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China's Super Weapons: Beware the J-20 and J-31 Stealth Fighters

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Throughout its history, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has lagged behind the aerial programs of other world powers such as the United States. Now, the PRC has set its sights on producing indigenously designed “fifth generation” fighter jets comparable to the US F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Many U.S. officials and pilots suspect that the Chinese have been using hacked U.S. technology to aid their indigenous development programs. The PRC is also leveraging additive manufacturing technology (better known as 3D-printing) in order to increase speed and efficiency in manufacturing aircrafts and compete with the U.S. The J-20 Black Eagle could be fully operational by 2018, and a second model, the J-31 Gyrfalcon, by 2020. If true, China’s new generation of fighters could have a substantial impact on its ability to either defend what it considers to be sovereign airspace, or to mount an aerial offensive in a wartime scenario, particularly against Taiwan (ROC).  

Recent Advances in the PLAAF

Between 1990 and 1992 the PRC purchased 24 Su-27 Flankers from Russia and slightly modified the design to become the J-11 Flanker B+.  In response, the U.S. sold 150 F-16 Fighting Falcons to Taiwan. The acquisition of fourth generation Su-27s allowed China’s Air Force to enter modernity, and they have become progressively more capable ever since. In 2010, half of the PLAAF fleet still consisted of jets modeled after 1950s and 1960s Soviet MiG-19 Farmers and MiG-21 Fishbeds, but China’s ability to project air power has increased significantly within the past 5 years. Recently, the PRC and Russia have nearly completed a deal to transfer 24 Russian Su-35 Super Flankers, a potent “generation 4++” fighter, to the Chinese, in addition to China’s scheduled integration of fifth generation technology.

Currently the PLAAF relies on the J-11 as its primary fighter. However, this model is largely unproven. This aircraft is perhaps most recognized as the fighter variant involved in an August 2014 incident in which a single J-11 intercepted a USN P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft 135 miles east of Hainan Island. Twice the J-11 came within 50 yards of the U.S. aircraft. The aggressive maneuvering by the Chinese pilot was an example of the PLAAF making it clear that U.S. surveillance is not appreciated within the airspace over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Fifth Generation Capabilities

Since 2008 the PRC has worked to design and manufacture fifth generation concepts, both for its own use and to sell on a global scale. Two companies in China have worked on designs: the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (J-20) and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (J-31). Both are subsidiaries of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). It is likely that the J-20 and J-31 will complement one another when integrated into the PLAAF’s arsenal. The J-20 is closer to becoming operational, with an inaugural test flight in 2011; it is expected to reach initial operating capability (IOC) by 2018. Because both jets are still in prototype stage, their exact capabilities are not certain. However, it is speculated that the J-20 will provide a long-range strike system capable of reaching anywhere in the Western Pacific region, and incorporate a stealth design; the first of its kind in the PRC. In a conflict, the J-20 would likely be deployed in air-to-air combat with the mission of limiting the enemy’s radar coverage and strike range. The J-31 could be a potent complement to the J-20, similar to the planned U.S. partnership of the F-22 and F-35.  While the J-20 is expected to possess superior dogfighting abilities, the J-31 will be “the perfect fighter for the PLA to carry out anti-access area-denial (A2AD) strategies in the Western Pacific”. The J-20 is slightly faster, with a maximum speed of Mach 2.5 compared to Mach 2 for the J-31. Both sport a combat radius of approximately 2000km (1242 miles).

U.S. officials believe that the J-31 will immediately match or exceed the capabilities of U.S. fourth generation fighters such as the F-15 Strike Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet, and could possibly even compete with the F-22 or F-35. But this would largely depend on several factors including the quality of Chinese pilots, the quantity of fighters produced, and the reliability of radar and other equipment on board. In late 2014, AVIC President Lin Zhouming made an even bolder prediction, saying, “When [the J-31] takes to the sky, it could definitely take down the F-35. It's a certainty.” Even if neither of the Chinese fighter jets is entirely up to par with U.S. fifth-gens, they still could drastically change the dynamic of both a conflict with the U.S. or a scenario such as an invasion of Taiwan.

Implications

If the PRC decided to launch an attack across the Taiwan Strait, a contingency that it practices every year, air superiority would be essential for three reasons: the relatively small amount of airspace available over Taiwan; the ROC Air Force’s (ROCAF) ability to saturate its airspace with its own fighters, and the ROC's extensive surface-to-air missile defense system. If the PLAAF is unable to prevent or significantly limit attacks against its naval vessels when crossing the Strait, the mission would almost certainly fail. Ultimately, the PRC’s accumulation of cutting-edge fighter technology could provide the critical air advantage over the ROCAF to carry out a successful invasion, and should be cause for concern at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war for the U.S. 

This piece first appeared on Project 2049’s blog AsiaEye here. 

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TNI Is HIRING: Defense and National Security Writer and Editor

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The National Interest, a print and online magazine focusing on international affairs, foreign policy, national security, domestic politics and more is searching for an individual to join our online editorial team. This position is based in Washington, D.C.

