China is developing a ship-based cruise missile that has the capability to attack targets thousands of kilometers inland, snapshots published by a military enthusiast website suggest. For the first time, that would give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy a weapon comparable to the US’s hugely successful Tomahawk missile.
It is the newest chapter in Beijing’s quest to be taken seriously as a global military power. While China has had land-based cruise missiles for perhaps a decade, the emergence of the new ship-launched ones, which are designed to carry out long-distance precision attacks against targets on land at the lowest risk to its own forces, is an indication of how far the Chinese has come since Mao Zedong was in charge.
Under Mao, China’s navy was concentrated on coastal defense and for the possible invasion of Taiwan. It wasn’t until Chinese military planners in the late 1990s realized that their rising country could quickly be brought to its knees by an enemy seeking to choke off the economy’s supply of oil and other raw materials on the high seas.
Currently 74 destroyers and frigates as well as 63 submarines make up the Chinese blue-water navy. The new missiles, which in theory could be launched from either platform, are expected to do their share in beefing up the force. What ship-launched land-attack cruise missiles can achieve has been impressively demonstrated by the US Navy and its allies in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the 1995 Bosnian War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 campaign against Libya, among others.
According to James R. Holmes, an associate professor at the US Naval War College, it’s clear that the Chinese Tomahawk isn’t meant for contingencies in East and Southeast Asia. Against China’s opponents there, they are hardly needed.
“China’s inventory of land-based ballistic missiles already gives Beijing an enormous asset to Chinese diplomacy vis-a-vis countries within the missile envelope strikingly depicted in the Pentagon’s annual reports on Chinese military power,” Holmes told Asia Sentinel. But, he said, outside the range of the Second Artillery, the unit controlling the PLA’s arsenal of land-based nuclear and conventional missiles, the picture is different.
“There a land-attack cruise missile grants the PLA Navy an option to project power from the sea, much as the US Navy has enjoyed since the Tomahawk debuted in the 1980s,” Holmes said. “This is part of China’s coming-out party as a blue-water sea power.”
In order to evolve from a Mao-inspired naval force that kept its home ports pretty much in view to one that ensures free passage for Chinese merchant fleets tens of thousands of kilometers away, Beijing not only needs continuing breakthroughs in the acquisition of weapon systems but must also send the navy to practice. Farewell ceremonies in China’s naval bases have been becoming more and more familiar to the Chinese blue-water fleets ever since 2008, when China became a participating member in the international anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, having marked the first time Chinese warships operated outside their own territorial waters.
Illustrating the Somalia mission’s importance to the navy’s coming-of-age are the numbers when added up: Since operations began, in stints that last about four months, Beijing has dispatched 11 naval escort task forces that usually consist of one or two destroyers or frigates and one supply ship. If deployment continues at this pace, each destroyer and frigate will have had its turn in about five years.
Because the task forces come with well over 600 sailors plus a few dozen special operations personnel, thousands of Chinese military men and women who rotate through the anti-pirate patrol operations are provided with the opportunity to get somewhere near to what could cautiously be described as real combat stations.
Chances to sail elsewhere for the odd operation and also to carry out friendly calls to far-away ports have been deriving from the Somalia mission: In 2010, Chinese warships visited Egypt, Italy and Greece. Last year, a missile frigate was diverted from the Somali coast to waters off Libya. In what amounted to the navy’s first-ever operation in the Mediterranean, it protected the evacuation of Chinese civilians amid the raging civil war some 12,000 km from its home port.
In mid-August, also for the first time in history, the PLA Navy paid a friendly visit to Israel and later made its maiden entry into the Black Sea, sailing with a destroyer and a frigate that are part of the 11th Chinese naval escort task force, to Bulgaria. The Chinese naval hospital ship Peace Ark has also been cruising Asian, African and Caribbean waters in the meantime, treating tens of thousands of afflicted people as part of a goodwill mission.
Although Chinese soldiers and sailors have fired hardly any shots during their stints off the African coast, let alone on excursions into the Mediterranean, the missions are hugely valuable because according to the PLA calculus, this hands-on experience would be badly needed if in future conflicts an enemy were to block the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz or the Malacca Strait.
Professor Holmes says a Chinese “Tomahawk” fits neatly into the equation. He finds that although such a system is of concrete use mainly for powers like the US, which unlike China do not maintain an inventory of conventional, land-based ballistic missiles that can devastate most potential opponents, in China’s case, it’s a very plausible choice, if only to provide Beijing’s foreign policy with powerful argumentative ammunition.
“Demonstrated capability confers diplomatic influence,” he said. “This adds luster to the PLA Navy’s reputation outside East Asia and to China’s reputation more broadly.”