Friday, February 22, 2013

China Strengthens its Missile Defence Capabilities: Implications for India

Brig (retd) Vinod Anand 
(Senior Fellow, VIF)

China conducted another ground-based mid-course missile-defence (GMD) test in January end to signify its increasing potential in missile interception capabilities. This test builds upon an earlier test in January 2010 which was again carried out to test its evolving capabilities in missile defence technologies. For long China has been opposed to the U.S developing its missile defence system as it undermines China’s strategic deterrence; American argument that the US missile defence systems are designed to deal with missile threats from rogue nations like North Korea and Iran does not carry much credibility with either China or Russia. Chinese spokesmen also emphasise that these tests are only technology demonstrators and have not been conducted with a view to build a missile defence system and they are not targeted against any country. The Chinese Foreign Ministry emphasized the test was defensive and was conducted over Chinese territory.

While China took strong positions on the ABM treaty and attempts to develop BMD systems, China was never lax on the potential of and requirement for BMD systems. The earliest Chinese effort to indigenously develop a BMD system was initiated in 1969 but the project was terminated during the 1980s after the 1972 ABM treaty between the US and erstwhile USSR. China launched Project 863 (in March 1986) which included research on missile interception technologies. However, China’s interest in continuing development of BMD systems received fresh impetus after US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and developments in Taiwan.

On 11 January 2007, China surprised the entire world by successfully testing a direct ascent Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon. It was assessed that the ASAT system employed a KT-1 space launch vehicle (SLV), itself a modified DF-21 medium range ballistic missile (MRBM). The missile destroyed an ageing Feng Yun 1C (FY-1C) polar orbit satellite at approximately 865 kms above the earth’s surface through kinetic impact. The test drew widespread condemnation, both for the manner in which it was carried out (resulting in a large amount of space debris, a major threat to low earth orbit satellites) and the major shift in China’s position concerning weaponization of space.

According to a classified State Department cable that was made public by WikiLeaks, the January 2010 test had used an SC-19 missile as interceptor to strike the CSS-X-11 medium range target missile launched near-simultaneously. The SC-19 is said to have also been used in China’s anti-satellite test of January 2007 and both the January 2010 and January 2013 GMD tests are seen as also advancing China’s capabilities in ASAT weapons’ domain. Despite the WikiLeaks report there is not much clarity about the exact type of the missile used for January 2010 test though it could be an advanced/modified version of SC-19; some analysts think that the missile used in the test was a HQ-9, HQ-12, or DF-21 variant. Similarly, while the test in January this year apparently achieved its expected results, the exact missile used has not been confirmed.

In any case and as underscored by some of the Chinese analysts, China’s GMD tests have demonstrated significant progress by China in the development of "hit-to-kill," rapid precision-strike, guided and missile identification technologies.

While development of advanced BMD capabilities by other countries has implications for the effectiveness of China’s strategic deterrence the development of same capabilities by China largely has implications for India’s evolving strategic deterrence against China. Large number of missiles held by Russia and the U.S combined with extended strategic deterrence provided to the US alliance partners in East Asia make China’s missile defence capabilities less relevant to them. Saturation missile strikes launched by an attacker with a combination of manoeuvering re-entry vehicles (MaRV), multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV) with warheads interspersed with decoys and other counter measures would allow some warheads to get through the BMD to cause unacceptable damage to the defender. During modeling and simulation tests it has been shown that BMD could be only effective against a limited number of missiles or warheads thus the claims by the U.S. that their BMD is meant for countries like North Korea and Iran.

After the January 2010 Ground-based Midcourse missile defence (GMD) test by China, some analysts suggested that it could also be a message to India in response to India’s continued testing of the Agni-III and an eagerness to develop the Agni-V ICBM, whose logical targets could only be in China. The second GMD test in January 2013 has come after India’s AGNI V test of April 2012 which could be partly seen as a response to India’s increasing capabilities in the missile field. Chinese media had even suggested that India has under-reported the range of Agni V. Further, there is also some speculation that India is developing AGNI VI with a longer but as yet unspecified range. Though prominent Chinese officials have publicly downplayed or discounted any credible strategic missile threat from India yet they have continued to strengthen their missile defence capabilities.

Apart from the GMD system in development China has placed considerable reliance on BMD of critical target systems that cover not only the Second Artillery force structure but also value targets like Beijing and Shanghai. It is producing under license the Russian S-300PMU-2/S-300PMU-1 series of SAMs that have an ABM capability. It also produces the indigenous HQ-9 SAM system and the HQ-19 system that has been jointly developed with Russia. Both these systems possess some ABM capabilities. A new generation of anti-ballistic and anti-satellite missiles called the KT-1, KT-409, KT-2, KT-2A, KT-3, and other KT versions are in development.

The PLA Navy has modern air-defence destroyers in the Type 052C Destroyer and Type 051C Destroyer. There are reports that China is in the process of developing HQ-26 like missile for PLAN which has technology similar to the US Navy’s Standard Missile -3 (SM-3) interceptor that is part of their Aegis Destroyer’s mid-course BMD system. The PLAN destroyers are presently equipped with naval HQ-9 air defence missile which has the same technology as Russian S-300 system. However, in future Chinese destroyers could be equipped with HQ-26 so as to give them comparable ABM capabilities with the US Aegis class destroyers. Thus, it can be seen that China has embarked on a comprehensive missile defence strategy.

Added to the above is China’s emphasis on developing cruise missiles with longer ranges and improved precision. The low flying Cruise missiles are able to avoid the BMD detection systems and can thus defeat such systems except that they have shorter ranges compared to the MRBMs and IRBMs.

Further, the new political leadership in China has been paying special attention to PLA Second Artillery Corps. After having taken over as Chairman of the Central Military Commission in November2012, Xi Jinping during his visit to Second Artillery Corps observed that “the artillery force is the core strength of China's strategic deterrence, the strategic support for the country's status as a major power, and an important cornerstone safeguarding national security”. Thus, the new leadership in China would continue to underscore the importance it attaches to upgrade its missile forces. PLA has been modernizing its short range ballistic missile force by consistently fielding advanced variants with improved ranges and payloads. China’s capabilities in both short and medium range ballistic missiles have improved both in qualitative and quantitative terms.

More ballistic missiles China has more it would be able to defeat any missile defence system that is already in place in the region or that might come up in the future. A variety of missiles combined with PLA’s increasing space-based capabilities and acumen in cyber warfare would give it tremendous advantage in what it calls ‘local war in conditions of informatisation’. And the Indo-Tibetan border remains an area where China may embark on such a venture.

So far as India is concerned there is a need to pay more attention to China’s missile-centric strategies. Without doubt India’s ballistic missile attack capability at long ranges needs an urgent upgrade. As numbers above a certain threshold will ensure that India always has the ability to pierce a thin BMD or a TMD deployed by China, India should work towards improving the quality, quantity and a variety of both its ballistic and cruise missiles. The recent testing of a subsurface-launched ballistic missile (K-15) with about 750 kilometers range is a step in the right direction.

Further, MIRV technology can be developed with much lower political risks and greater payoffs. DRDO seems to be working on MIRV technologies and hopefully it will acquire and demonstrate the capability for MIRVs in next one to two years. At the same time India should pay equal attention to improving its BMD capabilities. While working towards providing lower tier terminal defence to key counter-force targets India should also be working to provide BMD to a limited number of counter value targets. BMD being somewhat expensive proposition, protection to counter value targets may have to be linked with availability of funds and a phased approach would have to be adopted.

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