“Where’s the Nearest (U.S.) Carrier?” SPECIAL-REPORT

China’s military planners covet the ability toprevent U.S. and allied forces from intervening effectively in theevent of a future Taiwan Strait crisis and to constrain the latter’sinfluence on China’s maritime periphery, which contains severaldisputed zones of core strategic importance to Beijing. In order toachieve the aforementioned goals, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)has been pursuing a two-level approach to military modernization, withconsistent focus on increasingly formidable high-end ‘anti-access/areadenial’ (A2/AD) capabilities to support major combat operations inChina’s ‘Near Seas’ (Yellow, East, and South) and their approaches, andrelatively low-intensity but gradually growing capabilities toinfluence strategic conditions further afield (e.g., in the IndianOcean) in China’s favor.

In July-August 1995 and March 1996,concerns about Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s measures that Chineseleaders associated with moves toward de jure independence of Taiwan ledBeijing to conduct missile tests and other military exercises near theStrait. To deter further escalation, then U.S. President WilliamClinton dispatched two carrier strike groups (CSGs) toward the regionin March 1996, later remarking, “When word of crisis breaks out inWashington, it’s no accident the first question that comes toeveryone’s lips is: where is the nearest carrier?” [1]. In theunfortunate event of a future U.S.-China military crisis, however, itis Chinese leaders who would be asking where the nearest U.S. carrieris, albeit for the opposite reason.

Since 1996, China hasmethodically developed and acquired the technologies that could holdU.S. and allied military platforms and their supporting assets at riskin the Western Pacific [2], thereby positioning China on the affordableend of any asymmetric arms races. This matches Beijing’s larger ‘activedefense’ military doctrine, which is based partially on ‘non-linear,non-contact and asymmetric’ operations. Non-linear operations involvelaunching attacks from multiple platforms in an unpredictable fashionthat range across an opponent’s operational and strategic depth.Non-contact operations entail targeting enemy platforms and weaponssystems with precision attacks from a distance sufficient topotentially preclude the enemy from strikin back directly. Asymmetricoperations involve exploiting inherent physics-based limitations tomatch Chinese strengths against an opponent’s weaknesses [3].

Atpresent, China’s submarine-focused navy and still-limited air and navalaviation forces can only support a more limited strategy of sea denialand offensive counter-air as opposed to outright control. This A2/ADstrategy is ever-more-potent, however, thanks to a vast and growinginventory of short-range ballistic and cruise missiles deployed incoastal units and on a variety of air, surface, and undersea platforms.The PLA is improving rapidly in many areas, and has manifold advantageson which to draw, particularly in its proximity to, and focus on, themost likely scenario—a multi-vector PLA offensive to pressure Taiwaninto reunification.

Potential Game Changers

In additionto widespread incremental improvements, China is on the verge ofachieving several paradigm-shifting breakthroughs: anti-ship ballisticmissiles, or ASBMs; streaming cruise missile attacks; precise andreliable indigenous satellite navigation, high quality real timesatellite imagery, and target-locating data; and anti-satellite (ASAT)and other space-related weapons, which might be used to disrupt U.S.access to information, command and control, and ability to remotelycontrol weapons. Such achievements promise to radically improve China’sA2/AD capabilities by allowing it to hold at risk a wide variety ofsurface- and air-based assets were they to enter strategically vitalzones on China’s contested maritime periphery in the event of conflict.

Of perhaps greatest concern, Beijing is pursuing an ASBM basedon the DF-21D/CSS-5 solid propellant medium-range ballistic missile. ADF-21D ASBM would have two stages, and a reentry vehicle (RV) with aseeker, control fins and a warhead (unitary, submunitions, orconventional electro-magnetic pulse). In operation, some combination ofland-, sea- and space-based sensors would first detect the relevantsea-surface target. While locating an aircraft carrier has been likenedto finding a needle in a haystack, this particular ‘needle’ has a largeradar cross section, emits radio waves and is surrounded by airplanes.Simply looking for the biggest radar reflection to target will tend tolocate the largest ship—and the largest ship will usually be anaircraft carrier. The ASBM would be launched from atransporter-erector-launcher on a ballistic trajectory aimed roughly atthe target, most likely a CSG. After jettisoning its stages, the RVwould use its seeker (possibly radar-homing or infrared) to locate andattack the CSG. This could be supplemented by targeting updates ifnecessary. The DF-21D’s 1,500 km+ range could result in denial ofaccess to a large maritime area, far beyond Taiwan and the First IslandChain into the Western Pacific.

