How America Would Wage War against Iran

The Buzz

Battlelines have certainly formed over the last week, as debate over the Iran framework agreement heats up. Some love the deal; some hate the deal; others essentially say “no deal” and would presumably start bombing Iran now if they could. But one thing is crystal clear: we are a long way until June, when Iran and the P5+1 will need to craft a concrete deal on paper. John Kerry and Javid Zarif better start getting some extra z’s now, as they might not be sleeping much in the days approaching the final deadline.

As I noted last week, even if a deal is reached on Tehran’s nuclear program, America and Iran will still be at odds in many areas of the Middle East. Yes, in the short term, both nations have common cause in Iraq against ISIS, but what happens when that cause disappears at some point down the road? Both nations will once again be vying for sway in Iraq. So while the short-term trends in the relationship do have promise, the long game is the one that bears watching—no matter how excited the media gets about the deal.

Over the long term, Washington needs to be prepared to confront Iran in many areas of possible competition across the Middle East. Hopefully, competition with Tehran in the Middle East for influence and sway stays peaceful. Like America’s competition with China in the Asia-Pacific and larger Indo-Pacific, both nations will vie for power and influence for decades to come. The danger is that such competition can raise tensions, with tensions spilling into conflict. And a conflict between Iran and America, as we saw last week on these very pages, is something both sides must try to avoid at all costs.

This post takes a look at how Washington could wage a conflict against Iran if the moment ever came to pass. As I mentioned last week, one amazing piece of research when it comes to a U.S.-Iranian conflict—with special focus on Tehran’s A2/AD capabilities and how Washington can negate such capabilities—is the 2011 report released by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled: “Outside In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti-Access and Area-Denial Threats.” While America’s strategic thinking has certainly evolved since 2011(see the DoD version of Air-Sea Battle, or now JAM-GC, the 3rd offset strategy, etc.), the report gives us detailed insights into what would be possible if the unthinkable ever came to pass. The report notes that Iran is investing in capabilities to execute what the authors call a “hybrid A2/AD strategy” over the next two decades. CSBA recommends that the U.S. military “develop a new operational concept for future Persian Gulf contingencies, one that assumes that closein basing may not be available, all operating domains will be contested, and Iran may threaten terror and WMD attacks, including the use of nuclear weapons, to deter or prevent a successful U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf.”

So how does CSBA think a U.S. campaign against Iran would unfold? While I would recommend readers at the very least scan over the whole report as what I present here is only a very small sample of its contents, CSBA sees a “massive blinding campaign” being a big part of such a conflict, which, in some respects, is reminiscent of U.S. ideas on how Air-Sea Battle could be used against China:

At the start of hostilities, U.S. forces should move aggressively to degrade, disrupt, and destroy Iran’s C4ISR networks. U.S. counter-network operations should integrate long-range strikes, undersea warfare, electronic warfare, and offensive cyberspace operations against Iran’s early warning radars, maritime surveillance systems, and C2 facilities. Toward this end, bombers operating out of remote or peripheral bases and SSNs and SSGNs in the Arabian Sea would launch a first wave of kinetic strikes using precision-guided standoff weapons against Iran’s fixed sensors and C2 nodes. U.S. special operations forces inserted into Iran could augment these strikes by disabling known C4ISR assets that are difficult to kill with standoff weapons, such as nodes in fiber optics networks. Degrading Iran’s C4ISR networks and air defenses will help pave the way for U.S. Air Force and Navy penetrating aircraft to attack Iran’s mobile radars, and command and control systems.

America must also be prepared for what could happen in space and cyberspace:

Neutralizing Iran’s ability to degrade the U.S. military’s use of space and cyberspace will almost certainly be another important aspect... Although it is unlikely that Iran’s counter-space capabilities will pose nearly as significant a threat to U.S. satellites as capabilities fielded by the PLA, it will be important to protect the U.S. military’s space architecture—including vulnerable ground stations in the United States and abroad—from possible attacks, including attacks by Iran’s terrorist proxies. Iran could use ground-based jammers to disrupt GPS and space-based and airborne C4ISR, particularly around high-value targets. Since these jammers could affect GPS-guided munitions, their neutralization would be important in winning the network/counter-network competition. Similarly, it should be anticipated that Iran and its proxies will conduct offensive cyber attacks to exploit, disrupt, deny, and degrade networks needed to orchestrate U.S. force deployments and operations. If successful, these attacks could extend Central Command’s operational timelines significantly. Moreover, Iran might attempt to employ cyber strikes to disrupt the control systems or data underpinning U.S. civilian power grids and telecommunications networks. These attacks could come in the form of false information, or they may be direct actions to disrupt or corrupt the flow of information. Thus, computer network defense (CND) operations that are integrated across the U.S. military’s networks may be needed to prevent Iran from using cyberspace as part of a broader strategy to impose costs on the United States.

