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China’s New Strategic Cruise Missiles: From the Land, Sea and Air

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on June 3rd, 2005

On April 24 a Taiwan intelligence source disclosed [1] what has now been expected for several years: in 2005 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will begin to deploy the first versions of its new 1,000km+ range subsonic-speed strategic land attack cruise missile (LACM). For the PLA both the development of long-range LACMs and defense against U.S. LACMs have been a very high priority. In development since the 1970s, China’s new LACM is expected to approximate the performance and tactical flexibility of the U.S. RGM/UGM-109 TOMAHAWK and eventually will eventually be fielded in ground, submarine, ship and air launched versions. This means a new stage of power-projection for the PLA—global non-nuclear strike.

LACM Development

China has long employed cruise missiles for naval attack missions, building three families of anti-ship missiles. These include two series of anti-ship missiles which derive from the early pioneering Soviet P-21 STYX anti-ship missile developed in the late 1950s. One series starts with the small (Hai Ying-HY) HY-1, basically a copy of the STYX, and extends to longer range rocket and turbojet powered variants. For example, the (Ying Ji-YJ) YJ-6 is an air-launched variant with 100km and 200km range versions. The (Fei Long-FL) FL series includes subsonic and supersonic rocket powered anti-ship missiles. There are indications that there are air-launched versions of this missile as well. A third family is based on technology obtained from French Exocet anti-ship missiles and include ship, submarine and air launched versions of the rocket-powered 40km range YJ-81 (C-801) and the 120km range turbojet-powered YJ-82 (C-802). There are reports of a development of this missile called the YJ-83 with a 250km air-launched range. This missile, plus a version of the YJ-6 may be equipped with terminal seekers to enable precision ground attack. The submarine launched versions of the YJ-81 and YJ-82 are launched via canister, and thus provide a technological base for future submarine launched LACMs.

The C-802 is an turbojet-powered anti-ship missile that is not co-produced in Iran. Credit: RD Fisher
This model of the sub-launched version of the C-802 was distributed at the 2004 Zhuhai Airshow. It demonstrates that the PLA has mastered capsule launch technology which it can also use to launch LACMs from its submarines.

PLA interest in strategic cruise missiles dates back to the 1970s, when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union began developing these long-range, accurate and relatively inexpensive weapons. The Chinese believe there is a 9:1 defense-offense cost ratio advantage for developing and maintaining cruise missiles over the cost of defending against them.[2] LACMs also cost about one third the price of a short-range ballistic missile. The successful U.S. employment of non-nuclear aircraft and ship-launched cruise missiles during the 1990 war against Iraq spurred more intensive development by the China Aerospace Corporation’s Third Academy, the chief designer/producer of Chinese cruise missiles.[3] The Third Academy has since moved under the management of the China Aerospace Industries Corporation (CASIC), formed after 1998 to promote competition within the PLA weapons sector.

The PLA has invested heavily in all aspects of cruise missile design, guidance, and power plants. According to Third Academy officials a future Chinese cruise missile will have multiple guidance systems, like terrain-following (TERCOM) and satellite navigation systems[4] that will enable very high accuracy. In the late 1980s Third Academy engineers produced a study on combining guidance systems for cruise missiles. In 2002 these officials noted that they had mastered TERCOM technology long ago.[5] Their apparent success in mastering this complex technology is a testament to the priority and resources devoted toward LACM development.

By the late 1980s the Third Academy was testing experimental LACMs like the X-600, pictures of which were revealed in 1999.[6] Other unconfirmed Chinese reports indicate the PLA developed, and even fielded initial versions of LACMs in the mid 1990s.[7] Some sources call this LACM series "Hong Niao," though the most recent PLA LACM is referred to as the "Dong Hai," or DH-10. Internet source photos of purported LACM transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) indicate that land-based version will use truck platforms. Their light weight allows for air-transport should the PLA demand rapid and long-distance deployment. New LACMs are also expected to be launched by PLA Air Force bombers, like new versions of the Xian H-6 and by the PLA Navy’s new Type 093 nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN).

