There was a time, now looked back on fondly, when Taiwan was seen as the one issue that might lead to a military confrontation between China and the United States. Today, with the deepening of territorial disputes between China and most of its maritime neighbours, and the uncomfortable reality that the wrong inciting incident might pull the United States into a regional conflict, it is time for another look at the tactical realities of operating a Carrier Strike Group in the East and South China Seas under opposed conditions. We will begin by assuming that the carrier group is patrolling near a disputed territory and is within range of land-based air support.
This analysis of operational concepts on both sides will show the futility of conventional confrontations and the need to prepare alternate strategic concepts based on the one inescapable premise: that continuing or escalating confrontation would be in the interests of neither side.
The Informational Approach
This approach to strike group defence emphasises “network centric” or “full-spectrum dominance” approaches to assure maximum information and awareness of the battlespace. This means that airborne, surface and sub-surface sensor platforms are deployed throughout the battlespace in such a way that no threat unit can approach close enough to the strike group to inflict damage without the coordination of a multi-layered response from surface, air and subsurface assets, including land-based aircraft.
The key sensors and platforms would include:
Airborne Early Warning Aircraft
Airborne radar aircraft with command and control capabilities, including the ability to provide remote targeting, could potentially include E-2 Hawkeyes from carriers, land-based E-3 Sentries and Japanese E-767 AWACS. All of these platforms are somewhat dated in their current states, and the real force multipliers would be the presence of Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) systems, such as the E-2D when it comes into service. The surface and terrain-scanning capabilities of such systems, in addition to longer range and higher refresh rates, would be of great help in managing the complex scenarios that could occur.
Other Airborne Radars
Any airborne radar is a potential asset through datalinks, including especially fighter radars and the surface search and periscope detection-optimised radars of land-based P-8 Poseidon ASW aircraft. Helicopter-mounted surface-search radars such as the AN/APS-153 on the MH-60R or the Blue Kestrel radar on the AW-101, if present with allied forces, would be a tremendous help in dealing with fast attack craft in island-rich environments.
The obvious major surface assets are the AN/SPY radars of US and allied Aegis-equipped vessels. What the US Navy currently lacks is a more capable AESA shipboard radar. An equally significant lacuna is the lack of radars designed for cluttered littoral conditions or any surface platforms survivable in such a situation (see below).
Given the impressive conventional submarine capabilities of the PLAN, diversity and coverage of sonar platforms is crucial. US and allied submarines would operate to cover designated approaches to the strike group. P-8s and helicopters would deploy sonarbuoy pickets. Helicopters would work possible contacts with dipping sonars.
The number of helicopters is one of the key leverage points the US and its allies could bring to bear. Between the relatively uncrowded decks of today’s supercarriers, the availability of amphibious flattops and the possible participation of Japanese helicopter “destroyer” flattops, there is almost unlimited potential to augment helicopter numbers, a very good idea as we will soon see.
Ship-based sonars, particularly towed arrays, would increase coverage, although the lack of towed arrays in the Flight II Arleigh Burke class is a matter of concern. The US Navy is currently working with relatively old towed arrays, though they are slated for replacement.
In theory, this three-dimensional detection net, connected by datalinks and backed by coordinated responses from sea and land-based assets, would be all but unassailable.
Unfortunately for the US Navy, this is an old approach. It is essentially an augmented version of the concentric protection strategy of carrier battle groups of the 1980s. Chinese planners have had decades to pick it apart. So what have they come up with?
The Chinese strategy is essentially asymmetric, following Sun Tzu’s approach of making yourself strong where the enemy is weak. This means pursuing avenues traditionally undervalued by the United States and its allies.
There’s nothing better for an old strategy than an old solution, and the Soviet Navy’s approach using saturated, three-dimensional anti-ship missile attacks just refuses to die. The PLANAF (People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force- they like to cover all their bases) has a very capable core maritime strike capability in its 100+ JH-7 strike aircraft, 70+ Su-30MKK and 24 MK2 multirole fighters. That is without counting their old H-6 bombers, various fighters and the many PLAAF aircraft that could be adapted for the role (all modern PLAAF tactical aircraft now have the ability to carry the YJ-82 ASM). In addition, some sources have indicated that China is in possession of a large fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles which could be used for targeting and missile delivery.
