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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.

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.

PRC Area-Denial Capabilities and American Power Projection, Part 1

By Taylor Marvin

PLA DF-21D ASBM. Image by Wikimedia user Terrorfalc.

PLA DF-21D ASBM. Image by Wikimedia user Terrorfalc.

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

China’s development of powerful asymmetric capabilities is the greatest challenge to US power projection since the Second World War. Continued advances in anti-access/area-denial weapons and strategies are likely to shift the most important determinant of military victory from force superiority to locality; if inferior forces can asymmetrically deny superior adversaries control over a local battle space, they can cheaply achieve strategic victory. This bodes poorly for the US, whose control over distant spheres of influence in the Western Pacific is highly dependent on the ability to project power. Given America’s relatively peripheral interests in East Asia, the growing Chinese defense budget and the increasingly high costs of war, a risky US containment strategy towards China is no longer feasible. If China enjoys the ability to deny US forces local operational freedom, American security commitments in the region will become an increasingly transparent bluff.

China’s Rapid Rise

China’s rapid economic growth heralds the first rival in the position to challenge US military hegemony on a near-peer basis since the end of the Cold War.[1] While the United States currently spends a much larger portion of its GDP on defense, China’s military expenditures are rapidly increasing and are forecast to possibly surpass the United States’ by 2035.[2] Of course, military spending does not directly translate into military capabilities, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lags far behind US and allied forces in equipment, training, and the competence and officer corps experience. However, despite this capability gap China’s rapidly modernizing forces are the greatest conventional challenge to face the US military since the dissolution of the USSR.

While the United States remains the sole global hegemon, the day is approaching when this will no longer be the case,[3] and America must adapt to an increasingly multipolar world. This shift is especially pronounced in the Western Pacific, where the stable military superiority the United States has enjoyed for the last half century is deteriorating—America will have less power to impose its policy preferences on the region tomorrow than it does today. Less obvious is how China‘s leaders view the United States. “China views the United States as a declining power, but at the same time believe that Washington is trying to fight back to undermine, and even disrupt, the economic and military growth that point to China’s becoming the world’s most powerful country,” the New York Times recently wrote, citing a Chinese analyst. This outlook is not unjustified. America has followed a policy of limited engagement with China, accommodating its ascendant rival while also attempting to contain China.[4] This mixed strategy is a product of American uncertainty about what type of China it faces: either a satisfied China comfortable with the existing world order or a dissatisfied China committed to aggressive expansion. Accordingly, Beijing sees the United States as attempting to delay its inevitable rise to world power status, and the PLA leadership perceives the United States as its greatest threat.[5]

China seeks to counter US influence in the western Pacific, which it views as its rightful sphere of influence.[6] Assessing China’s ability to displace America and its allies’ military supremacy in the region is a difficult task. The Chinese military establishment, like the rest of the Chinese government, is extremely secretive and unconstrained by the transparency measures legally required of democratic governments. Despite this uncertainty it is clear that the PLA is rapidly modernizing, and China is restructuring its armed forces. The People’s Liberation Army has traditionally followed a “quantity over quality” philosophy, relying on its massive number of soldiers to overwhelm a technologically superior foe. This strategy grew out the ideas of Mao’s “People’s Revolution,” but was also dictated by China’s poverty, chaotic politics, and lack of advanced weapons systems;[7] sheer numbers was China’s only comparative military advantage. While this strategy was reasonably effective in Korea, today’s leadership sees it as increasingly incompatible with China’s status as a modern world power. Today the Chinese military is downsizing its massive Cold War-era land forces, cutting personnel costs, and freeing up funds for advanced air and maritime weapons systems. The results have been impressive. Previously primitive, Chinese aircraft and shipbuilding industries have rapidly matured, though they are still at least a generation behind the technological sophistication of the West and Russia.[8] While China’s military lags far behind the United States’ power projection ability, the day is coming that it can challenge US forces for regional supremacy in what China sees as its rightful sphere of influence, the Western Pacific.

