Has China Been Practicing Preemptive Missile Strikes Against U.S. Bases?

February 6, 2017

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You’ve probably heard that China’s military has developed a “carrier-killer” ballistic missile to threaten one of America’s premier power-projection tools, its unmatched fleet of aircraft carriers. Or perhaps you’ve read about China’s deployment of its own aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. But heavily defended moving targets like aircraft carriers would be a challenge to hit in open ocean, and were China’s own aircraft carrier (or even two or three like it) to venture into open water in anger, the U.S. submarine force would make short work of it. In reality, the greatest military threat to U.S. vital interests in Asia may be one that has received somewhat less attention: the growing capability of China’s missile forces to strike U.S. bases. This is a time of increasing tension, with China’s news organizations openly threatening war. U.S. leaders and policymakers should understand that a preemptive Chinese missile strike against the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the Western Pacific is a very real possibility, particularly if China believes its claimed core strategic interests are threatened in the course of a crisis and perceives that its attempts at deterrence have failed. Such a preemptive strike appears consistent with available information about China’s missile force doctrine, and the satellite imagery shown below points to what may be real-world efforts to practice its execution.

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force: Precision Strike with Chinese Characteristics

The PLA Rocket Force originally focused on nuclear deterrence. Since the Cold War, the force has increasingly focused on the employment of precision-guided conventional ballistic and land attack cruise missiles. The command now consists of about 100,000 personnel and was elevated in December 2015 to a status co-equal to that of China’s other military services.

In terms of specific missions, Michael S. Chase of the U.S. Naval War College wrote in 2014 that PLA Rocket Force doctrine calls for a range of deterrence, compellence, and coercive operations. In the event that deterrence fails, the missions of a conventional missile strike campaign could include “launching firepower strikes against important targets in the enemy’s campaign and strategic deep areas.” Potential targets of such strikes could include command centers, communications hubs, radar stations, guided missile positions, air force and naval facilities, transport and logistical facilities, fuel depots, electrical power centers, and aircraft carrier strike groups.

Chase also stated that, “In all, Chinese military writings on conventional missile campaigns stress the importance of surprise and suggest a preference for preemptive strikes.” And while most Sinologists discount the idea of a true bolt-from-the-blue attack in a crisis without first giving an adversary a chance to back down, preemptive missile strikes to initiate active hostilities could be consistent with China’s claimed overall military strategy of “active defense.” As a 2007 RAND study of China’s anti-access strategies explained, “This paradox is explained by defining the enemy’s first strike as ‘any military activities conducted by the enemy aimed at breaking up China territorially and violating its sovereignty’…and thereby rendered the equivalent of a ‘strategic first shot.’” China analyst Dean Cheng stated similarly in 2015, “From Mao to now, the concept of the active defense has emphasized assuming the strategic defensive, while securing the operational and tactical initiative, including preemptive actions at those levels if necessary.” Thus, China could consider a preemptive missile strike as a defensive “counter-attack” to a threat against China’s sovereignty (e.g., over Taiwan or the South China Sea) solely in the political or strategic realm.

If such a strike still seems unlikely, consider that U.S. military and civilian leaders may have a blind spot regarding the capabilities of the PLA Rocket Force. The bulk of the PLA Rocket Force — the conventionally armed precision-strike units — have no real counterpart in the U.S. military. American long-range ballistic missiles are all nuclear-tipped and therefore focused on nuclear deterrence, and the Army’s short-range tactical ballistic missiles are designed for battlefield use. Also, per the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, the United States fields no medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missiles of any kind, nor any ground-launched land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). When Americans think of preemptive strike, they likely think of weapons launched by air or sea-based platforms, discounting the viability of a different paradigm: ground-based precision-strike missiles used for the same mission.

Coming of Age

A 2015 RAND study said that by 2017 (i.e., now) China could field about 1,200 conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles (600-800 km range), 108 to 274 medium-range ballistic missiles (1000 to 1500+ km), an unknown number of conventional intermediate-range ballistic missiles (5,000 km), and 450-1,250 land attack cruise missiles (1500+ km). RAND also estimated that improvements in the accuracy of China’s ballistic missiles may allow them to strike fixed targets in a matter of minutes with an accuracy of a few meters. RAND assesses that key U.S. facilities throughout Japan could already be within range of thousands of difficult-to-defeat advanced ballistic and cruise missiles. Even U.S. bases on the island of Guam could be within range of a smaller number of missiles (See Figure 1).

Fig. 1: PLA Rocket Force Missile ranges vs. U.S. bases in Asia.