Admiral Robert F. Willard,Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, recently stated in Tokyo: “To ourknowledge, [China’s ASBM] has undergone repeated tests, and it isprobably very close to being operational” (Asahi Shimbun, August 24).What sort of ASBM “tests” China is conducting remains unclear, but thesequence and convergence of multiple factors suggest that some form offlight tests may be useful and important for deploying suchcapabilities. While system components may be tested separately, and onthe ground in many cases, a fully integrated flight test is likely tobe necessary to give the PLA confidence in approving full-scaleproduction and deploying ASBMs in an operational state. If and when theDF-21D is developed sufficiently, particularly during a time ofstrategic tension or crisis, Beijing might reveal a test to theworld—with or without advance warning—in some way geared to influencingofficial and public opinion in the United States, Taiwan, Japan, andelsewhere in the Asia-Pacific [4]. Alternatively, unpublicized flighttests could be conducted to deter foreign militaries without alarmingforeign publics (though information might ultimately reach themregardless). The fact of a hit, however manipulated and revealed, couldchange the strategic equation that planners on the both sides use inmaking difficult decisions.
China has a clear and compellingstrategic rationale, sufficient resources (from the world’s secondlargest official [emphasis added] defense budget at $78 billion), andthe requisite technological expertise (having prioritized ballisticmissiles and related infrastructure since the late 1950s) to progressrapidly in ASBM development. Patterns in a wide variety of open sourcepublications offer indications that this is in fact occurring. Chinamay already be producing DF-21D rocket motors, having reportedlycompleted a purpose-built factory in August 2009 [5]. Likewiseimportant is the recent launch of multiple advanced Yaogan surveillancesatellites for a total of 11 in operation, three of which wereapparently placed in the same orbit on March 5 (See “PLA ExpandsNetwork of Military Reconnaissance Satellites,” China Brief, August19). Another possible indication is a recent news release attributed toChina Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation citing Wang Genbin,deputy director of its 4th Department, as stating that the DF-21D cannow hit “slow-moving targets” with a circular error probability of(meaning half of missiles fired will strike within) dozens of meters[6]. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Mark Stokes, USAF, and Tiffany Mahinted that the Second Artillery may be constructing its first ASBMmissile brigade facilities (Unit 96166) in the northern GuangdongProvince municipality of Shaoguan (AsiaEye, August 3). A recent GlobalTimes editorial goes so far as to advocate that to end “speculation” byWestern intelligence agencies, “China ought to convince theinternational community of its reliable carrier-killing capacity assoon as possible” and “should also let Westerners know under whatcircumstances will such weaponry be used” (Global Times [Englishedition], September 6).
An ASBM system of systems, ifdeveloped and deployed successfully, would be the world’s first weaponssystem capable of targeting a moving CSG hundreds of kilometers fromChina’s shores from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. This couldpose a new type of threat to the U.S. Navy qualitatively different fromthat of, for example, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). Unlike withASCMs, the United States has not had decades to address the newchallenge; interception is far more complex and time sensitive; and,even assuming that they can be located with confidence, highlyconcealable land-based launch platforms or supporting C4ISR (command,control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance andreconnaissance) infrastructure cannot be targeted without contemplatinghighly escalatory strikes in mainland China.

Tracking a Moving Target

Centralto maximizing Beijing’s ability to employ ASBMs and related systemswill be effective utilization of ISR, the collection and processing ofinformation concerning potential military targets. An emerging networkof space-based sensors promises to radically improve the targetingcapabilities of China’s Navy and other services with which it mayoperate, for example, the Second Artillery.

China’s satellitecapabilities, while far from cutting-edge in many respects, areimproving rapidly. China today has only a fraction of the overall spacecapability of the United States, still has major gaps in coverage inevery satellite application and relies to a considerable extent ontechnology acquired through non-military programs with foreigncompanies and governments. China will likely purchase commercialimagery products to supplement its current surveillance capabilitiesuntil it is able to deploy a more advanced set of reconnaissancesatellites in the coming decade. Such a capability could greatlyimprove China’s ability to monitor force deployments on its periphery.Beijing is combining foreign knowledge with increasingly robustindigenous capabilities to produce significant advances of its own.China’s satellite developers are experimenting with a new workplaceculture that emphasizes modern management, standardization, qualitycontrol, and emerging mass production ability. China has developed afull range of military, civilian and dual-use satellites of variousmission areas and sizes.

