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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Farrukh Baig, 16th century Mughal miniatures.

Farrukh Baig, 16th century Mughal miniatures.

What I read this week:

The truth about the Fast and Furious scandal.

The Mexican Drug War is not sexy.

Pakistan’s most violent city (via Andrew Sullivan).

How the US rendered, tortured and discarded one innocent man.

The disaster of American healthcare (via David Dobbs).

Mogwai – Take Me Somewhere Nice.

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Poverty Tourism At Its Most Horrible

By Taylor Marvin

Contiki Holidays has an outrageously tone-deaf and exploitative ad on their Facebook page:

“Why the fuck is this white girl in my house.”

This almost reads as a satire. Contiki’s response to a detractor in the comments illustrates that they clearly don’t understand what they’ve done wrong, or get what’s so noxious about poverty tourism:

PRC Area-Denial Capabilities and American Power Projection, Part 5

By Taylor Marvin

USS Ronald Regan and allied ships in the Pacific. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Taylor, via Wikimedia.

This the final installment in a draft research project I recently wrote. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

What does all this mean?

China is pursuing a “two-vector” naval strategy because it faces an uncertain future, and is unwilling to fully commit itself to preparing for either a major war with the US on Chinese terms or regional, and eventually global, power projection. This hedge empowers the US Navy. Instead of having to face a PLA entirely structured around asymmetric anti-access/area-denial it instead only faces one asymmetric “vector”; the other can be engaged conventionally, to America’s advantage. Despite China’s lack of investment in amphibious forces the hedge between pure asymmetric power projection denial and symmetric power projection vectors weakens its A2/AD capabilities. Resources China spends on its surface fleet are not available for sea-denial. The vulnerability of power projection assets cuts both ways—while US surface ships are vulnerable to Chinese area-denial strategies, Chinese ships are even more threatened by superior US forces, and the lifespan of China’s expensive surface ships in a conflict would be very short. The US Navy’s anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities remain the best in the world. Threatening a US carrier strike group with conventional assets remains a difficult task, and Chinese surface ships are, no matter how capable, vulnerable. In a world of limited resources, the choice between strict asymmetric strategy and power projection is a zero sum game. Assets and strategies used for power projection have only marginal utility in an open conflict—submarines and missiles cannot be used to project power. By investing in surface asset development China has taken resources that could been directed anti-access/area-denial weapons and sunk them into floating targets.[1]

China’s hesitant pursuit of power projection is an encouraging development. While China’s A2/AD vector is clearly designed to force the US to disengage from what China perceives as its exclusive sphere of influence, this second vector appears to align with US global goals. Globally, China’s naval policy is driven by the need to protect sea lines of communication, ensure its access to oil, preserve the maritime commons, and possess the capability to evacuate Chinese nationals abroad. These interests all mirror America’s. Similarly, when Chinese power projection has been used for warlike purposes it has been as part of the international system: contributing forces to UN peacekeeping missions, and conducting anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden.[2]

While the conventional vector of the PLAN could be used in concert with A2/AD capabilities to coerce China’s smaller regional rivals, it could also play a positive global role. The PLAN “is arguably the only one in today’s world that the US Navy must deter or be able to defeat,” Eric A. McVadon explains, “but also a navy that under different circumstances could become a high-seas partner.”[3]

Asymmetric Warfare, Asymmetric Commitment

Hopeful thoughts of global partnerships aside, hegemony in the Western Pacific is a zero sum game—either the United States will continue to dominate the region to the benefit of its allies, or China will displace the old power. For the last six decades the United States’ monopoly on power projection in the Western Pacific was unopposed. However, advances in anti-access/area-denial capabilities have made the status quo untenable, and the United States’ ability to project power from offshore platforms will deteriorate as asymmetric capabilities shift the primary determinant of strategic victory from force superiority to locality. If power projection is no longer feasible at an acceptable level of risk, local actors not reliant on projection at all can deny more distant opponents control over the local theater.

The United States’ favored China policy is a mix of engagement and limited containment.[4] This strategy is superficially rational; while US and PRC strategic goals and political systems differ it is not clear that they are incompatible, and the two nations’ mutual economic interests encourage engagement.[5] However, as Gartzke and Markowitz argue, this mixed strategy is actually the worst of both worlds: limited containment will not prevent China from challenging the US hegemony, while forsaking the benefits of open engagement. If the United States attempts to contain China without making the necessary, and painful, level of commitment, an increasingly militant China will resent what it rightfully sees as an attempt by a declining power to constrain it.[6] Gartzke and Markowitz conclude that the US should acknowledge the Western Pacific as China’s sphere of influence, allowing the United States to devote its resources to ensuring China does not attempt to radically disrupt the existing global order.[7] This realignment would strengthen the credibility of the US military, lessen the prospect of war, and allow for mutually beneficial engagement with China.

The emergence of powerful anti-access/area-denial capabilities supports Gartzke and Markowitz’s conclusion. The United States is accustomed to projecting power in distant theaters from invulnerable removed platforms, sanctuaries that A2/AD capabilities threaten. If novel defensive technologies and reformed operational concepts are not able to remove the anti-access/area-denial threat, maintaining US hegemony in the Western Pacific will require credibly committing to a higher level of risk and a greater public tolerance for losses. US global hegemony is based on the US military’s ability to defeat any prospective opponent at an acceptable cost. As China’s asymmetric capabilities continue to grow more lethal, continued US commitment to regional dominance will require a shift to a pure containment policy, and a more capable military force to back it up.[8] If the US military cannot threaten to quickly overcome China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities its commitments to the region are not credible, and China can coerce the US to not enter the theater through raising the expected costs of war. However, it is doubtful the American public has any desire for the increased loss tolerance a continued mixed strategy of engagement and limited containment requires.

A2/AD capabilities constrain US power projection in two ways: by eroding actual warfighting capabilities by striking concrete US military assets, and by deterring the United States from electing entering a conflict. This deterrent is based on a credible threat to inflict heavy enough causalities on US forces as to make an American victory uncertain, and not worth the costs in lives and treasure. The deterrent value of A2/AD capabilities are an important addition to China’s nuclear deterrent: while nuclear deterrents suffer from their lack of flexibility, A2/AD assets could be used to selectively threaten US military platforms while potentially avoiding the escalation risk of nuclear weapons.

It is difficult to truly comprehend the magnitude of the catastrophic loss of a carrier, and it is impossible to predict how American policymakers would react to such a catastrophic lose. Sinking an American carrier could end the war in China’s favor; if USN admirals informed the president that could not guarantee another carrier would not be lost in the exact same way, he or she might have no choice but to capitulate. Of course, sinking a carrier could leave the American populace howling for blood and increase their commitment to the conflict. The loss of a single Nimitz class with all hands—certainly a possible outcome of a devastating hit by an ASBM warhead—would kill over twice as many Americans as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Frustrated US leaders would be tempted to strike ASBM launchers on the Chinese mainland, perhaps escalating a previously maritime confrontation to a broader conflict.

The loss of a capital ship has the potential to either escalate or deescalate a conflict. This escalation risk is determined by both individual opponent’s incentives, and domestic politics. After the Argentine cruiser the ARA Belgrano was sunk by a Royal Navy submarine during the Falklands War, the Argentine Navy withdrew their entire surface fleet, including the carrier Veinticinco de Mayo, to port. Despite the Argentine commitment to the ongoing war, Argentina’s admirals realized that the Navy’s contribution to the conflict was not worth risking the fleet and their own prestige. The loss of the Belgrano was a shock to Argentine admirals—it definitively demonstrated that Royal Navy submarines were active in the south Atlantic, and that the Argentine Navy had no way to counter them. This is significant: despite its deficiencies the Veinticinco, ironically an antiquated ex-British ship acquired by the Argentines in 1968, did possess formidable A-4 Skyhawk ground attack aircraft that could have complicated the British landing had the Veinticinco remained in the Falklands theater. In the Falklands example, a costly naval loss early in the war arguably reduced the ultimate aggregate cost of the conflict by reducing the number of assets one side were willing to commit, and possibly lose, to the conflict.

However, the loss of the Belgrano did not force the Argentine’s to capitulate, because junta never had any real incentive to back down anyway. The junta had begun the war in a desperate attempt to shore up faltering domestic support and drown calls for democratic reforms and an end to military rule in a patriotic outpouring of rallying around the flag. The social breakdown of the post-Peronist era and the Dirty War had irrevocably demonstrated that the military was an incompetent public administrator, and if an unfavorable end to the manufactured Falklands crisis destroyed the public’s perception of the junta’s military competence the generals’ administration—and possibly their personal freedom—would be at risk. Of course, the junta had massively misjudged the Thatcher government’s willingness to go to war to defend the Falklands, but once the war had actually begun and the extent of this miscalculation became apparent it did not change the options available to the junta. The Argentine junta’s survival depended on their ability to present a victory to their domestic population, mandating a continued commitment to the war. However, the Navy knew that it could not protect surface ships from superior British undersea warfare capabilities, making continued power projection around the Falklands Islands unacceptably risky. The loss of the ARA Belgrano did not alter the Argentine leadership’s commitment to the conflict, but forced a tactical shift to sea denial, primarily Execot anti-ship cruise missile attacks on the Royal Navy.[9]

The United States’ commitment the Western Pacific is not the same as the Argentine junta’s experience in the South Atlantic. Importantly, US prestige is not as integrally tied to American security commitments in the theater as Argentina’s was to recovering las Islas Maldivas. Additionally, Argentina retained limited power projection ability from the mainland even after the withdrawal of Argentine surface assets. These differences suggest that a forced withdrawal from the theater is likely if the US military judges it cannot protect irreplaceable assets from PLA A2/AD capabilities.

Ultimately the direction US involvement would evolve towards after a costly US naval loss—towards further escalation, or disengagement—would likely depend on how the loss was to the American public. If Americans viewed the deaths of thousands US sailors as a deliberate attack by a foreign power the public would likely support retaliation, as in the case of the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor. However, if the dominant media narrative depicted this loss as the result of presidential incompetence or unnecessary US involvement in a foreign conflict few Americans saw as integral to US interests—similar to the Beirut barracks bombing or the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu—voters would likely demand a withdrawal. These domestic demands for disengagement would be stronger if there was a strong public perception that the US military could not prevent further, increasingly catastrophic losses if the war continued. Which domestic narrative would dominate is likely dependent on the specific circumstances of the specific conflict. An unprovoked Chinese attack on Japan would likely fit the criteria for popular US demands for a response; a more complicated dispute between China and a less important US ally likely would not.[10]

Making the decision to target a US carrier would be an enormously risky decision for the Chinese leadership. A successful strike could force the US to concede and withdrawal from a conflict. It could just as easily escalate a limited, maritime conflict into a disastrous war. Would Beijing take this risk? It is impossible to know, but the Chinese Communist Party has a history of erring towards decisive, and ultimately regrettable, decisions: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the bloody repression at Tianemen all proved to be poor choices.[11] If robust A2/AD capability were not a sufficient deterrent in and of itself to keep the US from intervening in a regional conflict, it is possibly that the Chinese leadership would judge a strike on a US carrier to be worth the risk, or initiate a broader A2/AD campaign designed to knock out US combat capability in the region.