This picture, which emerged on Chinese television in the late 1990s, is believed to be the X-600, a test bed for LACM development that may have flown in the early 1990s. Credit: CCTV

According to various reports, the range for new PLA LACMs extends from 1,200km up to 4,000km. And like PLA short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), new LACMs can be expected to be armed with a variety of warheads. These could include tactical nuclear warheads, high explosive, thermobaric or directed energy warheads. The later might include high power microwave (HPM) warheads, which have received great attention by the PLA.[8]

To guide and target its LACMs the PLA is investing in multiple reconnaissance and navigation systems that will eventually allow global LACM employment. Targeting against Taiwan will soon be assisted by new medium range unmanned reconnaissance aircraft in development. The PLA is also building new Russian-designed electro-optical and radar satellites to provide "realtime" imagery of prospective targets. PLA LACMs are expected to use Russian GLONASS or European GALILEO navigation satellites to provide continuous navigation signals that will enable pin-point strike accuracy comparable to the U.S. TOMAHAWK. China is a "full partner" in the European Galileo navigation satellite constellation, which may be operational by the 2008 to 2009 time frame. By this time the PLA is also expected to have lofted its first Russian-designed high resolution electro-optical and radar satellites.

China has invested heavily in space and airborne surveillance systems that will provide global targeting data for new LACMs.These include new radar satellites, new electro-optical satellites and new UAV reconnaissance systems. Credit: RD Fisher

In early 2003 the first Chinese-source picture emerged to confirm the direction of PLA LACM development. While the picture showed only a partial LACM fuselage and wing assembly in a stress-testing rig, it confirmed the PLA LACM’s broad similarity to U.S. and Russian LACM designs. Chinese press reports note that in early August 2004 a test for a "new missile" capable of "extreme precision" was attended by none other than Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, who as former Director of the Central Military Commission’s General Armament Department, would have exercised leadership over cruise missile developments during most of the last decade.[9] Other reports note this was a test for a new strategic cruise missile, or what is referred to as the DH-10.[10] These reports at least add credence to Taiwan intelligence statements that the PLA’s deployment of LACMs is imminent.

This is the clearest picture available from open sources indicating the progress the PLA has made in developing a modern LACM. This shows a fuselage and wing assembly in a stress testing rig, and the picture is probably from a brochure from the testing organization. It confirms earlier estimation that a PLA LACM will bear a distinct resemblence to current US and Russian LACMs. Source: via Internet

Foreign Cruise Missile Technology Sources

The broad similarity of the 2003 picture of a PLA cruise missile and existing U.S. and Russian designs is not surprising given the intense PLA effort to acquire foreign cruise missile technology over the last 15 years.

Russian and Ukraine From Russia and the Ukraine the PLA has obtained substantial modern cruise missile technology. In 1997 sources in Taiwan reported that Russia had marketed its Kh-65SE cruise missile in China.[11] At the time this was alarming because the Kh-65 was a proposed short-range version of the Kh-55 (AS-15 ‘Kent’) 3,000 km-range strategic cruise missile. The Kh-55 has been in Russian service since 1984 as a nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile. They have the same inertial and terrain-following guidance but the latter may also have GLONASS satellite navigation capability.[12] It was feared that from the Kh-65SE China could obtain several technologies to build Tomahawk-like cruise missiles with potentially as much tactical flexibility. China would gain much desired cruise missile design, engine, fuel and guidance technology.

But it has recently been revealed that these fears became even more real. According to Ukrainian investigators, in April 2000 Ukrainian defense officials, assisted by Russian, sold China at least 6 Kh-55 LACMs[13] out of hundreds left in the Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union. Revelations last February held that former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma knew of but concealed knowledge of this sale.[14] However, some sources believe there is a good possibility that Ukrainian officials sold more than just 6 Kh-55s to China. Between 1980 and 1987 over 1,000 Kh-55s were produced in Kharkiv. In addition, the Kh-55’s R95-300 turbofan engine was also produced in the Ukraine.[15] Besides technical information about the Kh-55 the Ukrainians may be a source of design advice, inasmuch as they have reportedly developed a new version of the Kh-55. Called the Korshun, this Kh-55 development features a fixed engine at the end of the fuselage, versus the Kh-55’s podded engine which deployed under the rear fuselage.[16] As such, the Korshun offers advantages of simplicity and proves that Ukrainian engineers have the competence to assist in many aspects of LACM design.

