Since January 2010, China has tested strategic ballistic missile interceptors at least three times.1 Surprisingly little analytic, open-source attention has been paid to these Chinese activities. In contrast, for the past two decades, China has received growing U.S. attention for modernizing and expanding its strategic offensive nuclear forces.2
For more than 50 years, China has explored and developed capabilities to defend against a spectrum of ballistic missile challenges, from short-range missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In 1964, the year in which China tested its first nuclear explosive device, it launched the 640 Program, which is coded as “64” for 1964 and “0” for the first major defense program that began that year, to study missile interception, early-warning systems, and target discrimination techniques. Yet, this ambitious agenda fell far short of a viable ballistic missile defense system due to China’s relative lack of financial and technical resources in the final two decades of Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule.
Moving to Deployment?
Chinese testing of missile interceptors since 2010, discussions with several Chinese experts in the last 12 months, and statements by the U.S. government in recent years suggest that China may be on the verge of making a decision on a limited deployment of a strategic missile defense system. Indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Defense in its 2014 report on Chinese military capabilities, “China has made efforts…to gain a [ballistic missile defense] capability in order to provide further protection of China’s mainland and strategic assets.”3 China publicly announced that it conducted ground-based midcourse ballistic missile defense tests in 2010, 2013, and 2014, although the United States believes the 2014 test was actually a test of an ASAT system.4 Chinese state media described all these tests as defensive in nature and not aimed at any country.5
Factors in China’s Decision
China’s strategic missile defense program has reached a stage of maturity that makes deployment a viable option. The questions now are whether, when, and to what purpose might it do so. Dozens of officials and experts in China and the United States responded to a list of factors that could make China want to develop strategic missile defense and could lead toward potential deployment. The list was created prior to the meetings, and the officials and experts helped revise and refine it. These factors are presented here in roughly descending order of what is believed to be their importance to China.
Observations and Conclusions
Chinese development of strategic missile defense is ongoing and is helping China understand the complexities of designing such a system and what its weak points are, whether or not it decides to deploy the system. In addition, this development provides an important hedging option for China against an uncertain and evolving future strategic environment.
- It would provide China with a plausible cover to continue testing its kinetic-energy ASAT system. This suggests that a limited nationwide or regional defense would be more likely than a point defense although the latter cannot be ruled out. Point defense would not provide much cover for an ASAT testing program.
- It would send a strategic message to India, Japan, and the United States, in that order, that China is capable of defending itself and overcoming major technical obstacles to do so.
- It would enhance China’s regional prestige and sway, providing a “technological merit badge” of recognition for achieving such a difficult technological task.
1. Frank A. Rose, “Ensuring the Long-Term Sustainability and Security of the Space Environment” (remarks, U.S. Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium, Omaha, Nebraska, August 13, 2014), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2014/230611.htm (hereinafter Rose STRATCOM remarks).
2. Steps China has taken include deployments of the road-mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), development and likely future deployment of the longer-range DF-41 ICBM, development of Jin-class ballistic missile submarines and associated JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and deployment of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles on its older DF-5 ICBM and possible deployment on the DF-41.
3. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 7, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2015_China_Military_Power_Report.pdf.
4. Rose STRATCOM remarks.
5. Frank A. Rose, “Ballistic Missile Defense and Strategic Stability in East Asia” (remarks, Federation of American Scientists, Washington, D.C., February 20, 2015), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2015/237746.htm.
6. Denise E. Der, “Playing Defense: Examining China’s Intentions Regarding Ballistic Missile Defense” (master’s thesis, Georgetown University, 2015), p. 14.
7. Chinese academic experts, meetings with authors, Beijing and Shanghai, February 2015.
8. Wang Ting, “Agni V and China/India Ballistic Missile Defense” (presentation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, n.d.), http://carnegieendowment.org/files/Wang_Ting%20Presentation.pdf. The presentation took place during the week of October 2, 2012. See Sarah Weiner, “Recap: ‘China-India Nuclear Crossroads,’” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 9, 2012. http://csis.org/blog/event-recap-china-india-nuclear-crossroads.
9. Chinese academic, meeting with authors, Beijing, February 11, 2015.
10. Chinese expert, meeting with authors, Beijing, February 10, 2015.
11. In 1993 a Chinese scholar published an article that examined the threat to China’s Three Gorges Dam from missile strikes and raised the possibility of missile defense to protect it. Brad Roberts, “China and Ballistic Missile Defense: 1955 to 2002 and Beyond,” IDA Paper P-3826, September 2003, p. 21, n.80, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA418710 (citing Wan Yung-Kui, “Can the Chinese Armed Forces Successfully Protect the Three-Gorges Dam?” Hong Kong Tangai, No. 31 [October 15, 1993], pp. 72-80).
12. Chinese academics, meetings with authors, Beijing, February 2015.
13. People’s Liberation Army officials, meetings with author (MacDonald), Beijing, February 2015.