In recent years, the PLA Rocket Force appears to have been making real the specific capabilities necessary to support execution of the preemptive strike discussed above. As examples, a 2009 RAND study of open-source literature suggested that flechette sub-munitions would likely be used against missile launchers, parked aircraft, fuel tanks, vehicles, air defense weapons, and ships in port. Penetrating munitions would be used against airfield runways, aircraft shelters, and semi-underground fuel tanks. In terms of sequencing, the study suggested that an initial wave of ballistic missiles would neutralize air defenses and command centers and crater the runways of military air bases, trapping aircraft on the ground. These initial paralyzing ballistic missile salvos could then be followed by waves of cruise missiles and Chinese aircraft targeting hardened aircraft shelters, aircraft parked in the open, and fuel handling and maintenance facilities.

These capabilities may already have been tested at a ballistic missile impact test site (see Figure 2) located on the edge of the Gobi Desert in western China. Commercial satellite images seem to show a range of test targets representing just the sort of objectives discussed in the doctrine above, including groups of vehicles (perhaps representing mobile air and missile defense batteries — see Figure 3), aircraft targets parked in the open (Figure 4), fuel depots (Figure 5), runway cratering submunition tests (Figure 6), electrical power facilities (Figure 7), and the delivery of penetrating munitions to hardened shelters and bunkers (Figure 8). Of note, the 2007 RAND study mentioned above stated that submunitions are generally not capable of penetrating the hardened shelters use to house fighter aircraft at many air bases, that China’s ballistic missiles lack the accuracy to ensure a high percentage of direct hits using unitary warheads, and thus, “fighter aircraft in hardened shelters would be relatively safe from Chinese ballistic missile attack.” This clearly appears to no longer be the case, and the demonstrated ability to precisely deliver penetrating warheads to facilities such as command centers in a matter of minutes could also provide a key capability to destroy them, with their command staffs, in the initial waves of an attack.

Fig. 2: Possible PLA Rocket Force ballistic missile impact range in Western China.
Fig. 3: Left side – Possible vehicle targets with sub-munition impact pattern, imagery dated Dec. 2013. Right side – U.S. Patriot air and missile defense battery, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. Scale of sub-munition pattern overlaid for comparison.
Fig. 4: Possible parked aircraft target, imagery dated August 2013. Upper left aircraft shaped target, imagery dated May 2012. Lower right – F-22 Fighter Parking Area, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan.
Fig. 5: Possible test targets simulating above-ground fuel tanks, imagery dated September 2012. Compared to actual fuel tanks in Japan, similar scale.
Fig. 6: Possible runway cratering munition testing, imagery dated Sept. 2012.
Fig. 7: Possible mock electronic substation target, imagery dated July 2013. Note no electrical lines running to or from the target in its very remote location. While no craters are visible, disablement may be planned using other methods, such as dispersal of conductive graphite filaments.
Fig. 8: Possible hardened aircraft shelter or bunker test targets, imagery dated Oct. 2016. Penetrator sub-munition impacts visible. Lower right: Misawa Air Base, Japan, similar scale.

China has not been shy about displaying the advancing capabilities of the PLA Rocket Force. Beijing openly displayed some of its latest missiles (such as DF-26 “Guam-killer” missile) in its 70th anniversary parade in 2015 and painted the missiles’ identification on their sides in western characters, in case anyone missed the point. The PLA Rocket Force also put out a recruiting music video and other TV footage showing the employment of multiple coordinated missile launches, as well as the use of submunitions.

Pearl Harbor 2.0?

In 2010, Toshi Yoshihara of the U.S. Naval War College wrote that authoritative PLA publications indicated that China’s missile forces might attempt a preemptive strike to knock out the U.S. Navy in Asia by specifically targeting vulnerable carriers and warships in port. Yoshihara noted in particular that, “Perhaps no other place captures the Chinese imagination as much as Yokosuka,” the major U.S. naval base near Tokyo home to the U.S. Navy’s sole permanently forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), as well as other ships and vital support facilities (see Figure 9). In 2012, Dr. Yoshihara again stated that:

[T]he Imperial Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor remains a popular, if somewhat tired, metaphor for the dangers of unpreparedness and overexposure to risk…But the real possibility that U.S. bases in the Western Pacific could once again be vulnerable…has occasioned little publicity or debate.

Fig. 9: Home of U.S. 7th Fleet, Yokosuka, Japan.

Evidence that China may have been practicing to strike ships in port with ballistic missiles would lend credence to Yoshihara’s concerns. And such evidence exists: images taken in 2013 (see Figure 10) seem to show China testing its ability to do so.