Washington would further need, according to CSBA, to create pockets of air superiority:

During the opening stages of an air campaign against Iran, it would be important to establish “pockets” of air superiority sufficient to enable operations conducted within range of Iran’s air defenses. This could be a particularly challenging task if the U.S. Air Force lacks sufficient close-in fighter bases and the Navy is unable to operate its carriers within a few hundred miles of Iran. Moreover, future U.S. counter-air operations against an Iranian IADS may not constitute a “rollback” campaign in the traditional sense. Even though it is doubtful that Iran will field an IADS that approaches the sophistication of the PLA’s air defense network in the near-term, it should be assumed that Iran will seek to husband its most capable mobile SAMs so they can be used against U.S. aircraft later in a campaign, in a manner similar to that employed by the Serbian forces during the 1999 Kosovo War. Rather than conduct a determined defense of all potential high-value target areas, Iranian SAM operators could control their radar emissions, frequently change their locations, and use decoys and camouflage to avoid detection and create pop-up “SAM ambushes.” Similarly, Iran may choose to hide some of its fighters in hardened shelters located deep in its interior to prevent their early destruction.

To counter Iran’s “air defense network in being” tactics, the U.S. military could employ stealth platforms that are capable of avoiding detection, and use decoys and electronic warfare systems to spoof and goad enemy SAM operators into activating their radars and thus revealing their locations. DoD’s new Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) would seem to be particularly well-suited for this mission. Even with these capability enhancements, the U.S. military should plan for a sustained effort to suppress air defense threats that may pop-up without warning throughout the course of an air campaign against Iran.

As already noted, the CSBA report is a little dated, but does give us a broad sense of what a U.S. military campaign against Iran would look like, along with possible responses. The size and scale of the campaign would of course be dialed up or down based on the goal. If America was attempting to damage Iran’s nuclear program, one would likely see a massive effort to degrade Tehran’s air defense networks to pave the way for B-2 bombers and other aircraft to drop large amounts of precision-guided and/or “bunker-buster” style weapons.

In the end, no one wants to see Washington and Tehran come to blows, but there is always a certain utility in analyzing what may seem like the unthinkable. Such a conflict would likely take on a global dimension, as Iran would utilize terrorist networks to strike U.S. assets around the world, with America striking back with increasingly lethal weapons of war.

In the end, the question America needs to square itself with is simply this: Can Washington live with an Iran that will become increasingly powerful in the Middle East after a nuclear deal is signed and on paper? If so, then Washington should prepare to compete with Iran across the Middle East while cooperating in areas of shared, mutual interest—just like it already does with China. America can work with allies like Israel, its gulf partners and others in containing Tehran’s growing missile program through expanded missile-defense partnerships, as well as beefing up various aspects of their conventional military capabilities if need be. If competition became especially heated, there are various ways to contain Iranian ambitions without engaging in war. However, if Washington wants to take a much more aggressive path (who knows what a new president in 2016 might do) or if Iran decides to cheat on some aspect of the deal, we are in for a long and bumpy ride in the Middle East for decades to come.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Editor of RealClearDefense, a member of the RealClearPolitics family of websites. Mr. Kazianis is also a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest (non-resident) and a Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute (non-resident). He is the former Executive Editor of The National Interest and former Editor of The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Are U.S. Fighter Jets About to Become Obsolete?

The Buzz

Traditional fighter aircraft like the F-22 are becoming obsolete, according to a forthcoming study by a leading U.S. defense think tank.

Next week the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) will publish a new paper entitled “Air-to-Air Combat – Implications for Future Air Superiority.” The paper, which was written by John Stillion, a senior fellow at CSBA, and leaked by Breaking Defense this week, argues that advances in sensors, communications technology, and guided weapons are eroding the traditional advantages of fighter jets.

“Over the past few decades,” Stillion writes in the report, “advances in electronic sensors, communications technology, and guided weapons may have fundamentally transformed the nature of air combat.”

Specifically, these advances have enabled “pilots to search effectively much larger volumes of sky and engage targets at ever-increasing range.” As a result, attributes that have traditionally been deemed essential to success in air-to-air combat, such as high speed and acceleration and maneuverability “are much less useful now that aircraft can be detected and engaged from dozens of miles away.”

(Recommended: Are Submarines about to Become Obsolete?

Instead, Stillion argues that other attributes like “minimal radar and IR signature; space, payload, and cooling capacity; power for large-aperture long-range sensors; and very-long-range weapons” will be key to achieving air dominance in the future.