This specific position entails writing and editing articles concentrating on defense, military hardware and national security issues as well as other duties as needed.

This demanding but rewarding position requires the following skills:

- “Blogging” and writing on defense, military hardware and national security issues on a daily basis.

- Experience in journalism (1 year or more) or online writing/blogging, a background in defense and national security writing and familiarity with tools used in web production (basic HTML/Drupal, Photoshop, SEO, Google Analytics) will particularly stand out on an application.

- Knowledge of American, Chinese, Russian, European Union and various other nation and non-nation states’ military hardware, security strategies, technological trends etc.

- Successful candidates will also have the ability to write clearly, intelligently, and thoughtfully keeping in mind short deadlines and fast turnaround times.

- Other duties include copy-editing and fact checking online pieces (knowledge of Chicago-Style is a plus), communicating with authors, researching potential topics for publication, art selection and formatting content for TNI’s online edition.

- A bachelor’s degree in one of the following disciplines: political science, history, and/or international affairs.  A master’s degree in one of the above is highly desirable. 

All applications must submit the following: Cover letter, Resume/CV, and a writing sample of 500 words or more to: hkazianis@nationalinterest.org.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr.  

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China Builds World's Largest Aircraft Carrier Dock in South China Sea

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China has built the world’s largest aircraft carrier dock in its naval base in the South China Sea.

This week the Canadian-based Asian security magazine, Kanwa Asian Defence, reported that China had completed work on a 700 meter-long dock at its sprawling Sanya naval complex in Hainan province in the South China Sea. According to the report, the dock is able to service ships on both sides, allowing it to accommodate two aircraft carriers or other large ships at the same time.

That would make the new dock the longest in the world. Indeed, the report noted that America’s aircraft carrier docks in Norfolk, Virginia, as well as its carrier base in Japan, were between 400 and 430 meters long.

A Chinese defense official confirmed the reports during a press briefing on Friday. In response to a question about the Western report, Yang Yujun, a spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, said that “The onshore support facilities includes docking ports for the aircraft carriers, airports, training facilities and so on.”

Other reports in China’s state-run media said that the aircraft carrier dock had been completed in November 2014. They went on to say that “the base incorporates a pier which can dock large ships on both sides, suggesting that two carriers can dock at the PLA Navy's carrier bases at the same time.”

Chinese officials had previously said that construction on the aircraft carrier base began in 2012, and China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, docked at the Hainian base briefly in September 2013. The Liaoning’s home port is at the Dalian naval base in northern Liaoning province.

According to the Kanwa report, the new dock is connected to the PLA Navy’s Yulin nuclear submarine base, making the Sanya complex the largest naval base in all of Asia. It is also strategically located in the South China Sea.

Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that China is still likely to further expand the Sanya base.

"There might need to be more construction work at the Sanya carrier base to develop it further [to cater to other vessels]. So far it is just able to accommodate two-way rapid replenishment for two aircraft carriers," Li said, SCMP reported.

He added: “China will finish two home-built aircraft carriers, and more large vessels will join those two to form fighting flotillas. That means that more docks and ports need to be ready not only in the south but also in the north."

The fact that the dock can accommodate two aircraft carriers is further confirmation that China is building additional aircraft carriers. The location of the Sanya base, in the South China Sea, demonstrates that China intends to use the aircraft carriers to project power further from its shores.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. China also has overlapping claims with Indonesia but Jakarta does not officially consider itself to be a claimant to the South China Sea dispute.

Incidentally, in his press conference on Friday, Yang Yujun, the Defense Ministry spokesperson, also accused the United States of trying to militarize the South China Sea.

"China is extremely concerned at the United States' pushing of the militarization of the South China Sea region," Yang said, adding: "What they are doing can't help but make people wonder whether they want nothing better than chaos."

Yang made the comments in reference to recent U.S. military drills in the South China Sea. China’s military also conducted a massive military drill in the South China Sea this week, but Yang insisted these were routine and not directed at any third party.

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @Zachary Keck.

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Leaked Report Reveals China Is Building New Aircraft Carrier

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China has all but confirmed that it is building an indigenous aircraft carrier, and that it may even be a nuclear-powered one.

On Thursday, huanqiu.com, the Chinese-language version of the state-run Global Times, published an internal document of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, one of China’s two largest shipbuilding companies. CSIC is a state-owned company.

The report lists building nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier as the company’s “priority missions.” It also states that progress on these projects has been smooth.

"The priority missions of building the aircraft carrier and nuclear-submarines have been carried out smoothly and with outstanding achievements," the document states, according to a translation provided by Taiwanese media outlets. The same Taiwanese reports go on to say that the document suggests that China’s first homegrown aircraft carrier is likely to be nuclear-powered, without elaborating.

