Thursday, July 9, 2009

Mixed signals over Chinese missiles

Here's a link to a story on the recent NASIC report and Chinese missiles by Peter Brown that has quoted me extensively. The story appeared in today's Asia Times Online.

As defense analysts and experts in the United States, Japan and India digest the recent "Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat" report by the US Air Force (USAF) National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) - particularly any elements pertaining to China - important gaps or omissions are surfacing.

The bottom line is that these gaps, along with differences between the NASIC report [1] and a US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)-authored report on the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) released earlier this year, are making the overall US analysis of the situation unfolding in China involving missiles and military space matters increasingly hard to gauge.

An admission by the commander of the USAF Space Command

(AFSPC), General Robert Kehler, made in a written response to questions submitted to him during a Congressional sub-committee hearing in March and just recently published, underscores the fact that the US recognizes that it has to do a much better job when it comes to the broad topic of space intelligence.

"Several initiatives have been taken to address the need for more and better qualified space intelligence analysts. Recent billet additions at AFSPC, NASIC, DIA and CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] have taken place through internal reallocations and external over guidance approval. NSA [National Security Agency] has reprioritized for better space analysis and USSTRATCOM J2 [US Strategic Command - Intelligence] is reestablishing space analysis.

Overall analytic resources will remain insufficient, despite the improvement cited above, and will require active efforts to increase efficiency and collaboration. AFSPC is hosting an interagency forum to review/refine intelligence shortfalls and to seek interagency solutions," said General Kehler.

"The Defense Intelligence Space Threat Committee under NASIC leadership has been established to oversee and coordinate a wide variety of complex space/ counterspace analytical activities. Space/counterspace intelligence requirements have been revaluated and are now being reprioritized and rewritten to more clearly focus the intelligence community."

As the world adjusts to China's overt display of anti-satellite (ASAT) warfare in 2007 - satellites like the inactive Chinese weather satellite it destroyed that year represent a critical component in almost all ballistic missile defense systems - and as the line which separates conventional ballistic missiles from small satellite launchers becomes blurred due to advances in satellite design and complexity, the task at hand does not get any easier. Witness the launches undertaken since last year both by Iran and North Korea, for example. China's decision to use its latest manned space flight in 2008 as an opportunity to launch a small satellite from the manned spacecraft may not fall into the same category as these launches, but it does not make matters less complicated either.

"Training is also a critical element of USAF efforts to address adversary space threat. AFSPC recently expanded the Space Professional Development Program to include the USAF intelligence community. The National Space Security Institute has begun a comprehensive review and expansion of AFSPC's space professional training courses in close cooperation with the (AFSPC Directorate of Intelligence) and the intelligence community at large," said General Kehler.

His response speaks to the process and not the results. Still, it is quite unlikely that a Chinese military commander would make any admission in public view.

Dr Gregory Kulacki, China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, identifies the lack of analysts with meaningful proficiency in the Chinese language as one of the most important gaps in US space intelligence capabilities.

"The mistaken characterization by US experts of the BX-1 satellite released from the Shenzhou VII [last year] is a good example of how insufficient or non-existent language skills can weaken analysis," said Dr Kulacki. "The BX-1 mission was highly publicized and discussed in detail in the Chinese media, but because [many US experts were] unable to understand that material, [they] created yet another tempest in a teapot over the BX-1."

In Asia, important gaps in the NASIC report have generated questions in India in particular. Specifically, two important omissions involve China's activities in Tibet, and a reorganization of its missile facilities at a base near Tibet that started two years ago, according to Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow in security studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

"China's positioning of its intermediate range missiles such as DF-4s and DF-21s in Tibet, and reports which suggest that China could also deploy DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs at bases such as Delingha near Tibet, raise serious concerns. Both the DF-31s and DF-31As are road mobile and use solid propellant engines. Placing medium-range ballistic missiles in Delingha which can hit targets approximately 2,500 kilometers away can put all of northern India at risk, including New Delhi," said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow in security studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

On page 3 of the NASIC report, it is reported that, "China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world ... China's ballistic missile force is expanding in both size and types of missiles. New theater missiles continue to be deployed in the vicinity of Taiwan, while the ICBM force is adding the CSS-10 Mod 1 (DF-31) and CSS-10 Mod 2 (DF-31A) ICBMs. The new JL-2 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) is also under development. Future ICBMs probably will include some with multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), and the number of ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States could expand to well over 100 within the next 15 years."

