There is growing concern over China’s ability to further exploit the First Island Chain
BY PETER KNOTT
This feature appeared in the March-April 2020 issue of ADBR
Anyone who has a passing interest in China’s military development would have heard of the term, ‘Anti-Access Area Denial’, or A2AD for short.
A2AD is an increasingly popular term for layered defence strategies. In China’s case, it is the overarching strategy in its defence posture, and what it is seeking to achieve from the massive military modernisation program it has undertaken in the past 15 to 20 years.
Simply described, A2AD is what the Pentagon’s annual report into China’s military power calls the ability for China to “dissuade, deter, or, if required, defeat third-party intervention against a large-scale, theater-wide campaign” mounted by China’s People’s Liberation Army, such as a Taiwan contingency.
Key to Chinese A2AD efforts would be the so called First Island Chain, a string of islands stretching from Russia’s Sakhalin in the north, down through Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo, encompassing everything in between, that provides a series of natural maritime chokepoints surrounding China.
This has always been seen by China as a natural means for adversaries to contain its wider ambitions to be a Pacific and global player in a geopolitical sense, with a series of carefully placed American and allied military bases designed to hem China in.
But the barrier effect of the First Island Chain can work both ways. In recent years China’s massive military modernisation effort and investment in A2AD has turned the waters inside the chain into an area where China’s adversaries will find it more and more difficult to operate freely.
Indeed, there is now a growing worry that China – should it see an open conflict as inevitable or necessary – has acquired enough capability to conduct a massive pre-emptive strike against key military facilities and targets throughout the First Island Chain, and even beyond into the Second Island Chain comprised of a line stretching from Japan’s Bonin Islands, down through the Mariana Islands including Guam, and on to West Papua.
Such a strike could potentially cripple a US military response to any regional crisis, and the A2AD capabilities could prevent follow-on forces from Hawaii and the US mainland from intervening.
The Pentagon report mentioned above echoes this, noting in its 2019 iteration that the PLA’s “A2AD capabilities are currently most robust within the First Island Chain, though China aims to strengthen its capabilities to extend farther into the Pacific Ocean”.
In a similar vein, an article by former US Navy submariner Thomas Shugart in the War on the Rocks website notes that satellite photos of missile test ranges in China suggests that it has conducted trial missile attacks – believed to be made using short or medium-range ballistic missiles – on mockups shaped to look like US air and naval bases in Japan. This would indicate that China has seen such an action as possible enough to test the viability of its missiles for such an eventuality.
AN A2AD SENSOR NET
The DoD report also said that China has robust Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) architecture over land areas, and out to 550km from its coast, that relies on an extensive early warning radar network, fighter aircraft, and a variety of SAM systems. China is also placing radars and air defence weapons on its man-made island outposts in the South China Sea, further extending its IADS.
The IADS includes early warning radars that are designed to spot inbound targets, ranging from bomber aircraft to cruise missiles, and even ballistic missiles. These include four large phased array radars for possible ballistic missile tracking similar to the American Pave PAWS system, although there is also a possibility these could be associated with anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) targeting. China has also developed and put into service high-frequency (HF) over the horizon radars at several locations throughout China that claim to be able to detect stealthy aircraft.
These include both OTH Backscatter (OTH-B), similar to Australia’s Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) and the less complex OTH Surface Wave (OTH-SW) radars, and include one set of the latter at some of the islands in the South China Sea. Chinese analysts claim that these have a range of up to 400km, although the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (CSIS-AMTI) estimates that the smaller sets in the South China Sea islands are not able to extend their coverage that far.
These ground-based sensors are backed by an increasing number of space-based sensors. The US-based Union of Concerned Scientists says that, as of 2016, China had 192 satellites in orbit (second only to the US which has 593). That number has since increased, with nearly all of these belonging to organisations or companies with close ties to the government and many with dual civilian and military utility.
These satellites include the Yaogan Weixing (remote sensing) family of approximately 40 satellites whose functions are officially civilian in nature, such as crop yield studies or scientific research. However, several of these are almost certainly used for military purposes with payloads such as electro-optical sensors, synthetic aperture radar, and electronic intelligence (ELINT). There are also constellations of Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) satellites providing persistent coverage of the waters surrounding China.
All of the above could, and almost certainly are used to support ASBM targeting and other naval purposes. With sufficient numbers and integration, they can potentially provide real time target triangulation data to build up a robust picture of the location of a target to generate a targeting solution (see below).
China is also said to be developing and trialling an underwater sensor network – similar to the US’s SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) in the North Atlantic – as part of its anti-submarine warfare efforts. Like many things about PLA developments, there is little solid information about such efforts. While the Pentagon report acknowledges the development of such a network, it adds that the PLA continues to lack a robust deep-water anti-submarine warfare capability.