If China can credibly threaten US military assets in the Western Pacific theater, the American commitment to the region is only credible if the United States can persuasively commit to bearing high casualties and risk. China’s A2/AD capability’s deterrent value rests on their ability to raise these expected losses beyond a value the United States can credibly commit to. If US leaders wish to maintain a credible commitment to defend US interests in the Western Pacific against Chinese encroachment, they must raise the American public’s tolerance for loss. Offshore balancing is not a low commitment strategy.

The End of Limited Containment

While policymakers in the United States recognize that the Chinese military is on the path the near-peer status, there is little appetite for the complete realignment of US force structures necessary to counter a future, more capable China, the Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Pacific notwithstanding. Similarly, in an age of falling acceptance of casualties overseas it is unlikely that the American public has any appetite for a costly war in the Western Pacific. Compounding this problem is the asymmetry between the US and China commitment: after all, it is the South China Sea. It is reasonable to suggest that China is willing to suffer higher losses to exert control over its own littorals than the US is to defend a single theater of its global hegemony.

In contrast to other US security commitments, a conflict in the Western Pacific would be an American war of choice. Unlike in the Korean Peninsula, the China could structure a campaign to coerce Taiwan or its rivals in the South China Sea as to avoid striking American forces. This avoids the American “trip wire” commitment device. Treaty obligations aside, even though an American president would face little incentive to commit to a costly war defending South Korea from its northern neighbor, the annihilation of US Forces Korea would force his or her hand. If China avoided attacking American forces stationed in Japan, Korea, Guam, or Australia, a US president would have to make a deliberate choice to intervene.

The United States should shift to a policy of engagement with China because its military positions in the Western Pacific are no longer tenable. China’s nascent A2/AD capabilities are growing rapidly more lethal, and America’s technological and doctrinal defenses are not likely to overcome the anti-access/area-denial challenge. The emergence of robust A2/AD will reduce the capabilities of the American military, raise the costs of war, and lessen the chances of victory.[12] It is inherently easier to attack the elements of power projection than to defend them. During the Korean War, communist forces could challenge UN air superiority only by fielding a rival, and comparably expensive, air force of their own. Two decades later the advent of capable surface-to-air missiles allowed the North Vietnamese to deny the United States the ability to project power from the air uncontested. Today technological advances continue this trend, allowing locality to dominate power projection. If the United States cannot project power at an acceptable cost, its distant spheres of influence will eventually slip into the control of local rivals.

Barring an economic catastrophe, the balance of power in the Western Pacific will continue to shift towards China.[13] During the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, two carrier strike groups were enough to coerce China into stepping down.[14] While Taiwan’s independence is not a core American interest, China understood that it could not inflict heavy enough losses on US forces to offset this limited interest. However, the day is coming when China can credibly threaten to arbitrarily destroy a US carrier that strays within operational range of the Chinese coast. If China can guarantee a war would be both costly and risky for the United States, America’s presence to the region at a reasonable commitment level is no longer credible and its coercive power will vanish. As long as a near-peer status China with robust anti-access/area-denial capabilities is prepared to bear a greater cost to exert control over a local theater than the US is a peripheral one, America’s regional hegemony is not tenable. Even if the United States decided to attempt an aggressive containment policy, denying China any sphere of influence is likely impossible. The United States would be wise not to try.

Ceding the Western Pacific to China in favor of pure engagement is not simply the best of limited options; it is America’s only feasible choice. This realignment will be costly. Conflicts between Chinese and American interests are real, and America’s allies in the region are understandably nervous about China’s growing power. However, ceding China a legitimate sphere in the Western Pacific is not an invitation to Chinese global dominance. The United States should make it clear that it is committed to a potentially costly defense of Japan, where distance and robust basing infrastructure make anti-access strikes less threatening. Similarly, it is important to remember that China’s deterrence power is dependent on locality—anti-access/area-denial weapons are fundamentally defensive, and much less powerful outside China’s local theater. Once China’s forces leave the protective confines of the South China Sea, they will be vulnerable to the same tactics they threaten American forces with. A senior Chinese official once remarked that “when China has aircraft-carriers the two countries should draw a line down the middle of the Pacific through Hawaii to define their spheres of operation.”[15] Until the Chinese Navy can challenge the US on an equal footing far from the reach of its protective A2/AD defenses, this veiled threat is an illusion.

The second island chain and the limits of China’s A2/AD capabilities is a natural dividing line between a local Chinese sphere and America’s. Within this limit, China’s growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities make a US military presence indefensible in wartime. Outside of this line, Chinese military assets are not survivable against America’s overwhelming conventional superiority. Fortunately, outside this line both countries’ interests appear to align. Both seek to preserve the maritime commons, protect energy transports, and safeguard the world economy. Recognition that American dominance in China’s geographic backyard is no longer possible does not mean the end of America’s global leadership, or the end of the current global order. Instead, it is a recognition that power projection is inherently more difficult than regional defense, and America’s goals must align with its feasible capabilities.


[1] Sayers, Eric. 2010. “A framework for influencing PLA procurement trends.” Joint Forces Quarterly 58, 3: 89-93, 92.

[2] Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (East Asia) David Helvey, 2012.  “Press Briefing on 2012 DOD Report to Congress on ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’”. 18 May.

[3] McVadon, Eric A. 2007. “China’s maturing navy.” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 3.

[4] Gartzke, Erik A., and Jonathan N. Markowitz. 2011. “Fence Sitting in U.S.-China Policy: Why a Strategy of Limited Containment Will No Longer Work.” 30 September, 2.

[5] Sayers 2010, 90.

[6] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 28.

[7] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 29.

[8] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 20.

[9] This section is drawn heavily from the author’s “Responding to catastrophic losses in a future naval conflict,” Prospect Journal of International Affairs 17 August 2011.

[10] This section is drawn heavily from the author’s “Responding to catastrophic losses in a future naval conflict,” Prospect Journal of International Affairs 17 August 2011.

[11] McVadon 2007, 2.

[12] Krepinevich, Andrew F. 2010. “Why AirSea Battle?” Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2.

[13] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 30.

[14] Sakhuja, Vijay. 2011. Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 78.

[15] “Overkill: China is piling up more weapons than it appears to need.” The Economist, 22 October 2009.

A Simple Explanation of Why the Healthcare Mandate is Unconstitutional

Guest Post by Saad Asad

Photo by Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. Via Wikimedia.

Photo by Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. Via Wikimedia.

I wrote this piece a year ago for a class presentation. Before we accuse the Supreme Court of judicial activism if the mandate is struck down, it would be pertinent to at least understand a potential explanation why it is unconstitutional. The following is purposefully simplistic and short, so don’t expect a treatise:

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 is an unprecedented legislation that forces American citizens to buy a specific product from private companies solely on the condition of being alive. From Gibbons v Ogden in 1844 to Gonzalez v Raich in 2005, it is clear that for Congress to regulate something under the commerce clause, then it must be an activity.  At immediate glance, not buying something cannot be an activity. If that was so, Congress would have the virtual authority to force Americans to buy broccoli too.

One could argue that the healthcare market is unique because everyone will eventually participate thus making it an activity. However, this is false since we know some people will never get terribly sick, others will rely on charity, and some will be cured through simple over-the-counter drugs. Further, the logical conclusion of this argument would be that Congress could force Americans to buy gym memberships because they might be unhealthy in the future. Moreover, any other market could be characterized in the same way. All of us will eventually participate in the transportation market whether we buy a car or buy shoes for walking. Certainly, that doesn’t mean Congress could force us to only buy Jordans.

Also, it is absurd to consider the economic decision of not buying something an activity. Every economic decision will affect price because of the nature of supply and demand. For example, if enough people choose not purchase cars, then the price of cars will change. Every single decision becomes an economic decision. One hour spent sleeping is an hour that could be spent not buying things or not working, hence an economic decision. If Congress’ power was interpreted so that it could regulate every economic decision, then they could mandate workers to get up earlier to spend more time at their job.

Thus, because the healthcare market is “special” argument is weak and economic decisions are not necessarily activities, it is clear that the Congress does not have the power to authorize the PPCA under the commerce clause since not buying health insurance is simply not an activity.

PRC Area-Denial Capabilities and American Power Projection, Part 4

By Taylor Marvin

The following is a draft research project I recently wrote, which I’ll be publishing serially over the next week. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Surviving Area-Denial

Unlike its conventional forces, China’s anti-access/area-denial strategies are a revolutionary threat to the US forces. If the United States cannot find a way to mitigate these threats, its commitment to the Western Pacific will no longer be credible.[1] The United States cannot project power without aircraft carriers, and with their multi-billion dollar cost and crew of thousands America cannot afford to lose or even risk one. China’s rapidly growing area-denial capabilities make steaming an aircraft carrier into the South China Sea a dangerous proposition; area-denial capabilities are “a particular concern with aircraft carriers and other large, multi-billion dollar blue-water surface combatants—where the loss of even one ship would be a national catastrophe” former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained in a 2009 speech.[2]

How vulnerable are US forces within striking distance of China? China’s area-denial capabilities are formidable, and will continue to grow more lethal in the future. However, there is no such thing as an infallible weapons system. The advent of aircraft and submarines were both once thought to spell the end of the surface ship, but navies adapted to meet these new threats. Technologies advance, but so do defenses against novel threats.