China’s Maritime Outlook

China’s strategic outlook is driven by concerns over its sovereignty, the necessity of continued economic growth, and a desire for regional hegemony. These concerns are all increasingly maritime. Geographically China is a maritime state, with a 6,000 mile long coastline and thousands of offshore islands,[9] and an extensive exclusive economic zone.[10] However, the Chinese state has historically neglected maritime issues. Imperial China saw itself as a continental power with strong isolationist tendencies,[11] and in the post-Revolutionary era the Chinese concept of national security was limited to border security.[12] After the 1960s Sino-Soviet split China perceived the USSR, not America, as its greatest external threat[13], and invested in the powerful ground forces necessary to fight a war on its long northern border. Conflict with China’s other continental neighbors, most notably India and Vietnam, also encouraged prioritizing the army over the navy. Accordingly, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) enjoyed less political status and funding than the army,[14] and was dedicated to littoral defense.[15] In addition to a northern-looking security outlook, Mao’s favored ideology stressed the importance of rural, decentralized communism, ideals a necessarily technocratic navy was excluded from.[16] This bias is reflected in its official name; the term “People’s Liberation Army Navy” makes the navy’s subordinate position to the army clear.

Today China’s strategic concerns are nearly all maritime;[17] interests that, in Bernard D. Cole’s words, “range from the Arctic to the Antarctic”.[18] After the end of the Cold War Russia transformed from enemy to ally[19] and arms supplier,[20] and China has managed to diplomatically resolve the majority of its non-maritime territorial disputes. The question of Taiwanese independence remains China’s paramount diplomatic concern,[21] and China appears to resent US hegemony in the Western Pacific. China is also concerned about the prospect of Japanese rearmament—understandable, given Japan’s brutal occupation of eastern China during the 1930s and 40s—and the United States’ increasingly close relationships with smaller countries in the region, angered by China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy.[22] Beyond Japan Chinese military concerns include countering a rising India,[23] and defending China’s land and sea borders.[24] Other potential flashpoints are China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which are disputed by neighboring nations. These claims’ importance in the minds of the Chinese leadership is disputed; while Cole[25] sees them only superseded by the Taiwan issue, Crane et al.[26] believes them to be on the bottom of China’s maritime priorities.

The Chinese military establishment is acutely aware of the importance of naval power to China’s security.[27] In “Maritime geostrategy and the development of the Chinese Navy in the early twenty-first century” Chinese author Xu Qi laments the Chinese state’s historical neglect of maritime defense, and notes China’s long history of suffering seaborne invasions.[28] China’s humiliating division and occupation by colonizing powers during the 19th century is commonly understood as a consequence of China’s sea power deficit.[29] This view of Chinese history is echoed by Zhang,[30] who also notes “the delay in resolving the Taiwan issue is also largely because of China’s insufficient sea power.”

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea as part of its exclusive economic zone;[31] a claim viewed as excessive and unlawful.[32] “In the near to medium term,” writes Zhang,[33] “unifying Taiwan with the motherland and recovering China’s sovereign islands is both the great historical mission that the Chinese government must shoulder and a necessary foundation for China to safeguard its national sea rights.” China’s state-run newspapers have run bellicose editorials warning its rivals to abandon their territorial claims or face war,[34] and confrontation over these islands is the regarded as the most likely source of conflict in the near future.[35] The discovery of energy resources in the South China Sea’s continental shelf has raised the conflict’s stakes,[36] particularly considering that output from China’s main domestic oil field is predicted to decline in the near future.[37]

China’s economy is also increasingly dependent on maritime security. Like the United States, the strength of China’s economy depends on its ability to protect vulnerable maritime trade routes,[38] which carry 90 percent of Chinese exports.[39] Safeguarding these sea lines of communication is vital, as China’s leadership fears that a slowdown in economic growth could spark feared social unrest.[40] Accordingly, protecting the maritime commons is one of the primary missions of the PLAN.[41] In addition to foreign trade, China’s economy also relies on continued access to energy,[42] the bulk of which through vulnerable geographic choke points.[43] China’s rapid economic growth has increased its demand for oil, and 25 percent of China’s imports are sourced from the unstable Persian Gulf.[44] The large majority of these imports are forced through the Strait of Malacca,[45] a natural choke point. Closing the Strait, even temporarily, would strangle the Chinese economy; China’s leaders are acutely aware of this vulnerability.[46] In addition to the Strait of Malacca, vital sea routes to and from China pass near the disputed Spratly Islands, another vulnerability.[47] Farther from China’s shores oil imports from the Persian Gulf must pass through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to close. The United States Navy is committed to keeping the Strait open; the USN 5th Fleet is based in nearly Bahrain, and America maintains a continuous carrier strike group deployment in the region. However, the Persian Gulf is roughly 7,000 miles by sea from China, and without blue water navy China does not have the ability to safeguard its economic interests. As long as China cannot safeguard global sea lines of communication, and China’s leadership is acutely aware that its economic security is dependent on others.[48]

Chinas sea lines of communication. DoD, 2006.

