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A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China's Cruise Missile Ambitions

A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China's Cruise Missile Ambitions by Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan. National Defense University Press, 2014, 165 pp.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US military has searched for a military near-peer competitor that will justify its continued purchase of high-end military equipment and training for large force-on-force conventional warfare. For many people, that competitor is China, which possesses the fastest growing economy in the world, makes increasingly large expenditures on military equipment, and seeks to assert itself as a regional hegemon. Unsurprisingly, then, the US military is keeping a close eye on development of the Chinese military and its selection of investments in conventional force capability and foreign imports. A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier is a thorough, albeit unclassified, review and assessment of one key portion of the Chinese military's advancement--specifically, its investment in cruise missiles.

This book is not for the amateur or casual reader. Despite its brevity, the study contains monotonous lists and descriptions of Chinese production companies, antiship and land-attack cruise missiles, and launch platforms. Furthermore, it contains a detailed examination of the confusion that exists about these missiles and companies, based on the secrecy that surrounds them and the muddle over their names and capabilities. For military professionals who want to expand their knowledge of the Chinese military threat or learn the complete lexicon of military cruise missiles and platforms developed or imported by China, A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier satisfies that requirement.

The book builds the case that China is investing in its cruise missile program as a key component of an antiaccess/area denial capability against the United States. The Chinese military sees cruise missiles as a cheap and capable asymmetric military capability that gives it a significant military advantage in regional wars, especially a military campaign against Taiwan that would include US military intervention. For the Chinese military, cruise missiles are not only inexpensive and compact but also require only limited support (p. xvii). Ground-launched platforms can be highly mobile, thus enhancing their prelaunch survivability. Their potential for "supersonic speed, small radar signature, and very low altitude flight profile" will prove stressful for even the most modern air defense systems (p. xvii). Additionally, the ability of the Chinese military to conduct salvo launches from multiple axes, possibly combined with launches of conventional ballistic missiles, gives it reason to believe that these weapons can overwhelm any US defense. Similarly, China is keenly aware of the US reliance on naval vessels to project power into any future conflict. To deter such an onslaught, it has aggressively pursued development of advanced antiship cruise missiles (ASCM) and has imported Russian supersonic ASCMs. These weapons enable the Chinese military to pose a formidable challenge to US surface vessels by overwhelming their defenses. The authors do acknowledge that the Chinese cruise missile capability is still in development and has not yet reached its full potential: "Shortcomings remain in intelligence support, command and control, [delivery] platform stealth and survivability, and postattack damage assessment" (p. xx). Nevertheless, such antiship and land-attack cruise missiles would give China a significant asymmetric defense against US intervention in any future conventional conflict in the region.

For readers seriously interested in learning about the evolving prowess of the Chinese military, this short book will give them the unclassified information they desire. The real value of A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier, though, is its elucidation of the Chinese cruise missile threat and its examination of the hurdles involving technology, development, training, doctrine, and employment that still prevent China from fully realizing the benefits of its cruise missile capability.

Lt Col John S. Meiter, USAF
Headquarters North American Aerospace Defense Command
Peterson AFB, Colorado


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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