Japan’s Carrier and China’s Bullish Insecurity


Japan has formally unveiled its newest helicopter carrier Izumo (Japan uses the old DDH helicopter destroyer designation, because everything is a destroyer in Japan). With an announced complement of 14 helicopters, it is a formidable patrol and anti-submarine warfare asset. At 248 metres in length, it is comparable in size to the old American Essex class carriers (or the current American Wasp-class assault ships). Its predecessor in production, Hyuga, was smaller at 197 metres, closer to the size of V/STOL carriers, though of course neither class has any fixed-wing armament planned- yet.

Given China’s carrier program, which includes one fixed-wing carrier in commission and others building, it is tempting to see Hyuga and Izumo as a direct response. However, it is a decidedly confusing one. On the one hand, Japan has just demonstrated proof of concept that it can build carriers of any size in very short order, which should come as no surprise, and with help from the United States, there is little doubt that they could be converted for fixed-wing operations. On the other hand, the ships’ current ASW mission is valid given the advancement of China’s submarine fleet, though Izumo is rather large for the role. The other issue is why Japan would bother with this kind of subtlety rather than simply commission these hulls as fixed-wing carriers.

And that leads us to the basic confusion of Japan’s defence policy, predicated on self-defence, facing economic recession and reluctance to remove traditional budgetary constraints on the one hand, and on the other facing a less than friendly neighbour with a growing military and an historical animus toward Japan deeply embedded in popular nationalism. The current Japanese government has been branded militarist by China and South Korea for comments in the most recent defence white paper, and yet in concrete terms has made no procurement plans that would allow Japan to keep its edge at sea and in the air, as against China’s increasingly ambitious procurements. Izumo looks impressive, but without addressing the widening gaps in numbers of modern surface combatants and aircraft, it is a very big nil.


China is effectively scuppering ASEAN’s latest attempt to unite in the face of Chinese bullishness in ongoing island-chain disputes. China has essentially told ASEAN to forget any agreement on a code of conduct in such disputes anytime soon. China has a policy of discouraging any attempt at multilateral negotiation on such issues, or heaven forbid, international arbitration.

Ruan Zongze, Chinese diplomat and senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, has warned that Japan and the Philippines are making a serious mistake by allowing the United States to embolden them into challenging “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China” by daring to lay claim to islands which China has unilaterally declared that it owns. “No one in this world will try to contain China and no one in this world is capable of containing China,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute blogs about China’s maritime strategy challenges. While I don’t agree with all of their arguments (such as the contention that China could not assert control of the Taiwan Strait against US forces, or conversely the idea that the US would be quick to intervene against Chinese attempts to seize islands in the South China Sea by force, an odd argument considering that the US has already stood by while China did exactly that), the post does something important in emphasising the inherently tenuous nature of the Chinese maritime position.

As I’ve argued previously, China is looking at an economic umbilical cord that runs from the oil fields of the Middle East and Africa, across the Indian Ocean and through the Malacca Strait, through which a great deal of China’s trade runs. While China can try to ease its complete energy vulnerability (especially to India, whose mastery of the Indian Ocean China could not easily contest) by building trans-Asian pipelines, the fact remains that any major navy could cripple Chinese trade, and with it the Chinese economy, in a matter of weeks by sitting at one end of the Malacca Strait. To overcome this vulnerability, China would have to outmatch the United States, Japan and India combined. China can try to dominate the waters within the “First Island Chain”, but in the end, they are dependent on the good will of others, and there is nothing they can do about it.


Military Doctrine- Steer Clear of Muddled Thinking

General H.R. McMaster, US Army, best known for his leadership of the spectacularly successful Third Armoured Cavalry Regiment during the Gulf War, has an editorial in the New York Times entitled “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.”

In it, General McMaster argues that the success of the 1991 Gulf War made the Pentagon so enamoured of the easy victories promised by high-technology warfare and the “Revolution in Military Affairs” that they went into Iraq and Afghanistan expecting gadgets and gizmos to confer victory.

It is certainly true that US forces in those conflicts spent far too much time and money on technology when they should have been thinking about people and boots on the ground intelligence. That extra money made those wars some of the most expensive in history- which is a great embarrassment when the opposition consists of guys with AK-47s and RPGs.