Fig. 10: Possible moored ship and naval facility targets, imagery dated August 2013. Compared for scale with actual U.S. destroyer.

Specifically, the PLA Rocket Force appears to have been practicing on several ship targets of a similar size to U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers moored in a mock port that is a near-mirror image of the actual inner harbor at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka (see Figure 11). Note what looks like an impact crater located near the center of the three ship targets, close enough to have potentially damaged all three ships with submunitions. The display of these targets may itself constitute signaling to the United States and its allies as a long-term deterrent effort. All the same, it bears considering that the only way that China could realistically expect to catch multiple U.S. ships in port as shown above would be through a surprise attack. Otherwise, with clear signs of imminent hostilities, the United States would likely have already sent its fleet to sea. Some skeptics might say that catching the U.S. flat-footed would be unlikely, but history teaches us not to discount the possibility of successful surprise attacks.

Fig. 11: Possible naval ship and harbor targets, compared to inner harbor at U.S. naval base at Yokosuka, Japan.

The Need for Enhanced Deterrent Measures

U.S. and allied efforts are underway to improve defensive areas such as base hardening and force dispersal, as well as to conduct advanced research into ballistic missile defenses such as high-velocity projectiles, rail guns, and lasers. My colleague Elbridge Colby has written with Jonathan Solomon extensively about conventional deterrence and the specific capabilities that the United States can develop in the next few years that will be critical to fielding a force “that can prevail in regional wars while still performing peacetime missions at a reasonable level.” The possibility that a threat of preemptive attack from the PLA Rocket Force already exists underscores an urgent need to take further action now.

First, the United States should very publicly deploy the most robust missile defenses that it can to protect its bases in Japan. In the long term, technological breakthroughs will probably be necessary to pace the growing precision-strike ballistic missile threat at a reasonable cost. But for now, a layered ballistic missile defense is necessary, as the short-range Patriot air and missile defense batteries currently guarding U.S. and allied bases in Japan seem unlikely to succeed against a mass Chinese raid. Such a robust missile defense also requires deployment of the U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system to Japan and/or tasking Aegis ballistic missile defense destroyers for duty focused on the defense of U.S. bases. Given that U.S. destroyers would likely have other business to conduct in a conflict with China, near-term deployment of THAAD to Japan (which will require tough trade-offs given the current worldwide demand and limited number of available batteries) is necessary to defend U.S. forces. Once deployed, U.S. and allied ballistic missile defense forces will need to publicly practice coordinated defense against mass ballistic missile attacks. Even well-practiced defenders would face a tough challenge in coordinating a real-world defense against a ballistic missile attack of unprecedented scale from a potentially flat-footed stance, with mere minutes to do so and only one chance to get it right.

Given the difficulty and uncertainty associated with defending against a mass missile raid even with robust, layered defenses, U.S. forces and personnel stationed at bases in Japan and Guam need to practice rapid evacuation of the types of facilities targeted in Rocket Force doctrine. Similarly, key U.S. command centers in Japan should practice rapid execution of continuity of operations plans, given that the time available between the first detection of a missile launch by U.S. space-based missile warning sensors to its impact would probably be on the order of 10 to 15 minutes. In that short amount of time, U.S. early warning centers would have to detect the launched strike, assess it, and warn U.S. forces overseas. Those overseas personnel and command staffs would then need to execute evacuation and continuity procedures in a matter of a few short minutes. Similarly, U.S. ships in port in the Western Pacific would need to be able get away from their pier positions in a matter of minutes, and high-value air units in the region would need to be able to quickly move their aircraft from their parked positions. In any case, no margin of error will exist for lack of training or proficiency in execution.

The United States and its allies should take action now to ensure that China does not think that it can gain the upper hand in a conflict through successful missile strikes against U.S. bases in Asia. They must ensure that China is not tempted, as some of the United States’ previous adversaries have been, into making the grave error of trying to knock the United States down, expecting it not to get back up.


Thomas Shugart is a Senior Military Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a submarine warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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22 thoughts on “Has China Been Practicing Preemptive Missile Strikes Against U.S. Bases?

  1. Thanks for the post. Most interesting topic.

    The situation depicted here is just like the one which is already happening (for some years) in Korea. In fact, the DPRK balistic missile forces also muster around 1.000 missiles (700 Advanced Scuds+300 Rodong + 100 Nodong + 50/100 Musudan), together with new long range MRLs (KN-09 – 300mm) artillery systems. All of this combined with they huge amount of long-range artillery and WMDs massed along the DMZ, a significant portion of which is in range of South Korea’s 13 million people capital Seoul.

