The U.S. Navy has a problem. The amount of threats it faces when it comes to ensuring the global commons remain open and free keep multiplying. Most of them come from what we have dubbed anti-access/area-denial strategies and weapons systems. Nations like China, Iran, Russia and in some respects North Korea and various non-state actors all want to raise the costs for Washington’s naval assets to operate near their coasts in the event of a crisis or war. And with the diffusion of cheaper weapons that only American and its allies held years ago-- such as various types of cruise and ballistic missiles, mines, subs, and other weapons-- Washington is working hard to find ways to negate such challenges.
But let there be no doubt, the greatest challenge to the U.S. Navy when it comes to A2/AD weapons platforms comes from China. Beijing has developed a sophisticated arsenal of weapons that would likely create lots of interesting dilemmas for the U.S. Navy in the event of a conflict or war. Below I present three of the most deadly that Washington needs to give careful consideration to--in no particular order, but all nerve wracking to say the very least:
The DF-21D: The Carrier Killer:
While China was clearly set upon a path to develop a more advanced military after the conclusion of the First Gulf War (see Robert Farley’s excellent discussion of this), an event much closer to home only helped to reinforce Beijing’s worst fears--which drove China to develop what many of us in the press have named “the carrier-killer” or DF-21D.
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The 1995-1996 crisis over Taiwan clearly demonstrated Beijing’s predicament at the time: when faced with a superior military power with technologically advanced weapons China would have no ability to compete in the near future. It is largely because of careful analysis of this crisis that Beijing would fear the power of American Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) and their ability to negate China’s military power and influence in the near seas and especially around Taiwan. The crisis would also guide China’s thinking on the development and acquisition of new weapons systems that could provide an asymmetric advantage and negate America’s technological edge.
America’s actions during the crisis would have tremendous repercussions for China’s future military doctrine and force structure. The U.S. would deploy two CBGs in a show of support for Taiwan—an important symbol of American power and deterrence. The long-term ramifications of the crisis are clear: PLA planners began an important effort to blunt the advantages of American CBG’s. To do this, they looked to an existing technology they already possessed: cruise and ballistic missiles.
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While media reports of advanced missiles with the ability to strike carriers maybe in the news today, there is a clear line from the 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis and China’s deployment over the last several years of a missile-centric A2/AD strategy. One important example is from the testimony of Larry Wortzel to the U.S. Congress in 2009,
I was the Army Attaché in Beijing in 1995 to 1997, 98, and the first time a senior Chinese military officer of the General Staff Department mentioned ballistic missiles attacking carriers was after our two carriers showed up, and he put his arm around my shoulder and said we're going to sink your carriers with ballistic missiles…
China would henceforth embark on a program to develop what is referred to as the DF-21D (for the only history on the DF-21D see Andrew Erickson’s monograph on the subject), the first deployed medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile (commonly referred to as an ASBM) with the capability to strike a moving capital ship on the high seas. With a range of approximately “1500+km”, such a weapon would be the first ballistic missile with the accuracy to—at least in theory—deliver a mission kill to a capital ship.
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The weapon is launched from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere. Presumably aided by over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles each providing guidance to the weapon. It also incorporates a maneuverable warhead to help find its target and negate countermeasures. Assuming a targeted vessel was at the presumed maximum range of the missile, it would only take ten minutes to reach its destination.
But the real question is this: Just how good is it? The real and most honest answer is that no one really knows for sure--well, at least not in an open-source, nonclassified way. When I put the question to Roger Cliff , a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council back in 2012, he gave what I consider still the best answer on the subject:
...The thing to keep in mind is that, in order for China to successfully attack a U.S. navy ship with a ballistic missile, it must first detect the ship, identify it as a U.S. warship of a type that it wishes to attack (e.g., an aircraft carrier), acquire a precise enough measurement of its location that a missile can be launched at it (i.e., a one-hour old satellite photograph is probably useless, as the ship could be 25 miles away from where it was when the picture was taken), and then provide mid-course updates to the missile. Finally, the warhead must lock onto and home in on the ship.
This complicated “kill chain” provides a number of opportunities to defeat the attack. For example, over-the-horizon radars used to detect ships can be jammed, spoofed, or destroyed; smoke and other obscurants can be deployed when an imagery satellite, which follows a predictable orbit, is passing over a formation of ships; the mid-course updates can be jammed; and when the missile locks on to the target its seeker can be jammed or spoofed. Actually intercepting the missile is probably the most difficult thing to do. The SM-3 has an exoatmospheric kill vehicle, meaning that it can only intercept the missile during mid-course, when it’s traveling through space, so an Aegis ship escorting the target would have to fire its SM-3 almost immediately in order to intercept the missile before it reentered the atmosphere, or else there would have to be an Aegis ship positioned right under the flight path of the missile. The DF-21D may be equipped with decoys that are deployed in mid-course, making the SM-3’s job harder. U.S. Aegis ships are also equipped with the SM-2 Block 4 missile, which is capable of intercepting missiles within the atmosphere, but the DF-21D warhead will be performing some high-G maneuvers, which may make it impossible for the SM-2 Block 4 to successfully intercept it.