Virtually every major Chinese surface combatant carries at least 8 and often 16 Ship-to-Ship Missiles (SSMs), with the YJ-82/83 making up most of the inventory. The YJ-83 and the Russian Moskit missiles carried on China’s four Sovremenny class destroyers are supersonic, reducing the defenders’ response time. Missile capabilities of Chinese submarines remain unclear, although it is likely that at least the Russian-built boats have the ability to launch the Klub family of land attack and anti-ship missiles. Of perhaps greatest concern are the 80+ Type 022 Houbei class stealth missile boats, whose operational characteristics lend them to swarm attacks.
Chinese submarines have demonstrated the ability to surface undetected in the middle of American carrier groups. It is certain that their recent conventional designs have become almost as irritatingly quiet as their Swedish, German, Australian and Italian counterparts, which have had so much fun “sinking” US carriers and other vessels in wargames. Add to this the home field advantage in underwater terrain, and the headache posed by these platforms could be extreme. The good news for the US Navy is that Japan also has an impressive conventional submarine force.
Surface to Air
Others have illustrated China’s ability to cover the Taiwan Strait under a surface-to-air missile umbrella from the mainland; with the addition of sea-based assets, they could notionally do so for virtually the entire island. In non-Taiwan scenarios, SAMs remain very relevant, both as an obstacle to any attempt to strike at mainland targets and, in their naval forms, as a means of constricting tactical aircraft launched from a strike group or from land bases. SAMs may also be used by naval task groups to cover tactical aircraft into launch range for anti-ship missile attack. The Russian and Chinese variants of the Shtil, S-300 and S-400 missiles are one to two generations beyond anything the United States military has had to face in combat thus far, and all new Chinese frigates and destoyers for the past five years have had a credible area air defence capability. The extreme range of the S-300 and S-400 variants, combined with the multiple guidance options of the Chinese versions and enhanced networking ability gives them a level of capability that should not be underestimated.
Threats to Basing
While the Chinese might call Japan a “giant unsinkable aircraft carrier,” and while the US does have some basing options in the region, China has the cruise missile capabilities to pose a significant threat to any land base in the region, thereby tying up assets needed for other missions in defensive roles. Apart from dedicated land-attack weapons, their standard YJ-82 anti-ship missile can be used for land attack without modification.
The United States Navy without the electromagnetic spectrum is a bunch of very expensive yachts, and the Chinese have been keen to exploit this dependence. This spectrum carries radar, communications, targeting data, GPS, and all of the networked systems that make modern warfare work. The possibility of depriving such a force of its GPS, sensor and communication satellites with anti-satellite weapons, of disabling its electronic systems with an Electromagnetic Pulse, of jamming radars and datalinks, offers the potential of rendering it tactically useless. Articles by Chinese military scholars suggest that “mastery of space” and “electromagnetic dominance” will soon assume the previous importance of aerial dominance in naval warfare.
A declassified intelligence report obtained by George Washington University’s National Security Archive suggests that China has conducted advanced research into the generation of EMPs, including its effects on living tissue. Such a pulse could be used to knock out electronics on a Carrier Strike Group. Pentagon sources have occasionally dropped hints that electromagnetic vulnerabilities are being addressed, though given the pace of known electronic upgrades to the fleet, this may be un-reassuring.
Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles
The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is China’s bid to complete an old Soviet dream, being able to sink a carrier with a long-range, high-speed ballistic missile. This missile would have a conventional warhead and would, at hypersonic or high-supersonic speeds, be nearly impossible to shoot down for conventional SAMs. Whether the anti-ballistic SM-3 missile can be successfully modified to deal with the trajectories (and manoeuvring capability) involved is unknown.
That China has a considerable cyber warfare capability is old news, as is the fact that the US military has not always been careful in purchasing electronics from China. What China could do with this in wartime against a strike group is, simply, unknown.
Using the more conventional area-denial strategies together, whether or not they are successful at sinking ships, will create a number of unavoidable problems for a US carrier force, including:
– Ordinance depletion: While a carrier strike group has a considerable supply of ordinance at its disposal, the PLAN will also have done the math, employing swarm tactics, decoys, trading old ordinance for new and other means to exhaust stocks of AMRAAM, SM-2/SM-6 and ESSM missiles.