China's sea lines of communication. DoD, 2006.

Under the leadership of Admiral Liu Huqaing, during the 1980s China began to devote increasing resources to fielding a capable fleet,[49] transitioning from a doctrine of limited “coastal defense” to “offshore defense” farther from China’s shores.[50] This shift accelerated after the fall of the Soviet Union and resolution of China’s outstanding continental border disputes, which allowed China to shift its military spending to the sea and air forces relevant to its new maritime outlook.[51] Today China’s military possesses numerous advanced surface ships, submarines, and modern aircraft capable of operating far from China’s shores. While the PLAN is not yet a “blue-water” navy—capable of global open ocean operations—it has grown into a capable regional “green water” force.[52]Emboldened by its growing capabilities, Chinese foreign policy has grown more aggressive, particularly with regards to the South China Sea territorial disputes. Importantly, some observers have theorized that this new found aggressiveness is driven by the PLA leadership, not the civilian foreign ministry.[53]

The Challenge of Anti-Access/Area-Denial

While China does not represent a threat to America’s global dominance in the foreseeable future, China military modernization is challenging the United States’ ability to project power close to Chinese shores. The US military is not prepared to counter this threat to its regional superiority, and America’s approach to a nascent near-peer competitor remains based on its Cold War experience. US post-Cold War strategic outlook has been based on the idea that the United States can pursue a mixed strategy of limited engagement and containment until the prospect of a hostile near-peer competitor emerges; when one does, the United States will have time to shift towards a pure containment strategy. This strategy suffers from a significant weakness. Pivoting US force structures to counter an emerging near-peer rival depends on the opponent electing to pursue a symmetric structure—if China makes a costly to reach force parity with the US, American policymakers will have time to adapt and counter the threat. However, if China rationally avoids this losing strategy the US will struggle to adapt.[54] If China instead bypasses and negates US strengths, it can be expected to deny the United States the ability to project power in China’s desired sphere of influence much sooner.

Asymmetric capabilities designed to prevent American power projection are termed anti-access or area-denial capabilities by the US military. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment defines anti-access capabilities as “those associated with denying access to major fixed-point targets, especially are forward bases,” and area-denial “those that threaten mobility targets over an area of operations, principally maritime forces, to include those beyond the littorals.”[55] While anti-access and area-denial strategies are distinct, they share the same core concept: as Krepinevich observes, “if anti-access strategies aim to prevent US forces from operating from fixed land bases in a theater of operations, then area-denial operations air to prevent the freedom of action of maritime forces operating in the theater.”[56] Always a lover of acronyms, the Pentagon combines the two concepts into the abbreviation “A2/AD.”


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

[2] The Economist. 2012. “The dragon’s new teeth: A rare look inside the world’s biggest military expansion.” 7 April.

[3] 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.

[4] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 3

[5] Crane et al. 2005, xxii; 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, 44.

[6] 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, 22

[7]Cheung, Tai Ming. 2009. Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 25.

[8] Crane et al. 2005, 180.

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

[10] Cheung, Tai Ming. 1990. Growth of Chinese Naval Power. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 59.

[11] Cheung 1990, 3.

[12] Zhang Wenmu. 2006. “Sea power and China’s strategic choices.” China Security, Summer 2006: 17-31, 21.

[13]Cheung 2009, 24.

[14] Sakhuja 2011, 71.

[15] Cole, Bernard D. 2007. “Chinese maritime strategy,” 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, 24.

[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, 3; 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, 57.

[17] 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, 78.

[18] Cole 2001, 34.

[19] McDevitte and Vellucci 2012, 75.

[20] 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, 48.

[21] Office of the Secretary of Defense. 2012. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. May, 2.

[22] The Economist. 2012. “The dragon’s new teeth: A rare look inside the world’s biggest military expansion.” 7 April.

[23] Cole 2007, 33.

[24] Crane et al. 2005, 197.

[25] Cole 2001, 35.

[26] Crane et al. 2005, 197

[27] Schuster 2012, 58.

