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Chinese Missile Defense: Expansion and Modernization

March 16th, 2018

By Davis Florick – Senior Fellow

Chinese criticism of United States (US), ally, and partner missile defense investments is highly self-serving and ignores its own significant expenditure on missile defense and anti-satellite systems. Particularly over the last decade, Beijing has gone to great lengths to expand and modernize these capabilities. It has been aided by missile defense imports from Moscow, particularly the S-300 and S-400 mobile systems. As the US Department of Defense’s 2015 Report to Congress on Chinese Military Power states, “[China] possesses one of the largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems in the world.” In parallel, China is developing a range of anti-satellite capabilities including ground-launched satellite interceptors. Taken together, China’s missile defense and anti-satellite capabilities are intended to prevent the US, its allies, and its partners from responding to Chinese aggression through Beijing’s destruction of incoming missiles and orbiting satellites. In response, Washington and those with whom it collaborates must enhance their missile systems and complicate China’s ability to degrade their satellite capabilities.

In recent years, Beijing’s investments in missile defense and anti-satellite systems have stood in stark contrast to its sharp criticism of its rivals’ initiatives in the same fields – particularly its attempts to punish South Korea. As Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul pursue the defensive capabilities needed to limit Pyongyang’s coercive missile threat and its ability to successfully employ its missiles, Beijing repeatedly criticizes these defensive investments. China especially challenged South Korea’s requested deployment of the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Its Foreign Ministry stated, “Deployment will severely damage China’s security interests and undermine the regional strategic balance.” Chinese officials went even further by threatening South Korean officials in closed-door meetings and dissuading Chinese tourists from traveling to South Korea. Additionally, among a host of unannounced economic sanctions by Beijing, the South Korean company Lotte, on whose land THAAD is being deployed, mysteriously saw 85 of its 99 stores in China closed down.

China also opposes US homeland missile defense. Beijing argues that Washington’s defense systems degrade the ability of Chinese missiles to strike US territory. In effect, Chinese officials contend the US could employ its strategic nuclear forces against China and its missile defenses would negate a Chinese response. This position simply ignores the fact that China is developing comparable systems. Moreover, the complaint overlooks North Korea’s intercontinental-range ballistic missile developments and threats to strike the US.

As is the case with many military technologies, China and Russia are developing a history of cooperation with integrated air and missile defense. China first began purchasing the Russian S-300 system in 2004. Similar to the US Patriot system, the S-300 is intended to intercept incoming aircraft and missiles in their final approach. China possesses at least fifteen S-300 batteries with four delivery vehicles to a battery and four interceptors per delivery vehicle. In 2015, Beijing purchased the S-300 upgrade, the S-400, from Moscow for reportedly $3 billion. The deal included six S-400 batteries, each with six delivery vehicles, and each delivery vehicle armed with four interceptors. The longest of the S-400 interceptors, the 40N6, has sufficient range for China to target the skies over Taiwan and has the potential to be used to defend key installations against missile strikes. Russian deliveries of the S-400 began in the last few weeks. Also, because both systems are mobile, they can be deployed to particular areas during a crisis. These units strengthen China’s ability to counter US, ally, and partner air and missile systems.

In addition to capabilities acquired from Russia, China is developing domestic equivalents. Beijing has fielded the HQ-9 which likely provides an incremental upgrade from the Russian-exported S-300. China has reportedly deployed the HQ-9 to Fuzhou, opposite Taiwan, and to at least one of its man-made islands in the South China Sea. The HQ-9 has a range of at least 200 kilometers and could have a range of nearly 500 km, based on potential upgrades to the HQ-9 and likely interceptor variations. The HQ-9 was first made available for foreign purchase, as the FD-2000, in 2009. It has since been acquired by states including Iraq and Turkmenistan. While the HQ-9 does not have quite the capabilities of the S-300, it can be produced for both domestic use and export much more affordably than its Russian counterpart.

More important is China’s development of a mid-course land- and sea-based capability, the HQ-19. This system is reportedly intended to defend against medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. As the HQ-9 helped develop technologies for the longer range HQ-19, this new system could in turn serve as the basis for an intercontinental-range missile defense capability. China has repeatedly tested the HQ-19, most recently in February 2018. Interestingly, when the People’s Daily Online, a government-backed media outlet, announced the successful test, it included a US missile defense graphic having only changed the text to Mandarin. Potentially deployed on land and at sea, the HQ-19 represents a very capable complement to the S-400 systems China purchased from Russia.

