ASCF Report | 7.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd
China is deploying a massive arsenal of missiles, including
anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) expressly designed to push the United States
out of the Asia-Pacific neighborhood. And the Pentagon is taking notice. Consider Chief
of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert’s
response to a question about the DF-21D—one of China’s newest
anti-ship weapons. Asked if the so-called “carrier killer” could sound the
death knell for the era of American aircraft-carrier dominance of the seas,Greenertadmitted the Navy is “working quite feverishly”
on identifying the missile’s vulnerabilities.
This threat didn’t sneak up on the Pentagon. In fact, DoD
reports dating back more than a decade indicate that Beijing’s focus has been
on deploying capabilities “to deter or counter third-party intervention,
including by the United States,” to dissuade the U.S. from intervening in what
China considers its sphere of influence, and should conflict arise, to prevent
the U.S. from projecting assets into the battle space before Beijing achieves
its objectives. As the Pentagon put it in 2000, in the event of conflict,
Beijing’s goal would be “to achieve a military solution before outside powers
could intervene militarily.”
The Pentagon’s shorthand for this is “A2AD”—Beijing’s anti-access/area-denial
strategy. Deployment of advanced cruise missiles is a key element of A2AD.
The DF-21D is a land-based, road-mobile, anti-ship ballistic
missile (ASBM) that uses sensors to maneuver as
it descends and then strikes its target at a shallow angle of attack.The DF-21D has a range of some 1,500 km. As DoD
noted in 2013, the DF- 21D gives China “the capability to attack large ships,
including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific” and extends China’s
ability “to attack, at long ranges, military forces that might deploy or
operate within the western Pacific.”
Equally concerning, China
ushered in 2014 by testing the WU-14—a hypersonic glide vehiclelaunched
into space before reentering the earth’s atmosphere and striking its target at speeds
exceeding Mach 10.
According to DoD, Beijing has deployed or is in the process
of acquiring nearly a dozen ASCM variants.
The National Air and Space Intelligence Center reportedin 2013 that Beijing has 200-plus short-range missile launchers (with a reach
of anywhere between 150 km and 800 km) and up to 140 medium-range missile launchers
(with ranges from 1,500 km to 3,000 km). As a
recent National Defense University report concludes, Beijing could use this ASCM arsenal to launch
swarm or “saturation” strikes against U.S. Navy assets, especially carrier
Further fortifying A2AD, China is primed to deploy as many
as 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 55 amphibious ships, 34 destroyers, five
ballistic missile submarines and two aircraft carriers by 2020, according to a
Congressional Research Service report.
As the Pentagon bluntly puts it, Beijing’s goal is nothing
less than “to become the preeminent Asian power.” That presents a problem for today’s
preeminent Asian power: the United States.
The United States has
plenty of moves it can make to counter China. To its credit, Washington has
already made some moves to address Beijing’s A2AD strategy.
For instance, the United States is transforming Guam
into an island arsenal, complete with new berths for aircraft carriers and
attack subs, and extra hangars for swarms of long-range bombers.
Washington is deploying missile-killing assets across the
region: THAAD units in Guam; missile-tracking radars in Hawaii, Japan and
Australia; SM-3 interceptors on U.S. and Japanese warships; Aegis warships throughout
the Pacific. The Aegis Ashore system—now being tested in Hawaii—is planned for
deployment in Europe, but it’s easy to imagine Aegis Ashore units dotting the
The United States also is dispersing its military assets and
deepening its alliances in the region:
Manila agreed to
allow U.S. Marine, Air Force and Naval assets broad access to Philippine bases.
Japan is standing
up a 3,000-man amphibious military unit. Modeled after—and tutored by—the U.S.
Marine Corps, the new unit will be based in Japan’s southern islands. Tokyo is buying F-35s, high-tech drones and attack
submarines in a $240-billion military buildup over the next five years.
Marines will be based in northern Australia, and the longtime allies are
deepening their cooperation on missile defense.
The Navy is
basing littoral combat ships in Singapore.
India and the
U.S. increasingly view one another as a counterweight to China, each providing
strategic depth vis-à-vis Beijing. The two have conducted large-scale military
maneuvers since 2002.
Vietnam and the
U.S. Navy have a deepening relationship, including regular port visits by U.S.
warships and training exercises.
In the realm of moves yet to be made, Washington
could and should use
asymmetry to its advantage. While Beijing fancies itself a master of asymmetric
operations, the asymmetric sword cuts both ways.
A2AD in Reverse
Researchers at RAND propose “using ground-based anti-ship
missiles (ASM) as part of a U.S. A2AD strategy” by linking together several
strategically located partner nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea,
Taiwan and the Philippines—in a regional ASM coalition. “The ability to cut off
Chinese seaborne access beyond the first island chain would serve as a major deterrent,
and would have a significant effect on China’s ability to attack its overseas
neighbors and wage a prolonged war.”
President Reagan argued that “a little less détente…and more encouragement to
the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” In other words, Washington
should highlight Beijing’s contempt for human rights by offering a platform to
the regime’s enemies—journalists, bloggers, the underground Church, Tibetan
independence advocates, China’s second-class rural citizens, laogaisurvivors, Charter 08 signatories, political
dissidents, families victimized by the one-child policy. Beijing is acutely
sensitive to these issues and has no answer to them—except systemic political
reform, which would be in America’s and Asia’s interest.