Richard Fisher, a Chinese military expert at the Washington DC-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, told the Washington Times in early June that, "in just over two months, US intelligence community estimates have China's ICBMs increasing by 25%. That's a formidable rate of growth." [2]

For Fisher, this sharp increase signals a need for more in-depth analysis, and for more players to become involved.

"This year's dual assessments have been produced by two US intelligence community teams: the DIA is largely responsible for the annual PLA report to the Congress [released in March], and a USAF team produces the NASIC report," said Fisher. "We should not be surprised that they produce differing results, but the fact that we have benefited slightly in terms of new ICBM number assessments to me proves that there should be much more competition in the production of such assessments. Democracies require more facts, not less."

Rahul Bhonsle, a South Asian defense analyst based in New Delhi, finds Fisher's statement quite alarming.

"However, this does not denote the trends of developments in the past which have been more conservative. For China to suddenly attain a leap does not appear to be practical. My reading is that China is more focused today on improving its internal information and logistics management systems so as to enhance response times rather than develop and or induct additional systems," said Bhonsle.

Otherwise, despite the fact that the NASIC report specifically mentions Taiwan in three different sections, he is not concerned about the omission of China's activities in or near Tibet in the report which, "appears to be more of a capability-based rather than a threat-based analysis".

"There are some indications of the Chinese preparing some advanced launch positions in Tibet which is of concern to us. These locations remain unidentified so far, so building up information on these is a priority," said Bhonsle.

Brian Weeden, technical advisor at the Colorado-based Secure World Foundation, sees the NASIC assessment as warranting further clarification. He describes what is underway in China as "actually fairly slow growth compared to what the US and Soviet Union did starting in the 1950s".

"Right now, it is clear that China has no intention of matching the US or Russia warhead for warhead, and it has no plans to achieve the same level of overwhelming nuclear force. They are still sticking to the philosophy of limited deterrence, ie having just enough," said Weeden. "And if having 'just enough' is your goal, then it is obvious that you would want to have those few nuclear weapons as survivable as possible. Road-mobile ICBMs and SLBMs are exactly that."

Weeden finds that talk about percentages is a way to overemphasize or perhaps even conceal real numbers.

"Going from 10 to 20 nuclear weapons is a 100% increase, but so is going from 1,000 to 2,000, and adding 1,000 more warheads is much more of a problem than adding 10," said Weeden.

According to Rajagopalan, China's growing missile capabilities - both in actual numbers and the types of missiles - and the proliferation of those missiles have triggered regional insecurity and resulted in a spiraling arms race in the region.

"If China increases the number of ICBMs from even 20 to 25 in a year, this small growth is something that India, US, and Japan might watch out for. It may not have reached any dangerous proportion, but this is something that needs close monitoring," said Rajagopalan. "Development of these missile forces and the ever-growing submarine force indicate that China prefers to implement an area denial strategy. Such a capability will allow China to create a buffer zone around its land and maritime periphery which in turn will increase the difficulty for others to operate close to the Chinese mainland."

Weeden is also eager to examine several recent projections of Chinese submarine-launched nuclear warheads in greater detail, too.

"Recent predictions that China could have upwards of 400 sub-launched nuclear warheads within the decade are absurd. The newest class of [Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear] SSBN (JL-2) has 12 launch tubes, each of which can hold a missile with one warhead. There is no way that China is going to be able to roll out 30-plus SSBNs in a decade."

For Hideaki Kaneda, a retired Vice Admiral and former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) commander, who is the director of the Okazaki Institute in Tokyo, the debate over numbers does not tell the whole story. While he agrees with Fisher's assessment, he finds China's persistent lack of transparency involving its overall nuclear strategy, not to mention its entire military strategy, unsettling given the steady increase in Chinese defense budgets since the mid-1980's. China's focus on ASATs, and other countermeasures intended to disable otherwise effective missile defense systems, and China's efforts to secure its position as a third nuclear superpower, while "anticipating the trend of global nuclear reduction" are important developments that Kaneda elects to highlight.