It is also true, as McMaster points out, that hubris led to poor planning when it came time to stabilise the newly-conquered nations. He mentions the role of US-allied warlords in destabilising Afghanistan to the point where the Taliban seemed preferable to many, as well as unaddressed minority grievances. One could also mention the politically-driven program of de-Baathification in Iraq, which put the armed forces and the trained civil administration out of a job, with predictable effects. However, then-Secretary Rumsfeld was the driving force in preventing a coherent reconstruction plan from being executed in both countries. At least in the case of Iraq, the Pentagon and the State Department could probably have stabilised the country had that obstruction been removed.

McMaster highlights the human, political and historical aspects of war, which US forces often underappreciated. General McChrystal, former commander in Afghanistan, frequently highlights this one in his talks, pointing out that there was deep history, culture and psychology in Afghanistan that the Americans had difficulty understanding. “Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely,” McMaster writes.

On the other hand, I am not sure that General McMaster himself isn’t guilty of some of the muddle that often accompanies strategic thinking at the Pentagon. He speaks of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of the lessons he presents are quite important. However, the biggest lesson of those wars must and should be to avoid counterinsurgency situations to begin with. These were preventable insurgencies, and given that the immense human, material and political cost of these wars far outstrips anything the nebulous threat of terrorism could ever have inflicted on American soil, the strategic truth remains that America was a sucker for being drawn into those situations in the first place.

Looking Ahead

At this point, the US military should be looking ahead to see what they have lost through their ten years of reorientation toward small wars. Air Land Battle, the doctrine that won the 1991 Gulf War, is gone, as is the training and force structure that supported it. Without a solid manoeuvre doctrine, the US Army will not be able to effectively wage conventional war without massive attrition. Many argue that the era of massed tank warfare is finished- but on what facts is this based? Massive tank fleets still exist. The only place where the tank has declined is in the West. Russia, China, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and many other countries retain substantial tank forces, and Russia and China remain keen on developing tank warfare technology. Given the right scenario, the US could find itself living 1991, or worse, all over again, but without its manoeuvre forces.

Instead, the US military has attempted to apply manoeuvre warfare to the maritime arena, with the Air Sea Battle doctrine. Air-Sea battle, and its partner the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), are jargon-based doctrines (and man are they swimming in it), designed to enhance cooperation between services and branches in order to overcome area denial and anti-access challenges, kick down the door and start dealing punishment upon the enemy. I’ve written previously about the problems with these concepts. In maritime scenarios which are likely to involve complex factors of nationalism, global economics and the possibility of protracted conflict if handled poorly, an all-out war-winning strategy becomes incredibly counterproductive compared with a more calibrated approach.

Democracy or Secularism in Egypt? Pick One

For anyone who’s been vacationing away from the internet and news media, the Egyptian Army, after issuing President Morsi with a 48-hour ultimatum on Monday to reach accommodation with protestors, has seized control of the country. The army has temporarily suspended the constitution and promised new elections will be held soon. The administration of the country is nominally in the hands of the chief justice of the Supreme Court

For those of us who have had the opportunity to get some insight into the view from Egypt since the first set of protests overthrew Mubarak, this event comes as no surprise. Instead, it is the painfully ironic culmination of a circle of futility, one that will most likely continue in future iterations of Egyptian democracy. The educated urban youth who made and still make up the core of the Tahrir Square protests are Egypt’s hope for the future, and in protesting the Mubarak regime, they were protesting against dictatorship, corruption and economic dilapidation.

Unfortunately, democracy is a system of majority rule, and they do not make up the majority. Both the army and the former regime knew very well that true democracy would mean rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, the death of Nasser’s secular state and ultimately, Sharia law. The reason is that the rural poor depend on the Brotherhood for daily bread and social services. For whom else would they vote? Only the educated, modern urban classes wanted democracy badly enough to fight for it- but only Islamism has cultivated enough support to form governments.

Oppressive laws and high-handed tactics have been the order of the day since Morsi came to power, with the rights of women and minorities suffering the consequences. When the minorities leave, it is time to get out, and Egypt’s Coptic Christians have been emigrating in large numbers since 2011.

And now the educated, as well as the economically desperate, are on the streets again, this time cheering the army they previously protested. The army sees it as a duty to maintain national balance. Despite Islamists in the ranks, it has just proven that it is the most powerful force for secularism left in Egypt.

The promise of new elections represents a very uncertain bet on the army’s part that economic collapse has brought enough frustration with the Brotherhood to tip the balance away from Islamism. This wager is unlikely to bear fruit unless the army stacks the deck- for example by keeping Morsi (who is under house arrest) and the 300 or so Brotherhood members for whom they have issued arrest warrants firmly in hand until after the election. Otherwise, the army will again face the conundrum of 2011- unable to make civil democracy work, and with authoritarianism in tatters, there seems no viable third option for Egypt.

