Countering China’s A2/AD Challenge

While the United States focuses on Syria, American military planners are considering how to counter China's increasing capabilities.

U.S. defense planners are now focusing on Syria, but they have also been compelled to plan for countering Chinese efforts at what Western analysts term “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) capabilities. How successfully Washington deals with Beijing’s increasing capabilities in this area will go a long way toward determining how much faith our western Pacific allies place in our commitments to them.

China’s efforts at developing A2/AD capabilities, which the Chinese term “counter-intervention,” are rooted in the pattern of Chinese economic growth and their assessment of lessons learned from recent major wars.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mao Zedong, fearing attack from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, concentrated economic development well-inland. Mao sought to protect China’s “third-line” of industry from attack by interposing China’s physical space between it and likely attackers.

Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, reversed much of this policy (among many others) when he inaugurated the period of Reform and Opening in 1978. Thanks to Deng’s policies, China’s economic center of gravity has shifted to its coast, where foreign and domestic investment has been most heavily weighted.  Indeed, part of Bo Xilai’s popular appeal (as Party Secretary of inland Sichuan province) was his argument that China’s inland areas had been slighted for more than three decades of economic expansion.

Ironically, the desire for strategic depth to keep potential enemies at arm’s length from China’s economic centers is a key factor in the development of Chinese A2/AD capabilities, further motivated by Chinese observations of other people’s wars. From Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990 through NATO operations in the Balkans, the toppling of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and the destruction of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, airpower has played a major, if not central, role. In each of these conflicts, American-led forces have used sustained aerial attacks (from a variety of platforms) to degrade an opponent’s defensive capabilities and destroy their economic, political and communications infrastructure at minimal cost to itself. The American ability to rapidly deploy carrier-based airpower in the 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis is also believed by some to have been a factor.

PLA analyses have concluded that airpower is essential for the conduct of “non-contact, non-linear, non-symmetric” warfare. In their view, these three qualities are typical of “local wars under informationized conditions,” where airpower—along with space and cyber capabilities—will be essential to victory. Consequently, China’s efforts in A2/AD are intended to forestall, and if possible defeat, an opponent’s ability to engage in sustained aerial attack against key Chinese targets.

China’s A2/AD efforts are therefore focused on countering both American land- and sea-based airpower, including not only aircraft carriers, but cruise missiles and long-range bombers. To this end, Chinese strategy has strategic, operational and tactical dimensions.

The strategic dimension is embodied in the so-called “three warfares.” The objective is to fundamentally deny the legitimacy of U.S. operations in the western Pacific using legal, public opinion and psychological warfare.  These initiatives are coupled with diplomacy and efforts to secure control of the East Asian littoral. The U.S. is not the sole target here.  These efforts are aimed just as much at U.S. allies and third parties throughout the region. If Beijing can persuade these states that Washington should not be allowed to operate in their air and sea-space, or that it is dangerous for them to antagonize China by doing so, it as effectively shuts down American capabilities as physically destroying them.

The operational dimension focuses on denying the U.S. the ability to operate in its customary manner. Based on their analyses of past American-led military actions, the Chinese have concluded that victory in future wars is rooted in the ability to establish “information dominance (zhi xinxi quan).” The side that can better collect, transmit and exploit information, while denying an opponent the same ability, will be the victor. In practice, for the PLA this means attacking American information networks, and especially their space capabilities. By combining physical attacks on satellites with non-contact disruption and degradation of their operations (e.g., by dazzling them with lasers), along with cyber attacks on the information that passes over those satellites, the PLA hopes to prevent the U.S. from effectively striking at over-the-horizon targets, even as China defends its territory while enjoying the physical advantage of operating closer to its own shores and infrastructure.