China’s Anti-Access Plans Worry U.S. Navy
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — If another Taiwan Strait crisis comes to blows, China intends to keep the U.S. Navy out by eroding its anti-submarine, air defense, ballistic missile defense (BMD) and C4ISR capabilities, according to a Pentagon report.
This “offshore defense strategy,” as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) calls it, foresees a blockade of Taiwan, attacks on the island, and disrupting the U.S. fleet’s ability to come to the rescue.
“The Chinese approach is defensive. The United States has characterized the approach as ‘anti-access,’ because if successfully executed, it could deny the U.S. the ability to operate its naval and air forces as it pleases along the littoral of East Asia,” said Michael McDevitt, a retired U.S. admiral and director of the Center for Strategic Studies.
According to the recently released report on China’s military modernization, PLAN has 74 principal combatants, 57 attack submarines, 55 medium and heavy amphibious ships, and 49 coastal missile patrol craft. Its aircraft carrier program could begin building by 2010, and there have been unconfirmed reports Beijing and Moscow have been discussing the purchase of Su-33 carrier-borne fighters.
Chinese warplanes include Xian H6 bombers that can currently carry Russian AS17 (Kh-31A) Krypton anti-ship missiles, and are being upgraded to wield long-range antiship and land-attack cruise missiles.
China is developing and buying submarinelaunched ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles and many other types of missiles. It is experimenting with anti-satellite missiles and lasers.
China’s nascent anti-ship ballistic missile is based on the Dong Feng 21C (CSS-5) medium-range ballistic missile, armed with a maneuverable warhead. The new missile is intended to allow China to attack U.S. aircraft carriers up to 1,500 kilometers away, but there are questions about whether China can make it a reliable weapon.
Dennis Blair, a former U.S. admiral and PACOM commander, argues that many countries “can fire a missile a great distance out into an area of ocean — the trick is hitting the right target.” Blair said that U.S. and Soviet weapon-makers had long ago developed long-range missiles, but could never develop the kinds of sensors to find targets and guide them in.
“The situation is no different today. Any long-range electronic, electro-optical or other detection system or guidance system can be wrong, confused, jammed, spoofed or disabled, and the missile itself can be shot down. The Chinese DF-21 system is an attractive science project for an immature maritime nation,” Blair said.
Eric McVadon, a retired U.S. admiral who directs Asia-Pacific Studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, agrees that China is likely to develop a medium-range ballistic missile with a multiple warhead.
“But such a missile capable of avoiding intercept by maneuvering, and then maneuvering to home in on a ship plus incorporating decoys and other penetration aids, is a challenge that will demand ingenuity,” McVadon said. “The offensive missiles have the upper hand in the race to develop capable defensive missiles, but there are many ways to skin a cat, as my mother used to say.” However, McVadon said China could simply overwhelm any number of BMD systems, “always ensuring the ability to saturate our system but counting on that fact to make it all the more unlikely that these weapons would ever be used.” Taiwan sources complain that no BMD system could be successful against China’s 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at the small island. Over-kill, using a multilayered, multidirectional saturation strategy, is reminiscent of China’s Korean War “human wave” tactics.
China will soon commission two new Shang-class (Type 093) nuclear-powered attack submarines and one Jin-class (Type 094) ballistic missile nuclear-powered submarine, armed with a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2, with deployment by 2010. With a range of 8,000 kilometers, the JL2 SLBM will carry three or four multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, and is considered an important step in China’s quest to establish a sea-based nuclear retaliatory capability.
In the past two years, the Navy commissioned four domestically built destroyers and three frigates.
“The Jin-class will make Chinese leaders a bit more confident of the survivability of a minimal deterrent, therefore emboldening them a bit more if the chips are down with respect to Taiwan. It is not that use is likely but rather that both Washington and Beijing perceive China as a more serious nuclear power,” McVadon said.
Submarines alone might be all China needs to slow or even stop a U.S. response to a Taiwan Strait crisis, McVadon said.
The United States would be unable to mount the kind of anti-sub effort “to cope with the likes of eight new Kilo-class quiet diesel-electric submarines armed with submerged-launch, supersonic, evasive anti-ship cruise missiles with a range of over a hundred miles.” He said other formidable threats are posed by China’s dozen or more Song-class and a few each of Yuan-class and the nuclear-powered Shang class.
But China has only a limited ability to communicate with submarines at sea and has “no experience in managing an SSBN fleet that performs strategic patrols,” the Pentagon report said.
McVadon agrees the PLAN submarine fleet lacks a reliable means to locate targets, but “we should already worry that location could occur by skill, luck or rudimentary means.” Chinese military literature has also debated the unthinkable: the use of a tactical nuclear weapon “if China feels it must violate its nofirst-use policy to survive or protect vital interests,” McVadon said. “Nuclear and conventional electro-magnetic pulse are similarly envisioned as desperation weapons to blind a force posing an intolerable threat to China and make it vulnerable to otherwise inferior forces.” McDevitt said the United States still has the advantage since much of China’s approach remains on the drawing board, and not in the field.
“Nonetheless, it is not hard to discern the direction they are heading, and there is very little the U.S. can do to change that vector. As a result, the security situation in East Asia will be in a constant state of evolution as the U.S. and its allies work to stay ahead of the Chinese capabilities that over time become operational. In effect, there will be an ongoing ‘capabilities competition.’”