Why China's Navy is a Threat
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Why China's Navy is a Threat

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Civilian academics who study military affairs like to hold forth on tactical matters. But this can lead to misguided advice. Exhibit A: Prof. Bernard Loo of Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Relations recently maintained that there's 'less than meets the eye' to the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) combat reach in South-east Asia. Now, he insists, 'is not the time to press the panic button.'
 
This upbeat appraisal rests on several flimsy assumptions and claims. If they heed Loo's advice, South-east Asian governments that can ill afford complacency will seriously misjudge the Chinese maritime challenge. They need not panic, but they must cope with China's waxing naval might—starting now.
 
First of all, Loo deprecates 'an alleged aircraft carrier-killing cruise missile,' suggesting a sea-skimming anti-ship missile with a range of a few score miles. But the anti-ship missile that vexes China-watchers is an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), a weapon whose range, speed and hitting power dwarf that of any cruise missile. Estimates vary, but should the PLA perfect its ASBM, Chinese racketeers could pound away at ships underway up to 2,000 miles away.
 
What would this mean? It means that PLA forces could range the entire South China Sea from mobile launchers positioned on Hainan Island or elsewhere along the South China coast. Loo counsels Southeast Asian navies to simply wait out a Chinese Navy that lacks a robust logistics fleet. But if PLA forces can use land-based weaponry to sink ships in port or cruising the South China Sea, then this amounts to a strategy of defeat and destruction.
 
But sea power is anyway about more than the fleet. Even if the PLA Navy proves unable to mount a continuous presence in the South China Sea—an assumption growing more doubtful by the day—systems able to influence events at sea from the land provide continuous virtual presence throughout the spectrum of conflict, from peacetime to wartime. This versatility explains the emphasis Chinese strategists now place on extended-range shore-based weaponry.
 
Next, Loo claims that navies typically follow a three-phase tactical training and deployment cycle. This means one-third of the fleet is deployed at any given time, another third is refitting and unavailable for sea service and the remaining third is working up for deployment. From this Loo concludes that estimates of Chinese naval power wildly overstate the numbers of ships and aircraft available to Beijing at any given time.
 
There are two problems with this. For one, the 3:1 ratio isn't an iron law of naval operations but a rule of thumb derived from standard US Navy practice. But the US Navy, today's only global navy, is encumbered with commitments far more demanding than those confronting any regional fleet. As a result, American warships incur far greater wear-and-tear in the course of their duties. That requires frequent shipyard periods to refit.
 

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