China's Military Surprises
Image Credit: US Navy

China's Military Surprises

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In a year in which the region’s news was frequently dominated by questions over whether China had abandoned the path of a ‘peaceful’ rise, it was perhaps inevitable that 2010 would be rounded out with a few bits of news that underscore China’s growing military prowess.

I’ve written before about the common misconception when comparing Chinese and US military power that China somehow needs to go toe-to-toe with the United States to be considered a regional threat. It doesn’t – the risk of a bloody enough nose over, for example, the Taiwan Strait, would be enough to make US forces at least wary about whether and how to intervene in a conflict. (And as I blogged about earlier this year, they might have only a few days to come to Taiwan’s rescue in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island, at least according to one simulation).

So how would China be able to deny US ships access to the Taiwan Strait area? One way is the use of Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles, a system discussed by Diplomat correspondents Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes. As they note, missiles, ‘being relatively cheap and easy to mass produce, offer an excellent chance of evening the odds…A long-range cruise missile costs as little as $500,000 – a pittance for China – while a single US cruiser is worth around $1 billion. To put it another way, one US aircraft carrier would literally buy 10,000 missiles.’

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And, according to China analysts Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, China is further advanced along this path than many had expected. Erickson emailed me a copy of a new report he has just published that states:

‘Beijing has successfully developed, tested, and deployed the world’s first weapons system capable of targeting a moving carrier strike group (CSG) from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. The Second Artillery, China’s strategic missile force, already has a capability to attempt to use the DF-21D against US CSGs in the event of conflict, and therefore likely expects to achieve a growing degree of deterrence with it.’

The report also notes the significant potential in terms of firing distance of the mainland-based missiles, which bring targets well past the first island chain and Taiwan – including the US Navy base in Guam – within range.

There is a caveat to this. The report quotes Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of US Pacific Command, as stating that China likely sees its missiles as having the equivalent of initial operational capability (IOC). What does this mean? In effect it means that although China likely has the capacity to deploy the system, it will require a degree of fine-tuning through testing, meaning it’s not clear how the system might actually perform under combat conditions.

Still, as the report notes, although it’s hard to exactly equate definitions of operational capability between different countries’ services, this approximated status is still a significant advance on ‘Initial Threat Availability’, which is typically when a system has been tested successfully, but hasn’t been deployed.

Providing a few more specifics on what all this could mean in terms of when and by whom the missiles could be operated by, Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, emailed me with his take on some of this:

‘One could quibble about how close an ASBM is to IOC. The key question to ask is whether or not Second Artillery and General Armaments Department (GAD) authorities have officially certified the space and missile industry's design (literally, ‘set the design’ or dingxing for short). My impression is that the goal was to do so before the end of the year. Afterwards, the missile would still need to continue with testing, both for purposes of ensuring a small initial batch is OK, and then for Second Artillery unit operational test and evaluation. 

‘There's still some question regarding which brigade has been designated to be the first unit equipped.  Two new Second Artillery units in Guangdong are possible candidates (52 Base's 96166 Unit and 53 Base's 96219 Unit). Over the last three or four years, a dozen or so officers from the initial ASBM brigade — whichever one it is — likely have been preparing tactics, techniques, and procedures, developing simulation systems, and working closely with industry to ensure stable follow-on logistics support, and surveying launch sites, and so on. Second Artillery engineering units probably have been doing lots of tunnelling work in preparation for initial deployments as well.’

Interestingly, Erickson’s report also quotes Willard as commenting on whether the ASBM is a greater threat in terms of access denial than submarines (Willard says not). This brings me to another development reported on this past week, namely that China may be in a position to launch its first aircraft carrier next year – a year before many analysts had expected.

As Reuters notes: ‘(The) launch of the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, for training and trying out technology, will be a step toward building and operating aircraft carrier group.’

I asked James Holmes for his take on the significance of the reported ‘launch’, and he first took issue with the report’s use of that word. ‘It’s a squishy term’, he told me. ‘The ship is in the water and thus was ‘launched’ long ago. So I would assume they mean they plan to start sea trials next year…As the article notes, this won't make the ship fully operational, if indeed they intend to use it as more than a training platform’.

So how much of a surprise was this? An ‘expected’ surprise, perhaps. ‘The Chinese have a pattern of springing things on us, so the timing comes as little surprise to me,’ Holmes said, noting also that as the ship's air wing isn't particularly large, it will by no means signal a Chinese rise to parity with US carriers.

Still, Holmes also added that if Willard’s suggestion that the ASBM has reached initial operating capability is true, and the Second Artillery can provide fire support from the land hundreds of miles offshore, the PLA Navy ‘may not need carriers comparable to ours, ever’.

US Navy Commander James Kraska of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies told me that that China’s aircraft carrier plans are perhaps better understood as symbolic rather than militarily practical advances.

‘The aircraft carrier is unimportant militarily for the time being at least; it is important as a symbol of China's economic, technological and military ascendancy,’ he told me when I asked him about the report.

‘China has mastered and implements a comprehensive approach to nurturing and managing the image of its power – the carrier is a trophy or exhibit that helps to round out Beijing's image, especially in Asia, which is a maritime theatre… (and helps) show countries that China can come between US Naval power and American allies. The Seventh Fleet, long dominant in the region, now has to contend with a serious rival.’

Kraska adds, however, that China may have come to the carrier ‘party’ a little late, and compares the aircraft carrier with the battleship, which itself yielded to the carrier as the most powerful capital warship.

So what replaces the carrier? ‘Most likely, fast attack submarines,’ Kraska says. And here, he says, there’s little comfort for the US and allies. ‘China is mastering Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology that’s reportedly quieter than US Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines’, he told me. ‘And China is building them at a faster rate than the United States, widening the gap in numbers each year’. 

Throw in the speculation this week that China might also be developing its own stealth fighter, and it’s clear there’s plenty for the US and its allies to mull over in the coming year.

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