- U.S. warns on China cyber, anti-satellite capability (reuters.com)
- U.S. mulling defence plan for space (cbc.ca)
Eric Talmadge, “US admiral: Carrier killer won’t stop US Navy,” Washington Post, February 15, 2011
The U.S. military has had its eye on China’s “carrier killer” missile, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (or ASBM), for some time now, especially the U.S. Navy (understandably, since it’s advertised as a direct counter to the “crown jewel” of the U.S. fleet and a lodestar of U.S. power projection capabilities). The DoD seems to go to pretty extensive lengths to put forth an image of not fearing this weapon, for instance, this today:
However, Vice Adm. Scott van Buskirk, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, told the AP in an interview that the Navy does not see the much-feared weapon as creating any insurmountable vulnerability for the U.S. carriers – the Navy’s crown jewels.
“It’s not the Achilles heel of our aircraft carriers or our Navy – it is one weapons system, one technology that is out there,” Van Buskirk said in an interview this week on the bridge of the USS George Washington, the only carrier that is home-based in the western Pacific.
Admiral Van Buskirk took command of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet last fall. 7th Fleet is the naval command that would be on the front line of a potential maritime conflict with China.
It’s not surprising that the leader of this command would come forth with a strong statement discounting the ASBM – just imagine how it would look if he made a statement saying that there was no realistic defense against the ASBM. (Not exactly confidence-inspiring!)
The truth is that nobody knows for sure if the ASBM will work as advertised. There are a number of extremely high technical hurdles that the Chinese will have to solve in order to achieve a operational, fully capable weapon system. The commander of United States Pacific Command (USPACOM – two echelons of command up the chain from 7th Fleet), Admiral Robert Willard stated in an December 2010 interview that the ASBM has reached a state of development roughly equivalent to what in the U.S. defense establishment is called “initial operational capability.” This means that some units can be expected to have received the equipment and have the ability to employ it. It does not mean, however, that all the pieces of the necessary targeting systems, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) networks and associated technologies are at a sufficient state of development to fully support the weapon. Indeed. many U.S. defense analysts believe that these supporting technologies are about five years away from being fully operational. (It’s probably good to point out right here that the U.S. has been pretty poor at making accurate predictions about when various Chinese military technologies and hardware will come into service – see also the J-20 stealth aircraft, the prospects of the Chinese deploying an aircraft carrier in the near term, etc.)
In the same interview, Admiral Willard stated that a full over-water test of the ASBM system had not yet been observed. There was some speculation last summer that the PRC might do such a test in conjunction with bellicose rhetoric about U.S. naval operations in the Yellow Sea, but it never came to pass. (The U.S. naval operations were part of the combined response – along with the South Koreans – to the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan by North Korea earlier in 2010.)
I’d like to go back to what Admiral Van Buskirk said about the ASBM in the quote above – “It’s not the Achilles heel of our aircraft carriers or our Navy – it is one weapons system, one technology that is out there.” [emphasis added] Very true. But it’s one part that is very provocative, since only China has anything like it, and because it appears to be directly intended to counter a key U.S. strength in an asymmetric fashion.
In recent testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an expert from the RAND Corporation described China’s anti-access approach to be a “system-of-systems”; that China’s ability to effectively employ its joint anti-access strategy in the Western Pacific would be dependent to a great extent on establishing an effective operational system (meaning the right kinds of units, manned with people trained in the right way) to employ its anti-access capabilities (including the ASBM), and at the same time that China still needed to work on full deployment and integration of a host of battle management and ISR networks to be able to effectively target at long distance, for instance, a U.S. aircraft carrier heading toward the Taiwan Strait. I believe this is what Admiral Van Buskirk was alluding to when saying that the ASBM is but one piece of the overall system. The U.S. has to worry about all of the threats, not just one.
A final quote:
Still, van Buskirk said the Navy has no intention of altering its mission because of the new threat and will continue to operate in the seas around Japan, Korea, the Philippines and anywhere else it deems necessary.
“We won’t change these operations because of this specific technology that might be out there,” he told The AP while the USS George Washington was in its home port just south of Tokyo for repairs last week. “But we will carefully monitor and adapt to it.”
I think that to some extent the Navy (and other branches of the U.S. armed forces) have indeed altered their operations in response to threats like the Chinese ASBM (thought it is hard to prove something like this). A greater impact in this realm has almost certainly been exerted by Chinese short- and medium-range missiles, which have been a focus of particular expansion by the Chinese over the past decade (chiefly as an axe to hold over the head of Taiwan). One could in fact argue that a factor in the shift of some U.S. troops from Okinawa in the much more distant U.S. outpost of Guam has been the Chinese ballistic missile threat. Okinawa is well within range of several types of Chinese ballistic missiles and its utility as a platform to support U.S. combat operations in a China contingency could be degraded quite quickly by the wealth of missile capabilities the PRC would potentially be able to lavish upon it. No wonder the U.S. wants to be able to port an aircraft carrier in Guam and is also expanding its air power and ISR profile there.
Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Shipboard Lasers for Surface, Air, and Missile Defense: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, December 9, 2010.