Submariners have quipped that during war there are two types of naval assets, “submarines and targets.” PLAN submarines are numerous, and increasingly formidable.[3] However, China’s effort to counter superior American surface forces with its submarine fleet faces major obstacles. Most importantly is the US Navy’s extreme anti-submarine warfare proficiency, honed in the Cold War’s decades-long cat and mouse game at sea. While PLAN submarines will make the US Navy’s job more difficult, it is difficult to argue that it is an insurmountable barrier to operations in the South China Sea. PLAN submarines targeting US carrier strike groups will face the most defended assets in the world, a poor application of asymmetric warfare.[4] China’s diesel submarines suffer from poor endurance compared to America’s nuclear attack submarine force, forcing PLAN submarines to frequently return to port to refuel. Once a conflict had begun, returning along known transit routes to Chinese submarine ports would be a dangerous task for a PLAN commander.[5]

Even if Chinese air superiority or the threat of anti-ship missiles prevent US surface ships from operating within the first island chain US submarines, perhaps America’s most potent ASW weapon, could freely operate close to the Chinese coastline.[6] Given this dominance, submarine warfare is a poor anti-access/area-denial option for China. Also important is an unfavorable geographic environment. The oceanic area within the first island chain is shallow and not conductive to successful submarine operations; though its proximity to the Chinese coastline would likely deny US forces the ability to quickly achieve local air superiority. Waters between the first and second island chains are deeper, though the greater distance from Chinese territory would give US ASW surface assets greater freedom to hunt Chinese submarines.[7]

More serious is the threat posed by anti-ship missiles. China’s missile arsenal is extensive, and it is not clear that large surface ships are survivable modern warfare at all. Especially threatening are Chinese ASBMs like the DF-21D.[8] However, there are many reasons to doubt the practical effectiveness of ASBMs. ASBMs are extremely difficult to build and it is not clear if China has deployed them at operational levels. Faced with American surface maritime dominance the USSR attempted to develop a working ASBM system, but failed.[9] Unable to field practical ASBMs, the USSR instead relied on its formidable submarine and bomber forces to threaten US carrier strike groups—a decidedly second-best solution. Most Western observers estimate that the DF-21D system has reached “initial operating capability,” or capable of fulfilling its design requirements but not extensively tested or widely deployed.[10] Even if the DF-21D has reached operational status within the Chinese military framework, it is unclear if the PLA possesses the necessary sensor and targeting infrastructure to use the weapon in an operational context.[11] ASBMs alone are not functioning weapons; rather, the missile itself is part of a “system of systems” that includes satellite surveillance and targeting, launch vehicles, and the command and communication structure and doctrines necessary for operational use.[12] When the DF-21D does come online, US forces can attempt to neutralize the weapon by attacking and disabling other, weaker links in the system such as “blinding” PLA ISR systems.[13] Missile systems are most vulnerable before they are launched and, in the case of ballistic missiles, offence—counterforce missions to destroy their mobile launchers—is the best defense.[14] If ASBM launchers cannot be interdicted before they launch their weapons, it is still possible to spoof or jam the missiles’ guidance systems, or prevent them from targeting mobile assets.[15] Carriers can steam at up to 30 knots; even if the PLA has surveillance information as recent as an hour old, the ship could be over thirty miles away from its last known position.

Even if the US is not able to develop reliable methods of countering Beijing’s anti-ship missile systems, the development of long-range carrier aircraft would still allow carrier strike groups to operate while remaining outside the range of land-based missiles.[16] While the Navy’s upcoming multirole fighter aircraft, the F-35C, is not a particularly long-range aircraft, future high-endurance combat carrier-launched drones capable of in-air refueling could significantly increase naval aviation’s ability to operate from carriers stationed far offshore.

The United States has attempted to address the anti-access/area-denial challenge through evolving doctrine, as well as technology. In 2010 the US Air Force and Navy began outlining a new operational concept that would allow the US military to operate within anti-access/area-denial environments. This new concept was termed AirSea Battle, a deliberate riff on the Air Force and Army’s 1980s-era “AirLand Battle” designed to provide a framework for joint operations opposing a Soviet ground invasion of Western Europe.[17] The vast expanses of the Western Pacific and the complete aversion to another land war in Asia dictates that AirSea Battle, unlike its Cold War ancestor, is a joint Air Force and Navy operational concept. The AirSea Battle concept aims to “set the conditions at the operational level to sustain a stable, favorable conventional military balance throughout the Western Pacific region”[18] by providing a framework for integrated joint operation capable of striking PLA targets at long range and negating enemy anti-access/area-denial capabilities. Jointness is key to the AirSea Battle concept.[19] For example, USAF B-52 long range bombers could be used in conjunction with USN assets in the anti-surface warfare role, or Aegis anti-ballistic missile destroyers to protect USAF bases from PLA anti-access theater ballistic missile attacks. Marine and Air Force aircraft could disperse to small Pacific island airbases, making them less vulnerable to an initial coordinated PLA strike targeting large airbases. Combining USAF and USN strengths would allow an AirSea Battle concept that leveraged jointness to work around China’s layered no-access zones, degrading the lethality of A2/AD capabilities and enabling strike assets to safely base outside of degraded A2/AD range.

However, Air Sea Battle remains a doctrine in its infancy, and despite its enthusiastic reception no one really knows what it actually means. In naval analyst Raymond Pritchett’s words, Air Sea Battle is “so fantastic [and] awesome no one can explain it.”[20] “Air-Sea Battle is everywhere [and] it is nowhere,” defense reporter Phillip Ewing mockingly observed. “It is everything [and] it is nothing.”[21] Observing that the Air Force and Navy are more effective when working together than separately is one thing; designing an operational framework to allow them to do so is another. Significantly, AirSea Battle relies on targeted strikes on PLA ISR and missile assets within mainland China to neutralize the ASMB threat.[22] However, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that in a limited conflict targets within China would be off limits to America and its allies, for fear of escalating a primarily maritime conflict and inviting similar strikes on Japan or Australia. If Chinese territory is held sacrosanct by US policymakers, the bulk of the AirSea Battle framework will not apply and China, geographically proximate to the conflict, would enjoy a distinct advantage.

In addition to its vague concept, AirSea Battle suffers from practical deficiencies. Many communications and weapons systems are not shared between the USAF and USN, complicating joint operations.[23] In addition to escalation concerns, AirSea Battle’s focus on using US air power to prevent China from deploying ASBMs faces severe difficulties. The PLA maintains extensive air defense networks and US low observability strike aircraft—the only aircraft with the prospect of penetrating these defenses—carry significantly less ordnance than the USAF’s older, highly observable bomber aircraft.[24] Staying outside of the PLA’s no-access zones will also reduce US strike efficacy; standoff weapons are expensive, available in only limited quantities, and less lethal than other weapons.[25] Successfully targeting mobile launch platforms would require constant surveillance of the Chinese coastline, and if the US does not quickly achieve air superiority over mainland China, airborne ISR assets not be survivable. US air superiority is based on the extensive use of standoff Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems aircraft, which would be vulnerable to Chinese aircraft carrying long-range “AWACS killer” air-to-air missiles. Given the lethality of PLA air defense systems and the difficulty inherent to targeting mobile launch platforms, efforts to use US air assets to interdict large numbers of land-based mobile PLA ballistic missiles before launch are unlikely to be successful—especially because sinking an irreplaceable carrier only requires a single lucky shot. Even attempting the anti-ASBM interdiction mission would tie up large numbers of strike aircraft, reducing the US’s ability to accomplish other missions. Similarly, anti-submarine operations will tie up US surface and nuclear submarine assets, as well as complicate the massive logistical effort required to supply the US presence in the Western Pacific theater.[26]

Countering China’s Hedged Navy

China’s military is growing more lethal and American access to the Western Pacific more uncertain. However, while US power is declining relative to China, it is not clear if absolute US power is in decline at all.[27] While Chinese military spending is increasing rapidly while America’s shrinks, it is growing from a much lower base. Even if China’s defense budget surpasses the United States’ spending does not directly translate into capabilities, and superior US military technology, institutional experience, and durable alliances will likely preserve US global superiority far into the future. Despite America’s geographic distance from the Western Pacific, the United States remains the resident power in the region.[28]

However, China’s increasingly lethal A2/AD capabilities are an unprecedented threat to American freedom of operations in China’s backyard, and a challenge to America’s goals in the region. The United States seeks to preserve a favorable balance of power with China, and deny China the ability to coerce America’s East Asian allies. However, US security commitments to its East Asian allies are entirely dependent on the American military’s continued ability to operate in the Western Pacific, and if China is able to displace the United States as the region’s dominant power these commitments will no longer be credible. When United States is not perceived to fully back these existing security agreements, the potential for misinterpretation or a destabilizing confrontation increases.[29] Similarly, the absence of American hegemony in the Western Pacific will encourage other East Asian nations to fill the vacuum by increasing their own military budgets, a trend that has already begun.[30] Averting this displacement requires countering China’s asymmetric capabilities and preserving the American military’s access the region.

Whether the US military will be able to overcome the Chinese A2/AD challenge has been endlessly debated, and a clear answer will not emerge for decades. China and the United States are expected to dominate the 21st century, and the dynamic balance of power between the two will shift in ways difficult to predict. However, it is likely that the emergence of asymmetric anti-access/area-denial capabilities heralds the end of the US military’s hegemony in the Western Pacific.

The United States Navy is one of the most capable and innovative military forces in the world, with a long history of meeting and defeating new threats, and A2/AD capabilities are not a magic bullet. Two centuries ago during the War of 1812 it was the young US Navy that attempted to asymmetrically counter the overwhelming superiority of the Royal Navy, a strategy unable to prevent the British from burning Washington. A hundred years later the invention of the submarine threatened to make surface ships obsolete before innovations in both weapons and tactics allowed them to meet the new threat. The US Navy has overcome sea denial capabilities before—submarines, sea mines, small boat swarming tactics, and anti-ship cruise missiles are not new threats, and each have been addressed to a degree in past conflicts. However, the emergence of anti-ship ballistic missiles are is one of the most dramatic threats surface ships have ever faced. It is extraordinarily difficult to intercept these missiles once they are launched, as decades of largely futile anti-ballistic missile research demonstrates. Even reliable ASBM defense systems can be overcome by saturation attacks, blinding detection systems, or firing sufficiently large mixed ASBM/ASCM salvos. Aegis missile defense ships carry limited numbers of anti-ballistic missile kill vehicles, which could be quickly exhausted in a conflict, particularly if PLA ASBMs deploy decoys or are combined with simultaneous cruise missile attacks.[31] Once these missile stocks are expended, the carrier strike group would be defenseless. Anti-ship missiles are so much cheaper than their targets that defenders are on the wrong side of economics, as well as physics.[32]

Basing policy prescriptions on forecasts is inherently uncertain, but it is reasonable to suspect that A2/AD capabilities, particularly anti-ship ballistic missiles, will grow more lethal in the future.  To successfully utilize an ASBM the PLA must detect and track a surface target, possess the capability to launch sufficient quantities of the missiles to negate seaborne defenses, and the missile warheads must survive long enough to contact the target. To defend against the ASBM threat, the US must hide its carriers by negating PLA ISR, interdict or otherwise prevent mobile launchers from firing their missiles under optimal conditions, degrade the missiles’ guidance systems, destroy incoming warheads before they can harm their target, or somehow coerce the PLA to not fire at all. Here the advantage lies with the offense, not defense. Currently the PLA does not appear to have fielded the entire system of systems ASBMs rely on. However, the PLA is rapidly remedying these communications and targeting deficiencies, fielding long-endurance UAV and space-based ISR assets that will enable it to maintain a comprehensive real-time “maritime domain awareness” within the First Island Chain and beyond.[33] There is no reason to suspect future PLA ISR capabilities to remain static and it is difficult to imagine that the PLA will not have the ability to continuously track and target something as large as a US carrier in the future.