When asked which specific Chinese missile-related trends disturb him, he responded simply - "Every trend."

"The Japanese government will review its "National Defense Program Guidelines [NDPG]" by the end of this year. I hope the revised NDPG would effectively address all my concerns as expressed here. Though it depends on which parties [achieve] political dominance in the next general election," said Kaneda.

Certainly, the recent debate over Japan's possible adoption of a preemptive strike capability as a reasonable measure has cast the emerging NDPG in a different light.

Kaneda would not comment on how open he felt the Japanese people are today to his point of view. A longtime and somewhat hawkish advocate for a greater emphasis on ballistic missile defense (BMD) in Japan, he also would not comment on the BMD efforts now underway in Japan involving all the existing branches of the JSDF. He also did not comment on whether or not he would prefer to consolidate BMD developmental and testing activities under one command or under a single agency in a manner similar to what is now in place in the US under the Missile Defense Agency.

No matter how you interpret the numbers or what upward curve you select, Fisher finds them disturbing.

"PLA nuclear missile numbers are growing to a point to which we can drop this notion they have a 'minimum' nuclear deterrent force. An early nuclear missile force in excess of 120 is plausible, and they could be divided roughly evenly between land and sea-based platforms," said Fisher. "This means that all PLA nuclear missiles will be harder to find, and that China will become increasingly aggressive toward the US and other navies operating in the South China Sea, the best place for their SSBN operations."

As for the PLA Navy's (PLAN) development of Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) capabilities, Weeden emphasizes that the real story is not what PLAN is doing, but what the US Navy is not doing.

"The Chinese are not doing anything new with ASBMs. The concept dates back to 1955 and was pioneered by the US. The main issue is that the US Navy has not really been paying attention to the threat and is not really prepared to defend against it," said Weeden. "There are multiple technologies that can defend against it, but right now the navy is not really tackling it seriously."

At the same time, Weeden cautions that any description of China's missiles as "being technologically advanced is true when compared to the likes of Iran and North Korea, but China's ICBMs and SLBMs are still decades behind that of the US, Russia, France, and Great Britain".

"China's sole SSBN has never done a deterrence patrol. China has still yet to MIRV any of its nuclear delivery vehicles, something that the other powers did a long time ago. The significance of MIRVing cannot be understated," said Weeden.

"In the NASIC report, [it states] that 'the number of ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States could expand to well over 100 within the next 15 years'. So the growth is 'considerable' compared to how many warheads China has capable of reaching the US now, but negligible compared to what Russia already has deployed and historically had deployed."

Fisher, on the other hand, wants readers to understand that the number of Chinese nuclear missile warheads could grow more quickly than has been suggested by recent US open or unclassified intelligence reports.

"My sources suggest the DF-5A already carries up to six warheads, and that future versions of the DF-31A and JL-2 could carry three to four warheads. If true, then it is plausible to consider future PLA nuclear warhead counts that reach 500, again, no longer a 'minimum' force," said Fisher.

Fisher like Kaneda wants to firmly establish the links between Chinese ASAT and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) components in a broader public debate about US and Japanese defense policies.

"Even though the PLA has conducted multiple ASAT tests leading up to its success in 2007, no unclassified [US intelligence] report since has commented on how the PLA ASAT program may also indicate the existence of a larger PLA ABM program. The PLA's first ABM program took place from 1963 to 1980. If you can shoot down a satellite then you can shoot down a missile warhead," said Fisher. "The potential for the PLA's future no-longer-minimum nuclear force also being defended by an ABM system should be causing the Obama Administration to halt its nuclear disarmament plans. Such may also help explain why the Russians do not want to go below 1,500 deployed warheads, a reduction that I think would still be foolish for Washington and Moscow."

According to Fisher, while experts in Japan, India and the US may disagree at times over what is going on and why, "Americans are quite fortunate to have access to any level of [US intelligence] assessment of the PLA, which is issued at a level of detail that would put any Chinese commentator in jail."

1. Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat - NASIC (June 2009)
2. Missile threats - Bill Gertz (June 4, 2009)

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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