[28] 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, 53.

[29] Sakhuja 2011, 14; Cheung 1990, 3.

[30] Zhang Wenmu. 2006.

[31] Cole 2001, 32; Johnson, Kevin R. 2012. “Maritime power and the Asia-Pacific: US naval perspectives.” In Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific: The Triumph of Neptune? Eds. Geoffrey Till and Patrick C. Bratton. New York: Routledge. 46-55, 48.

[32] 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, 19.

[33] Zhang 2006.

[35] Sakhuja 2011, 81; Cheung 1990, 4.

[36] Cole 2001, 41; Chen 2003, 10; Johnson 2012, 51.

[37] Cole 2001, 55.

[38] Zhang 2006, 17.

[39] Schuster 2012, 57

[40] Zhang 2006, 18

[41] Sakhuja 2011, 84.

[42] Chen 2003, 10.

[43] Sakhuja 2011, 59.

[44] Sakhuja 2011, 83; Schuster 2012, 57.

[45] Cole 2007, 32.

[46] Sakhuja 2011, 84.

[47] Cole 2001, 39.

[48] Zhang 2006, 20.

[49] Sakhuja 2011, 15.

[50] Godwin 2007, 43.

[51] Crane et al. 2005, 224.

[52] The Economist. 2012. “The dragon’s new teeth: A rare look inside the world’s biggest military expansion.” 7 April.

[53] Cole 2001, 46.

[54] Sayers, Eric. 2010. “A framework for influencing PLA procurement trends.” Joint Forces Quarterly 58, 3: 89-93, 90.

[55] 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, 1, via McDevitt and Vellucci 2012, 81.

[56] Krepinevich, Andrew F. 2010. “Why AirSea Battle?” Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 10.

Humiliation in Islamabad

By Taylor Marvin

Agni 5 missile launch. Reuters image, via the New York Times.

Agni 5 missile launch. Reuters image, via the New York Times.

From the New York Times, India has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile with a over 3,000 mile range. Unlike previous Indian missile development, the Agni 5’s extended range makes it clear that the intended target of the missile’s deterrence — and by extension coercion — value is China, not India’s historical nemesis Pakistan. Islamabad must be grinding its teeth: not only is Pakistan having trouble competing with India’s growing technological acumen, the US’s diplomatic shift towards a strong alliance with democratic India illustrates that America views it as a major future power, one worth antagonizing Pakistan to align with. Throughout the Cold War era America and the rest of the world viewed India and Pakistan as something closer to near-peer rivals. Losing the vindication of that near-equal status with its great rival feeds the Pakistani military’s paranoia and is at least partially responsible for the ISI’s support for the Taliban, which it sees as a long-term hedge against Indian encirclement.

Now India is publicly demonstrating that it sees its future strategic outlook centered around an adversarial relationship with China, not Pakistan. It’s hard to imagine a greater insult. Given how much that Pakistani military leadership’s motivations are dominated by rivalry with — and fears of — India, this humiliation does not bode well for Pakistan’s cooperation in a future bipolar Asian community dominated by India and China.

On Terminology, Cont.

By Taylor Marvin

More on the often clumsy terminology used to describe world cultural blocks.

Today I was reading Michael McDevitt’s chapter “Sea Denial with Chinese Characteristics” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force when I came across an interesting sentence:

“The Chinese are still smarting from the Century of Humiliation when they suffered significant losses of sovereignty from the Western nations (including Japan) that came from the sea.”

Is this a mistake, with McDevitt intending to write “as well as Japan”? Or just that Japan, a modern developed world democracy with an imperialist past, has so much in common with Europe and the developed European post-colonial states that, vast cultural differences aside, it should be included under the vague definition of “the West”?

I’d say this classification is actually a useful fiction. Obviously Japan’s culture has much more in common with its East Asian neighbors than with the countries we’d typically think of as the West. But when looking at specific aspects of modern Japan, this comparison can make sense. Japan’s recent history more closely parallels Western Europe and America’s than anything else, and Japan’s feudal era of historical development arguably has more in common with the European medieval period than other Asian nations. If we’re interested in economic or diplomatic comparisons, the “Western” label isn’t inherently ridiculous, though it is extremely condescending. Cultures and economies are endlessly complex, and no labeling system — say, “developed world” or the entirely uninformative “Global South” —  is comprehensive.