It is clear that the advent of operational ASBMs dramatically increases the risk that carriers and other surface ships face.[34] If US forces are unable to mitigate the risk posed by area-denial weapons, commanders will be forced to position carriers far offshore, increasing the range carrier-borne aircraft must travel to their target and reducing their effectiveness.[35] Strike aircraft will be less responsive, more reliant on in-air refueling, and forced to spend less time in the theater. US power projection has been based on naval aviation for decades—reducing the combat effectiveness of US Navy air power requires rethinking the American way of war.

China’s “Two-Vector” Navy

China is heavily invested in anti-access capabilities, and clearly views asymmetric warfare as its primary means of forcing the US out of the South China Sea. The investment is an effective one, and these capabilities are likely to deter future American policymakers from intervention in A2/AD’s “no go” zone. However, China’s defense procurement does not follow the dictates of a pure anti-access/area-denial strategy.  Instead of only fielding anti-access/area-denial capabilities, China has invested in numerous surface combatants that would have little utility in a conflict with the US. These modern surface ships include the Type 054A multirole frigate, Type 051C and Type 052C air defense destroyers, and the Type 052B multirole missile destroyer. While Sovermenny-class guided missile destroyers are still considered the most formidable PLAN surface assets,[36] these indigenous designs are impressive and incorporate low observability technologies absent from the Cold War-era Sovernennys.[37] In addition to these surface combatants, China has gone to considerable expense to acquire the Soviet-built Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier the ex-Varyag, and is believed to be constructing two indigenous carriers, likely to enter service before 2020.

These ships are all major investments, particularly the carriers. Aircraft carriers are enormously expensive assets, and the decision to construct one carries exceptionally high opportunity costs.[38] Carriers are also complex assets that require frequent maintenance and refitting, meaning that many are necessary to maintain a continuous carrier deployment—the French and Russian single carrier navies are unable to continually project power. Aircraft carriers are also long-term investments, whose operational payoffs are decades away. The logistics of carrier operations are extremely challenging, requiring extensive institutional experience. Despite extensive wartime experience operating prop aircraft off carriers, it took the US Navy decades to become comfortable with the complexities jet-powered naval aviation. Based on an antiquated Soviet-era hull, it is unlikely that the ex-Varyag is intended for combat operations; rather, the PLAN plans to use it as a training ship to gain valuable naval aviation experience.[39] The high costs of developing, constructing, and fielding a carrier fleet necessarily leave less funds for other weapons procurement—by electing to pursue a power projection capability, the PLA has less money available for A2/AD platforms.[40]

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s surface combatants do not fit into the framework of asymmetric warfare. Unlike area-denial weapons, surface combatants are used to project power, rather than deny an opponent power projection ability. Importantly, these assets are a symmetric response to American global hegemony; Chinese surface combatants suffer from the same vulnerability to area-denial weapons as America’s, and would likely not be survivable in a major war with the US.[41] This mixed procurement strategy suggests that China is not benchmarking its naval forces around a potential war with America. China’s emphasis on power projection, rather than pure A2/AD, is partially driven by concerns over national prestige, rather than combat utility. Japan fields modern helicopter carriers, and India operates an antiquated British-sourced carrier is expected launch both an indigenous and Russian-sourced carrier in the next decade, achievements China feels it must match.[42] But it also reflects a mixed naval acquisition strategy that aims to balance asymmetric sea denial with the political flexibility of power projection.

China’s balancing act between asymmetric sea denial and power projection echoes the Soviet Union’s naval development.[43] While Imperial Russia had pursued naval power since the 18th century reign of Peter the Great,[44] the Soviet Union initially did not invest in a powerful navy. Naval power was peripheral to the continental war with Germany, and the Soviet leadership understood that a conventional war between the USSR and the Western allies would take place in central Europe. The Soviet Navy’s role would be preventing the United States from transporting troops to Europe, not projecting power in distant theaters. Instead of investing in a conventional surface fleet, the Soviet Union sought to asymmetrically counter America’s ability to project power across the Atlantic by building a formidable submarine fleet and aircraft armed with advanced anti-ship cruise missiles capable of destroying US surface ships at long range, with the goal of denying US forces access to Soviet littorals and contesting US access to the open ocean.[45]

However, the Soviet’s asymmetric sea-denial strategy was tailored to a conventional war in Europe, and proved limiting in other, less apocalyptic, contexts. This lack of flexibility was apparent during the Cuban missile crisis, which demonstrated that the USSR’s Cold War political clout was severely limited by its inability to project power.[46] Under the leadership of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, the Red Navy embarked on a massive shipbuilding program aimed at matching the US Navy.[47] However, despite the Soviets’ desire for power projection ability, the Red Navy’s primary role remained quickly decimating the US Navy in the event of war—again, the maritime power imbalance between the US and USSR favored an asymmetric response. Rather than attempting to evenly counter the superior US fleet, even large Soviet ships were built to be somewhat expendable, sacrificing survivability for large anti-ship missile systems able to knock out US carrier strike groups. Given its primary mission, the composition of the Soviet surface fleet differed from America’s: late-period surface flagships were unique nuclear-powered guided missile battlecruisers, not carriers.

Soviet carrier development followed a similar path. Soviet admirals had agitated for carriers since the 1950s, but the Soviet Navy’s last-place position within the Soviet military hierarchy—behind the Strategic Rocket Forces, Red Army, unique Air Defense Forces, and Air Force—meant that funding was never available. But by the 1970s the Kremlin’s increased appreciation for power projection and Soviet admirals’ lobbying eventually led to the construction of Kiev class aviation cruisers and, at the close of the Cold War, the more capable Admiral Kuznetsov class. While not equal to the US Navy’s catapult-equipped carriers, the Admiral Kuznetsovs were an impressive design capable of launching formidable combat aircraft. The USSR pursued carriers at the direct expense of area-denial assets like submarines and missile systems—the lure of power projection trumped the inflexible pragmatism of purely asymmetry at sea.

Why Power Projection?

Global interests led the Soviet Union to sacrifice a pure asymmetric sea-denial strategy in favor of pursuing some degree of power projection. Modern China is in a similar position to the 1960s-era Soviet Union: force inferiority encourages it to adopt a strict asymmetric strategy to deny the US coercive power, but China’s increasing role in the international marketplace incentivizes power projection. China appears to be hedging between the twin strategies of asymmetric A2/AD and peacetime power projection capability.[48] Given China’s uncertain strategic outlook, this mixed strategy is rational: China’s fears of US intervention in the Western Pacific require asymmetric anti-access/area-denial capabilities, just as protecting worldwide political and economic interests require power projection. A2/AD and power projection capabilities—what McDevitt and Vellucci[49] term a “two-vector navy”—are designed to complement each other. During a war in the South China Sea conventional assets would combat or coerce China’s regional rivals, while A2/AD capabilities would deter the United States from intervening.

Domestic politics also favors a power projection strategy. Narratives of national prestige are used by the Chinese Communist Party to justify China’s need for an aircraft carrier;[50] notably, China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that does not operate at least one (with the temporary exception of the UK). In addition to domestic messaging, Beijing views power projection capability as an integral part of peaceful participation in the international community. China is one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping missions,[51] and thousands of Chinese live and work abroad, occasionally requiring emergency evacuation[52]—without a global maritime reach, China cannot participate in these missions.

China also seeks to maintain the perception that it is capable of invading Taiwan, a threat that requires power projection ability. Reuniting the island with the mainland remains an official goal of the Chinese Communist Party, and by extension, the PLA. Beijing has repeatedly stated that it will not allow Taiwan to declare independence, and the crash military modernization programs of the 1990s were partially motivated by the realization that the military stagnation of the Deng Xiaoping era had denied China the ability to threaten the renegade island.[53] If the Taiwanese government elects to pursue formal independence, China has constructed elaborate commitment devices to force itself into a military confrontation rather than fold: under the 2005 Taiwan Anti-Secession Law, a declaration of Taiwanese independence or judgment in Beijing that peaceful reunification has become impossible is required to merit military action.[54] China also has a clear diplomatic incentive to mislead US and Taiwanese leaders about its true willingness to use force; unlike the US, which simply seeks to preserve the status quo, China seeks to coerce its opponents into altering Taiwan’s diplomatic status by presenting itself as ready to attack the island. Unlike asymmetric sea denial, a credible threat to invade the island requires surface combatants to transport troops to the island. The credibility of this threat is dependent on China’s ability to project power, as well as its ability to deter a US intervention.

However, while China has heavily invested in advanced surface combatants, the PLAN does not possess the amphibious assets necessary to even attempt an invasion of the island.[55] While the PLAN has recently acquired a number of large amphibious platforms and numerous infantry landing craft, these fall far short of those necessary for successful large-scale amphibious operations,[56] and are only capable of landing troops on a, at most, moderately defended coastline.[57] Instead, the PLAN has focused on acquiring surface combatants less useful in a blockade or invasion of the island, suggesting that while Beijing’s rhetoric still stresses the importance of returning the “lost province” to the mainland, the conquest of Taiwan is viewed more of a nationalistic ideal than a practical goal. Given the inherent difficulties of amphibious operations, this is a concession to reality. Today only the US Navy’s fleet of eight Wasp-class amphibious assault ships and numerous support and landing craft are actually capable of mounting an opposed amphibious invasion; an expensive—and rarely used—capability US lawmakers have repeatedly considered cutting.[58]

It is possible that China simply lacks the resources necessary to assemble a force capable of invading the island. However, it is more likely that China has simply decided that attempting to achieve this capability is not worth the opportunity cost. Instead, Beijing is content with the ability to threaten Taiwan, without the actual ability to invade the island; in Eric A. McVadon’s words, a “policy of intimidation.”[59] The People Liberation Army has over 1,000 missiles targeted on Taiwan, a number that grows yearly.[60] This does not give China the ability to seize the island, but instead the limited ability to influence Taiwanese domestic politics away from formal independence through coercion: declare independence, and we will destroy you. Content with this equilibrium, senior Chinese officials appear to view a war with the ROC as a contingency, rather than a goal.[61]


[1] Gartzke, Erik A., and Jonathan N. Markowitz. 2011. “Fence Sitting in U.S.-China Policy: Why a Strategy of Limited Containment Will No Longer Work.” 30 September, 27.