Adding credence to this viewpoint is that this week huanqiu.com also featured promiently a new Russian report that claims that China’s first homegrown aircraft carriers will be nuclear powered. Specifically, earlier this week Sputnik News reported, citing an assessment by Vasily Kashin, an expert from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, that “it is known that China plans to build large nuclear aircraft carriers, equipped with electromagnetic catapults. Work on the main units and elements of the ship is already underway, and the project documentation part of it has been completed.”

China has long been suspected of building indigenous aircraft carriers. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of Chinese military power states: “China also continues to pursue an indigenous aircraft carrier program and could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years.”

The Pentagon report goes on to note that compared to the Liaoning, the refurbished Soviet-carrier the People’s Liberation Army Navy currently operates, China’s homegrown carriers “would be capable of improved endurance and of carrying and launching more varied types of aircraft, including electronic warfare, early warning, and anti-submarine, thus increasing the potential striking power of a PLA Navy ‘carrier battle group’ in safeguarding China’s interests in areas outside its immediate periphery.”

China has done nothing to dissuade foreign observers of the view that it is building indigenous aircraft carriers. To the contrary, one Chinese defense spokesperson told reporters that while the Liaoning is China’s first aircraft carrier, it will not be the only one.

Similarly, in January 2014 media reports in China quoted Liaoning party chief Wang Min as saying that work on China’s second aircraft carrier had begun in the city of Dalian, and that Beijing ultimately expected to build four aircraft carriers. These reports, however, were quickly removed by China’s censors.

Assuming it remains online, the Global Times’ publication of the internal CSIC document is therefore the closest China has come to confirming that is currently building a homegrown aircraft carrier.

Notably, the new report comes on the heels of Russian reports that China is exploring different options for forming carrier battle groups. Those reports were reprinted by Chinese state media outlets.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

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This Is How Big China's Internet Is

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The number of Internet users in China has grown to 668 million, according to a report released last week by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), a state agency that administers China’s domain name registry and conducts research on the Chinese Internet. Below are the main points from the agency’s annual Internet development report. Full text of the report can be found here.

- The total number of Internet users in China grew to 668 million, a 5.6 percent increase over last year. That’s an Internet penetration rate of 48.8 percent. In the United States, by comparison, 85 percent of people access the Internet, although the penetration rate seems to be hovering around that point.

- Mobile Internet users grew to 594 million, 88.9 percent of all Internet users. Compare that to the United States, where only about 67 percent of Internet users access the Internet through their mobile phone.

- The share of Internet users residing in rural areas grew slightly relative to urban Internet users. Rural residents now account for 27.9 percent of all of China’s Internet users.

- As in the rest of the world, young people account for a majority of Internet users. People between ten and thirty years of age make up 55.2 percent of the online population in China.

- Users of online payment platforms like Alipay, the Chinese equivalent of Paypal or Venmo, continued to grow. Among Chinese Internet users, 53.7 percent use an online payment platform, while 46.5 percent of mobile phone users use a mobile payment service.

- 374 million people engaged in online shopping in China last year, 12 percent more than last year.

- The percentage of Internet users speculating in stocks online dropped by 0.3 percent since the beginning of the year, perhaps in response to increased volatility in Chinese stock markets over the last two months.

- The number of users of Weibo, Chinese microblogging services that are similar to Twitter, declined by 35 percent year-on-year, providing confirmation for the argument that Weibo is dying as users migrate to WeChat, a mobile messaging service with a more discrete blogging feature.

- The average amount of time Chinese Internet users spend online each week decreased for the first time ever, dropping to 25.6 hours from a high of 26.1 hours the last time CNNIC surveyed users, in December 2014.

Chinese Internet regulators have gotten a lot of bad press in recent weeks, as it came out that new national security and cybersecurity laws included measures that would make it easier for the government to monitor citizen activity online. For example, the government appears to be doubling down on a requirement that Chinese citizens use their real name and state-issued ID number when opening online accounts and demanding that Chinese companies use technology that is domestically-sourced and “controllable.”

However, despite these limitations, the state of China’s Internet isn’t all bad, as Internet service provision continues to increase. Internet penetration in China has increased by about four percent annually since 2010. While this year’s increase of 2.8 percent represents a gradual leveling-off of growth rates, Internet usage in China remains significantly lower than in developed countries, so there’s still room for growth. Given a recent commitment by the central government to increase investment in infrastructure development, particularly in rural areas, we could even expect a higher year-on-year increase next year.

This piece first appeared on CFR’s blog Net Politics here

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Get Ready: Could China and Taiwan Be Headed towards a Crisis in 2016?

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With the high likelihood that Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will regain the presidency in the January 2016 elections, many analysts have predicted a return of tensions in the Taiwan Strait after eight years of relative stability under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration of President Ma Ying-jeou.

Whether a DPP victory in those elections would indeed mark a return to hostilities will be largely contingent on how Beijing reacts to this likely development.

