Countering Beijing's Anti-Access Strategy
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow July 1, 2014
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,Greenert admitted 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 vehicle launched 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 reported in 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 strike groups.
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 western Pacific.
The United States also is dispersing its military assets and deepening its alliances in the region:
• This spring, 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.
• Some 2,500 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, laogai survivors, 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 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—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 deterrence.”
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,” 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 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.
• The 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 waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while USS Gerald Ford is completed.
• The attack-sub fleet will shrink from 55 to 42 by 2029.
• The 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.
• The Pentagon plans to temporarily dry-dock 14 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.