[2] Robert M. Gates, remarks at the Naval War College, Newport RI, April 17 2009.

[3] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 23.

[4] Godwin, Paul H. 2007. “China’s emerging military doctrine: A role for nuclear submarines,” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 55.

[5] Van Tol, Jan, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas. 2010. Air Sea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept. Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessment, 43.

[6] Cote, Owen R. Jr. 2011. “Addressing the undersea balance between the U.S. and China.” SSP Working Paper, 9.

[7] Cote 2011, 8.

[8] Van Tol et al. 2010, 36.

[9] Holmes, James R. 2011. “ASBM defense isn’t easy.”  The Diplomat. 22 November.

[10] “Re-enter the DF-21D ASBM.” 2011. U.S. Naval Institute. 18 July.

[11] Krepinevich, Andrew F. 2010. “Why AirSea Battle?” Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 18.

[12] Kazianis, Harry. 2012. Interview with Roger Cliff. “Behind the China missile hype.” The Diplomat. 20 January.

[13] Van Tol et al. 2010, 57.

[14] Van Tol et al. 2010, 38.

[15] Van Tol et al. 2010, 39.

[16] Sayers, Eric. 2010. “A framework for influencing PLA procurement trends.” Joint Forces Quarterly 58, 3: 89-93., 92.

[17] Van Tol et al. 2010, 6.

[18] Van Tol et al. 2010, xi.

[19] Krepinevich 2010, 2.

[20] Pritchett, Raymond (@Galrahn). “AirSea Battle is a #STRATCOM catastrophe. It’s so fantastic awesome no one can explain it. It’s a doctrine/tactics/CONOP strategy.” 10:40, 17 May 2012. Tweet. https://twitter.com/#!/Galrahn/status/203178131396366336.

[21] Ewing, Phillip. (@DoDBuzz). “Air-Sea Battle is everywhere & it is nowhere. It is everything & it is nothing. It is a ‘focusing lens.’ A crystal goblet. A mailed fist.” 6:17, 16 May 2012. Tweet. https://twitter.com/dodbuzz/statuses/202747029087195136

[22] Van Tol et al. 2010, 66.

[23] Ackerman, Spencer. 2012. “Step 1 in U.S. plan to rule sea and sky: Actually share data.” Wired. 16 May.

[24] Van Tol et al. 2010, 36.

[25]Van Tol et al. 2010, 36.

[26] Van Tol et al. 2010, 79.

[27] Bratton, P.C. 2012. “The United States as a Pacific power.” In Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific: The Triumph of Neptune? Eds. Geoffrey Till and Patrick C. Bratton. New York: Routledge. 19-45, 28.

[28] Sakhuja, Vijay. 2011. Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 58.

[29] Sayes 2010, 90.

[30] Marvin, Taylor. 2011. “Expanding East Asian militaries: Interview with Richard Bitzinger.” Prospect Journal of International Affairs. March.

[31] Van Tol et al. 2010, 46.

[32] Andrew Erickson has pithily remarked that anti-access weapons pit “US forces on the wrong side of physics.” Kazianis, Harry. 2011. “Anti-access goes global.” The Diplomat. 2 December.

[33] Van Tol et al. 2010, 42.

[34] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 27.

[35] Krepinevic 2010, 18.

[36] Sakhuja 2011, 75.

[37] Schuster, Carl Otis. 2012. “China: Its maritime traditions and navy today.” In Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific: The Triumph of Neptune? Eds. Geoffrey Till and Patrick C. Bratton. New York: Routledge. 56-74, 60.

[38] Sayers 2010, 92.

[39] Sakhuja 2011, 76; Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (East Asia) David Helvey, 2012.  “Press Briefing on 2012 DOD Report to Congress on ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’. 18 May.

[40] Sayers 2010; 92.

[41] McDevitt, Michael, and Frederic Vellucci Jr. 2012. “The evolution of the People’s Liberation Army Navy: The twin missions of area-denial and peacetime operations.” In Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific: The Triumph of Neptune? Eds. Geoffrey Till and Patrick C. Bratton. New York: Routledge. 75-92, 76.

[42] The Economist, “China’s military rise”.

[43] McDevitt and Vellucci 2012, 79.

[44] Sakhuja 2011, 10.

[45] McDevitt and Vellucci 2012, 79.

[46] Cole, Bernard D. 2001. “The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century.” Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 25.

[47] Cole 2007, 25; Sakhuja 2011, 11.

[48] McDevitt and Vellucci 2012, 76.

[49] McDevitt and Vellucci 2012.

[50] Sakhuja 2011, 77.

[51] The Economist, “China’s military rise”.

[52] McDevitt and Vellucci 2012, 76.

[53]Cheung, Tai Ming. 2009. Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 103.

[54] The Economist, “China’s military rise”.

[55] Sakhuja 2011, 80.

[56] Sakhuja 2011, 80.

[57] Shuster 2012, 62.

[58] Munoz, Carlo. 2012. “Navy whacks ‘Gator Navy’; Caps amphib fleet at 30 ships.” AOL Defense. 14 February.

[59] McVadon’s 2007, 1.

[60] Sakhuja 2011, 85.

[61] McVadon, Eric A. 2007. “China’s maturing navy.” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 16.

PRC Area-Denial Capabilities and American Power Projection, Part 3

By Taylor Marvin

DF-21D. Image via sinodefense.com.

DF-21D. Image via sinodefense.com.

The following is a draft research project I recently wrote, which I’ll be publishing serially over the next week. Part 1. Part 2.

Elements of Naval Area-denial

Chinese anti-access/area-denial doctrine is based around various weapon systems and strategies, ranging from mine and submarine warfare to novel technologies like anti-ship ballistic missiles. For the purposes of this paper, this discussion is mostly limited to area-denial capabilities.

Mine Warfare

Mine warfare is an important part of China’s plans to disrupt American naval operations in the event of a conflict.[1] Mine warfare is the lowest technology area-denial weaponry,[2] is an extremely cost effective method for eroding an opponent’s superior capabilities, and accounts for the vast majority of warships lost or seriously damaged by enemy action since World War II. Chinese mine warfare objectives in the event of a conflict would include blockading enemy ports, obstructing sea lanes, destroying enemy transport and combat assets, and restricting enemy mobility.[3] Mine warfare has been an important part of PLAN doctrine since the Mao era, when its asymmetric nature was perceived to align mining with the doctrine of a “People’s War,” and Chinese sea mine development continued during the Cultural Revolution period when other aspects of the navy were neglected.[4] Today, when mines’ propensity towards collateral damage is increasingly unacceptable, Chinese naval planners’ open enthusiasm for offensive mine warfare is largely unique.[5]

Chine possesses a number of highly advanced anchored, bottom, and drifting mines designs.[6] These weapons represent a potentially powerful force neutralizer. Chinese rocket mines, derived from Russian designs, would allow a mine-deploying PLAN diesel submarine to threaten advanced US nuclear attack subs.[7] Chinese texts have discussed using nuclear sea mines to destroy American submarines or carriers from extended range, bypassing carrier strike groups’ defensive perimeters.[8] While escalation concerns would likely prevent a Chinese use of tactical nuclear weapons at sea, it is difficult to imagine US carrier strike groups feasibly countering this novel threat.

Mine warfare is a particularly attractive asymmetric strategy because of the weakness of US mine clearing capabilities relative to other combat missions.[9] Because mine clearing is an “either you need it, or you don’t” mission, it has a history of peacetime neglect. During the “tanker wars” late in the Iran-Iraq War, the lack of minesweepers forced US surface combatants tasked with escorting oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz to travel behind the tankers they were supposed to protect, trusting that the massive supertankers’ size and double hulls could better withstand a mine blast. Today the anti-mine mission is being phased over to the upcoming Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), whose torturous development cycle and undefined role make it ill-suited to the anti-mine mission.[10] The LCS’ deficiencies, combined with the difficulty of successfully sweeping advanced mines and the fact that it is inherently easier to lay large numbers of mines than it is to neutralize them, makes the US Navy’s ability to circumvent PLAN area-denial minelaying doubtful.

Submarines

In the last decade China has rapidly increased the strength, as well as quality, of its submarine forces.[11] This enthusiasm for undersea warfare is part of the PLAN heritage. In the 1950s Mao famously declared that China must build a nuclear submarine “even if it takes 10,000 years”—it did not.[12] In the decade following 1996 China acquired over thirty submarines,[13] and PLAN submarine forces are listed first among combat branches of the navy in the order of protocol.[14]

Roughly half of PLAN conventional attack submarine forces are the Soviet-designed Romeo class and its indigenously produced Ming class derivative, with the remainder the Russian-produced Kilo class and roughly comparable indigenous Song and Yuan classes. Armaments of the Kilo, Song, and Yuan classes include torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles,[15]and Kilo class submarines are moderately stealthy, highly survivable, and are capable of operating when partially damaged.[16] PLAN Russian-built and indigenous attack submarines are armed with advanced torpedoes and submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles that would pose a significant danger to US surface ships in combat.[17]

In the event of a conflict with the United States the PLAN would use its submarines to hunt US carriers[18] and defend China’s coastline.[19] Given US ASW superiority this mission would be difficult, but not impossible, for Chinese commanders. PLAN submarines firing long-range anti-ship cruise missiles from beyond a carrier strike group’s protective screen would be a difficult threat to counter,[20] and one lucky shot could be enough to sink an irreplaceable carrier and kill 5,000 sailors.[21]Though the majority of the Chinese submarine fleet are low performance diesel submarines far inferior to the US Navy’s nuclear attack submarine force,[22] diesel submarines have proven themselves dangerous in combat. In a tense 2006 incident, a Song class diesel submarine was able to close within the defensive perimeter of the USS Kitty Hawk; while a carrier strike group’s ASW assets would be on higher alert during a conflict, the incident demonstrates diesel submarines are a clear threat to US carriers.[23] In particular, submerged diesel submarines operating on batteries are quieter than nuclear submarines and extremely difficult to detect, for even the United States’ robust ASW assets.[24] PLAN submarines would be particularly lethal in the confined waters of the Japanese or Philippine archipelagos, where the efficacy of USN ASW would be degraded.[25] Similarly, the geography of the first and second island chains creates natural choke points conductive to defensive undersea warfare.[26] However, these choke points also simplify efforts to prevent submarines from leaving Chinese territorial waters undetected.

