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Posts tagged ‘China’

War in the Western Pacific? Not So Fast

By Saad Asad

Map via Wikimedia.

Map via Wikimedia.

This week the Economist published an overly-alarmist warning of potential conflict between China and Japan, which are currently competing over the control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Although China’s actions may seem more hostile recently, the situation is a far cry from war.

Arguing that China’s anti-Japan rhetoric has grown increasingly more hostile, the Economist points to selections from two Chinese newspapers, China Daily and the Global Times. Although Chinese media is heavily regulated, we should be wary of conflating editorial opinions with official government policy. The Global Times is an overtly nationalist publication, and would still call for war had Japan ceded the islands to China. Admittedly, the China Daily is a more mainstream, albeit conservative, newspaper, but in selecting these two editorials, the Economist is forcing a narrative. In contrast to these two papers, Xinhua, the official press agency of the government, recently argued that “negotiation should be the way out of the rift” between the two countries.

Next, it seems the Economist is placing most of the blame for increased tensions on China. But the crisis ultimately stems from Japan’s decision to claim the islands in the first place. Though initially at risk of falling into the hands of Tokyo’s ultra-nationalist governor, the Japanese government’s decision to make the islands into a national initiative only escalated the situation. For the past few decades, China seemed willing to leave the islands’ status quo in limbo, but Japan forced the issue.

In fact, Japan has not stepped back in an attempt to de-escalate tensions with China. China did move surveillance vessels near the island, but this is hardly different from what the United States does to China. In response to acts like this and the Chinese patrol plane that buzzed by, Japan has readied its F-15 fighter jets and considered stationing them closer to the islands.

Viewed from the Chinese lens, Japan can easily be seen as the aggressor. From asserting control over the island, readying its military, increasing military spending, and spreading its influence to China’s neighbors to the south, Japan could arguably be seen as attempting to contain China. This is not to say that China has been pacifistic in their behavior, but the blame cannot fully be laid upon China’s feet.

Moreover, it is misleading to compare rising China of today to rising Japan of yesteryear, as the Economist does. China is not attempting to claim swathes of inhabited territory across an entire continent. The most notable existing claims are to a few islets it once owned (Diaoyu/Senkaku), and stronger control over the South China Sea.

It is also alarmist to fear China’s rise, as the Economist would also like us to do. Its economy is largely dependent on exports, and the government has accepted the neoliberal world order devised by the IMF and the World Bank. China would have to risk its modernization efforts in going to war, and shows no signs of forsaking prosperity. The PRC has consistently spent 2 percent of its GDP on the military, never deciding to forego civilian production for increased defense spending like the USSR did.

Western pundits must begin to accept China as a rational actor who will not go to war over a few rocks. China’s rhetoric may be bombastic and we may not like the idea of a nondemocratic world power, but China is here to stay, and is not as fearsome as Chinese nationalists would like us to believe.

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Is China Copying American Aircraft?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by goneless, via The Aviationist.

Last Thursday images and video surfaced online showing a test flight of China’s second stealth fighter aircraft, the Shenyang J-31. This is a significant achievement for Chinese military aviation, though it is unclear if the design will ever enter service or whether it is designed to complement or compete with China’s other stealthy design, the Chengdu J-20. Also unclear is how original the aircraft actually is: there has been widespread speculation that the J-31’s design — which is visually similar to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-35 aircraft — is partially a product of knowledge stolen

At The Diplomat, Trefor Moss speculates that the J-31 is a wholesale copy of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built from stolen Lockheed Martin blueprints. Moss goes so far as to term the J-31 as “essentially an American stealth fighter with Chinese paintwork”, and furiously argues that lax computer security has allowed the PRC to secure a stealth fighter for much less than America:

“Speculation aside, the reality is that the F-35 program is presently slated to cost $395.7 billion. China has probably spent less than 0.1% of that developing the Fake-35. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the biggest free ride in the history of national security.”

