Deployment of  the DH-10 land attack cruise missile (LACM), similar in design to the American BGM-109 Tomahawk and Russian KH-55, on Chinese warships could bring new meaning to gunboat diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific.

Images have surfaced of a naval variant of the DH-10.  The missile canisters spotted on the test ship appear to be virtually identical to the land-based variant. This sort of arrangement is reminiscent to the deployment of the BGM-109 Tomahawk on United States Navy surface combatants by way of the MK-143 Armored Box Launcher. The MK-143 enabled vessels such as the Iowa Class Battleships and Spruance Class Destroyers to launch the BGM-109.

The images suggest that the DH-10 would be installed in the same way as the YJ-62 or YJ-83 anti-ship missiles. This is advantageous for the current generation of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface combatants, giving designs such as the 052C land attack capability with minimal structural modification. However, the downside is that the arrangement would sacrifice anti-ship capabilities by substituting the YJ-62 or YJ-83 systems with DH-10 launchers. It also means that only a maximum of eight missiles can be carried and that is assuming the launch canisters can be stacked on top of one another.

In spite of its disadvantages and simplicity compared to the deployment of vertically launched LACMs by other navies, the adoption of a naval variant of the DH-10 is a considerable capability leap for Beijing.

The emergence of a navalised version of the DH-10 completes China’s “cruise missile triad”, complementing the already in-service land-based system and the air-launched variant, the CJ-10. Missiles launched from land-based platforms are restricted to striking targets around China’s periphery, not so dissimilar to the range limitations faced by the Second Artillery Force’s inventory of conventional ballistic missiles. Missiles launched from the air force’s H-6 bombers provide more operational flexibility and reach for China’s cruise missiles, similar to the way in which the United States Air Force deploys cruise missiles from its bomber fleet. However, without aerial refuelling capability, the H-6 is an aircraft restricted to regional operations. The bomber’s obsolete design and its vulnerability to interception are also limiting factors.

The PLAN, on the other hand, is the only branch of the Chinese military capable of projecting power far beyond China’s shores. While it is debatable whether the PLAN may not seek the same sort of global reach as the United States Navy, the possession of ship-launched LACMs would essentially enable Chinese warships to conduct long range precision attacks against land targets around the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For China’s neighbors, PLAN surface combatants could now execute attacks on Taiwan, Japan and most of Southeast Asia without the need to  venture far from Chinese waters. American bases across the Indo-Pacific region could also be vulnerable to conventional cruise missile attack. Facilities in Guam, Hawaii, Diego Garcia and Darwin, strategic locations that were traditionally safe from anything short of a Chinese nuclear strike, could now be potentially brought within the firing range of PLAN ships armed with the DH-10.

It must be stressed, however, that arming Chinese warships with LACMs is not necessarily a silver bullet in a regional conflict. It is not clear how the PLAN would coordinate with other services such as the Second Artillery Force in the execution of a cruise missile attack. A saturated or sustained cruise missile bombardment from the navy alone may not be achievable given the limited number of ships and munitions. A PLAN surface task force approaching or taking up firing positions off the adversary’s coast would most likely be detected, offering ample warning for air defenses and even providing sufficient time for the adversary to respond with sea or air attacks.

The current way the DH-10 is being tested or fielded should only be regarded as an interim solution. All eyes are now on the 052D destroyer, the successor of the 052C that is reportedly under construction, and whether the PLAN will adopt a universal vertical launch system to accommodate the DH-10. It would also be interesting to monitor the development of undersea systems. Arming Beijing’s fleet of conventional and nuclear attack submarines with submarine-launched cruise missiles will have far reaching implications.

Related posts:

Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 13 post(s) on New Pacific Institute