Small Boats

The PLAN has aggressively invested a fleet of capable missile boats—the Type 022 class—designed to be affordable, expendable, and simple enough to be constructed at small decentralized shipyards.[27] Swarming attacks by small, expendable missile boats could be a significant challenge to the large surface combatants of the US Navy by overwhelming a carrier strike group’s defenses,[28] and, as John Patch argues, “reflects the logic that small, cheap, single-single mission combatants can be decisive weapons systems when used collectively.”[29] While overwhelming a carrier strike group would require large number of missile boats, these small ships are inexpensive enough that even a large fleet is much more affordable than the targets they threaten.

The US Navy is aware of the threat that swarms of small, fast boats pose to major surface combatants, and has invested considerable energy in devising tactics to defeat them. The upcoming Littoral Combat Ship, which is being procured in large numbers,  is designed to be fast enough to evade and neutralize an asymmetric opponent’s swarming tactics. However, the LCS’s practical utility have come under increasing criticism, with critics arguing that the LCS lacks the defensive systems and survivability to operate in a combat environment.[30] This suggests that small boat swarms remain a potent threat to American surface ships.

Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles

The most high profile area-denial threat facing modern navies is anti-ship missiles. The strategic power of these missiles is their cost asymmetry: while modern naval ships cost billions of dollars—or tens of billions, in the case of supercarriers—even advanced anti-ship missiles are relatively cheap. Like the other hallmark weapon of asymmetric warfare, the improvised explosive device, anti-ship missiles are much less expensive than the targets they are designed to destroy, and require a low level of technological sophistication to build and deploy. This cost asymmetry makes the anti-ship missile threat difficult to counter; while navies have scrambled to develop defense systems capable of intercepting incoming missiles, a capable adversary can overcome these defenses by simply saturating them with more missiles.

China has heavily invested in anti-ship missile technologies[31] since the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis demonstrated America’s ability to coerce the Chinese leadership by promptly deploying carrier strike groups to the South China Sea.[32] While China’s current submarine fleet is likely a greater present to the US Navy, China’s arsenal of anti-ship missiles is rapidly growing into a more lethal area-denial threat. Chinese missile technology is the most advanced sector of its weapons portfolio,[33] a success due to the missile industry’s privileged position within the Chinese military hierarchy.[34] Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles are thought to be as advanced and capable as their American and French counterparts.[35]

Anti-ship missiles fall into two broad categories: traditional cruise missiles that follow a flat flight path (ASCMs), and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) that are fired on a ballistic trajectory. Anti-ship missiles are large enough to carry powerful warheads, and are capable of heavily damaging surface ships. During the Iran-Iraq War the Oliver Hazard Perry class guided-missile frigate USS Stark was heavily damaged after suffering two hits by Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi aircraft, and only luck and quick damage control prevented the loss of the ship. While supercarriers’ massive bulk and double hulls make them more resilient targets, a lucky shot by an anti-ship cruise missile is certainly capable of sinking one. In any case, a non-lethal anti-ship missile strike would damage the targeted ship, disrupt flight operations, and possibly force the carrier to retire from the theater.

Anti-ship cruise missiles can be launched by land, air, sea, or undersea-based platforms, and many varieties are capable of supersonic flight. China possesses numerous aircraft capable of launching a variety of cruise missile variants, including missiles designed to target and destroy US radar systems.[36] The most lethal in the Chinese arsenal are the Mach 2+-capable Russian-designed SS-N-22 “Sunburn” anti-ship cruise missiles mounted on the PLAN’s four ex-Soviet Sovermenny-class guided missile destroyers,[37] which are equipped with advanced Russian-sourced sensor systems.[38] The Sovermenny/SS-N-22 system is believed to be capable of defeating the defense systems of US strike groups equipped with Aegis battle management systems,[39] as is its submarine launched equivalent, the SS-N-27B “Sizzler”.[40] Comparable indigenous designs like the subsonic, sea-skimming CSS-N-8, mounted on PLAN frigate and guided missile destroyer platforms, are also judged a severe threat.

Modern navies have heavily invested in defense technologies designed to counter the conventional anti-ship missile threat. These systems are staged in layers: carrier-launched combat air patrols tasked with intercepting launch platforms at long range, anti-missile missile systems capable of intercepting incoming threats at tens of miles, and last ditch close-in weapons systems (CIWS) that use automated rapid fire cannons to destroy missiles at close range. Advanced anti-ship cruise missiles are designed to mitigate these defenses; “sea-skimming” anti-ship missiles travel at low altitude to reduce the range that shipboard radars can detect the threat, and maneuver erratically on their final approach to avoid counterfire.

Naval combat between two evenly matched competitors has been (thankfully) rare in the postwar era, making it is difficult to judge the practical effectiveness of anti-ship missiles. However, anti-ship missiles did play a major role in the 1982 Falklands conflict, with Exocet missiles fired by Argentine forces sinking one Royal Navy vessel and heavily damaging another. Though the experiences of the 1980s drove home the vulnerability of surface ships to anti-ship missiles and caused navies to heavily invest in defensive technologies, it is unclear how effective these largely untested defenses are.

Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs)

More formidable than convention anti-ship cruise missiles are anti-ship ballistic missiles, which follow a curved ballistic trajectory, close at high speeds, and are extremely difficult to intercept. “ASBMs are regarded as a means by which technologically limited developing countries can overcome by asymmetric means their qualitative inferiority in conventional combat platforms,” Erickson and Yang note, “because the gap between offense and defense is greatest here.”[41] The development of anti-ship ballistic missiles threatens to significantly increase China’s ability prevent US ships from operating within the confines of the First Island Chain,[42] massively increase the area-denial “no go” zone for US surface ships,[43] and is likely the greatest technological threat to face U.S. carriers since World War II.[44] ASBMs bypass the US Navy’s superior air and undersea fleet defenses,[45] and their maneuvering warheads allow them to hit moving surface targets as well as fixed facilities.[46]

China’s anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, is a specialized variant of an existing medium-range ballistic missile with a maneuvering reentry vehicle[47] and is believed capable of hitting targets beyond the First Island Chain.[48] Like the DF-21 theater ballistic missile it is based on, the DF-21D variant is road-mobile,[49] allowing it to avoid the risks of a fixed launch position the launch vehicle to quickly leave the area after firing, increasing the DF-21D system’s survivability[50] and complicating efforts to interdict launch vehicles before launch. Terminal guidance is provided by active and passive radar and optical sensors mounted on the missile,[51] and long-range targeting  by ship or land-based over-the-horizon radar and surveillance satellites, all systems China has heavily invested in fielding.[52] The DF-21D can mount a conventional explosive warhead, or a variety of flechette kinetic penetrators and microwave warheads designed to “mission-kill” a US carrier by disabling antenna surfaces and electronics.[53]

Anti-ship ballistic missiles are enormously difficult threat to defeat. ASBMs are significantly more difficult to terminally intercept than traditional anti-ship missiles; while a SS-N-22 “Sunburn” travels above Mach 2, the DF 21D’s impact speed is roughly Mach 12, dramatically shortening the time shipboard defense systems have to detect, intercept, and destroy the missile. “At such speeds, [Close In Weapons Systems] get around a second to engage a maneuvering target, correct its stream of projectiles onto the target, and make the kill,” notes James R. Holmes.[54] Like advanced sea-skimming missiles, the DF 21D is capable of maneuvering during its terminal dive, making interception even more difficult.[55] Even if CIWS manage to overcome these formidable technical challenges and intercept an ASBM, shrapnel from the destroyed warhead traveling at high speeds is still likely to heavily damage the target.[56] Anti-missile missile defense systems and CIWS are also constrained by the size of the magazines, leaving a ship that had exhausted its defensive ordnance helpless. Missile defense systems mounted in vertical launch system tubes cannot be rearmed at sea, meaning that even if a ship managed to survive discharging all of its defensive weaponry, it would have to retire from the theater for weeks to return to port and rearm—frequent anti-ship missile attacks could still mission-kill US surface combatants without defeating their defensive systems.[57]


[1] Cote, Owen R. Jr. 2011. “Addressing the undersea balance between the U.S. and China.” SSP Working Paper, 2.

[2] Bernitt, Thomas R., and Sam J. Tangredi. 2002. “Mine warfare and globalization: Low-tech warfare in a high-tech world.” In Globalization and Maritime Power, ed. Sam J. Tangredi. Washington D.C: National Defense University Press, 402.

[3] Erickson, Andrew S., Lyle J. Goldstein, and William S. Murray. 2009. “Chinese mine warfare: A PLA Navy ‘Assassin’s Mace’ capability.” China Maritime Studies 3. Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1.

[4] Erickson et al. 2009, 8.

[5] Erickson et al. 2009, 2.

[6] Erickson et al. 2009, 16.

[7] Erickson et al. 2009, 21.

[8] Erickson et al. 209, 24.

[9] Erickson et al. 2009, 1.

[10] Ackerman, Spencer. 2012. “Navy’s new minehunter can’t see or stop mines.” Wired. 18 January.

[11] Krepinevich, Andrew F. 2010. “Why AirSea Battle?” Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 21.

[12] Cole, Bernard D. 2001. The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 21.

[13] Erickson et al. 2009, 1.

[14] Sakhuja, Vijay. 2011. Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 76.

[15] Sakhuja 2011, 76.

[16] Chen Te-Men. 2003. “Assessment of the PLAN’s modernization.” In Taiwan’s Maritime Security. Eds. Martin Edmonds and Michael M. Tsai. New York: RoutledgeCurzon. 3-14, 7.

[17] Krepinevich 2010, 22.

[18] Godwin, Paul H. 2007. “China’s emerging military doctrine: A role for nuclear submarines,” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 54.

[19] Cote 2011, 10.

[20] Van Tol, Jan, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas. 2010. “Air Sea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept.” Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessment, 43.

[21] Cote 2011, 17.

[22] Krepinevich 2010, 21.

[23] Sakhuja 2011, 189.

[24] Murray, William S. 2007. “An overview of the PLAN submarine forces,” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 64.