It also adds that it is unclear whether the PLA can “collect accurate targeting information and pass it to launch platforms in time for successful strikes in sea areas beyond the First Island Chain”. It is this writer’s opinion that this capability is not so pressing, and the priority for the PLA is to be able to do so effectively within, but not yet beyond, the First Island Chain.
The PLA’s fighters typically employ short and medium-range air-to-air missiles of indigenous design in addition to Russian types such as the Vympel NPO R-77 (AA-12 Adder) for its Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30/35 Flankers, but is also developing an ultra-long range air-to-air missile. Expected to be used to target an adversary’s high value airborne assets such as AEW&C or tanker aircraft, the missile has been given the temporary designation the PL-XX, although observers believe that the eventual in-service designation will be PL-20 (see ‘Savage Skies’ in ADBR Jan-Feb 2020).
The new missile has been observed being carried on the Shenyang J-16 multi-role fighter and Xi’an JH-7 fighter-bomber. Comparing the known sizes of the parent aircraft and its hardpoints, has been estimated to measure roughly 5.8 metres in length and about 300mm in diameter. Four rear-mounted fins provide manoeuvrability and control for the missile.
By comparison, the RAAF’s longest ranged air-to-air missile, the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM, measures 3.7 metres long and has a diameter of 180mm. There is little verifiable information about the PL-20’s performance, however a schematic of how it would be used has been leaked to the internet, showing the ramjet or solid-fuel powered missile with a range of 300km.
After launch, the missile will fly a parabolic trajectory to its target, attaining an altitude of about 100,000ft from a launch altitude of 50,000ft, before diving down onto its target. Missile guidance is expected be achieved by a mixture of GPS, INS, and space-based sensors providing launch and mid-course guidance, before an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar takes over in the terminal phase.
That the launch platform can be a relatively limited aircraft like the JH-7 lends further credence that the missile does not rely on its launch aircraft for early targeting data, with an AEW&C platform also likely to be a source of launch parameters. It is not known if China’s stealthy Chengdu J-20 interceptor can carry the missile, but it would need to be carried externally as the J-20’s internal weapons bays are not long enough to carry the missile internally.
The airborne shooters are backed up by a network of ground-based long-range air defence systems. Similarly to what it has done across its other defence domains, China has put a lot of effort in improving and modifying Russian systems for its own needs, and in recent years has developed its own line of indigenous ground-based air defence systems.
The longest ranged system is the HQ-9, a development of the Russian S-300PMU (SA-20) system that China acquired from Russia. Starting with the original HQ-9, China has since improved the system with the HQ-9A and HQ-9B introduced at the turn of the century and in the mid-2000s respectively, leveraging on improvements in technology in microelectronics and signal processing to introduce dual seekers in the latter.
The range of the HQ-9B is said to be in excess of 300km with an altitude ceiling of 134,000ft. To maximize the flexibility of the system, the HQ-9 can employ a wide range of radars, both the search/surveillance/acquisition radar and the tracking/engagement/fire control radar (FCR), however the primary FCR is the dedicated HT-233 that can also double as a search and acquisition radar if required.
Like the HQ-9 the FCR is also mobile, being mounted on a 10×10 wheeled transporter and is said to operate on the C-band at 300MHz. Performance-wise the HQ-9/HT-233 is said to be closer to the AN/MPQ-53 of the American Patriot missile system than the Russian 30N6 (Flap Lid) that supports the S-300 which is limited by its narrow beam coverage, even in search mode.
The HQ-9 has also made its way into the PLA Navy’s ships, with the navalised HHQ-9 being standard fit on board China’s Type 052C, 052D and 055 destroyers. China has also acquired the Russian S-400 Truimf (SA-21) long-range SAM system, although given past history it is likely to be seeking to reverse-engineer it for its own purposes rather than having any intentions of integrating it into its own IADS.
Given that the objectives of China’s A2AD strategy is to keep not only aircraft but an adversary’s ships away from its shores, it is also of no surprise that China has also pursued its anti-shipping options in the form of a variety of anti-ship missiles.
The most talked about of these weapons is the ASBM. As the name suggests, these are long-range, conventionally armed ballistic missiles used for attacking moving ships at sea, most notably the US Navy’s showpiece nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The theory being that a missile speeding down to sea level on a ballistic trajectory at speeds of Mach 5 or higher would prove to be an extremely difficult capability to counter.
The DF-21D is a road-mobile ASBM system that is mounted on a wheeled transporter erector launcher (TEL) to improve survivability against possible enemy counter-strikes. Said to have a range of about 1,450km, the DF-21D is derived from the DF-21 family of two-stage, solid-fuel rocket, single-warhead conventional or nuclear-warhead medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) in use by the PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF).
The US DoD suggests the DF-21D reached IOC with the PLARF in 2010. The system is thought to employ manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles (MaRVs) with terminal guidance systems assisted by China’s network of satellites such as the Jianbing-5/YaoGan-1 and Jianbing-6/YaoGan-2 that provide targeting data in the form of radar and visual imaging respectively.
