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Posts tagged ‘US Navy’

A Thought Experiment on the Nuclear Triad

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber, via Wikimedia.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The strategic nuclear forces of the United States and Russia are divided between what is termed a triad of nuclear-armed aircraft, ballistic missile submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. As I noted earlier this week, many argue that the triad system is an expensive and redundant relic, and that one or more of its legs could be eliminated with no risk to the credibility of America’s nuclear deterrence.

The Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are most often singled out as the least essential leg of the triad, for numerous reasons. The fixed locations of ICBM silos tempt an enemy to strike first in an attempt to destroy them on the ground, a destabilizing incentive towards a nuclear first strike; the threat of missiles being destroyed before they can be fired pressures decision-makers to “use them or lose them” and fire on just the warning of an imminent attack, increasing the risk of accidental war; and ICBMs encourage arms races, because the number of nuclear warheads necessary to destroy an opponent’s missiles in their hardened silos is far higher than needed to end civilization. Indeed, the entire concept of the nuclear triad is an after the fact justification of a three-branched strategic nuclear force that owes more to interservice rivalry than any sound strategic concept.

One of the most common arguments against eliminating ICBMs — or any one element of the triad — is the need to hedge against technological advancements that suddenly defang one means of delivering nuclear weapons. It is possible, triad proponents argue, that a revolution in undersea detection could make it much easier to find and destroy the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). These fears are overstated. As Benjamin H. Friedman, Christopher A. Preble and Matt Fay note in their paper “The End of Overkill? Reassessing US Nuclear Weapons Policy,” despite similar warnings during the Cold War after the dissolution of the USSR the US government learned that it had over, not underestimated the Soviets’ ability to detect US submarines. This will likely hold true in the future as ballistic missile submarines — which are termed “boomers” in US service — continue to grow quieter. “Remember that hawks have been warning about future US SSBNs’ vulnerability to enemy forces since the 1960s, and it has not yet arrived,” Friedman, Preble, and Fay write. “Moreover, the effort needed to achieve such technological progress is unlikely to be instant or unknown to US intelligence.”

In any case, a sudden technological advance that makes ballistic missile submarines much less survivable is no more likely than an extremely unlikely revolution that makes iron-clad ballistic missile defense possible and negates the entire concept of ballistic missiles.

But even if boomers suddenly became much more detectable, would this fatally threaten the deterrence value of a submarine and aircraft nuclear dyad? Imagine a world where, for what ever reason, submarines do not exist (say humans of this alternative reality are literally paralyzed with innate fear of the ocean’s deep).* In this world the naval leg of the nuclear triad are “ballistic missile cruisers” armed with 24 Trident II nuclear missiles, each carrying up to a dozen independent nuclear warheads. Besides being launched from the ocean’s surface rather than underneath it, these missiles are identical to those carried by US and UK SSBNs in our world. Perhaps these cruisers are also nuclear powered, again like SSBNs (the USN has operated CGNs in the past). Strategic deterrent patrols consist of a “cruiser strike group” composed of a ballistic missile cruiser, an air-defense cruiser, and two destroyers. As ballistic missile cruisers would be more affordable than a SSBN, the US Navy fields, say, twenty of them, with two thirds at sea at any given time.

A US nuclear-powered cruiser. Via Wikimedia.

A US nuclear-powered cruiser. Via Wikimedia.

Needless to say, these surface ships would be far more vulnerable than ballistic missile submarines, and in this world America’s nuclear deterrent is less robust. Ships can be tracked from the air or space, and destroyed with anti-ship missiles or other military weapons. The vulnerability of surface ships would create the same “use it or lose it” incentive towards a destabilizing launch on warning stance as land-based ICBMs. These cruisers would also be unable to sneak close to enemy shores to reduce missile flight times, one of the key advantages — or disadvantages, from a global stability perspective — of ballistic missile submarines. Cruisers would also share one of the same trip-wire problem of SSBNs, namely that a counterforce attack on submarines at sea does not carry the same weight (and hands-tying motivation for nuclear response) as one targeting ICBMs based on US territory.**

But would a fleet of ballistic missile cruisers alone constitute a credible deterrence? While far from ideal, I think that it would be. After all, destroying this “surface” leg of a triad would require killing at least a dozen heavily defended ships scattered across the globe, all before the US realized that a coordinated attack on its nuclear forces was underway and responded in kind. After all, the difficulty of pulling this off would be roughly comparable to sinking every US supercarrier more or less simultaneously, something that no one is worried about today. Even for a future adversary armed with intercontinental-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, this would be a difficult task. Certainly one not worth betting millions of lives on.

The point is that even after a sudden revolution in undersea detection that makes US boomers much more vulnerable they would still be more survivable than the ballistic missile cruisers of this alternative world. There will always be an undersea arms race between offense and defense. But this isn’t any reason to fear that submarines will suddenly become more vulnerable, and it certainly isn’t an argument against drawing down the Air Force’s ICBMs.

*Though perhaps in a world without submarines German unrestricted submarine warfare never prompts US entry into World War I, which Germany then wins, an isolated United States is not the first to develop nuclear weapons, and our ballistic missile cruisers belong to the imperial Hochseeflotte…

**This citation specifically references a comment by Tom Nichols; the format of the blog does not allow me to permalink to it directly.

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Weighing a Dedicated Ballistic Missile Defense Class

By Taylor Marvin

I’ve previously discussed what I see as the deficiencies of Mitt Romney’s naval policy: Romney hasn’t made a compelling argument why the fleet should grow to 350 ships beyond vague notions of national strength, and hasn’t explained why he thinks even a marginally larger fleet will be an effective power projection force able to penetrate dangerous anti-access no-go zones. However, in a recent interview with Defense News Romney advisor John Lehman and his conflicts of interest made an interesting suggestion: building two new classes of ships, a frigate and a dedicated missile defense ship. The new frigate proposal is arguably a good one, as the impending retirement of the antiquated Oliver Hazard Perry class and small size and restricted range of the upcoming Littoral Combat Ship make it unsuitable for the routine sea policing and showing the flag missions frigates excel at.

San Antonio class, via Wikimedia.

More controversial is the proposal for a dedicated ballistic missile defense (BMD) ship. To reduce development costs, Lehman explains, the ship would be built on either the existing DDG-1000 (guided missile destroyer) or LPD 17 (San Antonio class amphibious transport dock) hull. Calling the proposal a missile defense “ship” rather than destroyer is important, Lehman explained, “because to have the kind of power aperture needed for the new radar, there is always a conflict between a deployable battle group ship and a missile defense ship. The latter is in elevated [readiness condition], tied to a specific area. It can’t deploy with the battle group.”

This is an interesting proposal. Offshore ballistic missile defense is a growing mission for the Navy, and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) like China’s formidable DF-21D system are a major threat to surface ships. A dedicated anti-ballistic missile (ABM) ship capable of targeting and destroying ballistic missiles would certainly increase the survivability of carrier strike groups, as well as serve in the region BMD role.

However, there are also numerous problems with this proposal, and it merits careful consideration. The greatest asset of the current fleet composition is its versatility. Destroyers contribute to carrier strike groups as well as perform solo sea policing, and are capable of anti-submarine, anti-air, and surface warfare roles. For all the talk about the demise of carriers, their power projection capability will remain reliable and unrivaled in anything but a major war, which is unlikely to occur in the future. As the United States is unable to predict what type of future conflicts it will involve itself in, versatility is paramount to cost effectiveness, especially as the cost of individual platforms grows.

This is a problem for a dedicated ABM ship. Whiled we can’t say much about what the capabilities of such a ship would be until an actual proposal is ironed out, it would certainly be tied to a single mission to a greater extent than other classes. But of course, this lack of versatility is the cost of excelling at a single mission. A dedicated ABM ship would have significant advantages over the Navy’s current ABM strategy, which relies on Aegis-equipped Ticonderoga class cruisers (four of which have been kept in service for their ABM capability after previously being slated for retirement) and Arleigh Burke class destroyers, as well as allies’ like Japan’s Aegis ABM-equipped destroyers. Starting in 2016 the Navy is scheduled to procure Flight III Burke class destroyers, which will mount the larger and more powerful Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) system to better perform the BMD mission. However, fitting these ships with the bulky mechanical equipment required for such a large sensor system means compromising their designs, and Flight III’s cost per unit has already risen to between $3 and $4 billion.

These ABM platforms suffer from various deficiencies due to their multirole design. But despite the limitations of BMD based on the Aegis system, these ships’ versatility is an enormous advantage. As Ronald O’Rourke notes:

“In conventional warfighting operations, Aegis ships could be called upon to perform a variety of non-BMD functions, including anti-air warfare, anti-surface warfare, strike warfare and naval surface fire support, and antisubmarine warfare. Locations that are good for performing BMD operations might not be good for performing non-BMD operations, and vice versa.”

Though important, the actual need for BMD is rare. Building a entire ship class dedicated to a rarely needed mission is problematic.