From the outset it's important that we clarify what the DPP under its Chairperson and presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is not. Unlike her predecessor Chen Shui-bian, who served two terms from 2000-2008, Tsai has taken a more subdued approach to cross-strait relations. She has chosen instead to focus on domestic matters and to consolidate the nation. When pressed to explain her cross-strait policies, Tsai has adopted a more centrist position than her predecessor by vowing to maintain the 'status quo' under the current constitutional framework of the Republic of China (ROC) and to seek continuity in the relationship with Beijing. 

In other words, despite the alarmism in some circles, Tsai will not suddenly declare de jure independence for Taiwan, an act that Beijing has made clear would provide 'justification' for the use of force.

Moreover, by avoiding the issue of the 'independence clause' in the party charter and instead using the Resolution on Taiwan's Future, which states that the ROC/Taiwan is already an independent state as her basis for Taiwan's relations with China, Tsai was signaling that she did not intend to make cross-strait relations a major factor in her campaign.

Tsai's China policy therefore looks rather similar to that of the KMT's Ma, who throughout his presidency made the 'status quo' a principal pillar of his own China policy. Tsai and Ma nevertheless differ in one key aspect, and that is the controversial '1992 consensus,' of which its 'one China' clause is unacceptable to her DPP constituents. Still, Tsai has promised the continuation of constructive relations with China – in other words, she is giving precedence to substance over technicalities such as the 'platform' on which cross-strait dialogue will occur.

Despite the criticism heard in the more conservative wing of her party, who accused her of engineering the 'KMT-ization' of the DPP, Tsai is currently at the apex of her power, with opinion polls showing a comfortable lead against the KMT candidate or any combination of opponents. 

If the KMT was to have any chance of defeating Tsai, it would have to field a formidable candidate, someone who has the ability to harness the forces of a society that is increasingly assured of, and vocal about, its Taiwanese identity, as the Sunflower Movement made perfectly clear in March and April 2014. 

Instead, the KMT picked (and on July 19 confirmed) Hung Hsiu-chu, the deputy legislative speaker whose China policy, as it is understood, seems to go against all the trend lines in society. Hung's views on China and Taiwan are such that a number of KMT legislators – from both the 'mainlander' and 'Taiwanese' factions – threatened to quit the party, while others openly criticized it and as a result were expelled.

Seeing a crisis in the making, party elders of the KMT did their best to convince Hung to tone down her rhetoric, an intervention which became necessary after she stated her espousal of a 'one China, same interpretation' (一中同表) policy that not only contradicted the official KMT position of 'one country, different interpretations' (一國兩憲), but seemed to echo Beijing's position on the matter. Her announcement that, if elected, she would sign a 'peace agreement' with China and possibly end arms procurement from the U.S. alarmed many people within the KMT, not to mention within the rest of Taiwan, while her flip-flopping on whether the ROC existed – Hung initially said that recognizing the ROC would create 'two Chinas,' which was 'unacceptable' – raised eyebrows in many circles. After being pressured by party members, Hung eventually reverted to the KMT's favored 'one China, two interpretations' and 1992-consensus formulas, while proposing a 'one consensus, three connotations' (一個共識,三個內涵) platform and assuring us that she would press Beijing to recognize the legitimacy of the ROC Government. 

Hung had nevertheless revealed her ideological foundations and it was difficult to imagine that the apparent softening of her stance wasn't anything more than a tactic to reassure the public ahead of the election.

Although Hung is perfectly entitled to her views in democratic Taiwan, they are nevertheless a problematic position to adopt prior to January. The fact that her beliefs seem to be diametrically opposed to the consensus that has been built across Taiwan, and that they dovetail so perfectly with the position of the authoritarian regime on the other side of the Strait, is probably enough to ensure defeat for the KMT, which currently finds itself in a state of crisis. 

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons 2.0. 

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Explained: A World Where the U.S. Marines Never Picked the F-35

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The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is definitely putting a brave, can-do face on its first unit—Squadron 121—of Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs), aiming shortly for a formal declaration of “initial operating capability.” But Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, recently penned a dimmer account for procurement chief Frank Kendall. In recent tests on the helicopter carrier Wasp, he wrote, "aircraft reliability was poor enough that it was difficult for the Marines to keep more than two or three of the six embarked jets in a flyable status on any given day.” The Marines have spent billions on the F-35B and the F-35C. Had they not, they might have spent many fewer on the F-18F, and so far, without a noticeable difference.

Just recently, I covered the question of what the U.S. Navy might have done without a JSF program. In 1992, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney cancelled the Navy’s A-12 carrier-based stealth bomber program, leaving the service without a replacement for its A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II jets. Needing an under-the-radar solution, the service took up McDonnell-Douglas’s idea for a thorough redesign of the F-18C/D Hornet. The result was the F-18E/F Super Hornet, which has sustained carrier air wings in the absence of those long-delayed F-35Cs. The USMC, however, preferred to wait, and never bought into the evolutionary option. So today, the Corps is planning that F-35Bs will replace its long-serving AV-8B Harrier II+s on Wasp and America-class helicopter carriers, and that F-35Cs will replace its aging first- and second-generation F-18A++, -C, and -D Hornets on Nimitz and Ford-class super-carriers.