There are however still questions remaining about the utility of the ASBMs. China has reportedly tested the DF-21D against fixed land targets, but it is not known to have conducted similar tests against a moving target. This makes it difficult to accurately judge the capability – particularly from the maturity and efficacy of China’s sensor net for its kill chain in generating the kind of real time, highly precise data required to enable the DF-21D, and the newer 4,000km-range DF-26 – to accurately target an aircraft carrier making 30 knots in the expanses of the western Pacific.
There is however the possibility of using ASBMs and their sensor net to keep watch and/or provide deterrence on the maritime chokepoints presented by the First Island Chain, including the Miyako Straits between Okinawa and Taiwan, and Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines. This would theoretically reduce the demand on a less-than-mature sensor net and kill chain to limited geographic areas where potential targets will have to navigate.
Considering the limited combat radius of carrier-borne aircraft without large scale tanker support, the ability to keep an American carrier battle group at arm’s length may be all that China’s A2AD capability needs.
But if required, an attack with ASBMs can be used in conjunction with air and surface-launched anti-ship missiles (ASMs), timed to arrive at the target at the same time to saturate its defences.
These attacks could be mounted from longer-ranged ASMs such as the YJ-12 and YJ-18. Both are Chinese improvements of Russian designs, derived from the Kh-31 air-to-surface missile and the 3M54 Klub cruise missile. Both are capable of supersonic speeds, with the anti-ship YJ-18A variant attaining its maximum speed of around Mach 2 in its terminal phase following a subsonic cruise, while the YJ-12 can fly at speeds of between Mach 2 and 4 depending on its launch and cruise altitudes.
Both are also very long ranged, with the YJ-12 believed to be between 200 and 400km, while the YJ-18 is believed to possess a range of 540km. The YJ-12 can be launched from wheeled TELs, from vertical launch cells on ships such as the Type 052D or 055 destroyers, or aircraft such as the Xi’an H-6 bomber, JH-7 fighter bomber and possibly the Shenyang J-11/15/16.
Meanwhile, the anti-ship variants of the YJ-18 can be launched from ships, submarines or land-based mobile TELs, offering flexibility in targeting adversary ships. There are also land attack versions of the YJ-18, which would theoretically mean that US bases such as Guam and even Hawaii could be threatened in times of conflict. The former is also within range of the DF-26 – colloquially known as the ‘Guam killer’ on account of its range.
China also has other conventional attack weapons for targeting an adversary’s land targets. These include the CJ-10 and the CJ-20 cruise missiles which can be launched from H-6 bombers and the PLAN’s newer destroyer classes, and can carry a 1,000lb conventional or nuclear warhead over 1,500 km.
One area of weapons development China is reportedly more advanced than the West is in the field of hypersonics. China became the first country in the world to officially field an operational hypersonic weapon when it unveiled the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) during its 2019 National Day parade. The DF-17 has its HGV mounted on the rocket booster of the DF-16 short-range ballistic missile and its TEL, simplifying the development cycle.
Testing of DF-17 prototypes was underway by 2014 with at least nine test flights reportedly occurring between January 2014 and November 2017. The HGV is known as the DF-ZF and adopts a very different flight profile from normal ballistic missiles by suppressing its trajectory and accelerating to reach speeds of around Mach 5 in its terminal phase.
Due to its extreme speed and suppressed/lower altitude trajectory, intercepting the glide vehicle becomes more complex than that of a conventional re-entry vehicle – already a difficult undertaking. The high-speed glide profile means the DF-ZF is more manoeuvrable with the bonus of extending its range. In a November 2017 test the HGV reportedly managed to glide at a depressed altitude of around 60km following the DF-17 booster’s ballistic and re-entry phase 1,400km downrange.
Writing in the in-house blog of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace Douglas Barrie pointed out that there is always a risk of using shorthand phrases such as A2AD, and conflating the term with drawing weapons range circles on a map and declaring anywhere within those circles as a ‘no-go area’.
This is a valid point in assessing the efficacy of an A2AD ‘bubble’. For all of China’s military advancements, the waters of the East and South China Seas and the airspace above will certainly not become no go areas for the US and allied navies, even in a ‘hot’ conflict. But, where it once was a permissive environment, it will undeniably become contested space and become increasingly more so the deeper one ventures into the ‘bubble’.
While the sensors and shooters inside that bubble look impressive on paper, questions remain about their level of integration. Integration of the PLA’s various services has been acknowledged to be China’s weak spot in the past. But recent military reforms such as the consolidation of military regions from seven to five, and the formation of the PLA’s Strategic Support Forces seems to be a step in the direction of creating a truly joint force.
At the end of the day, the dearth of verifiable information coming out of China is a stumbling block to assessing how effective or how far-reaching such integration efforts are. But given that these reforms only started in 2016, these are still early days, and a true picture of how effective these efforts will be is still years away.