The AS-15 is a Soviet era strategic LACM. The Ukraine is believed to have sold 6 or maybe more AS-15s to China in 2000. However, the Ukraine has modified this LACM, raising the possibility of having sold China more than just the missiles. Access to AS-15 technologies would have provided the PLA LACM with a crucial boost. Credit: via Internet

In addition, there are reports that the PLA has purchased the Russian Novator 3M-14E[17], a recently revealed land-attack version of the 300km range 3M-14E1 anti-ship missile. This missile is part of the "CLUB-S" package for China’s new batch of eight KILO 636M submarines. This is a cruise missile that while smaller, resembles the U.S. TOMAHAWK in shape, and is small enough to be launched from a standard 533mm torpedo tube. It uses navigation satellite signals for mid-course guidance and a radar for terminal attack.[18] Use of a radar for guidance pre-supposes the user has detailed three-dimensional imagery-derived digital data on the target.

It is possible that Novator would sell China considerable technical expertise as part of any weapon sales package, which might then be applied to Chinese-designed LACMs. But in the 3M-14E the PLA would not gain only an actual weapon for use against Asian land-based targets, including US and allied forces, it would also gain considerable experience in applying Russian operational and targeting doctrine and tactics. Novator is also marketing a land-based version of the 3M-14E which carries seven missiles per TEL vehicle. However, China’s reluctance to purchase Russian SRBMs like the Iskander-E may point to a similar reluctance to purchase a land-based version of the 3M-14E while China is investing heavily in its own LACM programs.

Novator's new LACM is reported to have been sold to China, initially to arm new KILO submarines that will soon arrive in China. This LACM also comes in a ground-launched version, shown here. Credit: RD Fisher

Israel In 1995 Flight International reported that China was providing funding to develop an air-launched cruise missile based on the TAAS DELILAH anti-radiation attack-drone.[19] The report noted also that China would be a customer for the new cruise missile. Reports of this co-development program persist though no official or unofficial statements confirm that China has yet received the cruise missile product of this cooperation. TAAS began promoting a warhead-equipped version as a stand-off cruise missile in 1995.[20] It is reported that a deep-penetrating warhead is being developed for the new Chinese version of the DELILAH.[21] In is also noteworthy that the U.S. Navy may buy a version of the DELILAH to arm helicopters.

In the early to mid-1990s Israel is reported to have sold to China some aspect of its then new DELILAH anti-radar missile, which was subsequently developed into a LACM.

The DELILAH is reportedly based on the Northrop MQM-74 Chukar target drone which first flew in 1965. It has been in Israeli service since the late 1980s as an anti-radar system. It is powered by a Williams Co. J400-WR-401 turbojet engine, producing 170 lbs of thrust.[22] Larger Williams Co. turbojets also power the longer-range TOMAHAWK and Air Force ALCMs. Versions of the DELILAH are equipped with aircraft-simulating features and electronics to trigger enemy radar transmissions, which are then located and attacked with ECM or chaff. If the DELILAH has been acquired by the PLA, it would have provided a new electronic attack weapon and another source of potentially useful cruise missile technologies. If, as reported, the PLA funded the development of later versions, it is logical to assume that the PLA was given those technologies. It is possible that the PLA would have benefited in the areas of design, engines, fuel, and guidance.

United States In addition the PLA has aggressively sought American cruise missile technology in the form of U.S. TOMAHAWK cruise missiles, or parts thereof, lost during conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan.[23] Both Saddam Hussein and the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan are believed to have traded U.S. TOMAHAWK parts to China in exchange for military and diplomatic support. Other types of U.S. technology may be aiding China’s cruise missile program. There are also reports that the PLA has converted U.S.-made Boeing 737 transport aircraft to support new strategic cruise missile testing. At least one report notes that the U.S. is investigating the possibility that the conversion of the Boeing 737 for military purposes represents an illegal diversion of U.S. technology, which could lead to economic sanctions against China.[24]

This is the latest version of the U.S. Navy's TOMOHAWK LACM. The PLA is suspected of having purchased parts of destroyed TOMOHAWKs from several countries to which they have been delivered in the last 15 years. Credit: RD Fisher

LACM Deployment and Usage

It is likely that the initial user of the PLA’s new LACM will be the Second Artillery, the PLA’s dedicated land-based missile service. It can also be expected that Second Artillery LACMs will be deployed in the same manner its DF-15 SRBM brigades. However, they may also be deployed by the PLA Air Force at about the same time, inasmuch as the PLA has resumed production of the Xian H-6 (Tupolev Tu-16) bomber modified with four missile launch pylons. When the first Type 093 SSN becomes operational with the PLA Navy in the next year or so, it could also go to sea armed with a sub-launched version of the new LACM.