I don’t buy it. China certainly has taken advantage of lax US information security, but Moss underestimates just how difficult it is to simply copy an advanced aircraft design. While the J-31 is certainly visually similar to Lockheed Martin 5th generation fighters, consider the necessary differences between it and the F-22 and F-35: different engines, an entirely different structural layout from the single-engined, STOVL-benchmarked F-35 family, and differing internal systems. These changes are not trivial. Even if Shenyang engineers possessed detailed LockMart blueprints they wouldn’t be of much practical value when it comes to designing the J-31 — while a valuable benchmark, there are simply too many different major systems. As Feng recently wrote at Information Dissemination, “it’s very hard for me to believe that SAC can reproduce F-35 from stolen files without access to the same engines or the material or the complicated computer code that controls the whole aircraft.”

Convergent evolution often leads competing air forces towards visually similar aircraft created for the same mission. Take the F-111 and Su-24, for example. Both low-level strike aircraft, introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, respectively, look remarkably similar: both possess variable geometry (swing) wings, a tall single tailfin, and a side-by-side cockpit, rare for a tactical aircraft.

F-111. US Air Force photo, via Wikimedia.

Su-24M. Photo by Alexander Mishin, via Wikimedia.

The two aircrafts’ striking visual similarities led contemporary American observers to conclude that the Soviets had copied the F-111. Amusingly, as Greg Goebel notes in his excellent history of the Su-24, some Americans went so far as to be pleasantly surprised that the Soviets had tried to copy the then-notoriously troubled F-111 — if the US struggled to get the F-111 flying right, then surely the Soviets would as well. But while Soviet designers may have mined the F-111 for ideas, there’s little evidence any real copying was involved. Instead, given that both American and Soviet engineers were working with similar technologies towards the same goal, it isn’t surprising that they both landed on similar designs — just as American and Chinese engineers can be expected to do. Indeed, what was most surprising about the J-20 was how obviously different it is from anything in the American aircraft inventory.

However, there is reason to suggest that there’s more than simple convergent evolution behind the J-31’s external similarities to American 5th generation aircraft. An aircraft’s stealth is partially determined by the shape of the fuselage, was well as the surface coatings that absorb and diffuse radar waves. While China cannot know the details of American stealth coatings through anything but espionage, the low observability fuselage shapes of the F-22 and F-35 are obvious. Copying these elements — the F-22’s empennage, the F-35’s intakes — is an effective way to get some degree of stealth for less technically sophisticated developers. Given that the US has a two decades head start developing low observability aircraft, this is a smart trade for Shenyang engineers.

Does the J-31 owe aspects of its external fuselage to the F-22 and F-35: undoubtably. But this is far from saying that the J-31 is a naked copy of American aircraft. China still has a long way to go before a production aircraft derived from the J-31 enters service, if one does at all. That gives ample opportunity for delays and cost increases to pile up, degrading whatever lead the program has over the JSF, which it isn’t strictly comparable to anyway. The F-35’s STOVL benchmarked design makes it unique, and is reason enough to dismiss the idea that the J-31 is a cheap knockoff of the JSF. The J-31 will be a more affordable aircraft than the notoriously ill-conceived F-35, but that doesn’t automatically make it the deal Moss implies.

Doubts about a New Space Race

By Taylor Marvin

Continuing my debate with Daryl Morini on the prospect of a new space race between China and the US, I have a piece up at e-International Relations arguing that the US and China are unlikely to escalate their military anti-satellite rivalry into a prestige-driven exploratory space race:

“The real barrier to unconstrained competition in space is the disheartening prospect of unconstrained costs. While ASAT kinetic kill missiles are certainly difficult to engineer, they are based on proven concepts. Novel space accomplishments are much more difficult. A permanent lunar base would require significant advances in in situ resource utilization, life support design, and likely a large reduction in launch costs. A crewed mission to Mars would be much more difficult, and would come with a significant risk of a catastrophic, long-running disaster. Even given the prisoner’s dilemma dynamic behind the choice to initiate a space or arms race, the US or China are only likely to bear the enormous opportunity costs of a prestige-driven space race unless they see no other choice. Given the multipolar world the twin superpowers are likely to inhabit this century, it is unlikely that either country will ‘jump the gap’ from a limited ASAT military space race to a general exploratory one.”