So the question is: do the advantages of a dedicated ABM class outweigh the limitations imposed on more versatile, multirole Aegis BMD ships? Possibly. A dedicated ABM ship would be able to better mount the AMDR system and would likely involve less design compromises. Additionally, utilizing the existing LPD 17 hull as Lehman suggests would likely free up a large amount of space for the Vertical Launch System (VLS) used to house missiles on modern warships, allowing for a dedicated ABM ship to carry more missiles. Most Burke class destroyers are fitted with 96 individual VLS cells; cruisers hold 122. As VLS cannot be reloaded at sea, during a major conflict ships could be forced to return to port to rearm, decreasing the amount of ships the US could keep in theater. Delegating the ballistic missile defense role to from surface combatants to a dedicated ABM ship would free up these ships’ VLS for other weapons. Depending on the flexibility of the design a dedicated ABM ship could also be loaded with non-ABM weaponry while not performing the BMD role.

Even if a Romney election victory leads to a larger, 350 ship fleet, there still is a zero-sum aspect to budgetary decisions — money that goes to a dedicated ABM class doesn’t go elsewhere. These costs are substantial; a dedicated ABM class would be expensive. For all Lehman’s talk of affordability, adapting an existing hull design for a new mission is not trivial, and the rising cost of the Flight III Burke class — in itself a simpler conversion than adapting a DDG 1000 or LDP 17 hull to the ABM role — are not a good omen. Lehman’s remark that the optimum power plant for a LDP 17-derived ABM ship “is not the one that’s in it” is also worrying, from an affordability standpoint. This affordability problem is confounded by a dedicated ABM class’ lack of flexibility, as there’s only so much the Navy can spend on a single mission. While the old arsenal ship idea calls for a large ship able to carry a large number of individual VLS cells is superficially similar to a dedicated ABM ship, the extensive sensors required for an ABM ship would negate the benefits of this “moderate cost, high benefit” proposal.

Worse, it’s not clear what benefit this class would provide. While ASBM are the by far the most dangerous threat facing surface ships, but they are not alone. US and allied forces in anti-access/area-denial environments face many threats beyond ballistic missiles, including cruise missiles, enemy aircraft, and for naval forces, submarines and mines; building a dedicated ABM ship is investing in an expensive class that cannot contribute to combating these threats. More troubling, as opponents of ballistic missile defense have noted for decades, ballistic missile defense is hard. BMD systems has performed poorly in combat — though admittedly modern systems have not had the dubious opportunity to prove their worth in wartime — and when successful in tests do so under carefully controlled conditions. If China really did want to sink a US supercarrier, they throw every anti-access weapons system they have against it: an attack by multiple ASBM warheads using decoys and jamming to degrade US countermeasures, combined with simultaneous cruise missile launches to overwhelm and distract defenders. This gets at the core problem with BMD: it will always be easier for an attacker to simply launch more missiles than the system can deal with. ASBM systems are difficult to build — it is not clear when China’s DF-21D will be an operational system — but are not particularly expensive by unit cost, and will certainly become both more common and proliferated in the future. It’s not clear if investing limited resources in a dedicated ship class is a good idea if an ABM ship would not actually be able to perform it’s mission, especially since fleet ballistic missile defense is not the “limited, unsophisticated strike” modern BMD advocates typically argue their systems are capable of defeating.

Of course if successful a dedicated ABM class would have real benefits. Notably, the ability to reliably to defeat intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase would allow the Navy to defend itself in a Western Pacific war without targeting missile launch sites in China. This is a core problem with the AirSea Battle concept: hitting missile launchers in China carries a dramatic potential to escalate a previously maritime conflict. Just as the British refrained from striking the Argentine mainland during the Falklands conflict, so should the US avoid potentially escalatory mainland strikes in a future war. Effective and reliable navla ABM ability could allow this. But this is a huge if, and it is very unclear if this uncertainty justifies an expensive new ship class.

Why Aren’t We Talking About China?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by James Currie, via Wikimedia.

Unless I’m missing something, Monday’s address by Mitt Romney was branded as a foreign policy speech. Of course, given the Virginia Military Institute venue this was really a national security address, though it isn’t surprising that a man who titles his autobiography in reference to a mythical “apology tour” appears to entirely conflate ‘foreign policy’ with an aggressive national security agenda. I don’t have much to say about the contents of the speech that smarter people haven’t already, but one thing jumped out at me: the word “China” appears exactly once, in a throwaway line:

“There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East—and it is not unique to that region. It is broadly felt by America’s friends and allies in other parts of the world as well— in Europe, where Putin’s Russia casts a long shadow over young democracies, and where our oldest allies have been told we are ‘pivoting’ away from them … in Asia and across the Pacific, where China’s recent assertiveness is sending chills through the region … “

With only a few exceptions, Romney’s entire speech is focused on the Middle East. Of course, this is partially due to the Romney campaign’s recent focus on the death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi as evidence of the Obama administration’s negligent handling of the Arab Spring and failed overall Middle East policy. But a focus on the Middle East this extensive is myopic.