– Platform pressure: Even backed by significant numbers of land-based aircraft, the strike group’s Super Hornets will be under intense pressure to generate sufficient sorties to respond to incoming air attack, particularly if they are also tasked with any offensive strike roles. Because of the vast numbers of opposing aircraft and China’s ability to threaten land-based targets, land-based friendly aircraft will be under the same pressure. This means that aircraft will be subject to constant and conflicting air defence, anti-ship, SEAD, strike and other missions beyond the ability of any air wing to sustain. This above all is a good reason to saturate carrier air groups in the area.
– Multitasking stress: The PLAN has the resources to force a strike group to contend with 24-hour, 3-dimensional pressure from submarines, aircraft and surface ships, and more importantly, incoming missiles and torpedoes, a likely tactic if the situation does not make a single massed strike politically acceptable.
These guaranteed gains would allow China to emphasise the defensive position of the strike group without expending a great many valuable platforms to do so. This would be consonant with their understanding of American psychology as responding unyieldingly to a single massive strike but tiring of constant low-level attrition. It would also allow the Chinese to avoid risking their hard-won military advantages.
The math says that the PLAN and PLAAF can sink a carrier strike group, even without resorting to unconventional technologies- it’s simply a matter of counting missiles and platforms and accounting for certain probability factors. But the math also says that in doing so, they would lose a sizeable portion of their major air, submarine and surface assets- and that first strike group would surely be followed by all the others. That is why they would be more likely to attempt to wear down the US force, degrading its effectiveness by every means available as the conflict progresses.
Conventional Air War
We will not repeat here the depressing conclusions of RAND’s Pacific Vision ’08 study, which showed that, even with perfect performance, perfect stealth capabilities and unrealistic 100% kill rates, US forces would inevitably lose a conventional air campaign against Chinese air forces. The equation may change somewhat depending on the geography of the inciting dispute and the participation of Japan, but given the capabilities of China’s more modern aircraft and their ability to leverage numerical superiority against the Japanese using older airframes, it may not improve very much.
Using conventional tactics, China might succeed, at the cost of many of its modern air and naval assets, in destroying one carrier group. With non-conventional and attritional tactics, the modern successor to Mao’s “People’s War”, they hope to neutralise an opponent long enough to achieve peace on favourable terms. China’s area denial strategies follow a doctrine of Sun Tzu, “good warriors cause others to come to them, and do not go to others,” and, “To unfailingly take what you attack, attack where there is no defence.” Part of the reasoning behind this approach is a deep understanding of what Mao called the “subjective factor” in war. China would enter into a conflict with the object not of a military victory (though of course they would like to), but of forcing favourable negotiations thereafter.
China has the ability to ensure that the United States Navy and Air Force, in concert with whatever allies, cannot execute offensive operations or the forced entry implied by Air-Sea Battle and Joint Operational Access Concept doctrines without a massive commitment of resources, and cannot do so without paying an extremely high cost.
What that means is that China has the ability to force the United States to make a choice between unlimited conventional war and negotiation. This position tests the willingness of the American people to go to war over distant island chains, and leaves the United States in the role of the aggressor.
A number of approaches to countering these area-denial/ anti-access strategies have been batted around in the United States. Air-Sea Battle and the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC- no, I’m not kidding) emphasise an all-branches synergistic approach to gain and maintain operational access in denied areas. What do they mean by “synergy”? Near as anyone can tell, they mean forcing the services to work together to find uses for existing equipment that it was never designed for and to leverage comparative advantages. Any attempt to find a more thorough explanation leads to documents heavy on jargon and laden with repackaged strategic maxims (see “Operational Access Precepts” on page 17 of the JOAC document for the latter and “A Concept for Joint Operational Access” on page 14 for the former).
Fortunately, this isn’t the only conceptual framework the brain trust of the US Navy has to offer.
An article by retired Captains Jeffrey Kline and Wayne Hughes in the Naval War College Review proposed that the best approach to neutralising Chinese missile superiority would be to fight under the waves. The goal of this campaign would be to deter aggression by denying the PLAN freedom of movement within the “first island chain” (as the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines line is called in Chinese strategic discourse), their own backyard.
Submarines could be used for a number of graduated mission profiles calibrated to the situation, from sinking a single warship (on the General Belgrano model) to sinking submarines and surface combatants to interdicting civilian traffic within maritime exclusion zones and mining military ports. Use of submarines also neatly neutralises the impact of China’s electromagnetic warfare capabilities.