The reactions of Western leaders, including President Obama, calling for swift return to democratic government and denouncing military intervention stand in stark contrast to those of America’s allies in the region. If ever there were a time to reconcile idealism with the reality on the ground, this is it.

Meanwhile, an even more troubling sign of where Egypt has gone in the last few years- women are being sexually assaulted in large numbers around protest sites. Both the volunteers who have banded together to stop this and international aid organisations characterise this as punishment for women’s participation in public life. Despicable statements from the Shura Council lend credence to this view, blaming the women for being involved “in such circumstances” and refusing to investigate.

There are few things more contemptible than men who use the act and culture of rape to silence women or prevent them from participating in the public life of their country. Our prayers and thoughts are with you, ladies. Don’t ever let them silence you.

Top Five Security Challenges for the Next Ten Years

They aren’t what you might think- or even what I might like to write about. North Korea, Iran- these are the least urgent problems in security and defence policy right now.

1. Population

The world’s population is set to increase to around 9 billion by 2050. This will occur in the nations least equipped to handle this growth, primarily in Africa and South Asia. The really dangerous thing about this trend is that it is occurring just as robotics is making demonstrable headway in replacing even relatively skilled human manufacturing jobs. If the manufacturing-based development of East Asia moves over to Africa in significant volume, it will provide far fewer wages than it did in China. Add to this a global financial system that is still far from stable, and we could be faced with the necessity of reinventing the global economy as an issue of human security.

On the other side of the coin, a number of nations- notably China- are in a very bad place demographically. They face an ageing population, a consequence of the continuing One-Child Policy. Thirty-five percent of the Chinese population will be senior citizens around 2050. The countries facing this problem are present-day powerhouses for the global economy. We had better hope they’re rich enough to become importers of goods and services.

The really interesting prediction is that the middle-case projection for world population shows growth slowing after 2050 and continuing to hover around the 9 billion mark- in which case, that is the number that we will have to learn to live with, and create a stable system for. This assumes, of course, that growth doesn’t simply continue until there’s a population crash.

In any case, the population growth differential between developing and developed nations will see this issue gradually take first place in the security agendas of developed nations. The more obvious issues, such as immigration policy, will give way to dealing with the rise of new super-populated countries (Nigeria will be one), and finally, the global potential for explosive unrest as the majority of the world’s population demands a greater share of the world’s resources from the minority.

2. Computers

Technological evolution has gotten away from us. Cyber-warfare and cyber-espionage are already constant facts of life. More importantly, we are watching as increasing shares of the global economy are computerised (creating human insecurity), and likewise critical infrastructure (creating strategic insecurity). China was perhaps the first nation on Earth to base an entire generation of military doctrine on using another nation’s dependence on computers, electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum against it. We know that individuals can pose significant threats to critical infrastructure, power grids, computer networks, urban infrastructure. Arguably, victory in a future conflict may no longer belong to the more technologically advanced power, but the one that can most effectively disrupt their opponent’s technology while minimising its own vulnerability.

The only way to effectively respond to this kind of threat is to become much more conscious in our decisions about the use of computers, the complexity of computers, the design of critical systems, to be much more coordinated and aware of what exactly we are gaining and what we are losing as we upgrade in all of these areas. In other words, computer advancement must become a matter both of security policy and of public debate.

3. Drones

They’re coming. They are now relatively cheaply available from countries like China. The United States has set the precedent that they can be used against threats to national security in peacetime- and now, for surveillance against American citizens on American soil. And the monopoly of developed nations and major military powers on drone technology is about to evaporate. The time to foresee how drones might be used when they become available to nations of all stripes, political systems and allegiances was seven years ago. Now, the precedents are set, and if other nations should follow the example of the United States, then we have a problem. We don’t know what drone warfare might look like when all parties, including private buyers, criminal and terrorist organisations gain access to this technology or if there is a way to contain it.

4. Climate/Water/Food Security

Sea levels- rising. Droughts- increasing. Extreme weather events- increasing. And, as all emergency management professionals are painfully aware, there are a large number of overdue natural disasters pending, ranging from major seismic events to solar storms. Security and defence policy makers would do well to think a little less about tinpot regimes that might someday be worth nuking back to the stone age and a little more about what could very well be a perfect storm of circumstances in the next thirty years that might render global security in terms of population movement, famine, infrastructure problems and conflicts over scarce resources totally unmanageable.