Fairly, those aircraft may be old, but they’re still capable, at least for now. The latest Harriers today carry the APG-65 active electronically-scanning array (AESA) radar and the long-range, radar-seeking AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. So those six-plane detachments on the smaller flattops, originally meant just for ground attack, can attack enemy flyers too. Before the Harriers, though, the Marines had no jets of any type on assault ships, and no jets capable of operating ashore from austere facilities. In the 1960s and 1970s, the USMC flew F-4 Phantom IIs, and in the Vietnam War almost solely as bombers. The Phantoms flew a tour from the old carrier America, but mostly from the big airfields at Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Nam Phong.

As a marine officer friend of mine once said, if the Marines like something, they call it amphibious, but if they really like it, they call it expeditionary. The Phantom II wasn’t either. The impetus to adopting the Harrier back in the late 1970s was to return to the Corps the rough-field, fixed-wing attack capability that had been lost with the transition to jets. Starting in the 1990s, the F-35B promised to extend that with stealth and supersonic speed. There is also the USMC’s long-running Guadalcanal narrative, in which the Navy once again pulls back the carriers, leaving the Leathernecks exposed on the beach, with just the few F-35Bs of the New Henderson Field to defend them. How well the carefully maintained surfaces of a stealthy aircraft would hold up on those rough fields, however, remains an outstanding question.

But something else has been lost in that second transition. The ongoing complaints about the difficulties of the F-35A and -C as dogfighters were summoned up by the need to make an F-35B. The fat fuselage and the forwarding-looking canopy are artifacts of the placement of the lift-fan directly behind the cockpit. If all-aspect missiles continue to dominate air combat, as John Stillion has shown that they have for decades, then this will not be a problem. Whether advances in electronic warfare could someday challenge that style of war-fighting is yet another outstanding question.

So what would have the Marine Corps done without the promise of that stealthy jump-jet? Today, the early model F-18s and the AV-8Bs would still be aging out, just like the US Air Force's A-10Cs, but without a short take-off, vertical-landing (STOVL) replacement. The questions of these replacements are similar, with yet more similar answers: each service intends to replace its (primarily) ground-attack airplane with versions of the F-35. That accomplishes the existing mission for a whole lot more money, as the F-35’s procurement and operating costs will be much higher. The advantage is that the mission should become much easier with the F-35’s networked communications and its APG-81 AESA radar, which tracks not just aircraft, but moving ground targets.

Of course, there’s another plane in the naval inventory with a ground scanning AESA: the F-18E/F with its APG-79. That radar has had a long history of development problems, but as with the JSF, enough money can solve most. The difference is that this is not a whole stealth fighter, but just a radar. Flying the same aircraft with the same radars off the same carriers as the Navy, just as the Corps does today with those F-18Ds, would be rather economical. For that matter, the Marines are even today planning to split their JSF purchases between STOVL Bs and conventionally-landing Cs, the latter operating alongside Navy squadrons on the same decks.

So as a friend at Naval Air Systems Command once told me, HQMC has always had a Plan B behind the F-35B—it just rhymes with “Super Hornet”. In a world without a JSF program, the USMC would likely by now have begun buying F-18Fs to replace its F-18Ds, and perhaps doubled-down on the two-seaters across the fleet. While Goose and Slider would be disappointed to know that the navigator is no longer in style in a fighter, he’s still a valuable observer for close air support. And as the adage goes, it’s understandable that America’s navy needs its own air force, but America’s navy’s army might not need every aspect of an air force.

What that plan wouldn’t have done is keep jet fighters on helicopter carriers, as the F-35B will do. This would have complicated amphibious raids far from friendly bases, to which the Marines need to bring their own over-the-beach air cover. But around the periphery of the Mediterranean, or near the Persian Gulf, the problem is manageable with land-based fighters. And anywhere in the world, no American theater commander would order a full-fledged amphibious assault without massive air cover from the Navy and the USAF.

So after saving those billions that went into their share of JSF development, could the Marines instead have launched the own analog to the Super Hornet? Could they have paid Boeing to design a Harrier III? Certainly, though working from the preceding design, it wouldn’t have been stealthy, fast, or long-ranged. At least one of those is probably crucial in any future fight in the Western Pacific. Could the Marines have gotten that small-ball plan past a defense secretary? That’s much less likely. Advocates of dedicated close air support aircraft have been having a hard time just defending the exiting fleet of A-10Cs. A wholly new Harrier would offer less armor, less payload, and less range. And in Poland last week, the A-10Cs of the 354th proved “they can land anywhere”. Maybe not quite, but that points to the problem. For the United States, the marginal value of the Harrier may always have been something we now call exquisite. And so perhaps, is the F-35B.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, where this piece first appeared

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Coming Soon to the South China Sea: Chinese Fighters and Lethal Missiles?