Very recently the Xian Aircraft Company has resumed production of the H-6, a copy of the obsolete Soviet-era Tu-16 medium bomber. This time the H-6 is being built with four wing pylons. For lack of a better platform, the PLA appears to be turning the old H-6 into a cruise missile carrier, as the U.S. and Russia have done their older bombers. Credit: Via Internet

Initially it is expected that new LACMs will be deployed primarily against Taiwan. Reports indicate that starting in late 2005, about 200 new PLA LACMs could be deployed by late 2006[25] indicating a possible build-up rate of 200 per year. By 2006, with the expected deployment of 800 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) the PLA could field a combined force of 1,000 SRBMs and LACMs. And if annual production patterns of 100 SRBMs and 200 LACMs persist their combined number could reach 2,000 by 2010. The most likely rationale for such a build up is to saturate and overwhelm Taiwan’s planned U.S.-made PATRIOT PAC-2 and PAC-3 missile defenses and provide the PLA a sufficient missile strike reserve to carry out multiple waves of missile attacks against military and civilian targets.

But this capability equally threatens U.S., Japanese and Indian forces as LACMs will eventually be carried to distant operating areas by Type 093 nuclear attack submarines. When connected by communication satellites, PLA submarines will be able to upload initial targeting date into their LACMs derived from satellite imagery processed back in shore bases, and then ensure guidance to assigned targets via navigation satellite signals. As such, Type 093s could launch non-nuclear armed LACMs against distant U.S. bases in Guam, Hawaii or the U.S. West Coast. Should PLA Navy supply ships gain regular access to Cuban ports—as did former Soviet Navy ships—or event to other South American ports, that presents the possibility of the PLA Navy being able to support Type 093/LACM operations against the U.S. East Coast. It would certainly be to the PLA’s advantage to use LACMs armed with electromagnetic warheads to wreak havoc with U.S. military and civilian communication networks as a prelude to military operations.

This artists projection from a Chinese popular military magazine shows two Type 093 SSNs and a Type 094 SSBN. The 093 in the background is depicted having launched a cruise missile. When PLA Navy Type 093 begin to carry China's new LACM that will signify the beginning of a new era for Chinese miltiary power projection. Credit: Via Internet

The U.S. now employs discrete and highly targeted LACM strikes to attack known or suspected terrorist redoubts. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that China will someday use distant LACM attacks for political gain. Such attacks may be used to eliminate a potential rival to a regime under Beijing’s sway. Even the threat of such an attack, wielded on behalf of the incumbent, could serve to deter such rivals. Such a capability might be used to advance China’s political and economic interests in distant unstable countries like the Sudan, or to influence political evolutions in Central Asia, South Asia, Africa or the Persian Gulf.

A New Proliferation Challenge

Given China’s history of selling cruise missile technology to other states, the advent of PLA LACMs presents yet another Chinese proliferation challenge. For example, the PLA has sold C-802 turbojet powered cruise missiles technology to Iran, which now produces its own version, known as the Tondar. Iran would be a likely customer for future LACM technology. China has sold Pakistan extensive solid-fuel short and medium range ballistic missile technology. It is reasonable to expect that China will also sell Pakistan LACM technology, especially if there is any hint that India is developing LACMs or purchasing them from Russia, as it probably is. Guidance and engine technologies for LACMs would also be useful in developing new generations of medium and long-endurance UAV reconnaissance aircraft. It should also be expected that China will develop and market these new UAVs to a broader range of countries. For example, a country like Brazil, which has had previous ambitions to build nuclear missiles, but faces current financial hurdles, might be attracted to cheaper strategic cruise missiles, which could receive a potential assist by means of new Chinese UAVs.