Managing China’s rise is the most challenging security dilemma likely to face the United States this century, and the US’ current mixed strategy of engagement and limited containment is unlikely to remain a viable option in the future. Assuming that Beijing’s commitment to recover Taiwan is serious — there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the 2005 Taiwan Anti-Secession Law is a hands-tying device designed to force the next generation leadership, who simultaneously have no memory of losing Taiwan and whose superpower status lessens the prestige concerns over the continued de facto independence of the lost province, to prevent a declaration independence — the US’ commitment to the region is destabilizing. China’s growing relative military strength relative to the US, in particular its development of effective anti-access/area-denial strategies, increases the chance Beijing will one day call America’s bluff. If it does, the insufficient force to back up its security commitments in the region will encourage US leaders to escalate a previously limited conflict. The next president of the United States should have a concrete plan to address this strategic problem, either by massively increasing the US military’s ability to fight in an A2/AD environment or ceding portions of the Western Pacific as within a Chinese sphere of influence; by mocking the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ Romney appears to be dismissing the entire question of strategic choices.

Romney’s single mention of China is especially puzzling given that one of the speech’s few concrete policy positions is the commitment to “restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines” as part of Romney’s goal of growing the US Navy to 350 ships; the Obama administration favors building nine ships per year, for a current goal of a 300 ship fleet. If this increase in shipbuilding is motivated by a practical strategic purpose rather than ill-defined notions of national greatness — unfortunately, Romney’s frequent remark that “the size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916” suggests that it is not — he should justify why a larger navy is important. The most credible argument for growing the US Navy is, of course, China. A larger fleet is of no use in the Middle East, and America’s ability to quickly challenge an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz is not related to the total size of the fleet (though building more minesweepers would be wise). Instead, a 350 ship strong fleet is arguable an important part of maintaining a credible military presence in the vast Western Pacific theater.

But this isn’t enough. If Mitt Romney wants to build a more numerous fleet as part of his plan to counter China’s military growth he needs to explain how this fits into his larger strategy, and why attempting to contain China — the clear implication — is worth the cost, or even possible. So far, he hasn’t.

Perhaps Romney feels that he doesn’t have to justify growing the US Navy to voters on any rational other than American greatness, or it’s simply a way of contrasting himself with Obama’s lack of “resolve”. But it is still troubling that Romney sees no need to justify a major change in US defense policy in what is supposed to be a major speech.

Strategic Interactions in “Last Resort”

By Taylor Marvin

This morning I watched the pilot episode of ABC’s Last Resort. The show chronicles the adventures of the crew of the fictional USS Colorado, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. After disobeying a potentially unlawful order to fire on Pakistan, the crew goes rogue, docking at a small inhabited island in the Indian Ocean.

While the show’s core concept showed promise — Crimson Tide aside, a rogue submarine crew is an inherently dramatic setting  — I had trouble making it through the pilot, mostly due to stock characters and the silliness of the plot. The experience did lead to some entertaining live-messaging to the friend who recommended the show as I watched:

“I’m glad the Navy manages to crew their submarines exclusively with models.”

“OH SHIT THAT GUY’S THE T-1000 TERMINATOR DON’T TRUST HIM HE’S FROM THE FUTURE”

Maybe the show will get better; there are plenty of series that don’t find their feet immediately. But the show does present an interesting take on nuclear bargaining. [MAJOR SPOILERS for the pilot follow]

At the close of the pilot the USS Colorado’s crew is in a precarious position: their vessel is docked at the tropical island of Sainte Marina and is (presumably) too damaged to take out to sea, and the entire US government wants them dead. At the climax, Captain Chaplin desperately attempts to deter a pair of B-1s from bombing his submarine at dock by launching a nuclear missile at Washington, DC, broadcasting the assurance that if the bombers are called off he’ll destroy the missile before it hits its target (yes, this is ridiculous, but bear with me). The Pentagon blinks, calls off the bombers, and Chaplin harmlessly redirects the missile to detonate off the eastern US coastline to prove his threat to meet any threat to his submarine with nuclear force is serious. To reinforce this threat, Chaplin record a message threatening to launch his missiles if anyone comes within 200 miles of “his” island, which is somehow disseminated and broadcast on US domestic news networks:

“I’m Captain Marcus Chaplin of the USS Colorado… We have commandeered the NATO early warning station on the island of Sainte Marina. From this facility we can see the movements of all the world’s militaries. We are in control. I am declaring a 200 mile no-man’s land around this island, effective immediately. As for myself and the men and women of the USS Colorado, we love our country. We would gladly die for what it represents. But we do not recognize or obey a government that tries to murder its own. If the current United States Executive or any nation violates this perimeter, we have 17 more nuclear missiles aboard and we will not hesitate to unleash fiery hell down upon you; I give you my word, test us and we will all burn together.”