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It's increasingly clear that China intends to use its artificial islands in the South China Sea for military purposes.

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, delivered this assessment on a panel that I was privileged to be part of at the Aspen Security Forum last week. Harris described the newly-created islands as potential “forward operating posts” for the Chinese military. Beijing hasn't denied that it will use the outposts for military functions, but it has emphasized plans to provide public goods such as maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation and meteorological observation. 

What are the potential military uses of China's artificial islands and do they pose a threat?

First, the outposts in the Spratly Island chain will undoubtedly be equipped with radars and electronic listening equipment that will enhance China's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and maritime domain awareness capabilities. The newly built 10,000-foot runway on Fiery Cross Reef will accommodate virtually every aircraft in China's inventory, and hangers are being built that appear designed to host tactical fighter aircraft. As Admiral Harris stated, “A 10,000-foot runway is large enough to take a B-52, almost large enough for the Space Shuttle, and 3,000 feet longer than you need to take off a 747.”

China will be able to operate surveillance aircraft, airborne early warning and control aircraft, unmanned aircraft, transport planes, tanker aircraft and fighters. Depending on what platforms and systems are deployed on these outposts, China could have the ability to monitor most, if not all, of the South China Sea on a 24/7 basis.

These enhanced capabilities will provide China with advantages over its weaker neighbors and pose challenges to U.S. military activities in the region.

China may declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over part or all of the area within its nine-dashed line claim. To enforce such a zone would require several airstrips in various locations in the South China Sea. China has been expanding its runway on Woody Island in the Paracel group from approximately 7500 feet to almost 10,000 feet. Recent satellite imagery indicates that China may be preparing to build yet another airstrip on Subi Reef in the Spratly chain. In November 2013, China unilaterally set up an ADIZ in disputed waters in the East China Sea. At the time, a PLA major general confided to me that the Chinese military has long had plans to establish an ADIZ in all of China's near seas, including the East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea.

China will likely use the Spratly outposts to extend its anti-access/area denial envelope farther southward and eastward into the Philippines Sea and the Sulu Sea. Runways will enable the People's Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force to extend the operational ranges of aircraft based on the mainland and Hainan Island to encompass the entire South China Sea and beyond. Chinese capability to observe and respond to U.S. military operations in the region will be significantly increased. Chinese aircraft will be positioned to intercept U.S. and other foreign aircraft far from the Chinese coastline. The time required for Chinese aircraft and ships to reach the Malacca Straits, in the event of a blockade of this major trade artery, will be significantly reduced.

According to Admiral Harris, the U.S. has not yet seen China place anti-ship cruise missiles or supporting gear on the islands, but such capabilities could be deployed in the near future along with surface-to-air missiles. In addition, the harbor at Fiery Cross Reef is better suited to submarine basing than the shallow waters at Hainan Island where the PLAN's fleet is currently based. Within a few kilometers from shore, the waters quickly drop to a depth of 2000 meters.

If a military conflict were to break out, the land features as well as the ships and aircraft operating from them would be vulnerable to attack, but in peacetime and in a crisis, they will provide China with the capability to hold U.S. forces at risk at a farther distance than it can at present. This could have implications for a U.S. effort to come to Taiwan's defense. A U.S. carrier battle group sailing from the Arabian Gulf or Indian Ocean that was coming to Taiwan's aid would have to pass through the South China Sea. In addition, in wartime, the need to attack these sites and the aircraft and ships deploying from them would divert U.S. assets from performing other missions.

In the event that China decides to dislodge other claimants from their outposts, the PLA will have greater capability to do so. Helicopters, amphibious landing craft and mobile artillery batteries could be used to conduct assaults on nearby land features. Alternatively, China could opt to put pressure on rival claimants to abandon some of their outposts. For example, it could attempt to disrupt resupply operations to isolated features that lack self-defense capability, such as Second Thomas Shoal, where a contingent of Filipino marines is stationed on a decaying World War II military ship. In early 2014, Chinese coast guard ships twice tried to block civilian Filipino vessels from resupplying the marines deployed on the Shoal. 

Policy Recommendations

Calls for China to halt its artificial island building in the Spratlys have not been heeded. Completing the island projects as quickly as possible is apparently a high priority for Beijing, given the frenetic pace of dredging in the past year and half. However, there is still a possibility to put a cap on militarization of the islands by China and the other claimants. The deployment of offensive power projection capabilities by any claimant would be dangerous and destabilizing. The U.S. should help to facilitate an agreement that restricts deployments by all claimants to strictly defensive capabilities on all outposts in the South China Sea.

The growing uncertainty created by China's artificial island building and the purposes for which the new features will be used should motivate ASEAN, or at least a sub-group of ASEAN members with deep interests in maritime security, to draw up a draft of a Code of Conduct (CoC) that contains risk-reduction measures and a dispute resolution mechanism. China is evidently unwilling to make progress with ASEAN on a CoC in a reasonable time frame and it's time for others to push this forward. If China and ASEAN are unprepared to finalize and sign a CoC, then a coalition of the willing should proceed on its own and try to bring the others along later.