The U.S. is awash in energy resources. There are some3
trillion barrels of oil in America’s Rocky
Mountain states, and the U.S. will be the world’s leading oil producer by 2017
and a net oil exporter by 2030.
As Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey observes, an energy-independent
America “has the potential to change the security environment around the
world.” He calls on policymakers to view “energy as an instrument of national
power.” Wielding this instrument could have a profound effect on an
energy-starved China—so would, in the event of hostilities, blockading the sea
lanes that deliver oil to China.
Washington could always play the
Taiwan card. Specifically, Washington could enunciate a clear, unambiguous commitment to the
sovereign independence of Taiwan. Not only would this remind Beijing of the
cards Washington holds; it could go a long way toward deterring Beijing from
reincorporating Taiwan by force—whether overtly or stealthily, à la Russia in Crimea.
This is not some radical, off-the-wall notion. As
former Senator Richard Lugar, one of the most respected, reasoned statesmen of
his generation, has argued, “It is imperative that we make credible our
commitment to assist Taiwan if China uses force to unify the island to the
Mainland. The credibility of our commitment will determine the validity of our
Put another way, the only unification the United
States should ever support is one initiated by Taiwan—and reflecting the will
of the people of Taiwan.
Contrary to Beijing’s apologists, guaranteeing Taiwan’s
security wouldn’t be impossible. Yes, the island is relatively remote; yes,
it’s in the crosshairs of a military juggernaut; yes, that juggernaut has significant
conventional military advantages in the theater. But each of these factors
applied to West Berlin during the Cold War, and yet the United States
guaranteed that tiny patch of freedom in the middle of the Soviet Empire. Now,
as then, it’s a matter of will and interests, not capabilities.
Speaking of capabilities, when Khrushchev warned President
Eisenhower about the Red Army’s overwhelming conventional edge in the event of
another crisis in Germany, the steely American commander-in-chief fired back:
“If you attack us in Germany, there will be nothing conventional about our
response.” If China really wants to swim in the waters of great powers, if it wants
to rewrite the rules of the game, if it wants to disrupt an international system
that has kept the Asia-Pacific region peaceful and prosperous the past 40
years, then this is the sort of language Washington will need to employ—privately
and quietly, of course. As we learned during the 2001 Hainan
incident, face-saving diplomacy is important to Beijing—and to U.S.
interests. Saving face may save lives.
Perhaps the U.S. military is already speaking this language to its PLA
counterparts, albeit indirectly. The new AirSea Battle concept (ASB) seems tailored-made
for responding to a PRC “missile-krieg.” ASB strongly suggests that if a
shooting war starts, America will not limit its operations to targets in the
South and East China Seas, but will strike missile launchers,
command-and-control assets and airbases deep inside China. Beijing has no
answer for this in the conventional realm, which presents a problem.
“Given that the concept entails deep penetration of Chinese
territory to destroy and disrupt PLA command-and-control nodes used for
conventional operations,” cautionsBen Schreer of the Australian
Strategic Policy Institute, “Beijing
might well perceive such attacks as American attempts to disarm China’s nuclear
If the objective in publicizing ASB is to make China think
twice about taking military action in the South or East China Seas—and thus to
deter China—it’s not unimaginable that China could take dramatic preemptive
steps in some future crisis. And if the missiles start flying, ASB could leave
China with few options other than to skip several rungs on the response ladder.
No one wants that.
Regrettably, the best move Washington could make—indeed the move upon which
most of these others depend—is being taken off the table by the dangerous
bipartisan experiment known as sequestration. That move is deterrence.
By definition, sea power is an essential element of
America’s deterrent strength in the Pacific. But Washington is chopping away at
America’s maritime capabilities.
Navy has been ordered to cut surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, stretch the build time of new aircraft carriers from five to
seven years and had to seek a congressional waiverto deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated
11) while USS Gerald Ford is completed.
fleet will shrink from 55 to 42 by 2029.
Navy could be forced to mothball 38 more ships and may have to cut the carrier fleet down to just eight flat-tops. The
Pentagon is drifting toward retiring USS George Washington less than halfway
through its projected 50-year service life.
plans to temporarily dry-dock14 ships—including
half the Navy’s cruiser fleet—to save
cash. As the U.S. Naval Institute reports, “The
cruisers would be modernized, but they would not be manned.” It will be
interesting to see how effective a fleet of dry-docked ships without sailors is
at deterring China.
At the height of
President Reagan’s buildup, the
Navy boasted 594 ships. When President Clinton dispatched two carrier battle
groups to smother Beijing’s temper tantrum in the Taiwan Strait, the fleet
totaled 375 ships. Today’s fleet numbers 284 ships. Current recapitalization
rates will not keep up with plans to retire ships, leading to “a Navy of
240-250 ships,” according to former Navy Secretary John Lehman. At that size,
America’s fleet will be equal to what she deployed in 1915.
These numbers aren’t even close to America’s maritime needs.
“For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.” That gap
has real-world implications: The Asia-Pacific region will be left
unprotected by a U.S. aircraft carrier for some 130 days next year.
Does the above litany sound like a
credible deterrent? Only Xi Jinping
and his generals can answer that question.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.