[25] Bateman, Sam, and Chris Rahman. 2003. “The PLAN’S rise and East Asian security.” In Taiwan’s Maritime Security. Eds. Martin Edmonds and Michael M. Tsai. New York: RoutledgeCurzon. 15-39, 17.

[26] Cote 2011, 8.

[27] Pritchett, Raymond. 2010. “Type 022 – Construction continues.” Information Dissemination. 13 October.

[28] Axe, David. 2011. “China builds fleet of small warships while U.S. drifts”. Wired. 4 April.

[29] Patch, John. 2010. “A thoroughbred ship-killer.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 136, 4: 48-53.

[30] Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation. 2012. Fiscal Year 2011 Annual Report, 141.

[31] McVadon, Eric A. 2007. “China’s maturing navy.” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 8; Erickson, Andrew, and Gabriel Collins. 2012. “Near seas ‘anti-Navy’ capabilities, not nascent blue water fleet, constitute China’s core challenge to U.S. and regional militaries.” China SignPost 55, 6. 6 March.

[32] Krepinevich 2010, 13.

[33] Crane, Keith, Roger Cliff, Evan Medeiros, James Mulvenon, and William Overholt. 2005. Modernizing China’s Military: Opportunities and Constraints. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 185.

[34] Crane et al. 2005, 186.

[35] Crane et al. 2005, 185.

[36] Krepinevic 2010, 21.

[37] Friedman, Norman, James S. O’Brasky, and Sam J. Tangredi. 2002. “Globalization and surface warfare,” in Globalization and Maritime Power. Ed. Sam J. Tangredi. Washington, D.C.: National Defense Press. 373-388, 381.

[38] Cheung, Tai Ming. 2009. Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 140.

[39] Sakhuja 2011, 75.

[40] McVadon 2007, 9.

[41] Erickson, Andrew S., and David D. Yang. 2009. “Using the land to control the sea: Chinese analysts consider the antiship ballistic missile.” Naval War College Review 62, 4.

[42] Gartzke, Erik A., and Jonathan N. Markowitz. 2011. “Fence Sitting in U.S.-China Policy: Why a Strategy of Limited Containment Will No Longer Work.” 30 September, 26.

[43] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 26.

[44] O’Rourke, Ronald. 2012. “China naval modernization: Implications for US Navy capabilities–-Background and issues for Congress.” 23 March, 8

[45] McVadon 2007, 4.

[46] McVadon 2007, 8.

[47] O’Rourke 2012, 7.

[48] Erickson and Collins 2012.

[49] Fisher, Richard Jr. 2011. “PLA and U.S. Arms Racing in the Western Pacific.” International Assessment and Strategy Center. 29 June.

[50] Krepinevic 2010, 18.

[51] Krepinevic 2010, 19.

[52] Krepinevic 2010, 19.

[53] Turner, Andrew M. 2011. “Amphibious assault in the 21st century: Are the costs and risks too high?” Newport, RI: US Naval War College; Krepinevic 2010, 19.

[54] Holmes, James R. 2011. “ASBM defense isn’t easy.” The Diplomat. 22 November.

[55] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 26; O’Rourke 2012, 8.

[56] Holmes 2011.

[57] Van Tol et al. 2010, 40.

Triage Stafford Loans

Guest post by Saad Asad

It’s an odd world where politicians are pandering to a group who are generally well-off and rarely vote. Yes, I’m talking about college students. Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama agree that the rate for subsidized Stafford loans should be kept at 3.4% for at least the coming year. Congress even agrees but differ on how to offset the costs (age old fight over spending cuts or tax increases). But college graduates don’t need this extra subsidy, it would be better of funding Pell Grants which are at constant risk.

Before we grow too attached to this entitlement, let’s remember this rate cut literally only came in to existence this year. The rates have gradually come down since the Democrats passed a bill in 2007 to lower them. The CBO, however, estimates that extending them for another year will cost about $6 billion and $45 billion to extend it for ten years.

These loan rates are not retroactive so only those applying in July will be affected by the lapse of this law which would be about 7 million borrowers. Pundits on the left argue this rate hike would be an excessive burden for college graduates, but the fight is over less than $10 a month. Candice Choi of BusinessWeek writes:

“But in general, the White House says keeping the rate at 3.4 percent for another year would save borrowers $1,000 over the life of the loan. That’s assuming a 12-year repayment on a $4,200 loan.

On a monthly basis, a typical payment would go up by about $8, according to FinAid.org”

Critics will argue that as college tuition increases it only makes sense that government assistance also increase. Indeed college tuition has tripled in the past 30 years, but so has the earnings gap between high school graduates and college graduates. Despite this rise in tuition, college degrees continue to pay off. And if they continue to pay off, why should taxpayers continue to subsidize them? Do Harvard graduates really need federal assistance at a time when food stamps and unemployment benefits are at risk?

College graduates are closer to the 1% than the 99%. Only 30% of Americans have a college degree, and even fewer across the world have this credential. They have more political influence and certainly more earning power. George Will of the Washington Post explains:

“The average annual income of high school graduates with no college is $41,288; for college graduates with just a bachelor’s degree it is $71,552. So the one-year difference ($30,264) is more than the average total indebtedness of the two-thirds of students who borrow ($25,250).

Taxpayers, most of whom are not college graduates (the unemployment rate for high school graduates with no college education: 7.9 percent), will pay $6 billion a year to make it slightly easier for some fortunate students to acquire college degrees (the unemployment rate for college graduates: 4 percent).”

Jason Deslisle of the New America Foundation furthers explains how this rate cut only benefits employed high-income college graduates to begin with:

“Subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduates – the only type eligible for the 3.4 percent interest rate – include a special interest-free benefit. The interest clock on these loans is frozen while a borrower is enrolled in school and for up to three years if a borrower is unemployed or meets the rules for economic hardship. This means that keeping the interest rate on newly-issued Subsidized Stafford loans at 3.4 percent will not affect unemployed borrowers. The interest rate for these borrowers is automatically 0.0 percent.

Borrowers working part-time or in low-paying jobs need not worry about the interest rate on Subsidized Stafford loans (for three years) either if they enroll in the income-based repayment plan. This plan caps a borrower’s monthly payment at a share of his disposable income, regardless of the interest rate on the loans. But the deal is even sweeter for Subsidized Stafford loans. If a borrower’s monthly payment is too low to cover the interest that accrues, the government forgives it – up to three years’ worth.

These protections make the rhetoric about lowering interest rates to help college graduates weather a weak job market ill-informed at best. By definition, the campaign to keep interest rates lower on Subsidized Stafford loans is about keeping rates lower only for those borrowers who are employed and earn enough to be ineligible for the income-based repayment program. It is those fully-employed borrowers who are most able to swing the extra $9 a month (at most) that another year of loans offered at a 3.4 percent interest rate would otherwise save them.

Targeting a precious $6 billion right now to borrowers who have jobs and incomes high enough to cover the higher rate seems out of touch, especially when the Pell Grant program needs approximately that much next year to stave off a massive cut to the aid it provides.”

In fact, the Pell Grant was cut by $8 billion last year and another $2 billion this year. Pell Grants increase accessibility while students are in college and directly help low-income families (the threshold is a meager $23000). Simple prioritization tells us to save the grants before we even bother with these loans.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Buddhist Temple in the Mountains, 11th century. Via Wikimedia.

"Buddhist Temple in the Mountains", 11th century. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Remember to check out Political Violence @ a Glance, a new blog I’m involved with. It has a great team of academic contributors, and very smart commentary.

Syrian rebels with toy guns.

No, America does not need more scientists and engineers.

Voyager I is close to leaving our solar system.

The taxpayers don’t owe you an education at Harvard. They don’t owe you an education at whichever leafy liberal arts college stole your heart during a campus visit on your 17th birthday. They owe you a good education. Period.

What’s 50 Grand to a Revolutionary Like Me?: Watch the Throne and the New Black Power.

A pessimistic take on AirSea Battle.

Ludovico Einaudi – The Crane Dance.

PRC Area-Denial Capabilities and American Power Projection, Part 2

By Taylor Marvin

The following is a draft research project I recently wrote, which I’ll be publishing serially over the next week. Part 1 here.

PLAN Type 093 diesel-electric submarine. Via Wikimedia.

PLAN Type 093 diesel-electric submarine. Via Wikimedia.

Why China Favors Anti-Access/Area-Denial

Anti-access/area-denial capabilities are the core strategic challenge facing the United States. Proliferating weapons technologies have democratized lethal force, giving unsophisticated opponents the ability to deny superior opponents the ability to project power. The Pentagon’s challenge is to overcome anti-access/area-denial systems “no matter where they are or how they’re presented,” a Department of Defense briefer recently remarked. “To that end, for example, we see state actors with well-funded militaries that possess the most advanced kinds of anti-access/area-denial capabilities and technologies—in some cases, multilayered across all of the war-fighting domains.” Of course, recognizing the challenge of anti-access/area-denial capabilities is not the same as actually finding a way around them. Surviving in an A2/AD environment is an unaddressed strategic challenge, and one that will only grow more difficult as the lethality and proliferation of anti-access/area-denial platforms increases.

China seeks the ability to credibly threaten to destroy key US assets in the Western Pacific, raising the risk and potential cost of US opposition to Chinese interests and removing US leaders’ ability to coerce China through military threats, a strategic goal that favors an asymmetric strategy. Despite its rapid military modernization, China will not be able to evenly match US assets in the Western Pacific in the near future.[1] The Chinese military leadership understands that attempting to evenly match the US military is the wrong way to approach the problem of American hegemony in the Western Pacific; instead, China should bypass the American military’s strengths and attack its weaknesses—the central principal of asymmetric warfare.[2] “No one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the US to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought arms race prior to World War I,” then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained in a 2009 speech. “Instead, we’ve seen their investments in weapons geared to neutralize our advantages—to deny the US military freedom of movement and actions while potentially threatening our primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.”[3] While the Chinese military follows no single overarching policy, asymmetric warfare is understood to be China’s core strategy for opposing the United States,[4] an “active defense” the PLA defines as a “strategic counterattack.”[5]

Anti-access/area-denial capabilities are part of but distinct from the broader notion of asymmetric warfare—asymmetric warfare is a strategy, while A2/AD capabilities are platforms used to execute that strategy. More specifically, Chinese A2/AD strategies seek to prevent the United States from controlling key areas like straits, littorals or choke points, denying US forces the ability to operate from large bases in the region, and prevent the US Navy from projecting power from the sea.[6] Barring the ability to completely deny the US effective operation in the Western Pacific, Chinese area-denial strategy aims to deter American intervention in the region by increasing the risk to US fleets that venture too close to China’s shores.[7]

Chinese enthusiasm for asymmetric strategies is not new. During the Cold War the PLAN was structured around an asymmetric defense of Chinese littorals against an invading Soviet amphibious force.[8] Chairman Mao’s doctrine of an asymmetric “People’s War” and the example of Soviet sea denial strategy heavily influenced the early PLAN and its focus on littoral shore defense and, in Mao’s words, “maritime guerrilla operations.”[9] While the PLAN’s focus on asymmetric warfare was partially a product of limited resources, it was also a rational response to external threats. China’s geography is uniquely suited for asymmetric naval warfare: unlike other many other maritime nations the Chinese mainland does not actually border an ocean, but instead partially enclosed seas.[10] This geography creates littoral choke points that restrict the movements of an intruding naval force, empowering a prepared asymmetric defender.[11]

Today A2/AD is an organic part of Chinese strategic thinking. Chinese doctrine places great importance on strategic depth,[12] a concept deeply tied to area-denial. The Chinese concept of maritime strategic depth is defined by “lines of control” demarcated by twin island chains, running from north to south along the eastern Asian coast. The “First Island China” runs from Japan south through Taiwan to the Parcels in the South China Sea, and the more distant “Second Island Chain” includes Guam and encloses the entire Philippine Sea. China’s island chains’ geographic thresholds determine the shape of Chinese area-denial strategy; in a conflict China would seek to entirely deny the US Navy the ability to operate within the First Island Chain, and heavily contest the second.[13] These boundaries have practical as well as symbolic significance—the geographical limits of the Second Island Chain matches the 1,3000 nm range of a US Tomahawk cruise missile.[14]

Anti-access/area-denial capabilities are a particularly attractive strategy set for China due to its strategic asymmetry with the US, and American dependence on power projection from centralized assets.

Force Asymmetry

People’s Liberation Army forces are far less capable than their American counterparts. This asymmetry is especially apparent in China’s naval forces—a major roadblock for Chinese strategic aspirations in the Western Pacific. The inferiority of China’s naval forces is partially due to its technological and industrial inferiority to Japan and the West, but also China’s history of prioritizing land forces.

Currently China is unable to directly match the technological sophistication of US assets. PLAN surface ships are less advanced than American designs, though this gap is rapidly shrinking. China does not possess operational aircraft carriers, nor mature amphibious warfare capabilities. Chinese naval weapons and sensor systems are more primitive than their Western counterparts.[15] Even Chinese missile systems—commonly understood as the most formidable PLA weapons systems, prioritized in a clear example of asymmetric countering—lag behind the America’s, though again this gap is closing.[16] Similarly, Chinese attack submarines are not comparable to advanced US designs.[17]

Chinese aircraft design lags farther behind US assets than its naval counterparts. China has struggled to produce domestically manufactured jet engines and China’s most formidable air assets, like the J-11 and Su-30MKK air superiority fighters, are derived from Russian designs. While the recent unveiling of the J-20 stealth fighter aircraft is a significant step forward for the Chinese aviation industry, it is unclear how capable the aircraft is, or when it will enter operational service if at all. Chinese long-range bomber aircraft are based on Soviet designs dating back to the 1950s, and are not comparable to the US Air Force’s unique intercontinental bomber force. While the People’s Liberation Army Air Force appears to be shifting from a “quantity over quality” model towards fewer, more advanced aircraft, the Chinese aviation industry is decades away from even beginning to match the technological sophistication of US and allied designs.

Platforms and weapons are the most advanced facet of the PLA, followed by human capital and organizational assets.[18] Technology is an important component of military capability, but people and institutions are what translate force into victory. A serious shortcoming in Chinese power is its lack of institutional military experience. The Korean War was China’s last large-scale sustained military conflict,[19] and today few to no Chinese officers have combat experience. This stands in stark contrast to the America’s last decade of continuous war; today a large portion of the US military, especially in its land forces, has experienced combat. In addition to the PLA’s decades of peace, China’s lack of experience operating advanced military technology is a serious institutional deficit that will be difficult to overcome. The Chinese military leadership recognizes this; indeed, China’s high-profile acquisition and refit of the former Soviet aircraft carrier the ex-Varyag is thought to be for training, rather than power projection.

Centralized Power Projection

America’s power projection capabilities are dependent on centralized assets whose vulnerability is an important weakness of the US military.[20] This centralization would allow China to partially mitigate its force asymmetry with the US by focusing on targeting and destroying these assets in a conflict, bypassing the bulk of US strength. If China wisely elects to avoid challenging the US on an even, ship-on-ship basis, then it should focus on attacking other vulnerabilities in America’s force structure, eroding US capabilities while avoiding its strengths. The Chinese term for anti-access/area-denial strategies, shashoujian or “assassin’s mace”, hints at this logic;[21] like an assassin, in the event of hostilities Chinese forces will seeks to strike and destroy exposed vulnerabilities in US force structures, while denying their opponent the same opportunity. For example, US forces are much more dependent on satellite reconnaissance and communication than the PLA. Accordingly, China has developed anti-satellite weapons to attack this US vulnerability.[22]

The efficacy of shashoujian strategies are dependent on targeting the vulnerable foundations of an opponent’s force structure. Geographically isolated from its spheres of influence, the American presence in the Western Pacific is dependent on its power projections capabilities. While US power projection is formidable, it suffers from a key weakness: power must be projected from somewhere. In most contexts, this means large local bases and the US Navy’s eleven supercarriers, and to a lesser extent flat-top amphibious assault ships. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of carriers to America’s ability to project power.[23] While no US naval assets can truly be considered expendable, carriers are expensive and rare enough to make the prospect of losing one frightening. US power projection is absolutely dependent on maintaining a fleet of these carriers, and losing one would be the greatest single military disaster the US has suffered since World War II.

In addition to carriers, US power projection in the Western Pacific is dependent on huge military bases, a vulnerability often neglected in discussions of US force staging.[24] These bases, the most important of which are located in Japan, South Korea, and Guam, allow US land and air forces to operate in areas that would otherwise to be unavailable to non-naval assets. These sanctuaries are also vital for logistics build-up and staging, a vital consideration in the distant Western Pacific theater.[25] Rapid Chinese strikes against these bases would reduce the US’s ability to build up land and air forces in theater during hostilities, and the PLA has heavily invested in the short-range ballistic missile and strike aircraft forces necessary to conduct these attacks.[26] Both the US Air Force and Navy are accustomed to operating from “sanctuaries” largely off limits to enemy attack,  as rear operating air bases or ports have not been extensively targeted by an enemy force since World War II.[27] If large bases are no longer a safe haven, US force structures and doctrine will be forced to change; for example, USAF aircraft would be forced to fly into the theater from distance airbases out of PLA missile range, reducing their available time on station.[28] It is not clear if the US would be able to fight a sustained war in the Western Pacific if Chinese anti-access strikes degraded the operational capability of large rear bases.


[1] Sayers, Eric. 2010. “A framework for influencing PLA procurement trends.” Joint Forces Quarterly 58, 3: 89-93, 89.

[2] Crane, Keith, Roger Cliff, Evan Medeiros, James Mulvenon, and William Overholt. 2005. Modernizing China’s Military: Opportunities and Constraints. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 195.

[3] Robert M. Gates, remarks at the Naval War College, Newport RI, April 17 2009.

[4] Sayers 2010, 90.

[5] McDevitt, Michael, and Frederic Vellucci Jr. 2012. “The evolution of the People’s Liberation Army Navy: The twin missions of area-denial and peacetime operations.” In Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific: The Triumph of Neptune? Eds. Geoffrey Till and Patrick C. Bratton. New York: Routledge. 75-92, 81.

[6] Bratton, P.C. 2012. “The United States as a Pacific power.” In Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific: The Triumph of Neptune? Eds. Geoffrey Till and Patrick C. Bratton. New York: Routledge. 19-45, 33.

[7] Krepinevich, Andrew F. 2010. “Why AirSea Battle?” Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 18.

[8] Cole, Bernard D. 2001. “The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century.” Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 22.

[9] Chen Te-Men. 2003. “Assessment of the PLAN’s modernization.” In Taiwan’s Maritime Security. Eds. Martin Edmonds and Michael M. Tsai. New York: RoutledgeCurzon. 3-14, 4.

[10] Sakhuja, Vijay. 2011. Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 55.

[11] Bateman, Sam, and Chris Rahman. 2003. “Te PLAN’S rise and East Asian security.” In Taiwan’s Maritime Security. Eds. Martin Edmonds and Michael M. Tsai. New York: RoutledgeCurzon. 15-39, 18.

[12] Xu Qi. 2004. “Maritime geostrategy and the development of the Chinese Navy in the early twenty-first century. Translated by Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein. 2006, Naval War College Review 59, 4: 47-67, 48.

[13] McDevitt and Vellucci 2012, 80.

[14] McDevitt and Vellucci 2012, 80.

[15] Crane et al. 2005, 182.

[16] Crane et al. 2005, 185.

[17] Schuster, Carl Otis. 2012. “China: Its maritime traditions and navy today.” In Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific: The Triumph of Neptune? Eds. Geoffrey Till and Patrick C. Bratton. New York: Routledge. 56-74, 61.

[18] McVadon, Eric A. 2007. “China’s maturing navy.” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 4.

[19] The 1962 Sino-Indian War and 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War were destructive, but both relatively short conflicts. Neither involved significant naval action.

[20] Sayers 2010, 90.

[21] Krepinevich 2010, 19.

[22] Sayers 2010, 91.

[23] Krepinevic 2010, 18.

[24] Krepinevic 2010, 16.

[25] Van Tol, Jan, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas. 2010. Air Sea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept. Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessment, 23.

[26] Krepinevic 2010, 16.

[27] Van Tol et al. 2010, xii.

[28] Van Tol et al. 2010, 25.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Jan van Eyck, Portriate of a Man, 1433.

Jan van Eyck, "Portriate of a Man", 1433.

What I read this week:

Tiananmen after 23 years: Unfair and unjust.

Men did invent the internet (and that’s a huge problem) (via Sullivan). The comments section is a depressing illustration of how otherwise (presumably) intelligent men who’ve matured in an environment deprived of women can convince themselves its natural and a good thing.

America’s last prisoner of war.

Russia’s Syrian excuse.

New idea’s from dead political systems.

A Song of Ice and Fire, sexual assault, and victims’ perspectives.

Dominik Omega + The Arcitype – Game Of Thrones Hip Hop Remix (some spoilers!)