PRC Area-Denial Capabilities and American Power Projection, Part 3
By Taylor Marvin
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 is an important part of China’s plans to disrupt American naval operations in the event of a conflict. Mine warfare is the lowest technology area-denial weaponry, 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. 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. Today, when mines’ propensity towards collateral damage is increasingly unacceptable, Chinese naval planners’ open enthusiasm for offensive mine warfare is largely unique.
Chine possesses a number of highly advanced anchored, bottom, and drifting mines designs. 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. Chinese texts have discussed using nuclear sea mines to destroy American submarines or carriers from extended range, bypassing carrier strike groups’ defensive perimeters. 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. 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. 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.
In the last decade China has rapidly increased the strength, as well as quality, of its submarine forces. 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. In the decade following 1996 China acquired over thirty submarines, and PLAN submarine forces are listed first among combat branches of the navy in the order of protocol.
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,and Kilo class submarines are moderately stealthy, highly survivable, and are capable of operating when partially damaged. 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.
In the event of a conflict with the United States the PLAN would use its submarines to hunt US carriers and defend China’s coastline. 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, and one lucky shot could be enough to sink an irreplaceable carrier and kill 5,000 sailors.Though the majority of the Chinese submarine fleet are low performance diesel submarines far inferior to the US Navy’s nuclear attack submarine force, 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. 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. 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. Similarly, the geography of the first and second island chains creates natural choke points conductive to defensive undersea warfare. However, these choke points also simplify efforts to prevent submarines from leaving Chinese territorial waters undetected.
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. 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, and, as John Patch argues, “reflects the logic that small, cheap, single-single mission combatants can be decisive weapons systems when used collectively.” 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. 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 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. 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, a success due to the missile industry’s privileged position within the Chinese military hierarchy. Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles are thought to be as advanced and capable as their American and French counterparts.
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. 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, which are equipped with advanced Russian-sourced sensor systems. 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, as is its submarine launched equivalent, the SS-N-27B “Sizzler”. 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.” 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, massively increase the area-denial “no go” zone for US surface ships, and is likely the greatest technological threat to face U.S. carriers since World War II. ASBMs bypass the US Navy’s superior air and undersea fleet defenses, and their maneuvering warheads allow them to hit moving surface targets as well as fixed facilities.
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 and is believed capable of hitting targets beyond the First Island Chain. Like the DF-21 theater ballistic missile it is based on, the DF-21D variant is road-mobile, 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 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, and long-range targeting by ship or land-based over-the-horizon radar and surveillance satellites, all systems China has heavily invested in fielding. 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.
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. Like advanced sea-skimming missiles, the DF 21D is capable of maneuvering during its terminal dive, making interception even more difficult. 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. 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.
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