Check out the whole piece at e-IR if it sparks your interest.

A ‘System of Systems of Systems’ for the PLA

By Taylor Marvin

Over at The Diplomat’s Flashpoints blog, Robert Farley insightfully discusses the branch interoperability challengers facing the PLA:

“I’ve belabored the organizational aspects of China’s system of anti-access systems because bureaucratic boundaries matter… As of yet there is little indication that the PLAN, PLAAF, and 2nd Artillery have developed the practices necessary to ensure an efficient, effective partnership in battle.  To be sure, we have little evidence that the three organizations cannot collaborate effectively, but what we know of the history of inter-service conflict suggests a high potential for friction.  The Chinese military has not had the opportunity to work through that friction in realistic, wartime conditions.”

I think Farley makes a very important, and under-appreciated, point about the  PLA’s lack of combat experience. Aside from the brief, but destructive, 1962 Sino-Indian and 1979 Sino-Vietnamese wars the PLA hasn’t fought a major conflict since Korea, and this experiential deficiency is a major challenge to creating a responsive institutional culture able to function under the stress of wartime. Importantly, the PLA’s lack of combat experience means that it likely cannot even identify the existing interoperability problems that it must focus on. In a recent piece for Foreign PolicyDmitri Trenin argued that deficiencies revealed by the Russian military’s poor performance during the 2008 Georgia War have spurred modernizing efforts and a shift away from a force benchmarked on a Cold War-style great power struggle:

“The resultant soul-searching in the Kremlin and the brooding over the price of victory created an atmosphere propitious for military reform to begin openly and in earnest. The ‘lessons of the war’ also weakened the unreconstructed traditionalists, military and nonmilitary alike, who were driven by inertia and who had clung to the decaying remnants of the Soviet military system for nearly two decades, in the vain hope that it might be revived.”

While I’m deeply skeptical of Trenin’s optimistic thesis — the Russian military faces huge demographic, institutional, and funding barriers between it and a modernized professional force — he makes an insightful point: it is extremely difficult to assess an armed force’s deficiencies in the abstract. This shortsightedness can encompass equipment — for example, it took the painful experience of air combat over Vietnam to demonstrate that the 1960s-era USAF’s near-total reliance on missiles in air-to-air combat was premature — but is even more apparent, as Farley notes, in organizational assets. This of particular concern to the PLAN because, as shown by Eric McVadon in 2007’s “China’s Matring Navy”, its human capital and organization assets lag behind its platforms and weapons, though training programs appear to be improving and the acquisition of the Liaoning aircraft carrier is at least partially intended for training and doctrine-development purposes.

But a peacetime emphasis on organizational reform can only take you so far. To twist Farley and Roger Cliff’s phrase, using the feared DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile in combat requires a “system of systems of systems”: the weapon itself, the parallel surveillance and communications systems required to operate and target the missile, and the ‘system’ of strong human capital and effective organizational communications and culture required to translate peacetime procedure to wartime action.

A New Space Race? Not So Fast

By Taylor Marvin

A vision of what’s to come? NASA photo.

Over at The Diplomat, Daryl Morini has a though provoking piece arguing that NASA’s dramatic Mars Science Laboratory mission foretells “the coming US-China space race.”

To be sure, high profile NASA successes carry a nationalistic subtext. A failure of the highly-public Curiosity lander, in the words of prominent Mars exploration expert Robert Zubrin as paraphrased by Sydney Morning Herald writer Michael Hanlon, “could have meant effectively an end to the US venturing into space for at least a generation, and the keys to the solar system would have been handed to the Chinese.”