Department of Defense (DOD) development work on high-energy military lasers, which has been underway for decades, has reached the point where lasers capable of countering certain surface and air targets at ranges of about a mile could be made ready for installation on Navy surface ships over the next few years. More powerful shipboard lasers, which could become ready for installation in subsequent years, could provide Navy surface ships with an ability to counter a wider range of surface and air targets at ranges of up to about 10 miles. These more powerful lasers might, among other things, provide Navy surface ships with a terminal-defense capability against certain ballistic missiles, including the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) that China is believed to be developing.
Just caught my eye over on my Google Reader feed – a new report from the gurus of the Chinese ASBM at the U.S. Naval War College. I haven’t had a chance but to skim through it and look at the pictures, but it looks pretty informative, nonetheless. I’ll read through it tomorrow, but in the meantime, if you have time today, go ahead and have a look:
Since my last post, I’ve been busy pursuing my hobby (triathlons / triathlon training), made a quick trip back to the U.S., and as of late, been burdened quite heavily writing papers and presenting on them at grad school. First, I’d like to talk a little bit about this last point, sharing a little bit of what I’ve been researching, writing about, and presenting on. I’ll also share what remains “in the hopper” – requirements left to be satisfied before the end of the semester about a month from now. Be warned: there will also be a fair amount of miscellany tossed in for good measure!
I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the latest version of the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military strength. Typically, this report is issued about this time of year (last year’s report came out in late March). This report is required annually from the Department of Defense pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year (FY) 2000 (FY2000 NDAA), which stated
the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, Public Law 106-65, provides that the Secretary of Defense shall submit a report “in both classified and unclassified form, on the current and future military strategy of the People’s Republic of China. The report shall address the current and probable future course of military-technological development on the People’s Liberation Army and the tenets and probable development of Chinese grand strategy, security strategy, and military strategy, and of the military organizations and operational concepts, through the next 20 years.
Taking into account the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 context in which this legislation was enacted, as well as China’s annual military spending increases that surpassed 10% annually for most years between 1997 and now (see Fig. 10, p. 34, in the 2009 report), it’s not that hard to imagine why China’s increasing military power would have been a topic of some concern to the lawmakers who drafted the FY2000 NDAA and included this annual report as a requirement for the DoD. Indeed, with the PLA’s military modernization having continued unabated in the ensuing decade, the decision to “statutize” the requirement for this report looks to me to have been a pretty good call. I have read that the release of this year’s report has been delayed for strategic reasons, e.g. the U.S. doesn’t want to tick off the Chinese any more while they are still simmering about Taiwan weapons sales and President Obama’s decision to allow a visit with the Dalai Lama at the White House in February, which makes sense. One “milestone” that reportedly was part of the calculus about the release date of the report was whether or not China’s President Hu Jintao would attend a meeting on nuclear security in Washington later this month…looks like you can count him in. The conference dates are April 12 – 13, and afterwards Hu will visit a few South American countries, including Brazil, Venezuela and Chile. Therefore, I would wager that it’s pretty firm that the Pentagon report won’t be released until after Hu’s visit to Washington. One news report I read even said that the PRC military power report might be delayed until May.
Why do I want to read this report so badly? It’s a veritable goldmine of information about China’s military capabilities and modernization, and although as a public document, it won’t contain any of the really juicy sensitive information that might be contained in a classified version, it still is a good yardstick to see what “Big Pentagon” thinks about China’s military and I would like to see what has changed in the Pentagon’s assessment in the course of a year, if anything. Based on last year’s report, which gave prominent attention to China’s growing asymmetric and anti-access capabilities, I would imagine there will be even more about these issues, including anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), and computer network operations (CNO), which I mentioned in my last post as things that interest me with regard to Taiwan Strait security and the regional balance of power.
Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), said something in testimony to House Armed Services Committee last week that, uh, sort of set off people who have been watching Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) development. Here’s the key bit of Admiral Willard’s testimony (PDF):
China is also developing and testing a conventional anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21/CSS-5 MRBM designed specifically to target aircraft carriers. (p. 14)
The part that was so provocative to China ASBM-watchers was the use of the word “testing.” Dr. Andrew S. Erickson, Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College and a founding member of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI), had this to say about the use that particular word in official testimony:
While mounting evidence from Chinese doctrinal, service, technical, trade, and netizen publications suggests that China has been developing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) since the 1990s, this is the first official confirmation that it has advanced to the stage of actual testing. This data point should dispel notions previously held by some that Beijing could not, or would not, develop an ASBM. (emphasis in original)
If Chinese ASBM capabilities interest you, you should do yourself a favor and check out Dr. Erickson’s related post in its entirety. He includes at the bottom of the post a useful list of relevant recent literature, some of which I was already familiar with, but that also contains some new items that I had not seen before. The motherlode!
I think that China’s rapid military modernization, particularly as focused on so-called asymmetric capabilities (sometimes also called anti-access weapons) like ASBMs, computer network operations (CNO; so-called “cyber” or computer hacking capabilities), and anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) could indeed be “game changers” in the Taiwan Strait. In fact, it is likely that I will focus on some aspect related to this in my master’s thesis.
During my first semester in graduate school in Taiwan, I wrote a short term paper that started off some lines of thinking on these asymmetric capabilities and their effect on Taiwan Strait security. A copy of the paper is here: