China’s Most Dangerous Missile (So Far)

July 2, 2014
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Buried on page 40 of the Pentagon’s latest annual report on China’s military power is a brief mention of the YJ-12, a recent addition to China’s portfolio of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). The report notes that, “The new missile provides an increased threat to naval assets, due to its long range and supersonic speeds.” True, but in an understated way. In fact, the YJ-12 is the most dangerous anti-ship missile China has produced thus far, posing an even greater risk to the U.S. Navy’s surface forces in the Western Pacific than the much-discussed DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. The arrival of the YJ-12 is one more indication of how the U.S. Navy is falling further behind in the missile competition against China, exposing flaws in operating concepts that U.S. and allied commanders and policymakers have relied on for years.

According to a 2011 study that appeared in Naval War College Review, the YJ-12 ASCM has a range of 400 kilometers, making it one of the longest-ranged ASCMs ever fielded (and much longer than the 124 kilometer limit of the U.S. Navy Harpoon). Crucially, at 400 kilometers, Chinese attack aircraft will be able to launch the YJ-12 beyond the engagement range of the Navy’s Aegis Combat System and the SM-2 surface-to-air missiles that protect U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups. In the past, when adversary ASCMs were limited to 100 kilometers or less, a carrier strike group had more time to react with its own aircraft and defensive missiles. It also had the option of engaging enemy aircraft before they launched their ASCMs, and more redundancy to cope with such attacks. With its 400 kilometer range, the YJ-12 will greatly erode these previous advantages.

A realistic future scenario is an attack on two or more axes by two Chinese Flanker regiments (totaling 48 Su-30 MKK or J-11B Flanker fighter-bomber variants). These Flankers (roughly corresponding to U.S. Air Force F-15E fighter-bombers, capable of supersonic speeds, and possessing a combat radius of 1,500 kilometers) could each be armed with two to four YJ-12 ASCMs. Although the carrier strike group’s combat air patrol could shoot down a few of the Flankers before they launched their missiles, the strike group would still face the prospect of defending against over a hundred supersonic ASCMs approaching from several directions at a wave-top height. The group’s close-in air defenses would have less than 45 seconds to engage the missiles after they appeared on the horizon. The YJ-12s would employ a variety of sensor types to find their targets and execute dramatic cork-screw turns to evade final defenses. A study from the Naval Postgraduate School concluded that in past engagements of anti-ship missiles against alerted surface warships, 32 percent of the attacking missiles scored hits. If only five percent of such a saturation YJ-12 attack impacted targets, it would still be a bad day for the carrier strike group.

The prospective Flanker/YJ-12 combination, eventually capable of reaching targets up to 1,900 kilometers from China, is an even more serious problem for the U.S. Pacific Fleet than is China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. That missile, still apparently not tested against a moving target at sea, relies on a fragile network of space-based observation and communication links that will be prime targets for the U.S. during a potential conflict. By contrast, an attack by China’s land-based Flanker regiments would be comparatively straightforward and would rely on overwhelming mass and brute force rather than an exquisite and likely fragile networked communication architecture for success.

Officials in the U.S. Navy are well aware of the missile threat their surface forces face. The Navy plans to win the future “outer air” battle well over the horizon from the carrier strike group by introducing new long-range air and missile defense capabilities to its surface forces. It also plans to network these sensors and weapons into a shared, cooperative “common engagement capability.” Components of this longer-range capability will include the new carrier-based E-2D early warning and control aircraft, the long-range SM-6 surface-to-air missile, the F-35C aircraft, and software that will share information among the various platforms. The Navy’s intent is to restore the status quo prior to the arrival of missiles like the YJ-12, namely the ability to shoot down enemy missile-carrying aircraft at longer ranges and well before they can launch their ASCMs.

We should hope that the Navy’s long-range network engagement plans succeed. But they seem susceptible to the same fragilities the Navy is counting on to thwart the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and its required network architecture. Meanwhile, the simple brute force approach employing saturation ASCM attacks will benefit in the future from even longer-ranged ASCMs equipped with even better target seekers, a trend that has been in place for many years. In this competition, China’s land-based aircraft and missiles seem to possess the competitive cost and technology advantages.