Future US Naval Policy in the Western Pacific

By Taylor Marvin

Next quarter is my last at UCSD, and I’m interested in doing an independent paper looking at future US naval policy in the western Pacific. I’ve been playing around with a few potential thesis statements, and here’s the one I think I’m most interested in:

“US military strategy in the western Pacific faces two notable challenges. Uncertainty about which “type” of China the US faces – an expansionist “dissatisfied” China or a cooperative “satisfied” China – and US policymakers’ preference for frequent small wars has created a US military tasked with fighting both major and minor conflicts but optimized towards neither. Continued advances in anti-access/area-denial weapons and strategies are likely to shift the most important determinant of military victory from force superiority to locality; if inferior forces can asymmetrically deny superior adversaries control over a local battlespace, they can cheaply achieve strategic victory. This bodes poorly for the US, whose control over distant sphere’s of influence (most notably the western Pacific and Persian Gulf) is highly dependent on the ability to project power.

America should expect its power projection ability to decline in the future. If it wishes to maintain a credible commitment to military hegemony in the western Pacific, the United States must shift away from assets irreplaceable assets vulnerable to A2AD strategies – most notably supercarriers — and increase the American public’s tolerance for losses. US politicians have shied away from this commitment, for good reason. Given America’s relatively peripheral interests in East Asia, the growing Chinese defense budget and high costs of war, a risky US containment strategy towards China is not feasible. However, a policy of full engagement that cedes military hegemony in the western Pacific to China is not politically acceptable for both the US or its allies; “mixed” engagement is suboptimal, but appears unavoidable. Given these constraints, the US should cede influence in the western Pacific to China, but balance this realignment  by emphasizing that the US would respond to the loss of a supercarrier with dramatic escalation while leaving the nature of this escalation ambiguous.”

A little broad, though I plan on narrowing it down as I do more research. Thoughts?

Chinese Camouflage and PLA Modernization

By Taylor Marvin

David Frum has a brief piece seconding Robert Kagan’s recent article “Against the Myth of American Delcine” in The New Republic. Frum’s particularly optimistic when he compares the modern US to a growing China:

“Yes, China’s and India’s shares of world GDP are growing. But it is Europe’s and Japan’s shares that are shrinking to accommodate them, not (very much) America’s. Besides—China remained the world’s largest economy as late as the early 1800s without exerting much political power. Yes, China presents strategic challenges to the US. But not as severe as those presented by the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s. Yes, the military budget is burdensome, but not burdensome beyond American means and (relative to those means) much less burdensome than during the 1950s and 1960s.”

Frum’s photo choice inadvertently supports his assertion:

‘Digital’ or fractal micro-patterned camouflage like the pattern seen on the PLA amphibious assault vehicles in the photo works by blurring the outlines between large patches of color, adding ‘noise’ which lowers contrast and blurs recognizable outlines. After its high  profile adoption by the US military in the early 2000s, digital camouflage is in fashion worldwide  —  digital patterns scream modernity and look cool, and everyone wants to emulate the world’s most powerful military.

So digital camouflage’s a sign of a modernizing, capable PLA? Not necessarily. To the best of my knowledge there’s no evidence digital patterning is more effective than traditional camouflage when the individual ‘pixels’ are large, which defeats the pattern’s blurring ‘noise’ effect. While some other nations have experimented with vehicle digital camouflage (aside from a brief period in the 1970s the US military generally hasn’t), effective camouflage schemes typically utilize more intricate, and expensive, patterns. China’s military is rapidly modernizing, but experimenting with digital camouflage schemes that lack effective micro-patterns is evidence of a force obsessed with imitating the more professional and combat-experienced US military. In many ways this is understandable: the PLA is decades away from parity with the US in Asia, and striking camouflage is a low-cost way to project an image of threatening modernity. All militaries have a weakness for show, but PLA has a long way to go before its threatening image is backed by actual combat capabilities.

Battle: Los Angeles, Red Dawn, and Alien Invasions

By Taylor Marvin

At io9, Charlie Jane Anders has a pithy post challenging the popular end-of-the-year critical assessment that places Battle: Los Angeles in the worst movies of the year dustbin:

“Here’s the thing about Battle: Los Angeles. It’s a straight-up action movie that takes itself absolutely seriously. There’s no winking at the audience, no clever banter, no irony, and absolutely no comic relief… But if you actually take this film on its own terms, as a serious action movie about soldiers, it’s a pretty good movie.”