Unfortunately, this part of the strategy rather cavalierly assumes that the US Navy can establish underwater superiority in Chinese coastal waters. How the all-nuclear US submarine force stacks up against ultra-quiet air-independent conventional submarines in relatively confined waters and in their home undersea terrain is an open question, and the answer may be different for the newer Virginia and Seawolf classes than for the older Los Angeles class boats which comprise the backbone of the US fleet. Underestimating the PLAN submarine force has proved a mistake in the past. Cooperation with Japan, owner of the most powerful conventional submarine force in the world, would be the key factor in securing superiority in an underwater confrontation. In any case, this part of the strategy could prove costly, albeit far less so than carrier-based options.
A US Pressure Strategy
In addition to submarine warfare, there would be a number of complementary pressure tactics. Kline and Hughes emphasise the need to develop a force of small missile-armed craft to undertake flotilla-strength raids against illegal seabed-exploitation sites and Chinese surface forces and to escort friendly shipping.
During peacetime, this force would counteract China’s increasingly dominant patrol presence in the area and engage with Southeast Asian nations in preventing unilateral Chinese actions in territorial disputes. During wartime, it would tax China’s area-denial resources and provide the US Navy with the freedom to act without putting large surface groups in the line of fire. Like submarines, fast attack flotillas would have minimal reliance on the electromagnetic spectrum. Such forces can be extremely cost-effective- the Norwegian Skjold class, at $125 million per unit, is an ideal off-the-shelf option capable of matching and overmatching the Type 022 (compare the $650 million Littoral Combat Ship).
More conventional surface groups would occupy choke points outside the island chain, providing a number of graduated interdiction options. At last resort, they would confer the ability to exert crippling economic pressure on China’s shipping-dependent economy. Marine expeditionary forces would be positioned to hold disputed islands at risk, whether through reactionary raids against Chinese presence or outright occupation.
War at Sea
Kline and Hughes’ approach, dubbed War at Sea, is by far the best approach to this tactical problem to emerge from the US naval establishment. War at Sea is superior to prevailing doctrines such as Air-Sea Battle in an East Asian context, in that it is inherently offensive (as we have seen, a Carrier Strike Group would quickly find itself under siege), containable (it confines engagements to non-mainland targets and focuses on de-escalation), calibrated and flexible (it provides many levels of response depending on the situation), cost-effective (it inflicts damage without presenting significant danger to core US capabilities) and geopolitically astute (its objective is de-escalation and creating the conditions for negotiation).
‘War at Sea’ is definitely outside-the-box thinking, however, as most successful wartime strategies are. Like past strategic innovations, it might face considerable resistance.
Two Can Play EM Games
If the US must deploy carrier groups within the first island chain, there are a few capabilities they could leverage, and some serious liabilities that need to be addressed. With the reputed capability of the Growler, the electronic warfare version of the Super Hornet, to selectively disrupt enemy signals of all types while leaving friendly systems free and clear, EM spectrum denial is certainly a game that two can play. The more China advances its military, the more equal the vulnerability of the two sides to EM disruption.
Dealing with Missile Boats
We’ve mentioned the possibilities of leveraging helicopters against fast attack craft, a strategy employed most prominently by the Royal Navy with the Lynx helicopter/ Sea Skua missile combination. This approach has the virtue of freeing up tactical aircraft for higher-value targets. Helicopters employed to clear littoral island areas of submarines will likely be the first to meet missile boats, and by arming them with light missiles, it is possible to use this inevitability to tactical advantage.
The Type 022 has MANPAD-class anti-air capability. For this reason, the US Navy would be prudent to provide its helicopters with a longer-ranged and harder-hitting ASM than their current Hellfire missiles when the Penguin goes out of service, and to train in coordinated tactics for this eventuality. If Marine AH-1Z attack helicopters can be added to the mix, so much the better, but again, the platform could stand a longer-ranged weapon. The Maverick missile is the obvious choice, particularly since its optical guidance mode makes radar stealth moot.
Despite the partly littoral nature of our scenarios, the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships can have no place in them, except possibly as extra towed array sonar/ helicopter sets under a Carrier Strike Group’s protection. They cannot be safely used in these island littoral environments, for the simple reason that any Chinese platform they are likely to encounter (including the much smaller Type 022 and any tactical aircraft) could confront them with YJ-82/83 missiles. The LCS would be forced to answer with the Griffin missile, which is an infantry weapon used when an anti-tank missile would be uneconomical. The most potent weapon the LCS possesses in such a situation is its admittedly excellent Bofors 57mm gun.