Zubrin’s warning is certainly grim, but is wildly overblown. The loss of the Curiosity lander would have been a major blow to the American planetary exploration program. But handing “the keys of the solar system” to the Chinese?* Unlikely — aside from Curiosity, NASA and the European Space Agency currently have four operational orbiters or rovers studying Mars: the 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, and the MER-B Opportunity rover. More importantly, this prediction underestimates just how important the trail-and-error experience is to successful space exploration, which China’s young space program lacks. China has never successfully dispatched an exploratory mission to Mars, and the recent launch failure of the joint Chinese-Russian Yinghuo-1/Fobos-Grunt probes reemphasizes how difficult these missions really are. We have every reason to expect Chinese exploratory successes in the future, but it’s worth remembering that the US and Russia’s dramatic successes in space are based on decades of painful but informative failures.

The Unites States has been dispatching missions to the Red Planet since the 1960s, missions that have grown more complex and less failure-prone over time. It’s likely that NASA’s recent string of dramatic Mars successes is due to technical and managerial lessons learned during the agency’s equally dramatic — and humiliating — failures in 1998 and 1999. For example, investigations in the wake of the loss of the Mars Polar Lander related Deep Space 2 impactor found that NASA projects were consistently under-resourced and under-tested, and a 2001 internal audit reported that Mars programs conceived under the 1990s ‘Faster Better Cheaper’ cost-cutting mantra lacked “appropriate number of staff or competencies needed to effectively carry out its strategic goals and objectives”. Today’s NASA Mars probes, which have not experienced a major failure since 1999, benefit from this experience. Even if Curiosity had failed, it will take decades of Chinese space exploration for the PRC to build up the institutional knowledge and experience NASA benefits from.

More importantly, Morini argues that the success of Curiosity and China’s nascent space ambitions herald a new space race:

“This amazing feat in human space exploration is revealing of the geopolitical context back on Planet Earth. In particular, this event marks a milestone in the present trend of an expanding US-China rivalry, and a budding military-technological space race.”

The last space race put humans into space, and left footprints on the moon. America and China are beginning to militarily compete in space, but the term “space race”, with its grand historical allusions, poorly characterizes this rivalry. In fact, I’d be very surprised if the US-China geopolitical rivalry likely to dominate this century results in a space competition similar to the Cold War’s, for numerous reasons.

First off, the US-Soviet space race was enormously expensive. At its peak the Apollo moon program consumed 2.2 percent of federal outlays; while figures for the Soviets are hard to come by, a combination of chronic resource shortages in the Soviet space program and a tangled bureaucracy crippled the Russians’ moon shot despite the Soviets’ impressive engineering credentials. Uncrewed exploratory probes were also expensive, though of course paled in comparison to crewed space programs. The massive government pushes of the space race were only possible because the conflict between the US and USSR was so intense — remember, while American and the Soviet engineers were scrambling to put a man on the moon there was a distinct possibility that their two countries could blow each other to hell at any moment.

Curiosity on its way to Mars. USAF photo by George Roberts, via Wikimedia.

Fortunately, the rivalry between economically interdependent America and China is nowhere near as severe its Cold War predecessor, and has little prospect of becoming so. This makes it difficult to imagine America’s rivalry with China justifying massive space expenditures. Furthermore, the space race of the Cold War was a competition played for external audiences just as much as domestic consumption: both the US and USSR sought to demonstrate their system’s scientific and industrial superiority to non-aligned nations. Outside of the bipolar international structure of the Cold War, these audience considerations have less merit; Washington and Beijing alone will not dominate this century’s world affairs to the extent that the rivalry with Moscow did during the second half of the 20th.

The relatively balmy relations between Washington and Beijing make aggressive space expenditures unlikely. As I argued earlier this year [slightly edited for clarity]

“The Apollo program was an enormously expensive effort, costing $98 billion over 14 years. Yes, this expenditure is dwarfed by the US defense budget — in 1969 alone the US spent nearly $500 billion in 2009 dollars on military spending — but 2.2% of federal spending comes with large opportunity costs. Governments don’t spend these kinds of funds lightly, especially if there’s little apparent electoral benefit from massive space spending. The Apollo program only scraped above a 50 percent approval rating in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo 11 landing, and without the external Soviet threat it’s unlikely that the massive space expenditure of the 1960s would have been possible.”

