China’s A2/AD “System of Systems”

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China’s A2/AD “System of Systems”

While high-tech weapons may get all the attention, the organizational aspects of any military are important. China is no exception.

In support of James’ excellent discussion of the likely contours of a U.S.-China conflict, it’s worth spending a bit of time to discuss how the PRC’s anti-access capabilities have come together.  Much recent work has concerned the DF-21A “carrier killer” ballistic missile, but that capability represents only a small part of the system of anti-access systems that China operates. 

Before the ASBM became the threat of the day, attention concentrated on the PLAN’s submarine fleet. Although likely to suffer heavy attrition from the U.S. Navy’s (USN) Anti-Submarine Warfare assets, PLAN diesel electric subs could cause serious damage to USN assets, and perhaps more importantly could force USN carrier groups to operate in a more cautious manner.  PLAN nuclear subs could interdict USN efforts deep in the Pacific, or at least draw the USN’s own subs away from the critical theater of operations

The PLAN surface fleet carries a variety of weapons  (including, most notably, anti-ship cruise missiles) that could threaten USN warships, although some of the platforms (destroyers) might be too expensive to sacrifice against formidable U.S. surface and air units.  The PLAN also operates a large number of missile boats, expendable vessels that could nevertheless threaten major U.S. ships with serious damage.

The PLAN and the PLAAF both control strike and air superiority aircraft crucial to any effort to deny the USN and USAAF access to China’s littoral.  These aircraft carry cruise missiles similar to those launched from surface ships and land bases, but can attack from unpredictable vectors, making the job of air defense exceptionally difficult. 

The Second Artillery has responsibility not only for the PLA’s array of ballistic missiles, but also for its cruise missiles.  Land launched cruise missiles can strike both U.S. vessels at sea and U.S. bases on land, causing disruption and destruction.  Ballistic missiles can similarly target fielded U.S. and allied forces.  Defending against both cruise and ballistic missiles presents the USN and USAF with an extremely complex set of problems. 

Each of the elements of this system-of-systems carries different political implications. Cruise missile attacks against U.S. bases in Japan would risk forcing Japan into the conflict. Attacks against U.S. carriers from submarines or surface ships would require large scale retaliation against the PLAN.  Missiles, whether ballistic or cruise, launched from the mainland would invite direct attacks against the Chinese homeland.  Finally, any ballistic missile launch against U.S. forces runs the risk of nuclear escalation; the Americans don’t know what kind of warhead a missile carries before the missile hits. In order to manage escalatory concerns, the Chinese civilian leadership will have to maintain tight control over the services that share the maritime responsibilities of the anti-access mission.

I’ve belabored the organizational aspects of China’s system of anti-access systems because bureaucratic boundaries matter. AirSea Battle seeks, above all, to iron out the wrinkles that could prevent tight cooperation between the United States Navy and the United States Air Force.  Years of hard won experience have demonstrated that military organizations don’t necessarily play well together; they have different priorities, different practices, and often different system of communication that generate friction and detract from overall capability.  The history of USN and USAF collaboration in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, and the Gulf is littered with stories of hostility, rivalry, and miscommunication. The Pentagon understands this, and over the years has enacted a plethora of reforms (not least the Goldwater-Nichols Act) to ensure that the Air Force and the Navy can operate effectively together.

As of yet there is little indication that the PLAN, PLAAF, and 2nd Artillery have developed the practices necessary to ensure an efficient, effective partnership in battle.  To be sure, we have little evidence that the three organizations cannot collaborate effectively, but what we know of the history of inter-service conflict suggests a high potential for friction.  The Chinese military has not had the opportunity to work through that friction in realistic, wartime conditions.  USPACOM undoubtedly understands this, and in any militarized conflict will likely seek to discern, attack, and exploit the boundaries that separate the different organs of the PLA.  Consequently, there is good reason to believe that the system-of-systems may add up to less, rather than more, than the sum of its parts.