The result is increasing doubts about the U.S. military’s long-standing operating concepts in the Western Pacific. And from those doubts could come increasing confidence by China’s military commanders and policymakers that they and not the U.S. will benefit from escalation during a potential future crisis. If that becomes the case, comparisons between 2014 and 1914 would be right on target.


Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In September 2014, Naval Institute Press will publish “Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific,” Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

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27 thoughts on “China’s Most Dangerous Missile (So Far)

  1. The Schulte study is seriously out of date and should not be used in current cruise missile threat discussions. It reflects 1970’s era air defense technology.

  2. “These Flankers (roughly corresponding to U.S. Air Force F-15E fighter-bombers, capable of supersonic speeds, and possessing a combat radius of 1,500 kilometers) could each be armed with two to four YJ-12 ASCMs.”

    The author needs to get a clue. The YJ-12 is huge. It’s unlikely a Flanker could carry even one.

    1. China’s JH-7 fighter-bomber has been photographed in flight carrying two YJ-12s (the missile is about 6 meters long). The Su-30 MKK Flanker fighter-bomber is larger and has a greater useful load than the JH-7.

      1. Most Chinese Flankers (J-11s, J-16s, Su-30MKKs) are of the fighter type and are not necessarily equivalent to F-15E Strike Eagles (Su-34s do outperform Strike Eagles, but F-15Es have heavier payloads than Su-30s and the Su-34 is heavily modified to be a fighter-bomber). Flankers are also rated at 8,000kg payload, while the JH-7s claim a 9,000kg payload, although you are correct about the useful load, as to achieve long-range the JH-7s will probably require several drop-tanks.

        One problem with theoretical useful load, however, is that the airframe might not have been designed to carry heavy weights on a single pylon. As with the Brahmos example, while the Su-30MKI might be capable of carrying a large useful load over all its pylons, its airframe might not be capable of carrying a large useful load concentrated over only a few pylons.

  3. This is real war-mongering article crying for more fund from the Congress to American arms making establishment.

    American had base all around China. How far is South Korea, Okinawa, Japan island and (now) in Philippines to China? If F-35/ F-22 / american armed missiles were to place in this countries, it will reached China cities (not just aircraft carriers) in no time.

    Who is more precious? The people or the soldiers? Of course the people! If soldiers (army , marines or navy) being wiped out together with the aircraft carrier, it is a natural death and calculated risk being taken into account. But however, if civilian killed, it would be very unnatural and they do not deserved to die like that.

    So why is America so worried? In fact all countries in the world should worried (if not alarmed) as to why American need to armed through its teeth!!!!

  4. What goes unmentioned in all these discussions of wonder weapons is how this weapons might realistically be employed.

    You cannot simply shot these things off and expect them to find their (intended) targets.

    There is an entire network of sensors and communications systems that must function to acquire the naval task force before launch. Needless to say, it is quite a challenge to do this.

    Ignored in these endless carrier vulnerability discussions, is just how *much more* vulnerable to cruise and ballistic missile attacks are our land based airfields from Saudi Arabia, to Korea and Okinawa.


  5. We have not been able to get reliable data on the YJ-12, and from what we’ve seen, it seems to be deployed only on JH-7A fighter bombers and H-6 fighter bombers. The problem with the YJ-12 is that with its high combination of speed, maneuverability, and lethality, the missile is necessarily huge.

    It seems reasonable to guess that RAM and ESSMs to kill YJ-12 and other supersonics at a reliability of about about 50%, so that on average 2 anti-missile missiles can knock out one YJ-12. A single RAM launcher with 21 missiles, thus, can counter 10 YJ-12s, and ESSMS, which can be quad-packed into VLS canisters, means that one Arleigh Burke can block a saturation attack of up to 200 missiles.

    1. Actually, assuming an interceptor Pk of 50% during a saturation raid, assigning two interceptors to a target results in a total intercept probability of 75%, not 100% (1 – 0.5 ^ 2). On average, a 100-missile raid would achieve 25 hits under these assumptions.

      Getting the intercept probability up to 97% (still three impacts on the strike group, on average) would require five interceptors per attacking missile (1 – 0.5 ^ 5). This also assumes that Aegis is able to smoothly cope with a multi-axis attack, a very large number of simultaneous threats, and achieve excellent distribution with hundreds of interceptors — all in less than 45 seconds.