The US and like-minded countries should conduct freedom of navigation patrols around China's artificial islands that were originally submerged reefs. UNCLOS provides that artificial islands do not qualify as 'islands' under the Convention because they are not naturally formed areas of land surrounded by and above water at high tide. Therefore, artificial islands are not entitled to any maritime zones. Since 1979, the U.S. has carried out the freedom of navigation program to protect maritime rights throughout the world. Conducting such patrols in the Spratlys would signal to China and the region that disputes must be managed peacefully and in accordance with international law.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Wikicommons. 

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This Is What Could Start a War between India and China

The Buzz

While everyone’s anxiously watching and analyzing the events unraveling in the South China Sea, there’s another resource conflict involving China that also deserves attention. In the Himalayas, China and India are competing for valuable hydropower and water resources on the Yarlung Tsangpo–Brahmaputra River. The dispute offers some important lessons for regional cooperation (on more than just water), and highlights what’s at stake if China and India mismanage their resource conflict.

The Yarlung Tsangpo–Brahmaputra River is a 2,880km transboundary river that originates in Tibet, China as the Yarlung Tsangpo, before flowing through northeast India as the Brahmaputra River and Bangladesh as the Jamuna River.

The resource conflict began on June 11, 2000, after a natural dam-burst in Tibet caused a flash flood that resulted in 30 deaths and serious damage to infrastructure in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Some Indian government officials believed the flood was intentionally caused by China, even suggesting China would weaponize or interrupt water supply to leverage over India. The issue dominated reporting on China, but later subsided after satellite imagery confirmed the natural dam. Later in 2002, China and India signed their first Memorandum of Understanding for the provision of hydrological information during the monsoon months, previously discontinued after their 1962 border war.

The issue gained serious traction in 2008, when the Chinese government announced plans to begin construction of the Zangmu hydroelectricity dam. Located on the middle reaches of the Yarlung–Tsangpo River, the dam was perceived by many Indian observers as the beginning of a major river diversion project that would dry up the Brahmaputra River. Speculation and suspicion were further stoked by Chinese refusal to divulge information deemed “internal matters” and conflicting information released by government officials. Indian fears drove some commentators­—led by Brahma Chellaney—to warn of a coming water war over the river; suggesting a river diversion would be tantamount to a declaration of war. The contentious issue soon sparked concern in the Indian Parliament, and became a priority in high-level bilateral exchanges with China. In its exchanges, India sought reassurances and pushed for more extensive water data sharing practices (negotiating an extra 15 days of data).

The crux of the resource competition thus relates to mass dam building and diversion plans. With the Yarlung Tsangpo representing 79 gigawatts of hydropower potential (more than enough to power NSW, ACT and South Australia combined), China is planning the construction of 20 hydroelectricity dams along the river. In addition to these dams, China is also considering a potential Grand Western Water diversion plan (redirecting water to the dry north). India fears upstream China will ‘turn off the tap’ that makes up 30% of its water resource. However, despite calls for greater transparency and consultation, India is also racing to construct hydropower dams on the Brahmaputra River. While India’s dam building drive is primarily motivated by a desire to take advantage of the river’s hydropower potential, the dams also help to consolidate India’s territorial claim on the contested border state of Arunachal Pradesh (known as ‘South Tibet’ in China).

Despite Indian alarm, there’s little reason to fear a water war. Numerous facts indicate Chinese activities won’t impact river flow. For example, Chinese dams have been confirmed as run-of-the-river—they don’t store water). China has also dismissed plans of river diversion due to high economic costs and environmental risks. On top of this, Chinese leaders have reiterated that they don’t want to antagonize their closest neighbors. Perhaps the most convincing rebuke of the water war myth is the scientific evidence that shows China has limited control of India’s water. Contrary to popular belief in India, up to 70% of the Brahmaputra’s water resource comes from rainfall collected in India.

Although a water war is unlikely, Sino-Indian water security issue warrants further consideration for three key reasons. First, the dispute highlights that phantom problems risk the escalation of conflict causing unnecessary distractions. Second, the dispute has wider implications for regional resource management and security. And third, shared resources like water present less politically-loaded opportunities for greater cooperation.

First, much of India’s alarm was unwarranted. The information vacuum created by the Chinese Government’s refusal to divulge details of ‘internal matters‘ combined with inconsistent messaging gave rise to worst-case scenario speculation and fear in India. The dispute revealed the importance of transparency for guiding an informed conversation, not defined by historical biases. The incident showed that transparency can save time that would be otherwise wasted on reassurance and crisis management. China and India could devote efforts to developing goodwill and relations needed to establish joint scientific research projects in the Himalayan region, and more extensive water-data and information sharing norms.

