As 2018 gets underway, much of the world’s focus on East Asia is on the Korean peninsula, concern over advances in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, and the potential for either preventive attacks by the United States or the threat of a crisis spiraling out of control. Nonetheless, in 2017 we saw significant progress and indications of China’s efforts to erode the United States’ military advantages in the Western Pacific, as well as some of the United States’ plans to blunt China’s bid for military dominance in the region. Whatever else transpires in Northeast Asia or on trade, these are four Sino-U.S. military trends to keep an eye on in 2018.
Militarizing the South China Sea
China’s militarization of the South China Sea is an admittedly a perennial concern, ever since the scale of China’s island reclamation and base construction became clear. In remarks at the White House in 2015, China’s President Xi Jinping assured that China didn’t “intend to pursue militarization” in the Spratly Islands it occupied.
Xi’s statement was somewhat more ambiguous than the “pledge” not to militarize that it is often characterized as, and China’s occupied features in the Spratlys now contain long-range radars and sensor facilities, runways, hardened aircraft hangars, and other military infrastructure that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs describes as “necessary defense facilities.”
For all that capacity, China has yet to deploy actual force-projection systems like military aircraft or missiles to the Spratlys. Perhaps China is exercising restraint out of concern that overt and unambiguous militarization would provoke undesired responses from the United States or others in the region (for the time being). Or, given reports that China has completed more than 70 acres of new infrastructure construction on those islands in the last year, it’s possible that its facilities are simply not ready to support permanent deployments of fighters or missiles yet, and is waiting until they are. Or a combination.
With the Trump Administration likely occupied with North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and the United States’ trade imbalance with China, but also ongoing negotiations with the ASEAN over a binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, 2018 will be a year to see what does, or does not, show up on those islands in the Spratlys.
A Hypersonic Arms Race
Advances in hypersonic weapons or their eventual deployment could have greater long-term impact on the potential for escalation in a Sino-U.S. conflict than any other trend discussed here.
Compared to supersonic weapons that often travel at one or two times the speed of sound, hypersonic weapons travel at five times the speed of sound or more, and provide two key capabilities. First, by traveling so fast a hypersonic weapon can hit a target anywhere in the world in under an hour, enabling something the United States calls Conventional Prompt Global Strike against time sensitive targets like a terrorist meeting or a nuclear missile being fueled for launch. Second, as missile defenses improve, a hypersonic weapon’s speed would likely defeat most defensive systems deployed to protect the most sensitive targets.
Last November, the U.S. Navy successfully tested a hypersonic Prompt Global Strike warhead launched from the same type of tube that launches nuclear weapon-tipped ballistic missiles for the first time. The U.S. Navy said there were no plans to deploy the weapons yet, and implied that the test was a proof of concept that could be rapidly operationalized if U.S. leadership chose to pursue the capability.
Reporting by The Diplomat‘s Ankit Panda revealed that around the same time as the U.S. tests, China tested its own hypersonic weapon, the DF-17. China is also building a specialized wind tunnel to test advanced hypersonic designs, and is expected to be operational by 2020. A senior scientist on the project confirmed that the wind tunnel was being built to support a burgeoning Chinese hypersonic weapons program.
These developments raise the possibility of a competition between China and the United States to develop and deploy an effective hypersonic capability, if one isn’t already underway. That competition could put new, dangerous pressures on any crisis or conflict that develops between the two countries. While the United States envisions prompt global strike as an ostensible deterrent against another country’s aggression, many analysts fear the weapons might do the opposite.
Like the U.S. Navy’s November test, many hypersonic weapons use the same missile bodies that carry nuclear weapons. This means a target country may not be able to tell whether an incoming warhead was a conventional hypersonic weapon or a nuclear one, and might then respond with their own nuclear arsenals “just to be safe.” Or, a country might fear hypersonic weapons would be used to neuter their nuclear arsenals early in a conflict, posing a “use it or lose it” dilemma at the outset of a conflict that might otherwise have stayed conventional. Finally, as Russia apparently feared when it learned of the U.S. program, the weapons could be used to simply decapitate national leadership, a concern that might also prompt earlier, stronger, conflict escalation.
China in the Undersea Domain
Dominating the undersea battlespace isn’t simply a matter of building more submarines, or making them quieter, it requires deep understanding of the dynamic environment those submarines (and your adversary’s) operate in. Against advanced U.S. capabilities, the undersea environment is still more of a liability than an opportunity for China, but it appears to be making major strides towards building the hydrographic and oceanographic profiles necessary to maximize the performance of both its own submarines and the sub-tracking and hunting capabilities it would use against an adversary’s.
Early in 2017 Chinese survey vessels were revealed to have been operating near two strategic bodies of water east of the Philippines that control access to the South China Sea from the Western Pacific. U.S. control of those waters could keep much of China’s Navy, and especially its submarines based at Hainan Island, bottled up in the South China Sea. Conversely, Chinese control of those straits could prevent the U.S. Navy from flowing into the South China Sea in response to a conflict there.
Later, photographs emerged of a unique twin-hulled vessel being built for the Chinese Navy. The ship’s resemblance to U.S. sub-tracking ocean surveillance ships suggests China is building a similar capability to detect and track submarines at long ranges.
In August, Chinese survey vessels were observed by U.S. aircraft operating near the Caroline Islands, and according to its lead researcher, the survey was part of a host of Chinese efforts to breach the Second Island Chain. Then at the end of last year, Chinese scientists conducted deep sea acoustic research in the Marianas Trench that may have significant application for detecting submarines.
At least as important as advances in its submarine fleet is China’s oceanographic work to support warfare beneath the waves, so expect 2018 to bring even more surveys and advanced underwater research.
Growing U.S & Allied Counter-A2/AD Capabilities
China’s network of Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities have caused Western strategists much anxiety, but increasingly the United States and some of its allies appear to be pursuing concepts and technologies to turn those A2/AD challenges back on China.
Last fall, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps unveiled an unclassified version of the Littoral Operations in Contested Environments concept. While not intended as a plan for a high-intensity conflict, the concept flips the traditional Navy-Marine Corps dynamic, where the U.S. Navy provides sea control to enable Marines to land ashore. Under the new concept, the Marines will help the Navy achieve and maintain sea control using weapons deployed on amphibious ships and the footholds they establish on land to project force back towards the sea.
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have already begun practicing and testing the new concept, which appears custom-made for the clusters of islands and archipelagoes spread across the Western Pacific and in the South China Sea.
The U.S. Army is moving forward with a similar concept called Multi-Domain Battle, which includes plans for sinking warships using shore-based missiles and artillery systems. The U.S. Army and Japanese Ground Self Defense Force announced they were going to practice sinking a target ship at this summer’s upcoming Rim of the Pacific Exercise.
The Japanese Ground Self Defense Force is investing in new, longer-range anti-ship cruise missiles, and building new missile installations on its remote southwestern islands near contested features in the East China Sea. A network of sensors and missiles on those islands might effectively be able to keep China’s East Sea Fleet bottled up behind the First Island Chain.
As 2018 progresses, look for new coastal missile technologies and acquisitions, deployments to far-flung islands, and new exercises both among U.S. services and with partners like Japan.