By Taylor Marvin
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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” 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. 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.” “Air-Sea Battle is everywhere [and] it is nowhere,” defense reporter Phillip Ewing mockingly observed. “It is everything [and] it is nothing.” 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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, these indigenous designs are impressive and incorporate low observability technologies absent from the Cold War-era Sovernennys. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. While Imperial Russia had pursued naval power since the 18th century reign of Peter the Great, 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.
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. Under the leadership of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, the Red Navy embarked on a massive shipbuilding program aimed at matching the US Navy. 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. 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 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; 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, and thousands of Chinese live and work abroad, occasionally requiring emergency evacuation—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. 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. 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. 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, and are only capable of landing troops on a, at most, moderately defended coastline. 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.
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.” The People Liberation Army has over 1,000 missiles targeted on Taiwan, a number that grows yearly. 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.
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