Earlier in the year I used the film as a jumping off point for an examination of why universal economic constraints make a hostile invasion by an alien species unlikely. Specifically, I found Battle: Los Angeles’ motivation for alien invasion especially unconvincing [mild spoiler alert] — the films’ alien antagonists mount a laughably unbelievable invasion of Earth for the planet’s liquid water. Water is one of the most common compounds in the universe and planets with liquid surface water are almost certainly widespread in the local galaxy. Frozen water is even more plentiful, even in our solar system: a good portion of Uranus and Neptune’s moon systems are made up of water ice, and it strains credibility to suppose that a species capable of interstellar travel faces an energy constraint that prevents them from melting massive quantities of outer solar system ice. A hostile alien species in search of water has plenty of available alternatives to a contested invasion of Earth, especially considering the not-inconsiderable costs of transporting water out of the Earth’s (relatively) steep gravity well.

But fantastical premise aside, I really enjoyed Battle: Los Angeles. As Anders notes, Battle: Los Angeles has more in common with Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down than science fiction staples like War of the Worlds or Independence Day. At its core, the film isn’t a science fiction movie; it’s a war movie that uses aliens to depict US Marines in combat against a superior force. This is an interesting narrative, and a revealing one. A generation ago films like Red Dawn could use human adversaries to create a scenario of overwhelming enemy forces challenging sympathetic US military characters. Today, that’s less credible. While the increasing military prowess of potential adversaries like China is clearly on the road to near-peer status, even paranoid American film audiences have trouble seeing PLA forces as a threatening adversary for fictional US forces. The long delayed 2012 remake of Red Dawn, which replaced the original film’s Soviet and Latin American invaders with modern PLA occupiers, encountered a more concrete problem with Chinese invaders then military plausibility: China is a growing market for American films, and MGM’s distributors were (understandably) concerned about offending Chinese theater audiences. Red Dawn’s producers buckled, and replaced the PLA antagonists with a North Korean invasion of North America. Think about this for a moment: economic concerns forced US filmakers to turn to North Korea when in search of an existential military threat for American heroes. Remember, the DPRK is a nation of 24 million people: even if every single North Korean man, woman, and child occupied the US, there’d still be 13 Americans for every single Korean occupier — bad odds. Suddenly Battle: Los Angeles’ hastily imagined aliens don’t seem out of place in a story of infantry warfare. This says a lot about the decreasing incidence of war, and’s an encouraging anecdote — while the extremes of nuclear war and limited-scope local conflicts are persistent threats to human security, large conventional ground wars against human adversaries are becoming less common even in fiction. This doesn’t mean they’re impossible, or even significantly less likely. But it does tell us something interesting about American film audiences’ ideas of credible threats to US domestic security.

***

Returning to the subject of alien invasions, there’s another aspect of Battle: Los Angeles that challenges credibility. Like every alien invasion movie I can think of, the arrival of Battle’s aliens take the human protagonists completely by suprise: the alien spacecraft are detected only days before they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, and are mistaken for meteors until the moment alien warriors crawl out and begin ransacking Santa Monica.

However, most imaginable forms of an alien invasion would be likely be detectable for decades before they arrived at Earth, because most imaginable interstellar propulsion schemes are extremely difficult to keep stealthy. Any spacecraft must decelerate before it reaches its destination; because many varieties of possible interstellar spacecraft travel at significant portions of the speed of light, deceleration is a long and energetic process. Nuclear pulse propulsion or exotic fusion and antimatter rockets capable of high acceleration flight would require decades long (for most possible flight times) deceleration burns to slow from interstellar speeds as they approached the solar system. These exhaust plumes would be highly visible from Earth, and give humans years of warning of approaching visitors. Other drive systems are similarly detectable. Beamed energy propulsion (where spacecrafts accelerate on extremely high powered sustained laser beams fixed at their point of origin) would be obvious decades to centuries before the spacecraft they powered arrived, and many beam propulsion schemes utilize fusion rockets to decelerate at their destination anyway.

There are stealthier deceleration options available for sufficiently advanced aliens. A solar sail that used the momentum of reflected photos to decelerate would likely be stealthier than deceleration rockets, but would remain visible as a large, hot (1,000 K+) mirror in the infrared and visible spectrum. Magnetic scoop systems would be less visible: decelerating by impinging interstellar ions, a magnetic deceleration system would be detectable only as a large, powerful magnetic field.