This could spell the end to traditional fighter jets like the F-22 because, as Stillion explains, equipping aircraft with attributes like supersonic speed and high maneuverability comes at the expense of some of these non-traditional attributes.

Therefore, America’s future air dominance planes could look more like stealth bombers than the F-22.

Indeed, there is evidence that the Air Force is already planning for this. One of the major challenges of using super stealthy bomber-like planes for air-to-air combat is the limitations the design places on payload capacity.

(Recommended: 5 U.S. Weapons of War China Should Fear)

However, as Next Big Future has noted, “In November 2013, the Air Force Research Laboratory released a request for information (RFI) for a laser weapon that could be mounted on next-generation air dominance fighters by the 2030s.” Using lasers instead of missiles for air-to-air combat would theoretically solve the payload capacity problem.

Also consistent with the CSBA report, back in February Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Navy’s top officer, downplayed the importance of speed for the Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance F/A-XX fighter jet. “I don’t see that it’s going to be super-duper fast, because you can’t outrun missiles,” Greenert said, The National Interest previously reported.

(Recommended: Chinese Nuclear Weapons 101)

Contrary to the findings of the new CSBA paper, however, Greenert also said that stealth is becoming a wasting asset as well. “You know that stealth may be overrated…. If something moves fast through the air and disrupts molecules in the air and puts out heat – I don’t care how cool the engine can be – it’s going to be detectable.”

The Air Force quickly disputed this view. Only days after Greenert made his comments, Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, said that stealth would be “hugely important” for the next generation fighter. “"Stealth is wonderful, but you have to have more than stealth," Carlisle said.

Image: Wikimedia/Boeing

TopicsSecurity RegionsAmericas

Why the Australia-Japan Submarine Deal Needs to Go Through

The Buzz

Recently, the drive in Canberra and Tokyo towards a new submarine deal has met with some bumps. Since last July, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were expected to sign the $20 billion landmark submarine deal to replace Australia's Collins Class boats in the mid 2020s. 

In January 2015, the Japanese media informed the public that the Ministry of Defense (MOD) had proposed the joint development and production of submarines with Australia. However, there has been recent flux in policymaking on the issue, the result of Abbott’s abrupt introduction of a new “competitive evaluation process,” which would be used to determine the winning bidder of a new submarine contract.

One reason for the sudden uncertainty was the domestic pressure Abbott received at home amid concerns that the contract would result in job losses for the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) located in South Australia. To alleviate concerns, Abbott reassured the public that “under any possible scenario, there would be submarine work in Adelaide” and “there is a long, bright future for the ASC.” Similarly, Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews argued that the government expected that significant work would be undertaken in Australia, “including combat system integration, design assurance and land-based testing.” According to the minister, “[it would] result in the creation of at least five hundred new high-skill jobs in Australia, the majority of which will be based in South Australia.”

On February 20 2015, Defense Minister Andrews released the details of the new “competitive evaluation process.” The media release identifies the Future Submarine Program (FSP) as the largest defense procurement program in Australian history. It represents an investment of $50 billion in Australian security, which will be subject to adjustment according to the evaluation process.

Officially, France, Germany and Japan are in the running to be Australia’s partner for the FSP. The three countries will be asked to submit designs that satisfy Australia’s requirements; suggest options for construction in Australia, overseas or both; provide cost estimates; and explain their respective stances on key issues such as intellectual property. Nevertheless, Tokyo previously mentioned its lack of enthusiasm towards the idea of a tender. While it would seem petty to quibble over semantics given the opaqueness of Abbott’s “competitive evaluation process,” the rhetoric clearly seeks to assuage concerns in Tokyo.

Much of the debate has revolved around the question of whether the submarines ought to be built locally or overseas. There has been strong advocacy inside Australia for the subs to be built locally. Figures like Rear Admiral Peter Briggs have argued that coordination would be smoother if the subs are built in Australia. He offers a valid point that a submarine built in Australia would be supported throughout its life there while construction abroad would present complications due to different standards, practices and existing language barriers. Briggs points to the Coles Review, a study that highlights the importance of Australia having full access to the technologies and intellectual property underpinning the future submarine.

Nonetheless, Tony Abbott’s policy flip flop was a mistake. The prime minister needs to push through the deal with Japan because there is simply too much to lose on both sides. While it is important to have the submarines built locally, this can be negotiated with Japan. Indeed, it is encouraging that there have been recent reports that Tokyo is willing to partner with the ASC. While Australia has the infrastructure to produce submarines, it is undisputed that it needs international assistance. Hans Ohff, the former Managing Director of ASC from 1993 to 2002, affirmed this when stating that “when we built the Collins Class, we had the Swedes to provide the principal design, the procurement, and the construction so of course we need overseas capability in order to assist us.”

