The Real Anti-Access Story

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During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a strong political incentive to maximize diffusion of its military capabilities.  Proxies with Soviet technology could fight the United States and its proxies on their own. Consequently, states from North Korea to Vietnam to Cuba to Syria, Iraq, and Egypt gained access to the many of the most advanced Soviet fighter, submarine, and missile systems. Often, these systems overwhelmed the capacity of recipients, with buyers lacking the ability to put pilots in planes, sailors in subs, and mechanics in either. Nevertheless, these systems still forced the United States to act cautiously; the combination of a couple Nanuchka class missile boats, some Foxtrot subs, a few MiG-23s and a reasonably sophisticated air defense system could give the US Navy or Air Force a bad day.

Russia doesn’t see much of an upside in this kind of diffusion today.  States get the equipment they can pay for, without political subsidy . China has displayed little interest in developing proxy relationships of the type seen in the Cold War. Moreover, few states have an interest in devoting resources and attention to making life difficult for a superpower.  Still, given the rapidly advancing capabilities of China’s anti-access forces, questions of diffusion and proliferation bear consideration. 

The Chinese anti-access system is built around three pillars.  Submarines, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles launched from air, surface, and land platforms each threaten to push American carriers away from China’s littoral.  What are the prospects for diffusion of each of these types? Broadly speaking, theories of military diffusion suggest that diffusion can happen when states have the organizational capacity, the human capital, the material resources, and good political reasons (whether founded in symbolic or concrete security concerns) to acquire specific weapons.  New weapons require a reason, experts for operation, and an organizational capable of bringing resources and people together in the right place.

Submarines played a key role in the Soviet Union’s wave of anti-access proliferation.  States such as Cuba, Libya, Egypt, North Korea, Albania, Algeria, and Indonesia operated Soviet subs at one time or another. However, most of these operators had poor maintenance records, leaving the subs with short lifespans and even shorter patrol periods.  While some navies (especially in Southeast Asia) have rebuilt their submarine flotillas through foreign purchases, others have not.  Some elements of a submarine revival may be in place, although diffusion will likely look different than in the Cold War.

What about anti-ship ballistic missiles? While potentially devastating to U.S. carriers, these weapons require a substantial information infrastructure for accurate targeting.  Unless China is willing to lend its surveillance and communications capabilities to a third state (a highly unlikely proposition), DF-21D clones won’t be of much use.

Anti-ship cruise missiles might be a better target for proliferation.  These weapons haven’t been targeted by the legal and normative machinery of the international system, and they require less overhead.  Dennis Gormley argues that the threat of cruise missile proliferation considerably outweighs that of ballistic missiles, despite the fact that few international accords address the problem.

It bears note that the United States has spearheaded efforts to establish a normative framework that militates against the spread of the most effective anti-access technologies.  As of yet, only a limited number of states seem compelled by either symbolic or security logic to acquire the most advanced anti-access capabilities. Indeed, China’s greatest export success has come in maritime maintenance platforms such as frigates, patrol boats, and helicopters .

Finally, it cannot escape China’s notice that proliferation of anti-access technologies could place PLAN warships at just as much risk as American carriers.  The other claimants to the South China Sea have pursued some anti-access technologies (particularly submarines), but have mainly focused on external balancing. If anti-ship cruise missiles become the new “prestige” weapon, the Vietnam and the Philippines might start investing in weapons that could put Liaoning and her putative sisters at great risk.

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