    True that PLA’s balistic assets are likely much more precise and reliable than those of the DPRK, but China’s preemptive strike would have to be carried out in a much wider theater of war, with far more enemies to get supressed (Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, even Vietnam…) besides the U.S. forces. And this while keeping their deterrence and balance of forces with Russia and even India.

    Finally, if China uses most of its offensive assets as part of a preemptive attack, it will be deprived of them when it comes to any efforts to deter punishment actions against its own bases and forces. Frankly, they can optimize their capabilities short of an all-out + in-depth attack by implementing their access denial and exclusion zones, leaving initiative (and tough political and military agressive decisions) to the other actors in the (side)show.

    1. This is about conventional deterrence. There is no need to attack Vietnam or the Philippines to deter them. An attack on South Korea (let alone Japan) would deter them.

      Don’t forget the context. Russia will opportunistically interfere if US bases are substantially destroyed to assert its own agenda.

  2. An excellent piece. I wrote a net assessment on the US-China military balance that examines the possibility of preemptive strikes and the asymmetry represented by the Second Artillery Force. The PLA fully understands that US forces are dependent upon surging forces to forward bases in the event of a crisis. If the PLA believes that hostilities are imminent, it is hard to imagine them not conducting some manner of preemptive attack.

    Here is my assessment:

    1. Your article is an extremely perceptive analysis. But where would China deploy mines? China must keep sea lanes open to allow passage of container ships which feed their economy.

      1. Where? Great question. I don’t think that the PLAN would need to “saturate” China’s littorals with sea mines to maintain a credible mining threat. The fact that the U.S. Navy has underinvested in mining countermeasures for so long would force it to alter its tactics considerably if it were to discover the presence of even a small number of mines. Even more so if a ship were to sustain a mine strike. Recall the USS Tripoli and the USS Princeton in the first Persian Gulf War. Both were taken out of action by a rather unsophisticated Iraqi mine threat.

        1. Although it is far-fetched at this stage, China will soon deploy its missiles in Russia too (at a fee – very attractive to poor Russia). That will save them (unless US wants to drag Russia also into the battle). Disrupting the Japanese economy will have a massive impact worldwide. Unlike in 1945, today’s Japanese government is very heavily indebted (over 280% of the GDP) and if war ravages Japan, it cannot stand up again, easily. USA is in no position to help it out either.

          1. Russia isn’t going to let another country deploy missile systems within their borders. While Russia might sell the China’s weapon systems, they’re not best buddies. They’re just as likely to go to war with each other than anyone else.

          2. Russia and China will not go to war with each other. They have dismantled their militaries along their borders.

            When THAAD is deployed in SK or Japan, the two opposed to THAAD will join forces against it.

        2. Mining coastal waters is generally done to prevent amphibious landings, but I don’t think there is any chance of the US Marines storming ashore to fight 100-to-1 odds on mainland China.

          China could maybe mine the approaches to Taiwanese ports, but if anyone retaliated it would cripple Chinese trade. Even if they lost less than a regional enemy, China would still lose, and the Chinese Communist Party only retains political control because the economy keeps going strong. The moment the Party can’t buy loyalty with growth, things go pear-shaped in Beijing.

  3. If China is going to pull off such an attack it will have to be within the next five years. The US is planning to test a 150 kws laser in the near future. Within five years the US will be deploying 500 kws lasers aboard carriers, the DDG-1000 destroyers and on the ground. Such monstrous lasers will have a burn through time of well under 100 ms against ballistic missiles unless there is a heavy rainstorm occurring.
    In addition attacking any installation with a missile while three on board Aegis systems are around is going to be problematic. The SM-3 has a 1400 mile operational range and the SM-6 has a 250 mile operational range. Each Aegis equipped ship is going to have at least 25 such missiles loaded when on duty in the SCS. It would probably take at least 35 IRBMs to overwhelm those three Aegis systems.

    1. More pie in the sky talk on laser systems……this has been going on since the Cold War, both sides talking about fielding laser weapons and it hasn’t happened yet.
      I suspect the next decade won’t be that different.

      Are far as missile counter-measures if China were to launch a pre-emptive strike, then why wouldn’t they go all in and launch all their missiles? If they need to waste a few dozen to counter any missile defense systems, then what’s the problem from their perspective?

  4. Are you sure US’ submarines can easily take out Chinese aircraft carrier? When things turn bad, the first thing China will do is to shoot down all US military satellites, create a huge explosion in the space to destroy or at least blind all satellites, and US submarines won’t even know the way home. Missiles will be fired based on ordinates rather than guidance. This is called “dog fight”.