Amidst the debate, it must be reiterated that Australia has much to gain from striking a deal with Japan. It is unprecedented that Tokyo is willing to share sensitive military technology. The fact that Abe took the initiative to consider the transfer of submarine technology to Australia despite opposition from the MOD serves to emphasize the importance of Canberra as a security partner.

Furthermore, Abbott cannot afford to lose momentum in furthering Australia-Japan ties because he needs to advance his agenda of engaging the Asia-Pacific and bolstering Australia’s tentative trilateral partnership with Tokyo and Washington. Typically identified as belonging to the Western camp, Australia and Japan have both struggled to establish themselves as members of the regional Asia-Pacific community. Japan has consistently supported Australia, from at least 2002, when Prime Minister Koizumi tried to convince ASEAN leaders that Australia’s inclusion was imperative. It is time for Australia to return the favor.

Australia ought to respond favorably to the changes that Japan is undertaking in its defense policy. Last year, Abe adopted the “Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology,” which would permit the conditional export of Japanese weapons. On this basis, Japan has already concluded two major deals. It has agreed to supply surface-to-air missile parts to the United States and will pursue joint research on air-to-air missiles with the United Kingdom.

The submarine deal with Australia is another imperative step to Abe’s broader vision of strengthening defense cooperation with like-minded countries in the region. The implications of Japan’s defense reforms cannot be underestimated. In 2007, in the process of negotiating their Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, Japan and Australia did not conclude an alliance treaty because of the constraints pertaining to Japan’s constitution. As Abe takes concrete steps to unwind these constraints, there is wider space for Canberra and Tokyo to redefine their strategic relationship. Nevertheless, it will require a deep dive.

Jema Samonte is currently interning at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/USN Photo

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

US Exposes China’s Growing Maritime Power

The Buzz

What a difference six years makes! Since the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) last issued an unclassified report on China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in 2009, the Middle Kingdom has greatly strengthened and expanded its “Great Wall at Sea” and even built the world’s largest “Great Wall of Sand” in contested waters. Yet even as Internet speculation proliferates spectacularly, highly reliable analysis remains chronically scarce. Even factoring outobvious fallacies and ‘fanboy art’ that clearly violates known facts and laws of physics, this disparity produces what Rear Admiral Paul Becker, Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, terms a “data glut but an information deficit” on China.

Yesterday, April 9, ONI helped reduce that gap. It released a report documenting the PLAN’s rapid progress, while carefully assessing its remaining weaknesses. Entitled “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century,” the document (interactive version downloadable here) (hi-res version downloadable here) has accompanying videos on “China’s Defensive Layers” and “South China Seas Maritime Claims.” Collectively, these represent an extremely valuable contribution to public understanding of China’s maritime development, both in terms of new details offered and the authoritative assessment that backs them. In what follows, I offer highlights from the report and explain their significance.

Major Revelations

1. Rapid shipbuilding allows the PLAN and China Coast Guard (CCG) to replace old ships with new, greatly improved ones. While the PLAN is only growing numerically in selected areas, by the end of 2015 the CCG will be 25% larger than it was at the beginning of 2012.

2. China has far more Coast Guard ships than Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines—combined.

3. China has deployed the YJ-18, a potent new-generation supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) that could pose unprecedented challenges to the air defenses of U.S. and allied ships. Everyone serious about understanding Chinese military capabilities must familiarize themselves with this missile.

Structure and Contents

The report’s 49 pages are divided into five chapters:

  • Chapter 1 covers “Naval Strategy and Missions.”

  • Chapter 2, “PLAN Equipment—Building a Modern Navy,” offers order of battle information in unprecedented detail, with naval assets divided among all three fleets for the first time that I have seen in a public U.S. government document since 2009—annual Department of Defense (DoD) reports lump East and South China Sea assets together.

  • Chapter 3 details “Training, Exercises, and Joint Operations.”

  • Chapter 4, “PLAN Structure and Leadership,” offers an unparalleled ‘who’s who’ of PLAN organization. In a move that boosts analytical credibility and will warm the heart oflegendary PLA analyst and former attaché Kenneth Allen (who has made educating U.S. government and other analysts about the subject a personal mission), this section lists admirals’ all-important grades in addition to their ranks.

  • Chapter 5 returns us to a primary mission for the PLAN, CCG, and other Chinese maritime forces: “Maritime Claims—Securing China’s ‘Blue Territory.’”

  • A brief “Outlook” section concludes.