Without a dramatic, and unlikely, worsening in US-China relations it is difficult to imagine any political appetite for these kind of expenditures.

It’s also difficult to imagine the target of a US-China space race. Transient excitement over Curiosity aside, uncrewed space exploration just doesn’t capture the hearts of the world: few people will retell where they were when Curiosity landed to their children. To be sure, competition between the US and Soviet space programs included unmanned planetary exploration, but these probes were always a minor — and often publicly ignored — chapter in the space race. After all, while most Americans today can likely identify that the USSR launched the first man into orbit (hopefully!), few are aware of the Soviets’ impressive successes landing probes on the surface of Venus.

A return to the Moon is a natural target for a US-China space race. However, I’m not sure the Moon retains a powerful draw. Sending taikonauts to the Moon by 2030 is an official goal of the Chinese space program, but replicating an American achievement half a century old doesn’t exactly fit the dramatic definition of a space race. Even establishing a manned base on the moon, the eventual goal of the Chinese lunar program, is unlikely to stimulate a competing American base. A permanent human presence on the moon is of little scientific value and, contrary to many claims, would be of little use as a base for expeditions to Mars or other extraterrestrial targets. Similarly, mining operations on the Moon are likely decades away. China may go through with its lunar goals — though it’s worth remembering that very few grand long-term space goals articulated by any national space agencies ever progress beyond the paper stage  — but it is unlikely that replicating the US lunar landing in grander form will motivate aggressive competing American space spending.

Mars, of course, is the logical target of a US-China space race; a crewed mission to Mars by either country would be a truly impressive accomplishment. But just as the technical difficulty of Apollo far surpassed those the earlier Vostok program faced, a crewed mission to Mars would be far more difficult, dangerous, and expensive than traveling to the Moon. A crewed Mars mission would require major advances in spacecraft and mission design, and keeping humans healthy during the isolated and radiation-heavy four to eight month (depending on the propulsion technology used) trip to the red planet is a daunting challenge. A crewed Mars program would require numerous heavy lift launches and establishing a comsat system around Mars, and more ambitious mission designs require advances in orbital construction. These difficulties do not mean that crewed missions to Mars are impossible, but it is worth noting that the Apollo program is not a good predictor of their cost or difficulty. Colonizing space — which Morini likens to the pre-WWI Scramble for Africa — is even more expensive, and technically challenging.

Secondly, the space race of the Cold War was not solely an exercise in peaceful competition. Instead, the space race was an organic outgrowth of the missile race between the US and USSR. As Greg Goebel’s extensive history of the space race emphasizes, early investment by Washington and Moscow in rocket technology was motivated by the desire to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles; Sputnik, humanity’s first satellite, was launched almost as an afterthought. The real focus of both programs was fielding missiles capable of heavy throw weights, and later on developing rockets capable of putting heavy spy satellites in orbit. Of course, a rocket capable of carrying a heavy warhead across the world is not conceptional very different from one capable of lifting a civilian payload to orbit. While the extremely heavy-lift rockets of the later moon race had no connection to military use, they leveraged off technologies developed in the missile race — technologies like working solid and liquid fueled engines, staging, and ablative reentry heat shields all grew out of early ICBM design. It is doubtful that the Cold War space race would have taken off the way it did if the military enthusiasm for early rocket development didn’t guarantee funding for nascent space programs.

Does the current military rivalry between the US and China reflect this dynamic? Not really. The military already has ICBMs and spy satellites, and little motivation to invest in further innovative space projects, at least compared to the innovation of Cold War rocket development. The technological developments necessary for more ambitious US/Soviet space race-style exploration have no relevance to today’s militaries. If another true space race occurs, politicians must justify it entirely on civilian grounds.

