Recent reports from the Department of Defense and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) provide new information regarding China’s developing missile threat to Taiwan. For most of this decade the US Department of Defense (DoD) in its public statements has said that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), under the aegis of its new Rocket Force, has deployed approximately 1,200 short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) against Taiwan. A more complete count including medium range ballistic and cruise missiles could put this number today at or above 2,000 missiles. However, new second-generation SRBMs give the PLA the option to target Taiwan with many thousand more. This asymmetry should prompt Washington and Taipei to accelerate asymmetric defensive responses.
The last time the DoD China Military Power Report provided a breakdown of SRBM types aimed at Taiwan was in its 2010 issue. For China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) DF-15 the number of missiles was “350-400” and the number of its launchers was “90-110.” For the competing China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) DF-11A, the corresponding numbers were “700-750” missiles and “120-140” launchers. In the latest 2017 DoD report the number of SRBMs is simply stated as “1,200” and the number of launchers “250.”
Though one launcher can carry only one missile, these “first generation” SRBMs have been improved. CASC’s DF-15 family now includes the 900km range DF-15B with a precision radar-guided warhead, which unofficial sources indicate could soon include secondary optical guidance systems that might allow attacks against moving targets like large ships. The 800km range DF-15C carries a specialized warhead for attacking underground facilities, which are crucial to Taiwan’s defenses. The current DF-15C warhead is said to penetrate 20 meters of concrete, while unofficial sources indicate the PLA wants to double this capability. Both the DF-15B and 350km range DF-11A are credited with modular warheads able to carry chemical, fuel-air-explosive, submunition and high explosive payloads.
A sensitive issue not addressed by the DoD or NASIC reports is the possibility that some DF-15s and DF-11As may be armed with tactical nuclear warheads. The authoritative Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems yearbook states that the DF-15 and DF-11A could be equipped with a nuclear warhead. In a 2012 paper former Russian Rocket Force Chief of Staff Colonel General Viktor Yesin stated the PLA may have up to 30 tactical nuclear warheads for DF-15s and DF-11As, which would likely target Taiwan.
For more than a decade CASIC and CASC have been refining a “second generation” of SRBMs combining precision guidance systems with less expensive artillery rocket technology, enabling one launcher to carry up to eight SRBMs. First to emerge by 2010 was CASIC’s combination of the heavier 280+km range BP-12A SRBM with the artillery rocket-based 400km SY-400. By 2012, CASC was marketing its combination 260km range M-Nyu20 (DF-12) large missile with its smaller new two-stage precision-guided artillery rocket-based 300km range A300 SRBM. A launcher can now carry up to two of the larger BP-12A or M-20 SRBMs, or one of the larger SRBMs with four of the smaller, or just eight of the smaller.
At the 2015 IDEX arms exhibit in Abu Dhabi a CASC official told the author that the PLA was going to purchase their A300 SRBM. In turn, this increases the chances the PLA is also buying the M-20 SRBM and the competing CASIC second generation SRBM system. As a maximum option the PLA could build 250 second generation SRBM systems to replace the first generation. In terms of missile growth, assuming these new launchers carry five SRBMs, plus three reloads of five SRBMs per launcher, that adds up to 5,000 SRBMs. However, as the DF-15B and DF-15C are about a decade old it is likely they will not be replaced immediately.
But as mentioned earlier, the PLA also targets Taiwan with medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). The 2017 DoD Report says the PLA has “200-300” MRBMs. In 2007, the 1,750km range DF-21C appeared, armed with a radar-guided warhead for precision strikes. Making its first appearance on Chinese television in 2011, the first version of the 800-1,000km range CASIC DF-16 used the modular warhead bus of the DF-11A. Its longer range enables a higher speed–useful in evading Taiwan’s missile defense interceptors. But in early 2006 a new DF-16 version appeared apparently armed with a version of the radar-guided warhead, likely based on that used by the DF-21C. There have been suggestions that CASIC’s DF-16 will replace the numerous DF-11A but this is not yet clear.
What is clear is that the PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) are in a position to rapidly increasing their numbers of LACMs, which are less expensive than MRBMs and some SRBMs. In 2010 the DoD estimated that the PLA had “200-500” of its 1,500km DH-10 ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). But in 2017, the DoD Report notes the PLA has “200-300” GLCMs and “200-300” LACMs, presumable the air-launched KD-20/CJ-10K, six of which are carried by the Xian Aircraft Corporation’s extensively modernized H-6K bomber. According to an Asian government estimate the PLAAF could have 180 H-6K bombers by 2020. If the number of H-6Ks reaches 100, that means a potential first salvo of 600 LACMs. These long-range cruise missiles are also expected to arm PLA Navy submarines.
Since the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1995, when the PLA fired six DF-15s between 21-23 July to a location Northwest of Taiwan, Taipei, Washington and its Asian allies have been seized with countering both the military and psychological impact of China’s expanding missile force. The United States has sold Taiwan two generations of its PATRIOT missile interceptors and technology enabling Taiwan to produce multiple versions of its Tien Kung (天弓) surface-to-air missile interceptors. But as the PATRIOT-3 reportedly costs about $3 million USD per missile, and two may be required for a successful interception, it is too expensive to counter potentially thousands of new PLA SRBMs.
For more than a decade, in addition to missile defenses, Washington has urged Taiwan to improve “asymmetric” defenses like increasing its ability to jam PLA missile guidance systems. Yet there are also future asymmetric weapon options that with necessary leadership in Washington, could also be offered to Taiwan to increase its deterrent potential. One such technology with great promise is the Electromagnetic Rail Gun (EMRG), which the US Navy hopes will enter its fleet by the mid-2020s. Accelerating its development could allow ground and ship-based versions to be sold to Taiwan.
Twenty railguns, firing 10 rounds a minute, with each round carrying 100 tungsten steel balls, could in 3 minutes loft over 60,000 projectiles to interception speeds against an incoming PLA missile salvo. An EMRG round costs $25-50,000 versus a $1-2 million PLA SRBM. Adding EMRG to its other active and passive missile defenses could enable Taiwan to threaten enough of even a much larger PLA missile force to help convince China’s leadership that an attack against Taiwan will fail or be too costly.
The main point: Recent US government reports provide new information regarding China’s missile threat to Taiwan. While the number of Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs) has remained at 1,200 for several years, growing numbers of Chinese cruise missiles could mean approximately 2,000 Chinese missiles target Taiwan. But should China replace first generation SRBMs with new Second Generation models, the number of missiles targeting Taiwan could grow to several thousand.
 Colonel General (ret.) Viktor Yesin, “Third after the United States and Russia:On China’s Nuclear Potential without Underestimation or Exaggeration,” Voenno-promyshleyi Ku’er (Military-Industrial Courier) No. 17 (May 2, 2012), translated by Anna Tsiporkina, associate fellow of the Potomac Foundation, with Dr. Hung Nguyen, research scientist with the Science and Research Corporation and Jonathan Askonas of the Arms Control Project of Georgetown University, 6.