Major bonus (referenced explicitly in Table of Contents, but unfortunately not yet downloadable): posters of Chinese equipment and leadership structure as well as a PLAN and maritime law enforcement platforms recognition guide. This suggests that ONI is making authoritative, carefully-labeled silhouettes of PLAN and CCG ships available publicly for the first time ever. This would be almost like upgrading from bird watchers’ photos on Pinterest—pretty though they may be—to the systematic, comprehensive Peterson Field Guide to Birds.

While the report focuses most extensively on the PLAN, it also devotes important coverage tothe consolidating CCGthe world’s largest blue water coast guard fleet. Like the PLAN, the CCG is active near such disputed features as Scarborough Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—and may yet (it is to be worried) play even more important roles there. In a typical pattern, “When deployed, the CCG sometimes coordinates with the PLAN, which, when necessary, will deploy destroyers and frigates several dozen miles from the incident to provide a nearby, but indirect presence.” This was precisely China’s division of labor for theMarch 2009 Impeccable Incident. U.S. policymakers must be wise to a growing Chinese approach in which playing ‘good cop’ allows China’s navy to cultivate closer relations with, and learn from, its American counterpart; while smaller, harder-to-monitor paranaval ‘bad cops’ do the day-to-day ‘dirty work’ of advancing China’s claims.

Home to all China’s unresolved island and maritime claims, the Near Seas (Yellow, East China, and South China Seas) contain numerous flashpoints. Disturbingly, ONI confirms that during the May 2014 crisis surrounding China’s unilateral deployment of oil rig HYSY-981 in waters disputed with Vietnam, both nations sent “dozens” “of coast guard ships, fishing vessels, and some naval combatants….” Ships “frequently and deliberately collid[ed] with one another.” CCG ships “deployed water cannons.” These aggressive activities “creat[ed] the conditions for a rapid escalation.” “The tense situation could easily have escalated into a military conflict.”

Hardware and Software Modernization

Accelerated modernization since roughly 2000 has put the PLAN “on track to dramatically increase its combat capability by 2020 through rapid acquisition and improved operational proficiency.” On the hardware side, it has done so in part by rapidly replacing older ships with larger, multi-mission, blue-water-capable variants with much-improved air defense. Last year alone, China’s navy laid, launched, or commissioned more than 60 vessels; ONI expects similar achievement for 2015. This volume is unmatched: “In 2013 and 2014, China launched more naval ships than any other country and is expected to continue this trend through 2015-16.”

The CCG enjoys a proportionally-even-greater building boom. Even as ship sizes and capabilities increase through replacement, CCG forces are growing at an unparalleled rate. Over the last decade, predecessor organizations (the CCG was not officially established as a unified civil maritime force until 2013) have received roughly 100 new large patrol ships, patrol combatants/craft, and auxiliary/support ships—not to mention additional small harbor and riverine patrol boats. From 2012-15, ONI projects that >30 large patrol ships and >20 patrol combatants will be added, boosting overall CCG force levels by 25%.

Increasingly efficient and capable of supplying China’s maritime forces through series production, Chinese shipbuilding now looms sufficiently large that the Naval War College has made it the topic of its annual China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) conference.  

The PLAN is building capacity to use advanced new hardware by training with unprecedented volume, sophistication, and realism, directed in part by Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping. Reflecting consensus among his peers, Xi views maritime power as vital for China’s comprehensive national development and great power status, and calls for Beijing to “strategically manage the sea.” The PLAN is strengthening guidelines; increasing use of training centers and simulators; improving its training cycle and scope; bolstering opposing force, electronic warfare, and logistics drills; and developing a noncommissioned officer corps to manage important technical tasks. ONI anticipates that 2015 will witness “improved multi-service training,” including through “large-scale transregional exercises” to increase “joint service integration”—one of the PLA’s greatest remaining shortcomings.

Adding Mission Layers

Traditional capabilities to uphold Taiwan and Near Seas sovereignty claims with “the expectation of U.S. military intervention” remain “the PLAN’s primary focus.” ONI foresees increasing likelihood of friction between China and its neighbors “as Beijing seeks to deter rival activities and assert its own claimed rights and interests.” These claims are sweeping: the “three million-square kilometers of blue territory” invoked frequently by Chinese officials and civilians alike “would incorporate nearly 90 percent of the area within the major bodies of water within the First Island Chain,” namely the Near Seas. In the South China Sea, China has moved from occupying only small outposts with a land area of less than five acres” to adding “hundreds of acres of land”constructed by dredging and filling to support new military and paramilitary facilities, activity“unprecedented” in its “sheer scale.” Even within the Near Seas, there are new outer layers to PLAN capability, with the new Jiangdao-class corvette adding Near Seas patrol capabilities beyond the range of the 60 Houbei missile catamarans built in the mid-2000s. Houbeis remain “valuable for reacting to specific threats in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and slightly beyond.”