      Even if the missile defense was very successful, the strike group would very likely have to retreat anyway; depleted vertical launch cells cannot be reloaded at sea and the strike group would thus be exposed to a follow-up attack.

      The U.S. needs new operating concepts to cope with long-range land-based access-denial threats.

      1. Two problems are first, that we don’t have access to US PKs on interceptors. Being able to shoot down enemy AShMs and ASBMs is all fine and dandy, but at what rate? Of course, I’m assuming you have security clearances and I don’t want to be like the retard on the some other blog who went and asked “classified performance details u gieb, or F-35s roolz teh skies this baby [can’t, although that guy was a F-35 booster, and yes, I think the faster the US gets the F/A-XX into the skies the better] turn on a dime macross zero style!!111” (Yes, I will do old memes, and our old memes are better, baby.)

        Second, if CIWS missiles can launch at multiple ranges, the number of missiles needed to reduce the lethality of a saturation attack can be reduced.

        For instance, let’s say 2 missiles are launched at 50km vs incoming 1 m^2 or .1 m^2 missiles. By the time they reach 25km, the missiles have either hit or been destroyed. Against a 100-missile saturation, on average 25 missiles would survive. Launching ~ 6 missiles for the remainder means that you would have a 1.56% chance that with 250 missiles launched, one will hit, and that would be a pretty decent PK and system performance.

        As far as retreating the strike group goes, 250 ESSMs comes out to 62.5 VLS, or about 65% of an Arleigh Burke. Is a CVBG that badly equipped that 63 VLS means that an entire CVBG has to go home?

    2. from Inst: “which can be quad-packed into VLS canisters, means that one Arleigh Burke can block a saturation attack of up to 200 missiles.”

      Such mass attacks fill the arena with every sort of rf and other–a signal swamp for everyone involved. Remember, the Arleigh Burke will not, cannot, rely fully on AESA; its radars of varying frequencies will be running full-out in the understandable effort to survive. The ship will expose itself by this means to many classes of smaller anti-radiation missiles. And, expect the first wave of 5-6 dozen missiles to be decoys only.

  6. India is struggling to make a SU-30 MKI Flanker carry just one 290 km range Brahmos missile. Chinese Flanker copies are miles behind w.r.t. Indian Flankers. No way they can carry 2-4 missiles which will be both longer & heavier due to the extra range.

  7. I believe there is a lot of over hype in the weapons ability. Supersonic sounds scary but its also a weakness. It basically has little turning ability. And if the Chinese were to actually shoot one at our ships will they be ready for the retaliation? Don’t think so.

      1. That’s been within the capability of the Klub missile, which is a Novator-produced subsonic missile with terminal supersonic modes. The Chinese have their clone / variant called the YJ-18, which boasts a 300km+ range on some versions.

        1. Coincidentally, the Klub and its variants are actually designed for high-altitude trajectories in order to enhance range. The ESSM and related missiles have been successfully tested against this capability.

  8. While it is difficult to determine the actual proven capability of many of China’s weapons systems, at the least papers such as this point out the direction in which they are heading. I wouldn’t overrate Chinese technology — at least not today; however, tomorrow may present us with some problems unless we invest the funds needed to offset the future (or current) capabilities the Chinese are seeking. Regardless, the Navy most certainly needs weapons systems with much increased ranges.

  9. “underground great wall”

    The Chinese have built a huge tunnel network underneath their mountains, from which they can launch ICBMs, SRBMs, aircraft, and all the paraphernalia of modern war. What’s even worse, they’ve built up to several thousand boreholes for their tunnel network, meaning that it will take a significant amount of ordinance to shut them down.

  10. China is a nuclear armed state, much like Russia. The probability of two nuke armed states as large as China and the USA engaging in conventional warfare is pretty small. The USA and USSR never did anything, other than proxy wars.

  11. China must have nuclear weapons that can cover the whole of the US ie reach as far as NY and Washington. At the moment the US can destroy any part of China. of course it will have to pay for such destruction. Hence the continuing search to make the US immune from PLA nuclear retaliation.
    This is a forlorn hope because the PLA will make 100% sure China aint held hostage to US military intimidation and nuclear blackmail.Rest assured the PLA will aint for sufficiency in nm to make any US conventional /nuclear attack less attractive to US planners.

