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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 Jing-Dong Yuan. National Defense University Press, 2014, 186 pp.

The US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific theater is now in its third year. With tensions rising between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands and with other Asian countries over maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions by Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jing-Dong Yuan, could not come at a more important time. Furthermore, each of these authors has extensive experience and a deep résumé covering the Asia-Pacific. Together their insights have produced a monumental work.

Some experts believe a major goal of China is to emerge as a regional hegemon quietly and without fanfare until it achieves that status as a fait accompli. One route to that end is through the buildup of asymmetric capabilities that do not garner the negative political attention of, for example, ballistic missiles. The most important part of this book, and the major point of my review, is the clarion call to recognize China’s cruise missile (CM) threats. These threats do not earn the respect they genuinely deserve from the United States, its allies, and partners, nor have these threats engendered action on cruise missile defense (CMD). This essay highlights key chapter particulars and key strategic insights in and across the chapters.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has written about cruise missiles for well over a decade (see Cruise Missiles—The “Assassin’s Mace” in High-Tech Warfare [Beijing: Military Arts Press, 2002] et al.), but these developments have received less attention than corresponding advances in Chinese ballistic missile capabilities. This book offers the first English-language analytical guide to the topic and goes well beyond Dennis Gormley’s first book on CMs, Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008), by chronicling the PRC’s dramatic growth in CM capability and capacity. More importantly, the contents give an exposé of how CMs have become an “assassin’s mace” or “silver bullet” weapon for the PLA. This exposition is distinct from many books on the PRC/PLA with the careful and comprehensive research of open-source publications in Mandarin.

The authors provide eight intriguing chapters of great breadth and depth, a number of appendices, and a rich array of footnotes, making this an authoritative work. Without hyperbole, they lucidly take the reader through the pedestrian information essential for those with little or no background on the subject. An outstanding “Introduction and Overview” lays out the cogent points (some more prominently than in the full chapters). Chapter 1 offers a short history of the PLA CM programs, to include both the institutions and organizations that made it possible, with additional material in the appendices. The authors have separate chapters for both antiship CMs (ASCM) in chapter 2 and land-attack CMs (LACM) in chapter 3. The LACM chapter also includes important information on the PLA’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs.

Chapter 4 provides a detailed journey on the different types of CM launch platforms. This chapter is precedent-setting—I know of no other book that assimilates and details this information. Both the novice and the expert will find useful, new information. Chapter 5 covers new ground regarding the underlying roles CMs will play by analyzing PLA CM employment doctrine and training. The authors rely on Chinese military publications believed to reflect PLA doctrine analysis, including the most definitive work: Zhang Yuliang et al., eds., Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006). Appendix D contains excerpts from Science of Campaigns applicable to CMs.

Chapter 6 is somewhat unique in that Gormley, Erickson, and Yuan apply their knowledge of CMs to a possible Taiwan campaign with several branches and sequels. From this section they glean a number of insights along with some key US and Taiwanese vulnerabilities. One weakness they highlight is the increasing vulnerability of carrier strike groups (CSG) and how ASCMs fit into the overall picture; most of the Western press focus has been on the DF-21D (a.k.a., “the carrier killer”), highlighted by a Proceedings cover several years ago depicting a blazing carrier. It becomes vividly clear and increasingly probable that CMs could play a prominent role in pushing back CSGs from Taiwan and the Chinese coastline. Chapter 7 gives an update specifically on PRC CM proliferation (Gormely’s first book was on CM proliferation writ large). This chapter closes with a discussion on the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and China’s prospective membership, which should be important to policymakers who want to mitigate Chinese CM proliferation. In Chapter 8 the authors explain their methodology with the limitations and uncertainties of their work.

Overall, the authors provide an excellent discussion of the key PLA challenges: achieving adequate C4ISR; orchestrating a complex, multifaceted missile campaign over an extended period; and optimizing their CMs to achieve the desired mission objectives. They further analyze PLA responses to these challenges that intimate they are not insurmountable but neither is the PLA omnipotent.