Future Directions

Again following the example of the U.S. and Russia, China is also interested in developing supersonic or even hypersonic cruise missiles. With ever higher speed, cruise missiles become less and less vulnerable to gun and missile-based defenses. With this capability the U.S. views high-speed cruise missiles as a "next generation" weapon. However, the development of powerful but efficient ramjet or "scramjet" engines in a small enough size package is a daunting task. The U.S. Navy is currently developing a Mach-3 supersonic cruise missile which it hopes can supplement the TOMAHAWK before the end of the decade. In addition the U.S. is developing hypersonic, or Mach-7+ cruise missiles, but their deployment as weapons remains distant.

Russia has had a hypersonic cruise missile program for a number of years, and Russian technicians believe that hypersonic cruise missile will emerge in the next decade.[26] Russia is now the PLA’s primary potential foreign source for this technology. In early May 2005, a Russian report noted that the second Chinese-Russian high-speed UAV conference was held in Beijing. At this conference the Chinese side expressed their desire "…to develop hypersonic UAVs jointly with Russian companies."[27] Such technology could be applied to large aircraft for reconnaissance or strike missions, but perhaps more readily applied to smaller cruise missiles.

[1] Rich Chang, “China to deploy cruise missiles: NSB,” Taipei Times, April 24, 2005, p. 1.

[2] For an early but still useful analysis of the PLA’s programs and institutes associated with cruise missiles see, Mark A. Stokes, China’s Strategic Modernization, Implications for the United States, U.S. Army War College: Strategic Studies Institute, 1999, pp., 79-86.

[3] Stokes, p. 81.

[4] Interview, Zhuhai Airshow, November 2002.

[5] Interview, Zhuhai Airshow, November 2002.

[6] Duncan Lennox, “China’s new cruise missile program ‘racing ahead,’” Jane’s Defence Weekly, January 12, 2000, p. 12.

[7] Huang Dong, "China Succeeds in Test-Firing Hongniao Cruise Missile," Kuang Chiao Ching (Wide Angle), September 16, 2004, p. 55.

[8] Tan Xianyu of the Research Institute of Huazhong Precision Instruments Factory, “Present Status and Development of High-Power Microwave Weapon Concepts,” Luoyang Hangkong Bingqi, February 1, 2004.

[9] Sun Zifa, "New Missile Developed by China Tested with Complete Success," Zhongguo Xinwen, August 16, 2004.

[10] Huang Dong, op-cit.

[11] Interview, Taipei, Taiwan, August 1997.

[12] Steven J. Zaloga, “Russian strategic cruise missiles,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May, 1996, p. 200.

[13] Bill Gertz, “Missile sold to China and Iran,” The Washington Times, April 6, 2005.

[14] Tom Warner, “Iran and China linked to Ukraine missiles,” Financial Times, February 2 2005,

[15] Piotr Butowski, “Ukraine Unveils its ‘Korshun’ Missile,” Air and Cosmos, April 8, 2005, p. 24.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Russia Exports New Missile,” Kanwa Defense Review, March 1, 2005, p. 16.

[18] Brochure, “3M-14E-land attack missile to arm submarines,” Experimental Machine-Design Bureau “Novator,” obtained at the IDEX arms show, March 2005.

[19] Douglas Barrie, “China provides cash for Israeli cruise missile,” Flight International, May 17-23, 1995, p. 5.

[20] “TAAS Delilah,” Jane’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Targets, June 1995.

[21] “Israel to equip Chinese cruise missile with penetrator warhead,” Flight International, February 5-11, 1997, p. 13.

[22] Kenneth Munson, “Ups and Downs of the UAV,” Air International, July, 1997, p. 45; Douglas Barrie, “Israel offers cruise missile for export,” Flight International, April 12-18, 1995, p. 4.

[23] “China close to fielding land attack cruise missile,” Flight International, March 28-April 3, 2000, p. 26.

[24] Bill Gertz, “Conversion of jetliners in China draws attention,” The Washington Times, February 1, 2005.

[25] Chang, op-cit.

[26] “Hypersonic Cruise Missiles To Emerge In 10-15 Years,” AVN-Interfax, November 12, 2003.

[27] “Chinese Experts Ready To Develop High-Speed UAVs Jointly With Russia,” Interfax-AVN, May 4, 2005.

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