In addition to the high visibility of their decelerating propulsion systems, hostile aliens approaching Earth would have to contend with the thermal emissions of their spacecraft. These infrared emissions are extremely difficult to stealth: barring exotic technologies, a spacecraft will always be a hot moving object against a cold background, making it inherently more visible than asteroids and other solar system debris.

Of course, any discussion of countering hypothetical invading alien forces involves a lot of assumptions. But in the context of Battle: Los Angeles these aren’t unjustified. Battle: Los Angeles depicts uniquely primitive alien invaders, at least compared to the alien’s science fiction invasion-genere comrades. The aliens of Battle: Los Angeles appear to use weapons with capabilities broadly similar to our own, cybernetics not far beyond that plausibility available to near-future humans, and aircraft that use broadly familiar reaction propulsion rather than more exotic lift schemes. In this technological context discounting faster than light travel, (extremely) exotic propulsion and stealth technologies is reasonable. Of course, the fictional world of Battle: Los Angeles exists in the context of its narrative: the film’s writers limited their villains’ technology to make infantry combat between Battle’s Marine heros and the alien foe believable. However, despite these narrative limitations the film’s still an interesting springboard for discussion. That’s what makes fiction interesting.

Fighter Market 2020+: Uncertainty and Not Much Else

By Taylor Marvin

Ace Flight Global reporter Stephan Trimble is at the Seoul Air Show, where he snagged this picture of a chart presented by the European combat aircraft consortium Eurofighter:

Trimble is most interested in Eurofighter’s forecast of a joint Brazilian-Turkish fighter by 2025. However, there are a few more interesting assumptions here –Eurofighter forecasts that the Chinese Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter and the joint Russian-Indian PAK FA, which are both currently in their early development stages, will enter operation service by 2020. This is an ambitious time frame. Both the J-20 and the PAK FA are advanced fifth-generation aircraft that incorporate some degree of stealth and (presumably) supermaneuverability technology, ambitious technological advancements for both the Russian and Chinese defense industries. Remember, the Lockheed YF-22, the F-22’s predecessor, first flew in 1990, a full 15 years before the F-22 entered operational service in 2005. The PAK FA program’s T-50 prototype and the J-20 first flew in early 2010 and 2011, respectively, so a pre-2020 introduction to operational service for both programs would significantly undercut the F-22’s development cycle. How credible is this estimate?

First off, it’s important to take Eurofighter’s estimate with a grain of salt. In an age of European austerity Eurofighter GmbH lives and dies on export sales, meaning that it has an interest in talking up the threat of Russian and Chinese fighter programs in order to encourage sales of its 4.5+ generation Typhoon fighter. Eurofighter already makes a few dubious assumptions in this chart: Eurofighter GmbH — primarily a German, British, and Italian company — vindictively assumes that French rival Dassault’s excellent Rafale won’t achieve any export sales, and puzzlingly forecasts that the US-lead F-35 program will achieve its full 3,500 unit production run by 2030. Similarly, Eurofighter smugly predicts Typhoon export sales beyond 2035, which is certainly disputable given that the Typhoon has already lost high-profile export orders by Singapore and South Korea (though the Typhoon has been ordered by Saudi Arabia). This chart is fundamentally a marketing tool, and we should be aware that Eurofighter has an incentive to dismiss its French (Dassault Rafale), Russian (Su-35), and American (Boeing F-15E and F/A-18E/F) competitors and play up forecasted Russian and Chinese threats. That said, Eurofighter’s forecasted timeframe for the J-20 and PAK FA’s entry into service is interesting. How credible is it?

I’ve recently spent time exploring this issue. In a recent interview with Tai Ming Cheung, an expert on China’s defense industry and the author of Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy, Dr. Cheung judged a pre-2020 introduction of the J-20 to be highly unlikely. Similarly, East Asian military expert Richard A. Bitzinger recently told me that he judged the T-50 to be “destined for a very long and painful R&D cycle, if it ever emerges from it at all.” This suggest that Eurofighter’s forecast is optimistic at best. However, the story’s a bit more complicated.

