The Landing Zone | 12.18.14
By Alan W. Dowd
China’s new J-31 stealth fighter made its debut at an international airshow last month, prompting a U.S. fighter pilot to predict,
“They’ll eventually be on par with our fifth-gen jets.” A U.S. test
pilot added, “They sure look like F-35s and F-22s” (more on that in a
moment). The J-31’s splashy unveiling is only the latest example of
China’s full-tilt push to field a modern, power-projecting military. Is
the U.S. prepared for a China that has the wherewithal and willingness
to flex its muscles across the Asia-Pacific region?
much of the world is slashing defense spending, China is boosting its
defense budget by double-digit percentages annually: In 2014, Beijing
increased military spending by 12.2 percent—at least officially. The
actual increase may have been as high as 40 percent.
This follows increases of 10.7 percent in 2013, 11.6 percent in 2012
and 11.2 percent in 2011. China’s military-related spending has jumped
170 percent the past decade. “By next year,” The New York Times reports,
“China will spend more on defense than Britain, Germany and France
combined.” Here’s the payoff, according to a recent Pentagon study:
- China has “a growing ability to project power at increasingly longer ranges.”
- The People’s
Liberation Army (PLA) air force deploys more than 2,800 aircraft, not
including unmanned aerial vehicles. Of these, an estimated 600 are
considered “modern” warplanes.
- “China is
developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to
limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during
times of crisis or conflict.”
- China deploys more
than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles and is fielding “a limited but
growing number of conventionally armed medium-range ballistic missiles,
including the CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM),”
which gives China “the capability to attack large ships, including
aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific.”
DoD studies dating back more than a decade indicate that Beijing has
been developing 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
battlespace 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
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, for instance, is a land-based
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.) The National Air and Space Intelligence Center reported in 2013 that Beijing has 200-plus short-range missile launchers (with a
range 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 ASBM arsenal to launch swarm or “saturation”
strikes against U.S. assets, especially carrier strike groups.
fortifying A2AD, China is primed to deploy as many as 73 attack
submarines, 58 frigates, 34 destroyers, five ballistic missile
submarines and two aircraft carriers by 2020, according to the
Congressional Research Service.
did Beijing change the balance so rapidly? As the world’s factory
floor, China has the economic resources to outfit its military with
modern equipment; and as a communist tyranny, China has no ethical
qualms about stealing what it can’t buy.
brings us back to the similarities between the J-31 and America’s
newest warplanes. According to information-security firm Mandiant, “a
unit of the PLA has in fact been chartered to compromise the U.S.
infrastructure and steal our intellectual property.” Specifically, China
has penetrated computer systems related to development of the F-35
Joint Strike Fighter.
the strength of these investments and thefts, China is bullying its
neighbors; declaring sovereignty over vast swaths of international
airspace, international waterways and territories belonging to other
nations; and as the Pentagon bluntly puts it, trying “to become the
preeminent Asian power.”
That presents a problem for today’s preeminent Asian power: the United States.
the capabilities of the U.S. military, the balance of power would still
seem to favor the United States—that is, until one considers that
America’s military assets and security commitments are spread around the
globe, while China’s are concentrated in its neighborhood. Washington’s
mixed-bag response to Beijing’s buildup reflects this reality.
“Pacific pivot”—the Obama administration’s term for reorienting
America’s focus and forces to the Asia-Pacific—makes sense in theory.
Early examples of the pivot include the buildup and modernization underway on Guam; deployment of
missile-defense assets in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, Australia and at sea;
expanded U.S. access to facilities in Australia, the Philippines and
Singapore; the deepening alliance with Japan; and an emerging
partnership with India.
But events in the Middle East and Europe are preventing the United States from disengaging from these regions and redeploying assets to the Pacific.
Washington is simply not equipping the Pentagon with the tools to deter
a rising China and thus make the pivot work. In fact, Washington is
chopping away at America’s deterrent capabilities:
- The Air Force is reducing its fleet by 286 planes. In 2013, the Air Force stood down 31 squadrons due to funding constraints.
- Half of the Marine Corps’ fixed-wing fighters are grounded due to sequestration.
- The Navy has been ordered to cut surface combatants from 85 ships to 78,
had to seek a congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather
than the legally-mandated 11) while USS Gerald Ford is completed, and
could be forced to cut the carrier fleet down to eight flat-tops.
In fact, six of the nation’s 11 aircraft carriers are “in some stage of
maintenance now and one-third of the amphibious force is in a similar
state because routine maintenance had been delayed while operating tempo
remained high,” the U.S. Naval Institute reports.
- At the height of
President Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 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.
- “For us to meet
what combatant commanders request,” explains CNO Adm. Jonathan 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.
The new AirSea Battle concept seems tailored-made for responding to Beijing’s A2AD strategy. Under
AirSea Battle, if a shooting war starts, America would not limit its
operations to targets in the South and East China Seas, but would 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.
that the concept entails deep penetration of Chinese territory to
destroy and disrupt PLA command-and-control nodes used for conventional
operations,” cautions Ben Schreer of the Australian Strategic Policy
Institute, “Beijing might well perceive such attacks as American
attempts to disarm China’s nuclear deterrent.”
if the objective in publicizing AirSea Battle is to make China think
twice about taking military action in the South China Sea—and thus to
deter China—it’s not inconceivable that China could take dramatic
preemptive steps in some future crisis. And if the missiles start
flying, AirSea Battle could leave Beijing with few options other than to
skip several rungs on the escalation ladder. No one wants that.
Beijing fancies itself a master of asymmetry, the asymmetric sword cuts
both ways. The United States has plenty of moves it can make to counter
President Reagan argued during the Cold War, “A little less détente…and
more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored
divisions.” Perhaps Washington should start highlighting Beijing’s
contempt for human rights by offering a platform to the regime’s
enemies—journalists, bloggers, the underground Church, Tibetan
independence advocates, laogai survivors, Charter 08 signatories,
political dissidents, families victimized by the one-child policy, Hong
Kong democracy activists. Beijing is acutely sensitive to the
international opprobrium attached to these issues and has no answer to
them—except systemic political reform, which would be in America’s and
are some 3 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.
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, the
Philippines—in a regional ASM coalition. Given departing Defense
Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recent remarks about the Army “leveraging its
current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets,
artillery and air-defense systems” with an eye toward “hardening the
defenses of U.S. installations…and helping ensure the free flow of
commerce,” it seems Washington is prepared to show Beijing that two can
play the A2AD game.
best move Washington could make is being taken off the table by
sequestration. That move is deterrence. Defense has ebbed to 3.2 percent
of GDP—headed for just 2.3 percent of GDP by 2022-23. The last time
America invested less than 3 percent in defense was, ominously, 1940.
that enough to deter Chinese military adventurism, to prevent a mishap
from spiraling into a military confrontation no one wants? Only Xi
Jinping can answer that. And that’s a worrisome notion.
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.