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News | April 1, 2014

A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions

By Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan Book


Executive Summary

China’s military modernization is focused on building modern ground, naval, air, and missile forces capable of fighting and winning local wars under informationized conditions. The principal planning scenario has been a military campaign against Taiwan, which would require the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to deter or defeat U.S. intervention. The PLA has sought to acquire asymmetric “assassin’s mace”1 technologies and systems to overcome a superior adversary and couple them to the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems necessary for swift and precise execution of short-duration, high-intensity wars.

A key element of the PLA’s investment in antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities is the development and deployment of large numbers of highly accurate antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) on a range of ground, air, and naval platforms. China’s growing arsenal of cruise missiles and the delivery platforms and C4ISR systems necessary to employ them pose new defense and nonproliferation challenges for the United States and its regional partners. This study surveys People’s Republic of China (PRC) ASCM and LACM programs and their implications for broader PLA capabilities, especially in a Taiwan scenario. Key findings are presented below.

The Military Value of Cruise Missiles

  • Cruise missiles are versatile military tools due to their potential use for precision conventional strike missions and the wide range of employment options. 
  • Modern cruise missiles offer land, sea, and air launch options, allowing a “two-stage” form of delivery that extends their already substantial range. They may also be placed in canisters for extended deployments in harsh environments. 
  • Because cruise missiles are compact and have limited support requirements, ground-launched platforms can be highly mobile, contributing to prelaunch survivability. Moreover, cruise missiles need only rudimentary launch-pad stability, enabling shoot-and-scoot tactics. 
  • Since cruise missile engines or motors do not produce prominent infrared signatures on launch, they are not believed to be detectable by existing space-warning systems, reducing their vulnerability to post-launch counterforce attacks. 
  • The potentially supersonic speed, small radar signature, and very low altitude flight profile of cruise missiles stress air defense systems and airborne surveillance and tracking radars, increasing the likelihood that they will successfully penetrate defenses. 
  • Employed in salvos, perhaps in tandem with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles could saturate defenses with large numbers of missiles arriving at a specific target in a short time.
  • Optimal employment of cruise missiles requires accurate and timely intelligence; suitable and ideally stealthy and survivable delivery platforms; mission planning technology; command, control, and communications systems; and damage assessment.

Chinese Antiship Cruise Missile Developments 

  • China, like other nations, has come to regard ASCMs as an increasingly potent means of shaping the outcome of military conflicts. 
  • China has developed its own advanced, highly capable ASCMs (the YJ series) while also importing Russian supersonic ASCMs, which have no operational Western equivalents. 
  • China is capable of launching its ASCMs from a growing variety of land, air, ship, and undersea platforms, providing redundant multiaxis means of massing offensive firepower against targets at sea (or at least against their predicted locations).
  • Virtually every new surface ship and conventionally powered submarine in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) can launch ASCMs, allowing these platforms to serve as “aquatic TELs” (Transporter-Erector-Launchers). Navy training has become more diverse and realistic in recent years with increasing focus on cruise missile operations. 
  • Beijing has furnished its ASCMs with improved guidance and has recently begun selling satellite navigation capabilities. Still, over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting remains a challenge. 
  • Chinese researchers are studying how to best overcome Aegis defenses and target adversary vulnerabilities. ASCMs are increasingly poised to challenge U.S. surface vessels, especially in situations where the quantity of missiles fired can overwhelm Aegis air defense systems through saturation and multiaxis tactics. 
  • Possible future uses of Chinese aircraft carriers might include bringing ASCM- and LACM-capable aircraft within range of U.S. targets. 
  • A consistent theme in Chinese writings is that China’s own ships and other platforms are themselves vulnerable to cruise missile attack. But China appears to believe it can compensate by further developing its capacity to threaten enemy warships with large volumes of fire.