Throughout the book, the authors highlight critical CM issues that need to become central in US national security discussions but in some cases are somewhat reserved (e.g., chap. 8)—seemingly very cautious with the evidence and impact. Nevertheless, they astutely state, “Chinese analysts assess that cruise missiles will not create undue political risk thereby allowing military modernization to stay, for the most part, below the geopolitical radar” (p. 7)—ergo the “boiling frog syndrome” (or frog in the kettle). In addition, “Some sources claim cruise missiles are superior to ballistic missiles for certain missions, particularly in the area of general use, agility, and target selection” (p. 6). These two findings combined may be the most striking strategic issues the authors posit. DoD officials do not appear to understand the implications, as there are no visible or discernible changes in strategies or programs that even remotely address these findings or the subsequent impact on defending forward air and sea bases. This seems somewhat disconcerting given the United States is in the midst of the rebalance to Asia-Pacific, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently published Joint Integrated Air Missile Defense: 2020 Vision (5 December 2013).

The Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, released on 4 March 2014, certainly reaffirms the importance of the rebalance to Asia-Pacific in a number of places and highlights that “growing numbers of accurate conventional ballistic and cruise missile threats represent an additional, cost-imposing challenge to U.S. and partner naval forces and land installations” (p. 7). That is a major step in the right direction. Unfortunately, whenever QDR 2014 mentions “missile defense,” every specific example deals with ballistic missile defense. Albeit, there appears to be one “Easter egg” for CMD capabilities: “The QDR prioritizes investments that support our interests and missions, with particular attention to space, cyber, situational awareness and intelligence capabilities, stand-off strike platforms and weapons, technology to counter cruise [emphasis added] and ballistic missiles, and preservation of our superiority undersea” (p. 61).

The DoD is largely dependent on the US Army to organize, train, and equip (OTE) for land-attack cruise missile CMD. However, the two foremost Army programs that addressed these threats writ large were cancelled in the FY-2011 President’s Budget: the joint land [attack CMD] elevated netted sensor (JLENS) and the surface-launched advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (SLAMRAAM). Furthermore, there are no new alternatives to JLENS and SLAMRAAM on the immediate horizon. The lack of a JLENS alternative is alarming since CMs defy easy detection. They do not produce prominent infrared signatures, which means “they are not detectable by existing space warning systems” (p. xi). Effective indications and warning (I&W) may be one of the most important elements in any set of comprehensive countermeasures. Sadly, it appears CMs are, or have become, the “Rodney Dangerfield” of threats since they seemingly get no respect, and it is evident CMD appears to be a very low DoD priority.

For the last several years, China experts have emphasized the importance of staying in Phase 0 when it comes to crisis management and crisis stability. This has serious implications for the DoD and the services. At the very least, there should be a comprehensive review of operational responses (e.g., CONOPs), I&W, force posture and presence, and active and passive countermeasures in the Asia-Pacific; a flow of forces into the region to counter this capability is problematic and could likely lead to PLA preemption. There must be a meaningful discussion and analysis on what needs to be in theater day-to-day. In addition, Gormley, Erickson, and Yuan point out that the PLA has determined CMs are “cost imposing,” in that they are much cheaper for the attacker than the defender (p. 94). They also lay out a daunting task: “The challenge will be to develop effective countermeasures that are also affordable and thus do not place the United States on the ‘wrong end’ of an arms race” (p. 96).

The authors are trailblazers (at the unclassified level) by illustrating the CM threats in several new dimensions with detail one would expect from the intelligence community. Although the book gives insight into new areas (e.g., doctrine and training), there is an absence of information on CM submunitions, and there is little information on how this impacts the air forces (both USAF and Navy), space, and cyber domains. The authors do not provide any substantive steps or solutions (chap. 8) for the United States or its allies and partners on how to move forward—but the delineation of CM threats is important enough.

This is a must-read publication for many audiences. More importantly, it is hoped this review will start a conversation about the implications upon force posture, presence, CMD, countermeasures, and new operational concepts.

Like all complex national security problems, the very first step—and most important step—is admitting there is a major problem, hopefully long before the frog boils. Nevertheless, this book should set the stage for solutions to emerge. But this will not happen unless strategic-minded leaders (military and civilian) understand the implications and take meaningful action; the DoD and others need to move forward rapidly to prioritize this threat and develop solutions while initiating in-depth analysis in a few specific areas without “analysis paralysis.” A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier is a definitive and seminal treatise on CMs—tour de force; it is critically important reading for all those concerned about the Asia-Pacific region and the future security of the United States.

Carl D. Rehberg, PhD

Headquarters, US Air Force/A8

"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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