China’s navy remains very different from that of the U.S., but is relatively well-suited for its far more limited focus. For instance, China already has more attack submarines than the U.S., focused on a much smaller area. Chinese submarines “are optimized for regional missions that concentrate on ASuW [anti-surface warfare] near major sea lines of communication (SLOCs).” Also supporting high-end Near Seas operations is China’s “robust mining capability.” It can lay its >50,000 naval mines using submarines, surface ships, aircraft, and “fishing and merchant vessels.” As with other armaments, China is expected to develop still-more advanced variants in the future, including “extended-range propelled-warhead mines, antihelicopter mines, and bottom influence mines more able to counter minesweeping efforts.” As for its own mine countermeasures efforts, China can deploy heretofore simply un-Googleable “remote-controllable WONANG-class inshore minesweepers.”

PLAN capabilities in the “Far Seas” beyond the “Near Seas” are growing too, albeit more slowly and modestly. Already increasing Chinese influence overseas, they ultimately portend more robust protection of resource and trade flows (the latter involve more than 90% by volume and 65% by value transiting major SLOCs). Most new PLAN vessels are suited for both Near and Far Seas. ONI judges that “in the next decade, China will complete its transition…to a navy capable of multiple missions around the world.”

Quality over Quantity… But Some Numbers Increasing, Too

Today, the PLAN has 26 destroyers, 52 frigates, 20 new corvettes, 85 modern missile-armed patrol craft, 56 amphibious ships, 42 mine warfare ships, >50 major auxiliary ships, and >400 minor auxiliary ships and service/support craft. An already high, still-growing majority of these are advanced “modern” systems.

It’s must be emphasized that China’s Navy has an air force of its own, and its portfolio is diversifying rapidly even before a carrier air wing is operational. “An array of relatively high-quality aircraft,” outfitted with increasingly-sophisticated sensors and weapons, pursue “an expanded array of missions, particularly maritime strike, but also including maritime patrols, ASW, airborne early warning, and logistics.”

Chinese undersea warfare ability is being strengthened with 3 cutting-edge Dalao-class submarine rescue ships. Numbers of amphibious vessels remain relatively constant, but China’s four (and counting) Yuzhao landing platform docks offer new capabilities, both for South China Sea island seizure campaigns and potentially even for overseas expeditionary warfare. “Increased intelligence collection deployments in the western Pacific” are being facilitated by a total of four Dongdiao-class intelligence collection vessels (one of which spied on the RIMPAC 2014 exercise off Hawaii, even as four other PLAN vessels participated in it) and the addition of five Kanhai-class survey ships.

Numbers are rising significantly in selected areas. While “at least 20” Jiangdao-class corvettes “are already in operation…30 to 60 total units may be built.” Twelve Yuan-class air independent power (AIP) submarines are in service, “with as many as eight more slated for production.” Rotary wing aircraft numbers will grow, in part to outfit PLAN surface ships, as “every major PLAN surface combatant under construction is capable of embarking a helicopter.” Because the PLAN requires more and better “eyes and ears” to support operations farther from shore, numbers of maritime patrol, airborne early warning, and surveillance aircraft are also growing. The PLAN is now introducing UAVs, with the Camcopter S-100 UAV already deployed and various indigenous systems likely to follow soon.

Finally, with respect to paranaval forces, China already enjoys what can only be described as a staggering numerical advantage in the region, and will soon be second to none in quality. It has many more Coast Guard ships (205) than Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines combined (147). Consider how the CCG compares with neighboring counterparts in hull numbers:

  • China: 205  (95 large [>1,000 tons], 110 small [500-1,000 tons])

  • Japan: 78  (53 large, 25 small)

  • Vietnam: 55  (5 large, 50 small)

  • Indonesia: 8  (3 large, 5 small)

  • Malaysia: 2  (2 large, 0 small)

  • Philippines: 4  (0 large, 4 small)

No parallel.

Laser Focus: Anti-Surface Strike

Surveying Chinese hardware development reveals an extreme ASuW focus, not only in the submarine force, but also with ship-, aircraft-, and land-based missiles. Even China’s Z-9D helicopter “has been observed carrying ASCMs.” This anti-navy approach is rightly of growing concern to U.S. and allied navies, as it is designed specifically to target their ships precisely from great distances, often from beyond the reach of the ships’ defenses. ONI anticipates continuation of this ASuW trend: “A new cruiser to be built in China in the latter half of the decade will carry a variety of antisurface weapons, some of which will be newly developed.”

