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US Navy Tries Bow and Arrow

The US military is more worried about China’s anti-access capabilities than its new aircraft carrier.

US Navy Tries Bow and Arrow
Credit: Kiwi Flickr

Much ink has been spilled recently over the Chinese aircraft carrier Shi Lang, which is expected to make its maiden voyage soon. Yet despite the unease over this development felt in some quarters in the West, many analysts see the Shi Lang as of relatively minor strategic importance.

The main reason for this is that Chinese investment in an aircraft carrier fleet doesn’t necessarily mean that the country is seeking to challenge the United States’ unquestionable military dominance in the region. Such an effort would at this stage simply be a vast waste of resources. Instead, the aim of the Chinese carrier is to emphasize the strong Chinese presence in East and Southeast Asia – the carrier is aimed at shaping perceptions, rather than matching US capabilities.

As many American scholars have frequently noted, what’s really making US military officials anxious is the rapid Chinese progress in anti-access capabilities. As Diplomat blogger James Holmes noted in Foreign Policy this week, ‘Beijing is already fielding an impressive cruise missile navy specifically designed to deny US naval forces access to Asian seas and skies during a Taiwan confrontation or some other upheaval.’ In the event of a contingency, the cruise missiles’ impact would be augmented by Chinese diesel-electric submarines, land-based ballistic missiles and tactical aircraft. The result would be the creation of an effective no-go zone for US forces.

It was, of course, only a matter of time before anti-access technologies started to play a pivotal role in the Asia-Pacific region. As noted by Barry Posen in his classic article ‘Command of the Commons’,  in a contested zone, ‘weak adversaries have a good chance of doing real damage to US forces’ due ‘to the combination of political, physical and technological facts.’

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The United States has for some time now been experimenting with a number of potential responses to such a strategy. Since approaching the theatre of operations could be highly costly, new ways of countering China must be examined and assessed.

The US Defence Department’s long-range strike ‘family of systems’ (land-based bombers, carrier-based strike aircraft, cruise missiles and supporting EA platforms) has been at the centre of the department’s research and development programmes. The key question has been whether to upgrade existing capabilities or invest in the deployment of new ones.

Boeing received a study contract worth $480,000 from the US Navy related to its UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft programme, while the Army and Navy are seeking collaboration for a new VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) surveillance drone. UAVs seem promising in a strategic environment where anti-access strategies dominate. The Chinese ASBM (Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile) DF-21D achieved Initial Operational Capability last December, making carrier-launched stealth and long-range drones an attractive option.  The Navy seems determined to have them on the decks by 2018.

One of the most controversial ideas under development is Conventional Prompt Global Strike. During the very early stages of the CPGS, the idea was to combine nuclear delivery systems with conventional warheads to meet the challenges posed by rogue states or non-state actors (North Korea and Iran would have been high up in policymakers’ minds). However, China and Russia dismissed CPGS as being highly disruptive to the existing strategic order, given that a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead can’t be distinguished from a conventionally loaded one. As a result, the US government turned to ‘boost glide’ options and hypersonic vehicles.

As Defense News reported this month, ‘boost glide concepts use rocket boosted payload delivery systems that glide at hypersonic speeds in the atmosphere for most of their flight path, giving them a distinctly non-ballistic flight trajectory.’ Hence, a hypersonic glider has the advantage of being distinguishable from a ballistic missile, whose payload would remain a mystery until it reaches its target. However, any further investment in the CPGS project will hinge on the results of flight tests, which so far haven’t been encouraging. Indeed, the Boeing X-51A Waverider, tested for the second time a couple of weeks ago, was considered to have had a ‘less than successful’ showing, with the engine boosting the vehicle to around Mach 5, rather than the expected Mach 6.

Such unsuccessful tests are no doubt greeted with a sigh of relief among Chinese experts keeping a watchful eye on the project. After all, CPGS, apart from targeting Chinese anti-access capabilities, is a headache for China in terms of nuclear strategy as well. Chinese scholars have, for example, expressed unease with any US CPGS option, even if there is a pre-launch warning as the United States has suggested.

A breakthrough in the CPGS option could threat China’s nuclear arsenal with a conventional strike, a fact that undermines China’s no first-use (NFU) pledge. The Chinese NFU policy provides for a retaliatory strike once a nuclear attack against China has taken place. The Chinese doctrine, however, avoids outlining any clear policy in the event of a conventional strike against the Chinese nuclear arsenal. If this happened, a Chinese retaliatory strike could be interpreted as a first strike, which would contravene the doctrine.

The US focus on long-range strike capabilities suggests a shift in operational and strategic thinking triggered by anti-access strategies aimed at keeping US forces at a distance. Land-based systems or forward forces used as launch pads for UAVs or missiles will therefore be at the centre of US military thinking for decades.

Political scientist Paul Bracken argues that ‘the Eastern way of war is embodied by the stealthy archer’ while ‘the metaphorical Western counterpart is the swordsman, charging forward, seeking the decisive blow.' But for now, at least, it seems the United States has picked up a bow and arrow. 

Eleni Ekmektsioglou is a Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. She holds a Masters degree from the King's College London War Studies Department.