This mismatch in range and firepower is compounded by the LCS’s acknowledged lack of damage resistance. Nor would stealth characteristics be of much help to an LCS, since the upgraded versions of the YJ-82 missile come with the choice of imaging infrared or electro-optical seekers in addition to radar, with optional command guidance from the launch platform via datalink on the same principle as the US Maverick. Under contested airspace, the LCS would be extremely vulnerable.
The ships are also vulnerable to submarines in coastal waters, lacking an on-board torpedo capability, and even the meagre ASW mission package will not be ready until 2018. Also, like all US Navy ships, they lack what any ship more likely would require for littoral ASW operations- an anti-submarine mortar like the Swedish ASW-601, or preferably, a comprehensive rocket-based underwater self-defence system like the Russian Udav-1. For more on the LCS, see this article.
Stay Cool, Play the Long Game
Despite China’s increasingly belligerent displays of territorial nationalism, a military confrontation that risks bringing in the United States is a lose-lose proposition for China for the foreseeable future. Chinese anti-access strategy as so far disclosed revolves around demonstrating that China can exact a prohibitive cost on any comer, that it is a significant military power and that a war with it is a real, full-scale war. But it is also inherently defensive. America has the means to wreak extensive and highly-targeted destruction on China if it so wished, and China many fewer means of striking at America. To sink an American Carrier Strike Group by conventional means is to invite the certainty of a re-match. To sink a carrier with a ballistic missile invites an even more emphatic response. Escalation is definitely not in China’s interest.
For China to push any issue as far as war would be to cause all of its thus-far unaligned (or multi-aligned) neighbours to choose sides, and it would risk being surrounded by US allies. In any case, the latent military might of Japan would certainly become a very active concern in any of these scenarios. China and Japan are almost equally matched now in the air and at sea (allowing for differences in training and experience), but Japan thus far devotes only a small portion of its GDP to defence and is not a nuclear power. Changing that situation is not high on the Communist Party’s, or the Central Military Commission’s, list of happy thoughts.
For China, the endgame is always to come out with a superior position at the negotiating table. Quite apart from anything else, prolonged disruption of trade is a very real political danger to the Party. On the other side of the equation, the Party’s major vulnerability, and the major concern of any potential adversary of China, is its need to save face domestically, which could determine the future of Party rule given China’s fever-pitch nationalism.
By understanding these factors, the United States can control the dynamics of any conflict to avoid escalation beyond minor skirmishes and play a long game that emphasises foreshadowing the unfavourable outcomes of prolonged conflict. Above all, both sides should tread with care that invisible line between negotiable conflict and that irrevocable step that forces the other side to play for keeps. Captains Kline and Hughes emphasise in their article the need for a non-escalatory approach that confines conflict to the sea, and we must heartily concur:
“We believe that maritime options may be a more credible deterrent than Air-Sea Battle’s deep-strike capability, if China perceives our leadership as being more willing to employ them in response to aggression within a maritime exclusion zone or in territorial disputes. A strategy of maritime interdiction or blockade has been criticized as too slow-acting. A war-at-sea strategy, however, affords time for passions to cool and opportunities for negotiation in which both sides can back away from escalation to a long-lasting, economically disastrous war involving full mobilization and commitment to some kind of decisive victory—in other words, World War III. In addition, if potential allies within the Pacific basin realize we intend to exercise “at-sea only” strategic options that lessen the likelihood of Chinese attacks on their homelands, they may be more willing to maintain and expand partnerships with the United States.”
This stands in direct contradiction to the precepts of Air-Sea Battle and the Joint Operational Access Concept, which are predicated on penetrating enemy anti-access/area-denial capabilities in order to execute war-winning strikes on their territory. These doctrines are basically designed to “kick down the door,” destroying the enemy’s ability to fight in every dimension. Employed against China, this approach invites full-scale war to the finish, followed by years of hostility.
The Chinese Communist Party has spent decades preaching nationalism and an end to the “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers. For a Western power to execute widespread strikes on the Chinese mainland is something that would evoke in China the same kind of unyielding nationalism that Pearl Harbour produced in the United States. This truly would be a “People’s War” with the world’s largest armed forces, one that the United States might not have the will to persist in.
Finally, it does no harm to remember the obvious. Both China and the United States are nuclear powers. While the Chinese leadership can be considered on most levels to be an extremely rational actor, the last thing that anyone should want to do is put them in a position where nuclear capability is the only card they have left to play.