YJ-18 ASCM Confirmed on Ships and Subs

While Chinese ballistic missiles—including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM)mentioned multiple times in ONI’s report—have received considerable coverage, China’s numerous, increasingly potent cruise missiles have not received the attention that they deserve.Here ONI makes a contribution that bears tremendous emphasis. In a major data point never previously reported publicly by the U.S. government, ONI reveals that China’s newest destroyer class, Luyang III, “is fitted with the new vertically-launched YJ-18 ASCM.” It is also apparently deployed on China’s Song-, Yuan-, and Shang-class submarines (exact wording: “China’s newest indigenous submarine-launched ASCM, the YJ-18, extends a similar capability [as the SS-N-27/3M54E Klub ASCM] to the SONG, YUAN, and SHANG classes.”) Such ship and submarine deployment was long discussed inChinese Internet posts, and video of an apparent YJ-18 test launch appeared in November 2014. Previously termed “CH-SS-NX-13” by DoD, the YJ-18 is China’s new-generation indigenous supersonic ASCM. Apparently a Chinese copy of the 3M54E Klub (the SS-N-27B export variant) supplied with the eight Kilo-class 636M submarines China imported from Russia (ONI credits it with “similar capability”), the YJ-18 reportedly has a cruise range of as much as 180 km at Mach 0.8 and a terminal sprint range of 40 km at Mach 2.5-3.0. These high-speed, long-range capabilities (not specified directly in ONI’s report, but infer-able from the comparison to the YJ-18’s extremely close Russian equivalent), together with a sea-skimming flight profile and likely possession of a command data link based on Internet photos, could make the YJ-18 extremely difficult to defend against.

China has thus acquired many advanced pieces of hardware, but their integration and effective employment remains a far greater challenge. For instance, weapons of increasing range need over-the-horizon-targeting to strike their targets effectively. Areas that China wants to cover for this purpose are immense. “Just to characterize activities in the ‘near seas,’” for instance, “China must build a picture covering nearly 875,000 square nautical miles (sqnm) of water- and air-space.” The strategically-situated Philippine Sea “expands the battlespace by another 1.5 million sqnm.” Recognizing these challenges, China “has invested in maritime reconnaissance systems at the national and tactical levels, as well as communications systems such as datalinks, to provide targeting information to launch platforms.” In addition to land-based radars, “China operates a growing array of reconnaissance satellites, which allow it to observe maritime activity anywhere on earth.”

Remaining Weaknesses

For all the progress that ONI documents, it also correctly emphasizes that the PLAN still has considerable work to do to become the world-class blue water navy that its civilian masters desire. In addition to the reconnaissance requirements detailed above, major Far Seas capacity will require substantially more, better nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) than China’s current limited inventory. Since a submarine is useful only to the extent that it can attack undetected, China likely faces an incremental slog: “Following the completion of the improved SHANG SSN, the PLAN will progress to the Type 095 SSN, which may provide a generational improvement in many areas such as quieting and weapon capacity.”

A major blue water navy also requires robust deck aviation. While China has started down the “long and dangerous path” of aircraft carrier development, “it will take several years before Chinese carrier-based air regiments are operational.” China has lagged in open-ocean anti-submarine warfare—essential to protecting high-value surface vessels far from home—but new ships boast “a variety of new sonar systems, including towed arrays and variable-depth sonars, as well as hangars to support embarked helicopters.”

Robust nuclear deterrence is important to any great power, but developing an effective sea leg is most technically challenging in key respects. The U.S. government has long anticipated engagement of the Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in deterrence patrols with its JL-2 nuclear ballistic missiles, and ONI believes that this could finally be the year.

Finally, the ground forces remain dominant, and jointness elusive. While the ONI report fails to mention it, the ambitious Xi may seek to tackle these problems with sweeping reforms that ultimately render the “Army” merely one of several services and reduce the number of China’s military regions while making two of the coastal ones more maritime and power-projection focused.

Transformative Trajectory

While U.S. government reports typically contain valuable data often unavailable elsewhere, their textual presentation sometimes leaves something to be desired. Ambiguous wording and conflicting verb tenses provoke endless speculation—likely wholly unintended—e.g., as to whether a particular system is actually deployed yet or not. Correcting a puzzling multi-year discrepancy in DoD reports, for instance, ONI correctly lists the East Sea Fleet as being headquartered in Ningbo (vice nearby Dinghai).

ONI’s PLAN reports benefit from interpretation, but are sufficiently well-written that they can speak for themselves. The final paragraph of the 2015 edition summarizes China’s sea state and trajectory well:

“…it is evident that the PLAN is a navy in transition. …China is only in the middle of its military modernization, with continued improvements planned over the following decades. As we view the past 20 years of PLAN modernization, the results have been impressive, but at its core the force has remained essentially the same—a force built around destroyers, frigates and conventional submarines. As we look ahead to the coming decade, the introduction of aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, and potentially a large-deck amphibious ship will fundamentally alter how the PLAN operates and its viewed by the world.”

