China is challenging all major foundations of American military power, a former U.S. defense official said in a speech Wednesday.
Since the end of the World War II, U.S. military superiority has relied on three major foundations, Trey Obering, the former director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), told an audience at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. These were superior strategic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities (ISR); the ability to project power globally; and an overwhelming dominant technological advantage across a spectrum of conflict.
But China, Obering said, was now challenging all three of these major foundations of American power.
“I believe that China is challenging the United States, specifically targeting our strategic ISR, our power projection capabilities, and our technological advantages with their missile programs,” he said.
Obering, who had a military career spanning 35 years before becoming executive vice-president at Booz Allen Hamilton, addressed China’s threat to each of these three foundations in turn.
On the first, China has already demonstrated its capability to destroy low, earth-orbiting satellites with its anti-satellite missile test in 2007, a test that was repeated earlier this year. But, he said, Beijing is already developing a capability to reach even higher orbits which would allow it to target “nearly all of our [American] space assets.”
More worryingly, Obering said that while the United States relies heavily on space-based capabilities, the United States “has not chosen to view space in the same way” that it views air, land, and sea when it comes to protecting critical lines of communication.
Turning to the second foundation – global power projection – Obering said China was challenging U.S. carrier battle groups, a key capability for deterrence and, if needed, striking an enemy on its soil. For instance, Beijing has developed a medium-range anti-ship missile, the DF-21, which is “clearly and specifically targeted” at U.S. carrier battle groups.
“This missile is a formidable threat which represents very advanced technology,” he warned.
Moving on to the third foundation – technological superiority – he said that in his view, China was clearly not content with its current advancements but was moving to surpass the United States technologically.
“Looking to the future, is China satisfied with the developments they have achieved, or are they moving towards trumping U.S. technological capabilities? I believe the latter is the case.”
As an example, he noted that earlier this year, China confirmed that it had successfully tested its Wu-14 hypersonic vehicle – which can travel at ten times the speed of sound – on four occasions, with the latest in June this year.
“With characteristics of both very high speed and maneuverability, this would be a formidable challenge to any air and missile defense system,” Obering said.
To counter this threat from China, Obering said the United States should pursue three thrusts to strengthen the foundations of its military power.
First, Obering said Washington should take a dramatically revised approach as to how it develops and fields missile defense capabilities. That means not just focusing on individual systems like Patriot, THAAD and Aegis, but thinking more in terms of “integrated architectures.”
Achieving this integrated approach, he said, would require several steps. At the most basic level, it would mean integrating existing capabilities to better leverage sensors, communications, and command and control. But it would also require integrating missile defense capabilities with offensive capabilities – which means new concepts, tactics, techniques, procedures, training as well as greater collaboration and partnerships with allies to leverage their strengths as well.
“This approach can begin to close some of the gaps and help reduce costs to focus our declining budgets on future investments,” he said.
Second, the United States should re-energize its science and technology programs and its state of the art research at the Missile Defense Agency as well as its national labs. Just as the current ballistic missile defense capabilities the U.S. fields today are the product of two decades of investments from when then President Ronald Reagan started the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, Obering suggested that Washington needs to invest smartly and significantly today for the capabilities of tomorrow.
“We must revitalize that investment,” he said.
This could be accomplished in several ways. He suggested that mature programs well under production should be transferred to a lead service for operations and sustainment to free up funding. Washington should also dramatically expand investment in next generation capabilities like advanced kill vehicles, directed energy weapons and space-based capabilities.
Third and lastly, Obering said Washington must treat space for what it is: a domain where the United States must be prepared to fight and win.
“As I said, the battle space is growing into space. Failure to understand this reality could hurt us,” he said.
That means both developing new and better capabilities to defeat space threats as well as using all U.S. national capabilities and investigate what the country can bring to bear via technical and even commercial means.
“By integrating a spaced-based layer with our existing considerable terrestrial systems, we can begin to address this growing threat environment,” he said.
Asked whether China may simply be trying to defend its own interests rather than challenging American power, Obering said he preferred to focus squarely on Chinese capabilities – which are quantifiable and take longer to develop – rather than intent which is much more difficult to assess and can change a lot quicker.
“China can be very aggressive today and be our ally tomorrow. The intent changes [but] capability is what you have to watch, he said. “[You should] not solely rely on a nation’s good intent, because you have to have the ability ultimately to protect your national security,” he added.