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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.

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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.

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.

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

By Taylor Marvin

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

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

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

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

China’s Rapid Rise

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

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

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

China’s Maritime Outlook

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

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

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

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

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

Chinas sea lines of communication. DoD, 2006.

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

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

The Challenge of Anti-Access/Area-Denial

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Gartzke and Markowitz 2011, 3

[5] Crane et al. 2005, xxii; Godwin, Paul H. 2007. “China’s emerging military doctrine: A role for nuclear submarines,” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 44.

[6] Bateman, Sam, and Chris Rahman. 2003. “The PLAN’S rise and East Asian security.” In Taiwan’s Maritime Security. Eds. Martin Edmonds and Michael M. Tsai. New York: RoutledgeCurzon. 15-39, 22

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

[8] Crane et al. 2005, 180.

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

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

[11] Cheung 1990, 3.

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

[13]Cheung 2009, 24.

[14] Sakhuja 2011, 71.

[15] Cole, Bernard D. 2007. “Chinese maritime strategy,” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 24.

[16] Chen Te-Men. 2003. “Assessment of the PLAN’s modernization.” In Taiwan’s Maritime Security. Eds. Martin Edmonds and Michael M. Tsai. New York: RoutledgeCurzon. 3-14, 3; Schuster, Carl Otis. 2012. “China: Its maritime traditions and navy today.” In Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific: The Triumph of Neptune? Eds. Geoffrey Till and Patrick C. Bratton. New York: Routledge. 56-74, 57.

[17] McDevitt, Michael, and Frederic Vellucci Jr. 2012. “The evolution of the People’s Liberation Army Navy: The twin missions of area-denial and peacetime operations.” In Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific: The Triumph of Neptune? Eds. Geoffrey Till and Patrick C. Bratton. New York: Routledge. 75-92, 78.

[18] Cole 2001, 34.

[19] McDevitte and Vellucci 2012, 75.

[20] Godwin, Paul H. 2007. “China’s emerging military doctrine: A role for nuclear submarines,” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. Ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 48.

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

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

[23] Cole 2007, 33.

[24] Crane et al. 2005, 197.

[25] Cole 2001, 35.

[26] Crane et al. 2005, 197

[27] Schuster 2012, 58.

[28] Xu Qi. 2004. “Maritime geostrategy and the development of the Chinese Navy in the early twenty-first century. Translated by Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein. 2006, Naval War College Review 59, 4: 47-67, 53.

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

[30] Zhang Wenmu. 2006.

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

[32] Bateman, Sam, and Chris Rahman. 2003. “The PLAN’s rise and East Asian security.” In Taiwan’s Maritime Security. Eds. Martin Edmonds and Michael M. Tsai. New York: RoutledgeCurzon. 15-39, 19.

[33] Zhang 2006.

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

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

[37] Cole 2001, 55.

[38] Zhang 2006, 17.

[39] Schuster 2012, 57

[40] Zhang 2006, 18

[41] Sakhuja 2011, 84.

[42] Chen 2003, 10.

[43] Sakhuja 2011, 59.

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

[45] Cole 2007, 32.

[46] Sakhuja 2011, 84.

[47] Cole 2001, 39.

[48] Zhang 2006, 20.

[49] Sakhuja 2011, 15.

[50] Godwin 2007, 43.

[51] Crane et al. 2005, 224.

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

[53] Cole 2001, 46.

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

[55] Van Tol, Jan, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas. 2010. Air Sea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept. Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessment, 1, via McDevitt and Vellucci 2012, 81.

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

The Future of the PLAN and Chinese Grand Strategy

The ex-Varyag. US Navy photo.

The ex-Varyag. US Navy photo.

By Taylor Marvin

In August the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) begun sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, a modernized former Soviet ship termed the ex-Varyag in Western media. The launch of an aircraft carrier, a prestigious military asset essential to effective power projection, is one of the most visible aspects of China’s ambitious military modernization effort that includes the development of a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft and the acquisition of advanced anti-ship missiles.