  12. China has been under the yoke of western domination and US coercion the last 60 years. Then it would have been foolish and suicidial for Mao to confront the US over Taiwan. Indeed the US president remarked that you would use the atomic bomb as you would use a bullet during the 50s.
    Flashback to 1962. Kennedy said any missile launched from Cuba on the US will require a US response on the old Soviet Union. I would say in the present context any US launched missile from bases in SK/Japan or the Philippines will elicit a response on the bases itself and the US mainland.That shows how much the PLA has improved its weaponry.
    The PLA will make 100% sure the US won’t be immune to PLA retaliation /attack shd China come under US attack.Its serach to restore its former immunity will provoke the PLA into more more counter devastating measures.And don’t give the bs China will be a threat to Asia.Sk is pragmatic not to be the US cat’s paw. The Japs will find to their horror that Nagasaki will be just pin prick compared to the attacks unleashed by the PLA if it lets the US use Misawa to attack China.

  13. The US has bases all over the world and can reduce China to rubble.Of course it aint going to be painless. The US has nm which can streak towards China in no time.
    The PLA are investing in hypersonic missile travelling at 10 times the speed of sound and reach US targets in under 10min. Rest assured the PLA weapons specialists will be searching for faster weapons systems.
    The US shdn’t be worried. It has an assured destruction capability with regard to China. The PLA hasn’t reached that stage but has an unacceptable damage capability to wreak on US assets.
    The problem is the US wants to maintain its military superiority whicle China is trying to close the gap. I believe the PLA is aiming for sufficiency in their capability to make any US president pause before pressing the nuclear button.

  14. The US has close to a thousand bases around the world. If the PLA are naïve to start a n war,China could be destroyed in a flash. The US can in theory launch one nm from each base. That is a htousand nm
    The PLA can launch at most ten and then only after the US launches a nuclear attack to wipe out China nm.
    Of course the US media will portray China’s n threat. As one writer wrote why has the US have to have 20000 twenty thousand nm?That is overkill.The problem is the The US wants to attack with nm but China must not be allowed to respond. This is stupid.
    The PLA will keep on modernising and increasing its nm even if the US want to have a million nm.The PLA will make absolutely certain/100% sure China can be in a position to retaliate with conventional/nuclear missile if the US intend to eliminate China’s nm which is intended for defence.

    1. Are you really think the base will be able to rally together in one moment? After China destroy all base in East Asia in a flash while via their missiles that’s enough. every time you think your adversaries are naive which means you are naive

  15. China’s most dangerous weapons?The US has more deadly
    weapons than all the countries in the world combined.
    The US thinks it can do what it likes and be immune from attack.
    The notion that the US can attack China and escape with only a flea/mosquito bite is history.China will keep on investing in new weapons to defend itself not to take over Asia or the world.The US media is fond of portraying China as a threat when it is the US which is the greatest security threat to China.
    China will lose in any war but the price for victory will such that any sane President will recoil.The US military is designed to defend the US but it’s a charade to attack other countries.
    That is why for all hype about the US good intentions,the PLA must must have the weaponry subs,second invulnerable strike and other high end weapons to make sure though China can be destroyed the US will be a smoking ruin.

  16. Did someone forget that 46-50 F/A-18E/Fs in each CVNs airwing? With a range of ~250m the lauch point of each (heavily loaded) attacking SU-30 is going to be swarming with defending aircraft, each one armed with 6-8 AMRAAM & 2-4 AIM-9X missiles.
    This is the exact scenario the F-14/AIM-54C system was designed to counter, and with the advances in capabilities from AMRAAMs no longer needed.
    So how many SU-30s plus escorts do the PLAAF/PLAN need to fly hundreds (or over a thousand) miles to force through enough aircraft to missile range to accomplish a saturation attack? Probably 2-3x more aircraft then they even have, plus the loses would be so devestating even if they could achieve a mission kill on a CBG we have 9-10 more CVNs and 500 more stike aircraft(not to mention the USAF flying from Guam or elsewhere). So the PLA MIGHT be able to defeat a CBG, but the price would be so high as to make “pyric” seam like childs play.