2007 marked a very important year for outer space and China’s military emergence. Beijing used a ground-launched interceptor to destroy one of its own satellites. The test increased the amount of debris in space that could damage other objects by ten percent – an additional 2,000 pieces. China’s actions were met with international condemnation, and to its credit, Beijing has not conducted a similar test in the years since.

However, China is developing a far more diverse and modern range of capabilities designed to degrade or defeat US, ally, and partner satellites. Beijing has reportedly developed three anti-satellite interceptors, the DN-1, DN-2, and DN-3. These capabilities likely utilize boosters from missiles including the DF-11 and DF-21. The US Director of National Intelligence’s 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment indicated that China is also developing directed energy weapons and co-orbital systems designed to degrade the functionality of US, ally, and partner satellites.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is developing an increasingly expansive and modern range of anti-missile and anti-satellite capabilities. These systems are intended to prevent the US from intervening in a Chinese conflict with others in the region. The PLA’s missile defense capabilities are meant to deny the US, its allies, and partners the ability to hold Chinese targets at risk. That many of these systems are mobile offers Beijing the ability to concentrate its forces during a conflict. Therefore, China could employ its missile systems while denying its enemies the ability to respond.

While its missile defenses are intended to limit the offensive response options of its opponents, Beijing’s anti-satellite capabilities could significantly complicate Washington’s ability to defend others in the region. These systems are meant to degrade key functions such as communications, intelligence collection, and targeting. For the US, its allies, and partners, these are basic competencies needed to mount a defense against Chinese aggression. Beijing’s decision to threaten foreign satellites goes beyond defensive needs to eroding the ability of its opponents to defend themselves.

Given that China’s emphasis on missile defense systems has no end in sight, those being challenged by Beijing must respond. To overcome the PLA’s missile defense capabilities, Washington must continue to invest in a diverse set of flexible response options. Possessing a range of delivery platforms that can be forward deployed, particularly air- and sea-launched capabilities, helps the US move expeditiously in responding to Chinese aggression. Similarly, multiple weapon systems – ballistic and cruise missiles – creates multiple trajectory options that complicate the algorithms and technological requirements for missile defense systems. Additionally, developing technologies that can help ensure US missile systems will reach their intended target, such as decoys and jammers, will help enhance Washington’s deterrent.

At the same time, the US, its allies, and its partners must counter China’s growing anti-satellite capabilities. On one hand, expanding the existing number of satellites complicates China’s ability to degrade the architecture. However, protective measures, such as improving the mobility of satellites, is necessary to protect particularly sensitive or valuable capabilities. Over the long term, the best deterrent for Chinese aggression in outer space is Beijing’s own reliance on satellite technology. Not only for military but also for economic needs, China’s reliance on outer space satellite technology is increasing. Therefore, any decision by Beijing to employ its anti-satellite capabilities, particularly its interceptors, places its own systems at risk.

Despite its criticisms of the US, its allies, and its partners, in recent decades China has rapidly advanced its missile defense and anti-satellite capabilities, meaning that its criticisms ring increasingly hollow. Beijing’s pursuit of missile defense technology matches US efforts in the region, particularly in cooperation with Japan and South Korea. China’s growing anti-satellite capabilities also raise new concerns. Testing satellite interceptors and pursuing co-orbital satellites intended to degrade opposing systems are not just defensive capabilities. These systems are intended to weaken the United States’ deterrent and, more importantly, its ability to respond to Chinese aggression. While missile defenses help deny benefits from aggression, anti-satellite capabilities degrade defensive potential. Collectively, Beijing’s pursuit of missile defense and anti-satellite systems call into question how justified its hostility to the defensive measures of its rivals are, while raising concerns over Chinese intentions.

Image: A PLA HQ-9 (Source: Jian Kang)

About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Junior Fellow in the Security and Defence division. He recently completed his master's in East-West Studies at Creighton University and is a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His foreign relations areas of concentration include, East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.