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Report: Chinese cruise missiles could pose biggest threat to U.S. carriers

Jun. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
An F/A-18C Hornet launches off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz. A new report says Chinese cruise missiles may pose a growing challenge to Navy carrier strike groups.
An F/A-18C Hornet launches off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz. A new report says Chinese cruise missiles may pose a growing challenge to Navy carrier strike groups. (MCSA Kelly M. Agee/Navy)
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TAIPEI — Saturation strikes from Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles could become the biggest threat to Navy carrier strike groups (CSG), according to a paper issued by the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University.

The paper , “A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions,” draws from both Western and Chinese-language open source documents and concludes, “experienced Aegis warriors will respect China’s emerging capabilities.”

Written by cruise missile specialist Dennis Gormley, and China military specialists Andrew Erickson and Jingdong Yuan, the paper states that, due to the low cost of developing, deploying and maintaining cruise missiles, the Chinese believe that cruise missiles possess a 9:1 cost advantage over the expense of defending against them. China assumes that “quantity can defeat quality” by simply saturating a CSG with a variety of high-speed, low-altitude, cruise missiles.

The common belief in Navy circles that China would “need to approach parity in deck aviation capabilities” to defeat a CSG “may no longer be valid.”

China has “clearly” elevated cruise missile development “over an organic carrier capability with the apparent goal of acquiring the capability to neutralize US carrier strike group forces through overwhelming” cruise missile attacks.

The paper also delves into a darker future that includes nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Noting that the former Soviet Navy emphasized the employment of nuclear-armed cruise missiles against a CSG, the paper suggests the possibility the Chinese Navy might pursue the same option in the future. The argument against China pursuing this capability is its weakness in command and control and the fact that such a capability would be “inconsistent with [China’s] current nuclear doctrine.”

The possibility, according to the paper, cannot be ruled out. Quoting retired Navy Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt, China is “likely already ‘arm[ing] nuclear attack submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.’” The paper’s authors could find no evidence of “substrategic nuclear weapons,” but the “Soviet Navy has clearly influenced” the thinking of the Chinese Navy.

The paper looks at the publications of Senior Capt. Liu Yang, a Chinese naval officer at the Wuhan Office of the Naval Armaments Department. Liu’s writings suggest that “all options are on the table” for the “special anti-aircraft carrier mission.”

Liu outlines three courses of actions, such as a cruise missile armed with a low-weight nuclear burst warhead, a fuel-air explosive warhead, and an undefined “special type of warhead with even greater power to inflict casualties.”

The fact that Liu is associated with the Wuhan Office suggests his writings should be “under serious consideration and may even have moved beyond the theoretical stage.” However, Beijing’s history of centralized control of nuclear weapons argues against allowing deployment of sea-based nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

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