The J-20 likely has a more secure future than its Russian fifth-generation counterpart, for a simple reason: China spends roughly twice as much as Russia on defense, and China’s defense budget is growing at a much more rapid pace. China’s rapidly expanding economy means that the PLA will be able to devote increasing resources to ambitious defense projects, meaning that China likely has the economic, if not technical, ability to field a fifth-generation fighter aircraft in the mid-future. By all appearances the J-20 is a high priority project within the PLA. International prestige is deeply important to China’s leaders, and along with space programs and aircraft carriers advanced combat aircraft are one of the most prestigious national technology projects. Similarly, China’s apparent aspirations for regional hegemony within the South China Sea arguably requires the flexibility of an internationally competitive maritime strike fighter, a role the J-20 appears well suited for.

Image at defensetech.org.

J-20 flight testing. Image at defensetech.org.

However, there are significant roadblocks to the J-20’s entry into operational service. China has no experience manufacturing modern fighters — China’s current premiere indigenous-produced fighter, the Chengdu J-10, is decades behind contemporary Western and Russian designs, and does not incorporate advanced technologies required for the J-20. Similarly, the J-10 currently utilizes Russian engines and Chinese industry has struggled to indigenously produce modern jet engines, a key (and often troubled) component of any aircraft program. While the J-20 prototype features indigenous engines, producing a production powerplant for an eventual operational variant will likely be a challenge. Similarly, Chinese industry has little experience working with the stealth technology and thrust-vectoring nozzles featured in most fifth-generation designs, and while the J-20 may forgo advanced stealth (especially advanced RAM coatings) and thrust vectoring in favor of affordability these advanced features likely remain challenging for China’s nascent but growing industrial base. However, these design choices are perhaps the strongest argument for relatively prompt introduction of a J-20 operational variant: by apparently deliberately choosing simplicity over the most advanced stealth and performance technology, the J-20 may be able to side-step the most challenging aspects of its development.

Of course, China’s military leaders face the same resource constraints as other militaries. China’s military budget is growing but not unlimited, and other ongoing Chinese military procurement programs like the J-15 naval fighter and construction of 2 indigenous carriers could out-compete the J-20 program for limited resources. This possibility is supported by the J-20’s apparent irrelevance to a prospective Chinese military action against Taiwan, which would likely be decided by the ability of Chinese land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles to deter a US Navy intervention, rather than a limited number of futuristic aircraft.

The Russian PAK FA program faces what could be described as the opposite constraint: while Russian industry has extensive experience constructing modern aircraft, the Russian government’s chronically strained finances offer little resources to devote to speculative development programs. This scarcity motivated Russia run the PAK FA program jointly with India, with the expectation that both parties would eventually purchase roughly 250 units each. However, despite previous Indian purchases of Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighters international development efforts are fraught with difficulty, and it is uncertain whether the PAK FA program will ever result in an operational aircraft.

PAK FA T-50 prototype. Image by Maxim Maksimov.

PAK FA T-50 prototype. Image by Maxim Maksimov.

However, the Russian aviation industry does have extensive experience producing advanced aircraft. Similarly to the J-20, the T-50’s stealth and sensor equipment appear to be much less ambitious than what was designed into the American F-22, moderation that greatly simplifies development. Additionally, T-50 manufacturer Sukhoi has extensive experience with thrust-vectoring nozzles from its mid-1990s Su-37 technology demonstrator, though Russian industry has little experience with stealth technologies. Finally, Sukhoi has clear incentive to promptly introduce the PAK FA. Due to the anemic Russian military budget Russian manufactures are much more dependent on international exports than their American counterpart, and in the next three decades a large number of up-and-coming powers are expected to purchase advanced combat aircraft. Because the PAK FA is Russian aviation’s only fifth-generation game in town, it’s now or never for Sukhoi: either introduce the PAK FA, or potentially lose lucrative international sales to more advanced European or American aircraft for decades to come. However, it’s unclear if these incentive will be able to overcome the cold financial limits and political uncertainty facing the Russian defense industry — despite Indian involvement, the PAK FA faces a rocky road to operational service.

This suggests that the Eurofighter forecasts for both the PAK FA and J-20 are overly optimistic. However, I’d argue that we are likely to see some version of a Chinese fifth-generation fighter before 2025, though probably not earlier. Prospects for the PAK FA are much less certain, but Eurofighter’s 2018ish service introduction seems to be an unrealistic best-case scenario.