Second, how India and China manage their domestic water and energy shortages has wider implications for the economic, environmental and social stability of the world’s two most populous countries. The dispute will test the strength and maturity of China and India, by requiring them to look past their strained history and the nationalist sentiments associated with it. Their response will set a precedent for cooperation in other areas of the Sino-Indian relationship, as well as transboundary resource management more broadly.

Finally, while a lot of mistrust exists between China and India—not least from its 1962 border war and its unresolved border dispute—cooperation in water data-sharing, dam building planning and joint scientific research projects offer less politically charged opportunities where deeper people-to-people relationships can be created. Such initiatives would not only improve the two countries’ perceptions of each other, but also help to develop a common language and understanding of the regional resource and environmental challenges.

India and China’s contested land border and the associated political sensitivities remain a serious barrier to bilateral cooperation on regional issues. However in the area of transboundary water data sharing, China is showing an increasing willingness to seriously consider and reassure the concerns of downstream countries. While this is promising, uncertainty about China’s commitment to regional cooperation persists, particularly because China’s willingness to talk about transboundary water issues remains subject to the political climate and is often used as a political tool for negotiation.

The water dispute combines domestic issues of resource scarcity and economic security with complex international relations challenges of transboundary resource management and bilateral Sino–Indian relations. How these issues intersect will be important for the region and its future. The water dispute comes at an interesting time where China and India’s relationship is developing within a shifting regional power dynamic. It’s certainly worth watching.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

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Get Ready: China Could Build New Artificial Islands Near India

The Buzz

There are growing fears, particularly in India, that China may soon launch an island reclamation project in the Indian Ocean.

The fears stem from a constitutional amendment passed by the small archipelagic nation of Maldives last week, which for the first time allows foreign ownership of Maldives territory. Specifically, the constitutional amendment allows foreigners who invest over $1 billion to own land, provided that at least 70 percent of the land is reclaimed from the sea.

Since July 2013, China has launched a massive reclamation project in the South China Sea that has created 2,000 acres of artificial landmass in five Spratly island outposts. Some 75 percent of this been dredged this year alone.

Unnamed Indian officials have told local media outlets that they are “concerned” that China now plans to do the same in some of the Maldives’ 1,200 islands, which are located strategically in the Indian Ocean.    

They are not alone; domestic opponents of the amendment have expressed similar concerns. For example, Eva Abdullah, one of just 14 parliamentarians to vote against the amendment, told The Diplomat “this will make the country a Chinese colony.”

She elaborated by saying, “what I fear is that we are paving the way for the establishment of Chinese bases in the Maldives and making the country a frontline state between India and China, thereby disturbing the current balance of power in the Indian Ocean. We cannot ignore the increasing rivalry between India and China.”

Maldivian and Chinese officials have sought to temper such fears, however. In a statement given to Reuters, China’s Foreign Ministry said that Beijing “has always respected and supported the Maldives' efforts to maintain its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”

The statement added that “what the relevant people said about China building bases in the Maldives is totally baseless.” China has claimed that it will never build oversea military bases.

Maldives President Abdulla Yameen has similarly dismissed fears that China will reclaim the islands and use them for military purposes. In a public address, Yameen said: “The Maldivian government has given assurances to the Indian government and our neighboring countries as well to keep the Indian Ocean a demilitarized zone.”   

Vice President Ahmed Adeeb echoed Yameen in an interview with The Hindu this week, saying: “Our sovereignty is not on offer… We don’t want to give any of our neighbors, including India..any cause for concern. We don’t want to be in a position when we become a threat to our neighbors.”

While the Indian government appears to have officially accepted Maldives’ assurances, others are more skeptical.

Anand Kumar, an analyst the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), noted “The constitution has been amended for the benefit of the Chinese. It is only China which has capacity to acquire 70 percent of the land.”

Others were alarmed at how fast the constitutional amendment was approved. Indian sources have noted to local media outlets that the legislative process in Maldives often takes weeks and months. By contrast, one Indian source tells the Indian Express that “the parliamentary panel reviewed and approved the Bill within just one hour… that raises alarm bells.”

Even before the new constitutional amendment was passed, India had been growing increasingly concerned with Maldives, a country that it considers to be in its sphere of influence. Earlier this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled a planned trip to Maldives after prominent members of the opposition, including former president Mohamed Nasheed, were jailed by the Yameen administration.

Similarly, even before the new amendment was proposed, Indian officials were alarmed by Maldives’ growing ties with China since President Yameen assumed power in November 2013. China has been investing heavily in Maldives in recent years as part of its Maritime Silk Road initiative.

Notably, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Maldives last year, where he promised further investment, including in the Male International Airport. Chinese tourism to Maldives has also grown steadily in recent years, providing a hefty economic sum for the small nation.

China has also been trying to make inroads with other coastal South Asian nations like Sri Lanka as part of what many fear is Beijing’s “String of Pearls” strategy for the Indian Ocean.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

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