Improvements in access to foreign anddomestic navigation-positioning systems increase the accuracy ofChinese missiles and other position-dependent equipment, anddevelopment of a viable independent system could improve Chinese accessto reliable signals in conflict. China’s current four-satelliteBeidou-1 constellation, deployed in 2007, is limited to supportingoperations on China’s immediate maritime periphery and providingnavigation coverage accurate to within about 20 m. To reliably supportbroader operations, China is deploying a 35-satellite (5 geostationary,30 medium earth orbit) constellation—called Beidou-2/Compass—that wouldprovide much-improved accuracy, with regional navigation andcommunications coverage anticipated by 2011 and global navigationcoverage by 2015-20 [7]. Four satellites have been launched thus far.

Giventheir potential for high resolution and accuracy, satellites willenhance Chinese ISR capabilities. China’s imaging satellites withsufficient resolution to play a role in detecting and tracking a CSGare currently inadequate for continuous satellite coverage based onrevisit times for specific ocean areas. China may, however, launchsufficient satellites to achieve coverage regionally (8-12 civilian,plus additional military) by 2015 and globally (a further 8-12civilian, plus additional military) by 2020 [8]. Even before then,China’s emphasis on small satellites and small solid-fueled rockets mayallow it to achieve a satellite surge capability. China’s low-costlaunchers (e.g. Kaituozhe) may offer a combination of rapid turnaroundand efficiency. The upgrading of Wenchang Satellite Launch Center,China’s fourth, indicates a commitment to cutting-edge infrastructure[9].


Emerging Chinese A2/AD capabilitiesshould concern not only the U.S. Navy but also the U.S. military as awhole, whose operations in East Asia writ large could be affected.Similar challenges threatening to hold U.S. platforms at risk in vitalareas of the global maritime commons are emerging in the Persian Gulfand might eventually materialize elsewhere.

Ongoing Chineselimitations include deficiencies in human capital, realism of training,hardware and operations, C4ISR, and real-time data fusion, as well asuncertainties on China’s part about the extent to which it can detecttargets and achieve geographical and temporal fires deconfliction withexisting systems and strategies. Chinese ASBM development in particularfaces serious challenges, e.g., in the areas of detection, targeting,data fusion, joint service operations, and bureaucratic coordination. Asenior U.S. Department of Defense official recently indicated that,“the primary area … where we see them still facing roadblocks is inintegrating the missile system with the C4-ISR. And they still have aways to go before they manage to get that integrated so that they havean operational and effective system”  [10].

Yet China has manyways to mitigate limitations for kinetic operations around Taiwan orother areas of its maritime periphery and potentially for non-kineticpeacetime operations further afield. The PLA can augment C2 and targetdeconfliction by employing landlines, high-power line-of-sightcommunications, advanced planning, and geographic and temporalsegregation. Its strength is relative to its objective, and here Chinamay be extremely capable of achieving its specific goals. China neednot keep pace with the U.S. technologically for its incrementaldevelopments to have disproportionate impact. The U.S. is inherentlyexposed because it operates offensively on exterior lines, and muststruggle to maintain technological superiority to reduce thisvulnerability.

China’s diverse, rapidly-evolving, interactiveC4ISR architecture remains different than that of the U.S., even as itincreases in coverage and sophistication. To reach the next level ofcapability in safeguarding China’s core interests, the PLA has to beable to locate a CSG on the ocean, but only in regions from which theCSG can strike China, and that is necessarily different from what theU.S. military has to do. Given the Chinese Navy’s cultivation of amaritime militia and civilian vessels, and the PLA’s apparent emphasison cyber capabilities, it is not inconceivable that at least somerudimentary targeting data might be obtained via unconventional means.These factors suggest that U.S. analysts must not ‘mirror image’ whenassessing China’s ISR targeting capabilities or assume that satellitecapabilities are themselves definitive.

A2/AD affords China astrategic defensive posture along interior lines. Overall U.S.qualitative, and even numerical, superiority in advanced platforms andsystems is of limited relevance for two reasons. First, the platformsmost likely to be employed are those that are based within immediatestriking distance at the outbreak of conflict; here China inherentlyenjoys theater concentration, while U.S. platforms are dispersedglobally. Second, aircraft sent to the theater needs airfields fromwhich to operate; here U.S. regional options are limited geographicallyand politically, and are vulnerable to Chinese missile attack.

Whileconflict is by no means foreordained, and interaction and cooperationshould be pursued whenever feasible and equitable, the challengepresented by China’s emerging A2/AD infrastructure cannot be ignored.Long before a crisis, and to deter one from ever erupting, U.S. leadersneed to ask, “Where are threats to our carriers, and how can we counterthem?” 
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