The Chinese military’s aggressive modernization program have been viewed with widespread apprehension in the US, with the Wall Street Journal heralding the launch of the ex-Varyag “a defining moment in its effort to become a top-tier naval power that seeks to challenge U.S. military supremacy in Asia and protect Chinese economic interests that now span the globe.” However, China’s military and Communist Party leadership is notoriously secretive, and the exact nature of China’s military modernization effort remains controversial. Hoping to explore this topic, I sat down with Dr. Tai Ming Cheung, an expert on Chinese defense issue and the author of Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy and China’s Entrepreneurial Army to discuss the significance of the ex-Varyag, PLA modernization efforts, and the future of China’s grand strategy.

Prospect: China recently launched its first aircraft carrier. This event has drawn heavy attention in the United States and the Western media, with many commentators characterizing it as a watershed moment in China’s military rise. How would you describe the significance of the ex-Varyag, and do you see it as a credible symbol of Chinese military development?

Dr. Cheung.

Dr. Cheung.

Dr. Cheung: That’s a big question, and you can look at it from a number of different perspectives. Of course, from a symbolic perspective the aircraft carrier is a very potent symbol because it is a symbol of power projection, industrial capability, and the ability to integrate and apply critical elements of military technological and industrial capability. But the problem for China, and in particular the Chinese Navy, is that it’s very much a mixed symbol. This aircraft carrier isn’t something that originated in China, but was acquired from the Ukrainians, and it was acquired quite a long time ago. It’s undergone a very difficult and long process to get to its sea trials, which began last month. So in terms of a military and technological perspective the symbolism is much less – it’s a foreign design platform the Chinese have spent a very long time trying to modify, and it’s still a question whether they have been able to successfully incorporate some of their own [technologies] needed to actually turn it into a functioning platform. We see that there are important aspects [already] there such as the ship’s power plant, its radars and some of its launch capabilities but there are still question marks about what they are, and they remain in the experimental phase. The Chinese are incorporating these technologies into the original Soviet platform, so the ship is a hybrid of the two. How much of it is actually derived from the Chinese’s own capabilities is a big question mark, and I think the answer if fairly small. As the media reports about the ship, it’s going to be a very long time before it actually is operational – from undergoing sea trials to being actually launched as an operational aircraft carrier we are talking in terms of five to 10 years.

Overall it is a symbol of a capability that is still in its early stages and while regional countries may worry about the PR side of things, they don’t have to worry from an operational perspective anytime soon. But the Chinese have talked about an aircraft carrier dream for a very long time, and they have been looking at this in a serious was since the 1980s. So to get from where they were to where they are now is a significant step, but we shouldn’t over analyze and over exaggerate what it means from an operational perspective.

Prospect: Reportedly the PLAN is in the process of constructing two new carriers of a completely indigenous design. In your opinion, what can we expect to see in these designs? How do you expect them to compare to the Admiral Kuznetsov-class the ex-Vayag is based on?

Dr. Cheung: Right now there is a lot of speculation, but there is no hard concrete evidence that the Chinese have embarked on their own indigenous carrier program. There are reports, especially from the Japanese media, that Chinese shipyards in Shanghai have been recruiting large numbers of workers. There’s a lot of gossip and circumstantial evidence, but there is no firm proof that the Chinese are building their own carriers. The Chinese government and official news sources have not made any references to this, so it’s entirely speculation and reporting from secondhand sources. We have to be very careful about where the evidence is, but from this speculation the Chinese appear to be embarking on building large size aircraft carriers. When you look at carriers, they come in several different sizes: most countries when they begin to build carriers they tend to make them smaller – less than 10,000 tons – and to focus on helicopter carriers to learn the ropes. Once they do that they move on to what we call medium sized aircraft carriers, [which are] what most countries have now. The Indians, the Brazilians, the Spanish, the Italians, and even the British tend to go for medium sized carries in the 20,000 to 30,000 ton range. Only the US now builds 100,000 ton big carriers.

So for the Chinese to be able to focus on this upper range is an extremely ambitious feat, and it not entirely clear if they can actually do that. You would expect them to follow this sequential evolution, learning to walk before you run. The Chinese are running now. But building a carrier of a very large size requires massive industrial capabilities, and large systems integration capabilities. It’s an ambitious naval and grand strategy to try to match all of that. The Chinese are looking to build large carriers, but I think it would really stretch their technological, industrial and military capabilities to do so, and I’m not quite sure they can actually pull that off. If you look now the largest Chinese naval vessels are 10,000 ton destroyers, and to move that up is a big leap.