Chinese Land-Attack Cruise Missile Developments

  • China has deployed two subsonic LACMs, the air-launched YJ-63 with a range of 200 kilometers (km) and the 1,500+ km-range ground-launched DH-10. Both systems benefited from ample technical assistance from foreign sources, primarily the Soviet Union/Russia. 
  • The first-generation YJ-63 employs inertial navigation complemented by an electro-optical terminal sensor to achieve 10–15 meter (m) accuracy. 
  • The second-generation DH-10 has a GPS/inertial guidance system but may also use terrain contour mapping for redundant midcourse guidance and a digital scene-matching sensor to permit an accuracy of 10 m. 
  • Development of the Chinese Beidou/Compass navigation-positioning satellite network is partly intended to eliminate dependence on the U.S. GPS for guidance. 
  • Beijing has purchased foreign systems and assistance to complement its own indigenous LACM efforts. It has received Harpy anti-radiation drones with stand-off ranges of 400 km or more from Israel. China may also have the Russian Klub 3M-14E SS-N-30 LACM,5 which can be launched from some PLAN Kilo-class submarines and deliver a 400-kilogram (kg) warhead to a range of 300 km.
  • Time and dedicated effort will increase the PLA’s ability to employ LACMs even in challenging combined-arms military campaigns. 

Potential Employment in a Taiwan Scenario

  • Chinese ASCMs and LACMs could be used in conjunction with other A2/AD capabilities to attack U.S. naval forces and bases that would be critical for U.S. efforts to respond to a mainland Chinese attack on Taiwan. 
  • Operating in tandem with China’s huge inventory of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, LACMs could severely complicate Taiwan’s capacity to use its air force to thwart Chinese attack options. 
  • Chinese military planners view LACMs as particularly effective against targets requiring precision accuracy (for example, airfield hangars and command and control facilities). They also view large-salvo attacks by LACMs and ballistic missiles as the best means to overwhelm enemy missile defenses. 
  • Chinese planners emphasize the shock and paralytic effects of combined ballistic and LACM attacks against enemy airbases, which could greatly increase the effectiveness of follow-on aircraft strikes. These effects depend significantly on the number of launchers available to deliver missiles.
  • China currently has 255–305 ballistic missile and LACM launchers within range of Taiwan, which are capable of delivering sustained pulses of firepower against a number of critical airfields, missile defense sites, early warning radars, command and control facilities, logistical storage sites, and critical civilian infrastructure such as electrical distribution. 

Proliferation Implications of China’s Cruise Missiles 

  • If China’s past record of proliferating ballistic missiles and technology is any indication of its intentions vis-à-vis cruise missile transfers, the consequences could be highly disruptive for the nonproliferation regime and in spreading A2/AD capabilities. 
  • China has sold ASCMs to other countries, including Iran. 
  • Beijing is suspected of furnishing Pakistan with either complete LACMs or components for local assembly. 
  • China’s lack of adherence to the principles of the 34-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is especially problematic regarding cruise missiles and UAVs. 
  • China has sought unsuccessfully to become a full member of the MTCR since 2004. However, should China become a fully compliant MTCR member, it would be a salient achievement in limiting widespread LACM proliferation. 


China has invested considerable resources both in acquiring foreign cruise missiles and technology and in developing its own indigenous cruise missile capabilities. These efforts are bearing fruit in the form of relatively advanced ASCMs and LACMs deployed on a wide range of older and modern air, ground, surface-ship, and sub-surface platforms. To realize the full benefits, China will need additional investments in all the relevant enabling technologies and systems required to optimize cruise missile performance.  Shortcomings remain in intelligence support, command and control, platform stealth and survivability, and post-attack damage assessment, all of which are critical to mission effectiveness.

ASCMs and LACMs have significantly improved PLA combat capabilities and are key components in Chinese efforts to develop A2/AD capabilities that increase the costs and risks for U.S. forces operating near China, including in a Taiwan contingency. China plans to employ cruise missiles in ways that exploit synergies with other strike systems, including using cruise missiles to degrade air defenses and command and control facilities to enable follow-on air strikes. Defenses and other responses to PRC cruise missile capabilities exist, but will require greater attention and a focused effort to develop technical countermeasures and effective operational responses.