Clearly, further ONI reports are warranted. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait six years for the next one. China will certainly have reached many important new maritime milestones before then, requiring intense discussion in Washington about how to respond.

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor at the Naval War College and an Associate in Research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. He runs and co-manages

Image: Flickr/ U.S. Pacific Fleet



Why Big Changes Could be Coming to the Middle East

The Buzz

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reads as a remarkable document. (Here’s a useful fact sheet.) If fully implemented, it’ll prove an historic triumph of diplomacy—one that significantly reduces the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon while helping to re-integrate Iran back into the community of nations.

The key objectives of each side are well known. The US wants to keep Iran’s nuclear latency to at least one year—that is, how long it would take for Iran to race to a bomb. The Obama administration considers this to be enough time for an Iranian nuclear breakout attempt to be detected and thwarted.

Nuclear latency is mostly guesswork, based on a combination of how much fissile material is currently stockpiled, and how rapidly any new weapons-grade material may be produced. The JCPOA assesses Iran’s current latency to be just two to three months. This reckoning is extraordinary and probably untrue, having been overstated to extract greater concessions from the Iranians to roll back its existing program.

In this endeavor the JCPOA exceeds all expectations. For at least the next 10-15 years Iran has agreed to dramatically reduce the number of spinning centrifuges, remove the reactor core from its Heavy Water facility at Arak, export the overwhelming majority of its Low Enriched Uranium stockpiles, not build any new enrichment facilities, and not reprocess any spent fuel. Critically, Iran’s also agreed to an intrusive IAEA inspection regime and accession to the IAEA Additional Protocol, meaning that any non-compliance is likely to be detected early and for the foreseeable future (well beyond the life of the agreement). In sum, Iran has agreed to adhere to its NPT obligations.

While the JCPOA is prescriptive with regard to what Iran will concede, it remains comparatively sketchy in terms of the breadth and speed of sanctions relief, and the practical implications of allowing Iran to undertake ‘limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges’.

In particular, the JCPOA advises that "US and EU nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA and Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps." This could take years, and will require Iran to take some significant and irreversible steps in the meantime. It’s unrealistic to expect Iran will do this without some concessions being made. Accordingly, UN sanctions (as opposed to US and EU sanctions) will likely have to be removed earlier and in a staged fashion. In any case, early sanctions relief is desirable as it’s crucial that the Iranian people don’t become disillusioned with the benefits of cooperating with the West. However unlike those from the US and EU, UN sanctions could prove much harder to re-impose should Iran prove non-compliant with the deal.

For American negotiators, the interim agreement involves a calculated risk. In laying bare the scope of what Iran is agreeing to it’s now very hard to argue that this is a "bad deal," even for long-running skeptics like myself. By allaying critics’ concerns, it should now be possible to build Congress support for a final deal. Yet it also means that any further concessions needed before the final agreement will likely have to come from the P5+1 group. Should the negotiations ultimately fail, the US will wear much of the blame, making international consensus for any new sanctions on Iran difficult to attain.

The main loser is Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s been doing his level best to undermine the special relationship that exists between Israel and the United States. Netanyahu’s speech in the US Congress, wherein he attacked the P5+1 negotiations against the express wishes of the White House, is unprecedented. Netanyahu’s outright rejection of a two-state solution and apartheid-esque warning that Arab-Israeli citizens might actually exercise their democratic right to vote dismayed even long-standing Israeli supporters. If the JSCPOA provisions are implemented, then Netanyahu’s claim that the deal ‘paves Iran’s way to a bomb’ will seem utterly ridiculous.

The broader strategic context can’t be ignored. American and Iranian interests in the region are rapidly converging. This is most obvious in Iraq and Syria where there’s common cause to drive back the Sunni-dominated Islamic State, and where Iranian cooperation is needed to facilitate a permanent US withdrawal. Iran most likely sees this deal as an opportunity to further wedge the United States and Israel. After all, Israel isn’t a true US ally against Islamic State. Islamic State resists Iranian influence, distracts from the Palestinian question, and has shown little interest in attacking Israel. Israel has also proven less than loyal to the US elsewhere, for instance, by refusing to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The US is still a very long way from calling Iran a ‘partner’ in the region. Yet if the P5+1 negotiations are settled and built on, and Netanyahu continues to undermine Israel’s national interest, who knows what US relations with the Middle East will look like in another five years’ time?

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: State Department Flickr. 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East