Prospect: Building off this, the US Office of the Secretary of Defense recently released their annual report on the state of the Chinese military, which sees these two indigenous carriers potentially entering service as early as 2015. Do you see this as in any way credible?

Dr. Cheung: I see that as very unlikely. In 2011 they have only begun the sea trials of the carrier, and then only for a few days. They didn’t launch any aircraft, and the Chinese don’t actually have any carrier aircraft – they’re still in development. To be able to [operationally use] the carrier platform – to be able to sail extended distances – that’s something the Chinese still have a ways to do. To begin to operate at a sustained level we don’t see any evidence of that. Then, to build a carrier battle group and all the elements that go into that is another challenge, and we don’t see the organizational structures in place for that. There are a lot of components that need to come together. If we look at other countries like the Americans and the British in their formative eras of carrier development this would take decades. For the Chinese to bring all of these elements together will take many years, and to have an aircraft carrier that is able to operate in a warfighting sense is not going to happen for another decade. They may have a carrier that can fly helicopters and is capable of less significant military activities like humanitarian operations in a shorter period of time, but to be able to have an aircraft carrier that can be deployed and fight in a theater of operations like Taiwan is very questionable. Of course it’s in the US military’s interest to hype up the danger of this carrier, because the US defense budget is under stress and as lots of debates about whether the US needs as sizable aircraft carrier capability as it currently involve questions about the Chinese carrier capability.

Prospect: What is actually interesting about the Chinese indigenous carrier program is that it is actually secret, unlike other notable Chinese acquisition programs like the J-20, the J-15, or the ex-Varyag which are nominally secret but are very much marketed for consumption in the West. Do you read anything in this contrast?

Image at defensetech.org.

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

Dr. Cheung: I think that this is a fairly typical Chinese approach. When they build new programs – assuming these programs are in existence – especially in the early years they really don’t make much announcement. We’ve seen this in their submarine and other naval aviation programs and other aviation programs like the J-10. In their formative periods they really don’t provide much information if any, and it’s only when they come closer to final development and production do they signal and provide more information about these programs. I think that this has a lot to do with the secretive nature of the Chinese system, but it’s also because with these new generation producers there’s often a high risk of failure, as well as a lot of bureaucratic infighting, so they don’t want to release more information until they are confident how good these products are. For example, the J-20 or the ex-Varyag were quite secret in the early stages and leaks emerged only when the Chinese leaders became confident enough to use them as signals to the outside world. I wouldn’t read too much into how secret these carrier projects are, because it is going to be years before they even see the light of day in terms of production.

Prospect: To Western observers watching the growth of the Chinese Navy, the natural comparison is the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. The Soviet Navy was notable for predominantly practicing a sea denial strategy with their focus on attack submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles. Do you see the formation of the Chinese blue water navy in the next decade as focused on an asymmetrical area denial strategy in the western Pacific, or do you see them aiming for a more conventional power projection capability?

Dr. Cheung: If you look in terms of what the core missions and the importance of maritime power is for China itself, then you can begin to sketch out what the Chinese Navy will look like over the long term. Of key importance is to be able to gain control and to deny threats close to its shores and to gain control exclusive economic zones and project power within what they call their first island chain a couple hundred miles offshore. They need to have both sea control capabilities, especially when dealing with smaller powers like Taiwan, Japan, and other neighboring countries, but they also need to have sea denial capabilities when dealing with their principal concern — the US Navy — which has a very dominant maritime presence in the Asia Pacific region. While that is just one key goal, it’s where the Chinese have put a lot of focus, especially given the Chinese Navy’s main concerns in the 1990s and the 2000s deal with the issue of Taiwan and preventing Taiwan from gaining independence and the military contingencies surrounding that they are very much focused on a sea denial capability because they are very much focused on a US or allied intervention in that scenario.