5. The Unknown Future War

With the threat of major conventional war relatively low, many countries nevertheless seem to be arming for one. No one knows what it might look like, and the doctrines under which it will be fought are at this point more theoretical than many military planners would like to admit. But chances are that it will involve at least the United States, if not other developed countries, in fairly short order. The likeliest geographical locations are troubling- both bestride sea lanes that are crucial to the global economy. I’ll leave you to guess.

What isn’t on this list and why:

North Korea

North Korea is dead and doesn’t know it. It has consistently refused the China’s consistent offers to help it develop on the Chinese model- its only hope for salvation. The only question is how it will die, and how many lives it will take with it. Unless the regime is utterly suicidal, its only threat to security on a global scale is the prospect of a nuclear Japan, which may just make the Chinese hit the roof.


Everyone knows what is likely to happen if Iran goes nuclear. Israel will certainly launch airstrikes. The United States may become involved. If Iran is allowed to remain nuclear, Saudi Arabia will follow. My bet is that China, which now has more riding on Gulf oil than the United States does, will buy Iran off.


A threat perception out of all proportion to the risk. Heart disease, auto accidents, AIDS- all are bigger threats to life and limb in the developed world, except in one respect. Small terrorist threats can elicit totally disproportionate responses, causing the developed world to spend lives, treasure and reputation in far greater amounts than the terrorists could have achieved themselves.


Still a live issue, but a critical one mainly for Europe (doomed to high energy prices), and China, which will effectively dominate the market for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, that’s the view so far. We’ll see what people have to say at the World Conference on Disaster Management next week. That’s always a place where you’re bound to hear some interesting perspectives on the future.

In the News

The US Navy has tested a surface ship torpedo defence system (SSTD) aboard the carrier George H. W. Bush. Developed by the Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory, the system combines passive detection and classification with a Countermeasure Anti-Torpedo to achieve hard kills. This system addresses a key area of vulnerability for surface ships, given the speed and multiple guidance modes of modern torpedoes and the multiplication of modern conventional submarine forces. Russia has already fielded a rocket-based system called Udav-1, which combines anti-torpedo and ASW functions and encompasses a number of specialised rockets.

Russian Prime Minister Medvedyev warned against the prospect of either Sweden or Finland joining NATO- a prospect that has come up in public debate due to the weakening defence postures in both countries. Sweden was embarrassed in April by being unable to respond to Russian aircraft approaching its border. Once again, Russia’s insecurities combine with belligerence to push its neighbours into the arms of NATO, which starts the cycle over again.

The hotline between North and South Korea is apparently back up. So much for the boy who cried war.

Chinese Strategic Culture- An Elusive Quality

Lots has been written about China’s military and geopolitical strategy, its strategic tradition, and the shifts in strategic thinking over the past forty years. But to actually define and make positive statements about the content of China’s strategic culture is so difficult that many more careful, not to say anal-retentive, scholars shun the topic altogether. Culture is already a subjective quantity, and to say that Text X conditions Culture Y in certain ways that make it likely to do Z in a given situation is an exercise that is speculative at best.

There are a few distinct ways to appraoch the question of strategic culture. One is to recognise that China enjoys the world’s oldest continuous strategic and political culture, and to go back to the foundational texts. Another is to emphasise the modern period- the emphasis on strategies based upon class struggle and “people’s war” under Mao and the more recent introduction of theories based upon Western Realism and, to a lesser extent, liberalism. Yet another is to analyse the writings of modern Chinese strategists and political figures, strategic scholarship and the military posture of China. Finally, of course, there is the perspective taken by analysts of China’s very active foreign and economic policies in the developing world.

While each of these approaches can yield interesting information, none of them is sufficient of itself to draw conclusions about this thing called “strategic culture.”

A popular assertion is that China is a Realist state with a Realist strategic tradition. Sun Tzu, the father of Chinese strategy, can be read in this way- if one ignores certain passages, such as his warning that no state has ever benefitted by a long war, and that the skillful general wins without fighting. But Sun Tzu, like most if not all Chinese strategists, did not regard an anarchic system among states as a constant, but rather as a problem to be solved- by force if neccessary, but also by other means. The Confucian order of international relations, much-touted by China these days as a legacy of peaceful coexistence, may have been a cloak for hegemonic behaviour in many instances (annexations of Korea and Vietnam come immediately to mind), but the ideal was to create a basis for peaceful coexistence based on filial piety.