Preposterous? Yes. But this is an interesting question: how would this strategic interaction between a rogue US boomer captain and the outside world play out? At the close of the pilot, this positions are fixed. Captain Chaplin controls a NATO station that apparently features long-range radar that his crew can use to detect incoming aircraft, making it difficult for outsiders to approach the island undetected. He also possesses 17 (Ohio-class SSBNs can carry 24) Trident II ballistic missiles, each with four nuclear warheads — an arsenal capable of killing a good portion of the world’s population. But for plot reasons (namely, the producers needed a reason to justify filming off the submarine, and an excuse to cast a bartender that looks like this) the submarine is presumably unable to dive or even move, except in extraordinary circumstances, canceling out its reason for existing: stealth. Presumably elements of the US government responsible for Chaplin’s betrayal want him and his crew dead, and everyone wants the threat of 17 nuclear missiles controlled by a rogue captain removed.

The core problem with this interaction is that Captain Chaplin’s threat isn’t credible: because he and his crew are Americans with families living in the US, their threat of “assured destruction” if they’re challenged is not credible, and the government knows this (hint: don’t say you “love” the country you’re threatening to destroy if you want people to take you seriously). If the Pentagon launches a strike on the USS Colorado, they can reasonably guess that Captain Chaplin and his officers will not launch a mass nuclear strike on the US in retaliation. Unfortunately for Chaplin’s bargaining position, his only available method of retaliation is so devastating that it’s unthinkable — the same limitation sank President Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy of reducing US conventional forces in favor of reliance on nuclear deterrence. If Chaplin wants this threat to be credible, he must employ some type of commitment device that would tie his hands in a crisis, forcing him to launch his missiles even if he didn’t want to; perhaps by constructing an automated system that would automatically launch the missile once the island’s radars detected an aircraft within weapons range. Confounding this problem is Chaplin’s low information. Presumably Chaplin’s captured NATO radar station would have trouble identifying the nationality of an incoming cruise missile strike during a crisis, and a submarine launched torpedo targeting the Colorado would be impossible to identify — if Chaplin has no way of knowing who’s shooting at him, how is his threat to respond credible? A rogue nuclear arsenal is just as threatening to other nations as it is to the United States, and capable military powers like China, Russia, and the UK have a major incentive to remove the threat while facing a much lower risk of being on the receiving end of Chaplin’s nuclear retaliation than American forces. While a nuclear strike on the US is certainly a very bad outcome in the eyes of these countries, the low risk of Chaplin identifying and launching a reprisal on their country in time could be expected to alter their cost/benefit reasoning to make a strike worthwhile.

This makes Chaplin’s position untenable. In the eyes of US policymakers, a strike on the USS Colorado isn’t a particularly bad outcome; a strike by another country whose lower military capabilities make a successful reprisal more likely is worse. If the United States doesn’t destroy the USS Colorado, someone else will at a much greater risk to the US — given this incentive, the US will strike first. Even if Chaplin isn’t bluffing, in the event of a US strike he’s unlikely to get a retaliatory strike off. An attack by a B-2 or stealthy AGM-129 cruise missiles on the docked USS Colorado is unlikely to be detected before the submarine is destroyed. Given the relatively low risk of destroying the Colorado and the much greater risk of someone else attempting to do so, American policymakers will order a strike. If Chaplin can take the Colorado out to sea his chances of surviving improve considerably, but it’s unclear if the show will go there. If it doesn’t, Captain Chaplin and his crew don’t have much of a chance of getting out alive.

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.

Irony?

By Taylor Marvin

Slate’s photo choice for a story about Iran’s nuclear program is… ironic.

After decades of service the F-14 was retired by the US Navy in 2006, making the aircraft’s only current operator… the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.

Slate isn’t alone: a recent issue of TIME featured this gem:

Not an F-22. From TIME, August 29, 2011, print edition.

Look, I get that not every photo editor can be expected to be familiar with the huge array of American military aircraft, and editorial mix ups happen. But it’s still entertaining.