Morini focuses on this military rivalry, cautioning against forgetting “the military significance of technological superiority in space in any modern war.” This is certainly true. China is heavily investing in anti-satellite weapons as part of its asymmetric area-denial/anti-access strategy, the US Air Force recently developed the impressive X-37 uncrewed spaceplane, there is the future possibility of the US and China competing to acquire the ability to mission-kill each other’s surveillance satellites, and a broad area maritime satellite surveillance capability is a requirement for China to operationally deploy its anti-ship ballistic missile capability. However, unlike during the Cold War this is a rivalry of deployment rather than innovation. The US and USSR both possessed rudimentary to advanced anti-satellite capabilities during the Cold War, though both sides avoided frequently demonstrating their capabilities for fear of creating dangerous orbital derbies. Current space militarization is more accurately characterized as expanding neglected existing capabilities than truly pushing the technical envelope. While the rivalry between the US and China could lead to fielding more comprehensive anti-satellite capabilities, it’s difficult to term this a “space race” — certainly when compared to the theatrics of the Cold War. While this may be a question of semantics, I have trouble believing that the public will acknowledge that competing surveillance and anti-satellite systems warrant the title.

If you define a space race as gradually improving space military capabilities, then yes, one is “now in full swing”. But the Space Race of the Cold War, where the US and USSR competed to match each others dramatic and daring exploration, is a memory and one’s that’s unlikely to soon be repeated.

*Note that these aren’t Zubrin’s direct words; I was unable to find the direct quote Hanlon paraphrases. Also note that Zubrin is a long-time advocate of crewed missions to Mars (check out his excellent book The Case for Mars), and certainly has an incentive to play up fears of a new space race.

The Myth of Chinese Elite Competence

By Taylor Marvin

At Gawker, Hamilton Nolan has a great piece absolutely demolishing Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ calls for increasing America’s “national intelligence” through the powers of the internet.

What’s most interesting about Adams’ post isn’t its dripping narcissism – or, as Nolan points out, Adams’ seemingly complete ignorance that Wikipedia exists –  but instead is its gushing adoration of perceived Chinese efficiency. After dismissing American public policy as “a weird stew of religion, politics, and randomness,” Adams remarks:

“China has a political system that seems to produce intelligent decisions. You might criticize China’s leadership for being heartless and brutal, but that’s a separate discussion. If you consider how effectively they pursue their country’s interests, their national intelligence seems quite high.”

There’s a common meme in the West that China’s government, unbound by democratic consensus requirements, is inherently more efficient than its democratic peers. Fortunately for the United States, and democratic governance overall, there doesn’t seem to be much support for this argument outside of highly visible PRC public works projects.

It’s difficult to assess the Chinese Communist Party’s record “effectively [pursuing] their country’s interestes,” because the interests of the Chinese elite don’t necessarily coincide with the country’s, and it’s unclear exactly what the Chinese leadership’s goals actually are. However, we can say that domestically the PRC leadership seeks to preserve the Communist Party’s dominance in Chinese society, ensure continued economic growth, and prevent social unrest. Internationally China seeks to protect its access to international markets, extend its exclusive economic zone to encompass the entire South China Sea, and eventually replace the United States as the hegemonic power in the Western Pacific. Contrary to the perception of the Chinese government as an unusually intelligent decisionmaking body, on all of these fronts China’s actual record is mixed.

The meme of Chinese efficiency is based in the idea that authoritarian governments are more efficient than democracies, with the dominant example being China’s massive public works projects. Here the perception is largely true: NIMBYism and environmental impact reports are less likely to slow down projects in societies with little property rights. But conflating rapid construction with “intelligence” is problematic. China’s high-profile public works successes have come at less visible costs, like the displacement of millions of people, shoddy construction, and poor planning. The Chinese leadership’s ability to plan in the long term is also questionable. While China’s reluctance to slow industrialization is understandable, China’s massive pollution problem and inability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have severe consequences for future growth — an extreme discount rate that seems incompatible with any definition of high “national intelligence.”