How all this would work in reality is impossible to know in advance…
But if the weapons works as advertised, and keep in mind U.S. officials already declared the DF-21D had reached initial operational capability (IOC) by the end of 2010, Beijing has had a number of years to develop this important A2/AD weapon. My advice: it might not be perfect but it could still posse some serious headaches for U.S. military planners if fired in follies (see below for more on this). Remember, just one hit to a carrier or cruiser would be more than enough to take it out of action and cost hundreds of sailors their lives.
A Bloody Saturation Strike:
So, to be fair--it is not a weapon itself. However, if Beijing were to leverage the various types of cruise and ballistic weapons it has in its arsenal in a massive strike the impact could be quite devastating.
While there has been numerous scholarly articles written over the last several years that depict what a Chinese strike using A2/AD strategy would encompass none is as authoritative as the work by the U.S. Naval War College over the last seven or so years. One particular scholar, Dr. Toshi Yoshihara, explains the deadly potency of how Chinese A2/AD missiles could be grouped together in deadly saturation strikes negating U.S. and allied missile defenses:
ASBMs (anti-ship ballistic missiles) may not need to produce mission kills against the surface fleet to complicate U.S. plans. They only need to reach the fleet's defensive envelope for the Aegis (U.S. sea-based missiles defenses) to engage the incoming threats, thus forcing the defender to expend valuable ammunition that cannot be easily resupplied...Even inaccurate ASBMs, then, could compel the Aegis to exhaust its weapons inventory...Used in conjunction with conventional ballistic missile strikes against U.S. bases and other land targets across Asia — strikes that would elicit more intercept attempts — ASBM raids could deprive the United States and its allies of their staying power in a sea fight. Beijing could then multiply the U.S. Navy’s problems by launching…attacks from the air and sea. The PLA could unleash air-launched saturation attacks followed by undersea and seaborne cruise missile salvos to wear down the fleet...
The challenge as presented above is simple: “math wins.” Even assuming a hit-to-kill ration of 100% by Allied missile defenses, Chinese planners need to simply have more missiles on hand while only having to come close to allied forces in an effort to expend their missile interceptors. Chinese forces could also employ another method—saving advanced ASBM and cruise missiles that might be more accurate for later while first employing older missiles that might not be as accurate as “bait” for U.S. missile defenses. After such interceptors are exhausted, Chinese forces could use more advanced and highly accurate missiles in an effort to overwhelm possible U.S. capital ships and force their withdrawal from combat operations or presumably suffer massive casualties.
While we all love to talk about those sexy high-tech weapons of warfare, there are many older types of technology that can be just as deadly. While it might not get a lot of attention, China does have a tremendous amount of sea mines. Leveraged in various capacities, especially in a Taiwan crisis, they could pose tremendous problems for the U.S. Navy or other allied powers. Don’t take my word for it, Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein & William Murray, in what I would consider the most comprehensive study on Chinese mine warfare explain that:
...Chinese mine warfare (MIW) represents a dynamic and ambitious sector within a PLAN that is plainly making rapid strides toward modernization. It demonstrates that China’s MIW draws extensively on the assimilated lessons of foreign experiences, as well as a surprisingly rich and relevant indigenous history.
China’s mine inventory is not only extensive but likely contains some of the world’s most lethal MIW systems. Indeed, China is on the cutting edge of mine warfare technology and concept development, and it already fields systems that advanced nations—the United States, for one—do not have in their arsenals. PLA strategists understand the human dimension of modern warfare, and this is evident in Chinese MIW. Indeed, Chinese naval periodicals reveal an increasingly impressive training regimen, one that goes beyond rote, scripted exercises. ...Chinese MIW doctrine that emphasizes speed, psychology, obfuscation, a mix of old and new technologies, a variety of deployment methods—and that additionally targets very specific U.S. Navy platforms and doctrines.
...Chinese MIW is noteworthy because it is one of a few warfare areas that could, in conjunction with other capabilities, suddenly and completely upset the balance of power in the western Pacific. Taiwan’s mine countermeasure-ships (MCM) force is minimal and could be destroyed in preemptive strikes. Japan’s MCM fleet is robust, but Tokyo remains a major “wild card” politically in a cross-strait conflict. Most fundamentally, U.S. and allied MCM forces are not sized or configured to “fight their way in” by operating in areas in which sea and air control are contested. Even in uncontested waters, MCM forces make operationally significant changes only slowly. Accordingly, Chinese MIW represents a point of major leverage for Beijing…
Combined with challenges below the waves that are just now being understood, the U.S. Navy must keep in mind a number of A2/AD platforms that will have to be factored into its operational and strategic planning in the near term. Efforts over the last several years like Air-Sea Battle (now JAM-GCC) demonstrate that America’s armed forces, and specifically Navy, are more than up to the task. However, with the challenge of sequester still looming over the horizon questions remain if America’s military can drive the innovation needed to stay ahead of the curve (think things like the 3rd offset strategy). Will the technology and weapons platforms needed to stay ahead be funded adequately? It stands to reason we will find out soon enough.
Harry J. Kazianis serves as Editor of RealClearDefense, a member of the RealClearPolitics family of websites. Mr. Kazianis is also a non-resident Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest and a non-resident 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 (or yell at him) on Twitter: @grecianformula.