But more broadly, and looking in terms of the next 10 20 and 30 years China is increasingly dependent on trade and its resources from the rests of the world. If you look at where its trade comes from more than 90 percent is seaborn trade, so sea lanes and communications are critical to China’s national and economic health itself. So, sea denial around its shores is one important component, but even more important is the ability to protect these critical sea lanes of communications and the ability to deal with potential blockades in these areas where you can seize choke points in the seas of Malacca and elsewhere is South Asia. So the [goal of] the Chinese Navy, especially with aircraft carriers, is the ability to project power, to defend these sea lanes of communication and its large maritime global interest. The Chinese have been free riding on the US, but as China’s place in the world and its military power grow it doesn’t want to be dependent on the US. I think you will very much see that the Chinese approach will be different from what it was. Their initial motto may have in terms of the first decade of building maritime power may have been similar to what the Soviets were originally, but you have to remember that the Soviets were not a maritime power, they were a continental power. China is fundamentally different in that way, because China is a critical player within the global trading system. In that way it is both a maritime and continental power. So the role sea power is very different.

The Chinese are doing this very much as an incremental approach: first securing and protecting out to their first island chain, and then to the second island chain, and then beginning to project power over a much further distances for economic and trading interests but not having the capabilities to rival the US and other powers beyond China until the medium to longer term.

Prospect: What does it mean for other nations in the region, notably countries like Vietnam and Japan whose long-term strategic goals seems to conflict China’s?

Dr. Cheung: First of all, you do see that there is a naval arms race that is taking place. You see it in acquisitions of submarines, acquisitions of arms with offensive capabilities. The Vietnamese are buying Russian submarines, and are trying to expand their naval air capabilities, and the Japanese with their new mid-term defense programs are moving in that direction [as well], placing more emphasis on their maritime and naval capabilities. We also see this in other Southeast Asian countries like the Koreans and Taiwanese. You are seeing this greater concern. But the problem with these countries is by themselves they are never going to be able to compete against the Chinese. So what else are they going to do? You see  the Japanese moving much closer to the Americans, as are the Vietnamese and some of the other southeast Asians. But that doesn’t really help you over the longer term, because what you get is you spiral into these security dilemmas as the other country builds up and you have an action/reaction sequence. So what you really need to focus upon is you need to work out multilateral areas of discussion and cooperation and to try to find confidence-building measures. We don’t see that yet. There is no trust. And if we don’t begin to see these dynamics of focusing upon building trust mechanisms and defining regional norms of behavior etc. then you are going to get greater spirals, and greater concerns about arms races and and mistrust. That then deepens the potential for confrontation, misunderstandings, and conflict. We are, I think, in for a growing period of tensions, especially in the maritime region, in East and Southeast Asia.

Prospect: It has been suggested that over the past decade the PLA has pursued a more nationalistic, confrontational strategy than the rest of China’s civilian government. Do you find this theory credible, and how would you characterize the state of civil-military relations in China today?

I don’t think that the PLA is a rouge actor in itself. If you look at the PLA today it has increasingly become more professional, and it sees its key role as the guardian of Chinese sovereignty and national prestige. There have been elements within the PLA, some very vocal strategists, who are more vocal in the media expressing what they say are the Chinese military’s views. However, if you look at how Chinese military leaders have expressed themselves and at the deployment of Chinese military power in and around the region and Chinese military power as a component of overall Chinese grand strategy, they’ve taken a fairly modest and balanced approach to pushing for Chinese interests and to showcase Chinese military power. Of course we’ve seen that they can be aggressive in areas that they deem to be in their core interest, such as dealing with Taiwan and increasingly pushing against interference with Chinese sovereignty, like intrusions by US espionage or surveillance and reconnaissance activity around the perimeter of Chinese territory. But you also see that the Chinese military has been fairly cooperative in a number of international fora — in anti-piracy efforts, supplying the UN with peacekeeping troops, and trying to mediate tensions in various areas and also developing multilateral military cooperation organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Russia and other Asian states, etc. — so you’ve seen that there’s this parallel approach but there’s also assertiveness and an effort to be seen as a cooperative stakeholder in the global military order.

Of course within the overall state of civil military relations the Chinese military have become increasingly seeking to push its interests and it’s not as subservient as it used to be, especially because it wants to have more resources, meaning its defense budgets, to allow it to support this fairly aggressive military modernization. But overall though, especially within the nature of the party army system within China, the military remains very much subservient to the rule of the Communist Party and you don’t see it becoming an independent actor trying to push for its own interests outside of the interests of the Communist Party.