On the international stage this record isn’t much better. In the last decade China’s foreign policy has encouraged Japanese rearmament, begun to replace Pakistan as India’s great strategic adversary, and encouraged stronger ties between the US and regional rivals like Vietnam and the Philippines. On occasion Chinese foreign policy appears to be dictated by the People’s Liberation Army leadership, not the civilian foreign ministry. In nearly every recent international incident China has favored stoking public nationalistic fervor for immediate domestic gains over long-term geostrategy. Despite its secure hold on Tibet, China greets any accolade granted to the exiled Dali Lama with embarrassing tantrums beneath a great power. These are not the actions of a secure foreign policy elite.

The Chinese Communist Party has managed to avoid any existential challenges since its ascendence. However, this security is more due to the last three decades’ phenomenal economic growth rather than a propensity towards selecting highly skilled political leaders. A common corollary to the meme of Chinese competence is the argument that governments dominated by engineers — China — are inherently more efficient than those dominated by lawyers — America. This isn’t to say that political leaders’ aptitude isn’t related to their training prior careers; suggesting a relationship is reasonable, though prohibitively difficult to empirically test. But the idea that China’s engineer dominated political elite is inherently more efficient and far-seeing than other governments is ludicrous. Reaching consensus in a 25 member Politburo will always be easier than satisfying the de facto supermajority requirement in the US Congress, regardless of politicians’ backgrounds. When focused on China the engineer vs. lawyer question is really just an embarrassingly reactionist argument in favor of oligarchy.

While small decision-making bodies are inherently more — in a limited sense — efficient than more diffuse governments, there’s little evidence that the modern Chinese Communist Party is a particularly effective selection method for high office. As People’s Liberation Army Navy analyst Feng recently noted, “the current Chinese leaderships are a group of dull, gutless technocrats who continually get out-maneuvered in the international arena by their American counterpart.” The recent overthrow of Bo Xilai was an embarrassingly public indication of how bitter power struggles within the Communist Party leadership can be; the uncertain succession mechanisms inherent to oligarchic autocracies are an enormous liability largely absent from mature democracies.

Adams appears to understand that cheerleading autocracy is repugnant, and half-heartedly covers himself by denouncing the Chinese Communist Party as “heartless and brutal.” But state brutality isn’t severable from discussions of state efficiency, because government brutality is an enormous long-term drain on growth. As mentioned earlier, China’s autocracy incentizes protecting the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than the state. When these coincide — as during the Deng Xaioping-era economic reforms — the country benefits with the state; however, it is in the nature of autocracy for these to diverge. Today the Chinese state has cemented one of the most unequal societies on Earth, and is entirely unwilling to meaningfully address the massive corruption, incompetence, and abuses of the local-level Party — all of which retard economic growth, in addition to their brutal human toll.

Governance is difficult, and the American model certainly suffers from massive structural problems. The Chinese state also deserves commendation for presiding over unprecedented economic development, one of the best improvements in the aggregate human condition in history. But making ludicrously comprehensive arguments about China’s “national intelligence” is just silly.  Aside from the obvious problems with excusing state brutality, this distressingly popular meme doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Adams’ making an embarrassingly obvious “grass is greener” mistake — he’s familiar with problematic American governance but doesn’t know much about China, so Adams assumes that the Chinese Communist Party is better than what he’s accustomed to. America’s decline relative to China is grounded in the fact that there’s four Chinese citizens for every American, rather than a magically intelligent Chinese state.

China’s Energy Concerns and the PLAN

By Taylor Marvin

I have a short piece up at the new energy site Watching World Energy on China’s supply chain security concerns and desire for power projection capability.

“Although it has not achieved open-ocean, or ‘blue-water’ capabilities, China is laying the foundation, in the words of the U.S. Department of Defense, of ‘a force able to accomplish broader regional and global objectives.’

Ensuring global supply chain security requires power projection capability, which in turn requires modern naval and air forces.”

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

By Taylor Marvin

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

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

What does all this mean?

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

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

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

Asymmetric Warfare, Asymmetric Commitment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of Limited Containment

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Sayers 2010, 90.

[6] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 28.

[7] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 29.

[8] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 20.

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

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

[11] McVadon 2007, 2.

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

[13] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 30.

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

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

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 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.