There are many problems with simply projecting a text into modern strategic culture. In Gilboy and Heginbotham’s recent book Chinese and Indian Strategic Behaviour, in which they consider this question, they point out that such modes of analysis implicitly assume a lack of critical distance from the texts on the part of the strategic actors in question. Additional problems are the vast array of possible texts to draw upon and the lack of historical context. The pool of classical sources is considerably larger than many people appreciate, and their perspectives can be incredibly nuanced. There is no Thucydides to point to as the founder of a dominant theory of Chinese strategic policy. Chinese rulers and dynasties have also varied considerably in strategic behaviour- some engaging with the world through trade and others opting for splendid isolation, to give one example.

Proponents of a more modern view of Chinese strategic culture can persuasively argue that, while there are continuities in the strategic tradition, there are also discontinuities. The intrusion of the Western powers and the rise of communism sparked a new era of ideologically-driven strategy. With the end of class struggle, China suddenly found that a whole generation of strategists indoctrinated to class struggle and people’s war were obsolete. Deng Xiaoping and a few of his generation had some knowledge of the strategic classics, but China urgently needed a new generation of strategic scholars. As part of this process, an analysis of the strategies of the Great Powers was undertaken, leading inevitably to “Realism with Chinese characteristics”.

But again, those like Joshua Kurlantzick who have studied China’s extensive image campaign can point out that this “Realism” continues to draw on an incredibly nuanced understanding of narrative, image and “soft power” that Western Realism struggles to approach.

So, what can we say positively about Chinese strategic culture? First of all, we can note its vast range of perspectives and intellectual resources, spanning 2500 years of writings and now taking in material from other nations and continents. We can also note the political constraints upon particular strategic approaches, not least those currently imposed by popular nationalism. We can note the attention Chinese leaders have given and continue to give to the classics in formulating and articulating their policies. However, we can also note where political constraints may lead to strategic behaviour that Sun Tzu might well have warned against, as in the ongoing island chain disputes.

Finally, we can assess China’s position based on past strategic advice, and China’s past behaviour in similar circumstances. Today, China’s economic strength is offset by the strategic vulnerability of the sea-lanes on which it depends and by a host of internal problems which have yet to be dealt with. Either of these factors by itself would cause the classical writers to urge caution- internal strength and good governance is a key requisite for victory in the Chinese strategic tradition, mentioned at the beginning of The Art of War and constituting the main focus of Zhuge Liang’s Way of the General. Nevertheless, Chinese states have not always been prudent in practice in avoiding conflict when political image is percieved as being at stake.

What we cannot definitively say is what effect these sources of strategic culture might have in any given crisis, with rare exceptions- current Chinese military doctrine for dealing with carrier groups, for example, fits right in with traditional approaches to turning an enemy’s strengths into weaknesses. What is not in dispute is that China has already used the breadth of its strategic understanding to great effect in managing its econmic, geopolitical and military rise.

Among China’s leaders of the past few decades, Deng Xiaoping in particular deserves recognition as a first-class political strategist. So long as China followed the strategic principles which he helped to lay down, it prospered economically and threatened no one strategically. This should stand as evidence that to a certain point, a China following sound strategic principles is good for the rest of us, in a world that increasingly depends on China’s economy for prosperity, and China’s prudence for international harmony. There is no guarantee that the trend will continue in this new phase of China’s growth, and in some respects, it already seems to be faltering- but we can hope.

The Trouble with Carrier Groups: Why the US needs different approaches in the South and East China Seas

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.

E-2D Hawkeyes

E-2D Hawkeyes

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.

P-8 Poseidon (foreground) with P-3 Orion

P-8 Poseidon (foreground) with P-3 Orion

Surface Radars
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).

Sonar Platforms
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.

The Opposition

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.

Missile Saturation
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.

Subsurface Disruption
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.

Type 054A firing HQ-16 SAM

Type 054A firing HQ-16 SAM

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.

Electromagnetic Disruption
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.

Cyber Warfare
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.

Conventional Scenario
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.

Unconventional Logic
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.

Bottom Line
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.

Subsurface Campaign
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.

Yuan class submarine

Yuan class submarine

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.

Houbei class Missile Boat firing YJ-83 SSM

Houbei class Missile Boat firing YJ-83 SSM

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.

Littoral Combat
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.

Freedom class Littoral Combat Ship

Freedom class Littoral Combat Ship

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.