than the number of ASBMs required to take it down, then the simplest solution is more missiles.

And that is assuming it can fool not only RF and acoustic sensors but also imaging ones - such as video imaging satellites and IR cameras. Fooling imaging sensors is far, far harder.
I appreciate you trying to engage in good faith debate with that spambot troll, but I would advise you to just put him on ignore.

Having said that, your response does raise some interesting points that I'd like to address. I don't think it's wise to base one's strategy on the expectation of the enemy's incompetence - granted, of course, that the United States's military-industrial complex is epically incompetent and corrupt. Let's assume spambot's brochure system works as advertised. Beneath the hype, what exactly is being advertised? A networked EW system. Big whoop.

Nobody reasonable would claim that US CBGs are defenceless, and electronic defence is certainly part of the game. In fact, if I were in charge of coming up with a US response to long range AShBM strikes, spoofing would be my go-to since the best defence against an incoming strike is to obfuscate the carrier's location for as long as possible. This looks good on the face of it, but deeper analysis reveals its weaknesses and failures.

You pointed out yourself the biggest weakness of this approach: this only works (if at all) against RF detection. China would not launch a strike with a system like the DF-26B unless it has a multi-modal confirmation (including visual/electro-optical) of the carrier's location. China would launch a fast, high-flying drone that could confirm or refute the presence of an American carrier at a suspected location. Something like...

Don't worry, China has seen all of America's tricks from miles away.;)

And that's just the first iteration of the WZ-8. Upcoming versions will have combined-cycle engines which will allow even more flexibility in their deployment, not to mention constantly improving sensors.

Of course, there's much more that can be said about this, so perhaps this would make a good topic for a follow-up piece.
 

ozranger

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I appreciate you trying to engage in good faith debate with that spambot troll, but I would advise you to just put him on ignore.

Having said that, your response does raise some interesting points that I'd like to address. I don't think it's wise to base one's strategy on the expectation of the enemy's incompetence - granted, of course, that the United States's military-industrial complex is epically incompetent and corrupt. Let's assume spambot's brochure system works as advertised. Beneath the hype, what exactly is being advertised? A networked EW system. Big whoop.

Nobody reasonable would claim that US CBGs are defenceless, and electronic defence is certainly part of the game. In fact, if I were in charge of coming up with a US response to long range AShBM strikes, spoofing would be my go-to since the best defence against an incoming strike is to obfuscate the carrier's location for as long as possible. This looks good on the face of it, but deeper analysis reveals its weaknesses and failures.

You pointed out yourself the biggest weakness of this approach: this only works (if at all) against RF detection. China would not launch a strike with a system like the DF-26B unless it has a multi-modal confirmation (including visual/electro-optical) of the carrier's location. China would launch a fast, high-flying drone that could confirm or refute the presence of an American carrier at a suspected location. Something like...

Don't worry, China has seen all of America's tricks from miles away.;)

And that's just the first iteration of the WZ-8. Upcoming versions will have combined-cycle engines which will allow even more flexibility in their deployment, not to mention constantly improving sensors.

Of course, there's much more that can be said about this, so perhaps this would make a good topic for a follow-up piece.
As reported, China's military sensor satellites are organised as clustered constellations, with each including multi-spectrum optics and SAR radars. With such capability, there is no way for US military to cheat by using those so called EW suites like what they did to Soviet's radio detecting satellites in 1960s and 1970s.

In addition to that, the ASBM warhead seekers were reportedly working on millimetre band (also with IR imaging as one of the major research they had done in early 2000s is getting IR sensor working under high temperature caused by the hypersonic diving) so close up jamming won't work well either.

Millimetre wave, being only good for narrow beaming scan but also hard to be jammed as of its short wavelength, can be used on the seekers just because the earlier separated sensor capsule gliding in near space will help by running big area search and pass on the data to the diving warhead.

Of course real-time verification is always needed. That's why there is WZ-8, and probably plus the Wind Shadow.
 
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mazeto

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This post is professional level writing. If anyone wants to refute it they should either pen their own thoughts, or just post the link and maybe quote a paragraph only. Posting complete articles is equivalent of spamming.
On a similar vein, as an Indian I come here to learn of the thoughts,plans, strategies and achievements of my neighborhood who are both potential friends and enemies. But I am disgusted by the overload of my countrymen spam-threading and spam-posting everywhere making each topic unreadable after a few lines. These same people infest our Indian defence forums and talk seriously of capturing not just Aksai chin, but also Lhasa , Mansarovar, Kailash and whole of Tibet!
Unless the pdf thrives on advertisement revenue per-click, perhaps a brutal crackdown is due.
 
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Team Blue

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So I have a contention with the OP. If the ICBM is receiving updated coordinates from an external sensor, what prevents them from being countered by methods used by traditional guided missiles?
 

ZeEa5KPul

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So I have a contention with the OP. If the ICBM is receiving updated coordinates from an external sensor, what prevents them from being countered by methods used by traditional guided missiles?
There's nothing magical about an AShBM that makes it completely invulnerable to various kinds of deception and attack, but I believe that enemy countermeasures can be largely mitigated through the following steps:
  1. First, the missiles are not launched until the presence of a carrier is confirmed through multiple lines of corroborating evidence. Meaning that several systems have independently verified the presence of a carrier at a particular location through multiple modes, i.e., visual/electro-optical, IR, RF, etc.
  2. Once a target is detected and confirmed, the missiles are launched in such a way as to maximize chances of a successful strike no matter what evasive manoeuvres the target makes. The best analogy to this is the "no escape zone" concept of BVR aerial warfare.
  3. While this is not essential, the NEZ can be further optimized by having the target continuously tracked throughout the missile's midcourse flight by various datalinked platforms communicating new coordinates to the missile and altering its course. Note that such alterations, given the missile's range and speed, would be very minor.
  4. During the descent, the missile would release its onboard sensor for terminal tracking of the target until impact. Again, most of the flight path would have been baked in from the moment of launch, and given the relative speeds of a carrier and an AShBM, the alterations to the warhead's course would probably be no more than fractions of a degree.
 

LeGenD

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I just wanted to add something here. Just because we do not have photographic evidence of the DF-26 or DF-21D hitting a moving target on the sea does not mean it has not hit one on land. It is almost 100% certain the PLARF has set moving targets on land as to avoid intel collection and possibly provoking other countries. Do these jokers really think they would not test these missiles on moving targets when it is literally designed to hit moving targets? Also, there are rumors that the two launched last week did indeed strike a moving target (IIRC some decommissioned ship).
Bringing following conversations to your attention:


 

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