    1. Shoot down all US military satellites,….sure that’s going to happen
      Let’s see tell us again how many successful ASAT missile launches China had? 1 was it?
      Even if they did have enough ASATs in their inventory, it’s not so simple to say they’re going to destroy only our systems. When you damage anything in orbit it creates a debris cloud that impacts everyone, not just the US. Do you think they’re going to risk damaging their own Satellites as well? They have ISR, GPS and Communications satellites in orbit as well as do a number of other countries.
      “Missiles will be fired based on ordinates rather than guidance. This is called “dog fight”.
      Hate to break it to you chief, but ballistic missiles don’t work that way.

    2. @Johny Wong – when you talk of explosions in space are you referring to an EMP attack? My understanding is that trying to knock out US Fleet electronics is actively considered from the Chinese military’s perspective.

      Question: wouldn’t doing so also blind their own satellites and other electronics and besides that woulding this invite the US to respond in kind?

      1. At least 60% earth-orbiting satellites are US. Chinese satellites are fewer.

        US military equipment rely on satellites more than China does.

        When China invented anti-sat technology in 2007 by shooting down a satellite for the first time, USA complained that it created space debris. Didn’t China know it would create space debris? Obviously they knew! The relative impact of space debris differs on US military equipment/plans and Chinese equipment/plans. More at stake for the US than China.

        Somewhat similar to a copyright infringement “contest”. What country will gain/lose more if the world disregards copyrights?

        1. “When China invented anti-sat technology in 2007 by shooting down a satellite for the first time”

          The Chinese didn’t invent ASAT Missiles…….both the U.S. and Soviet Unions had programs during the Cold War and deployed systems

  5. The US, followed by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany and Australia are China’s largest trading partners.
    How exactly would a preemptive strike against the US and it’s allies be a good for the Chinese economy?
    Even if they could destroy all military assets within range, it’s a big world full of more military assets that would decimate China.
    We played this game with the USSR, it was stupid, so it ended.

    1. Who were Germany’s biggest trading partners prior to WW I? England, France, Russia. Who were Germany’s largest trading partners in WW 2? England, France, Russia.

      The war party in China would rationalize starting a war with the US by promising to make up the difference in lost trade by extracting better terms from America’s former allies, by making “reparations” part of the peace terms, or just saying “national dignity is more important that the economy.”

  6. The Chinese are trying to become a professional well trained force. Of course they train against targets that look like their most likely opponent. So do we. A huge amount of effort goes into making sure that the training that is done is relevant to the likely opponent. The Chinese are training to fight the war that they think they will have to fight. The Party does not want to fight a war – wars are messy, dangerous, expensive and unpredictable things given to stirring up the public to the point where a country in ungovernable – results that the Party fears. Besides they know that we will strike first.

    For the entire Cold War all of the efforts of the NATO alliance were seen in Moscow as proof of a secret plan to launch a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. It nearly lead to a nuclear war because the soviets thought a war game was cover for a first strike.

    What is much more likely than a bolt from the blue attack is a furious non-proportional counterattack to an American misadventure. The present administration has talked about removing the Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea. That can only be done by military action. The present administration could easily set up a challenge to the Chinese that demanded an armed response. That would be the casus belli for launching an amphibious operation to remove the illegal Chinese artificial islands. While that sounds like a bad imitation of Mr. Clancy’s novels 2016 has resembled a bad imitation of a LeCarre novel.

    No one wants to be seen as the instigator of the coming war. The Chinese can afford to wait. They plan to play the victim. We will have to trick them into taking the first shot. When we do that is when they launch, a counterattack that in our hubris we have completely written off.

  7. Excellent, well written article laying out the potential of surgically accurate pre-emptive strikes using IRBMs. Nothing new though, during the late 1960’s and through the 1970’s the US deployed Pershing Ia and II in Europe. The Pershing Ia and II had incredible accuracy, so much so it was suggested they could be used to attack bunker complexes and airfields in the same way as this article suggests. Then it dawned on someone that there’s was no way for a nuclear armed Russians to differentiate a nuclear launch from a conventional launch IRBM. Little joy in knowing that you just triggered the Third World War to gain a tactical or even strategic advantage. Launching ICBMs or IRBMs results in a nuclear exchange.

  8. extremely interesting.

    As a mental exercise, suppose it was known US policy, announced by a belligerent towards China, president, and backed by his NSC, that a pre-emptive attack across the board at US bases, would generate an immediate nuclear response from the USA in order to preclude any further Chinese aggression against our allies.

    They would never know if this was serious, or meant as purely deterrence.