Tuesday, January 5, 2010

China Develops ASBMs

The US Office of Naval Intelligence Report of August 2009, titled The People’s Liberation Army Navy: A Modern Navy with Chinese Characteristics, reveals that China is close to developing the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) system. How does this alter the military equation in the Asia-Pacific region? Development of these systems is particularly significant given that it will have the capability to defeat US carrier strike groups operating in the region, making it a “no-go-zone” for the US and other advanced navies. Such capability-building needs to be seen in conjunction with the increasingly aggressive Chinese behaviour not only with neighbours with which Beijing has border and territorial issues with, but also with the United States. More importantly, Chinese tendency to rely on military solutions to geopolitical problems can be a worrying trend. For instance, the 1996 Taiwan missile crisis is believed to be one of the factors that pushed Beijing towards the development of these missile systems. The crisis clearly showed how the PLA Navy (PLAN) was wanting in response against US navy carrier groups. However, finding military solutions to problems like Taiwan can set a dangerous trend.

The anti-ship missile systems are believed to be using the modified DF-21 missile (solid propellant ones) that has better accuracy and can carry nuclear warheads big enough to inflict damage on large naval vessels. The missiles, reportedly with a range of 2,000 kilometers, covering the second chain of islands, are aided by a network of satellites, radar and unmanned aerial vehicles that can locate US ships and then guide the weapon, enabling it to hit moving targets. The employment of a complex guidance system, low radar signature and maneuverability makes its flight path unpredictable, thereby making the tracking systems ineffective.

While there may be skepticism among analysts as to whether China has advanced to such high level of sophistication, Dai Xu, a Chinese military expert, who spoke to Global Times (China) said, “China is indeed developing anti-ship ballistic missiles. It is not a secret. During the 60th anniversary National Day military parade, China exhibited such missiles.” He however added that these systems need not necessarily have a “killer” effect, capable of defeating US fleet, as has been made out in several reports. While one may agree with such an argument, what has been worrying is Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behaviour even in the seas against the US and Japanese naval vessels and thereby the potential of these missile systems to create difficult situations in the future. One of the latest instances of such aggressive behaviour is that of the March 2009 incident in which US Navy reported that five Chinese ships harassed the US submarine surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable in the South China area. There have been also several media reports citing Pentagon reports bringing out at least half a dozen such incidents in the very same week, where US surveillance vessels were “subjected to aggressive behavior, including dozens of fly-bys by Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft.” Increasing Chinese assertiveness, based on China’s claim to the entire South China Sea as its territory and creating conflictual situations with several countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, could lead to increasing tensions and possible accidents particularly in the seas. In order to negate such effects, the US has been taking efforts to put in place an incidents at sea agreement, similar to the 1972 US-Russian Incidents at Sea Agreement. Although there is scope for these discussions in the 1998 US-Chinese Military Maritime Safety Agreement, the two sides have not been able to address these incidents in a useful manner.

The trend in Chinese military strategy is worrisome. One of the key areas that China has focused on in the last few years relates to the area denial strategy. Such a strategy will essentially restrain the ability of another country to use a particular space or facility. Such a capability will allow China to create a buffer zone around its land and maritime periphery which in turn will increase the difficulty for other states to operate close to Chinese mainland.

Chinese sea denial capability is essentially enforced through its growing submarine force. China has a force of 62 submarines, including 12 new and advanced Kilo-class Russian submarines, in addition to different classes of domestically-developed diesel submarines and several nuclear-powered attack boats. China also has a significant number of surface combatants, including air-defence guided missile destroyers such as Luyang-II and Luzhou class vessels and several powerful multi-role vessels (Sovremenny class destroyers) like Hangzhou. Besides, Beijing has a large number of different anti-ship missiles that can be launched from submarines, surface ships and airplanes and even shore-based launchers, such as the SS-N-22 Sunburn and SS-N-27 Sizzler systems procured from Russia. The US Navy does not yet have an effective way of defending their aircraft carriers against these missiles. In a potential conflict on the Taiwan Straits, the PLA Navy could possibly destroy some ships of the US carrier battlegroups, including US aircraft carriers. China also reportedly has a range of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles that can target surface ships at great distances.

Similarly, the January 2007 ASAT test provides a new platform for area denial to China. During times of conflict, the US may be restrained from using space-based assets after the test of SC-19 ASAT missile. Sea mining is another tactic that the Chinese could possibly employ in future warfare. Sea mines are available widely and at cheaper rates, whereas counter-measures are expensive and time consuming. However, given the difficulty in laying mines, and in the absence of significant air superiority, use of submarines might prove to be the best option for China. Sea-mining by air is another option. This would entail again blockading a certain section of the sea, a certain coastal area, or a certain country by way of air-dropped mines in order to blockade seaports and sea lanes as well as attack targets trying to break the blockade. Chinese military strategists estimate the role of such air blockades to increase further in the future.

Development of such capabilities with an objective of denying space to other countries in the region is a disturbing trend. The Chinese claim that its military modernisation is geared towards a Taiwan scenario only, but it does not justify the level and pace of its military upgradation. However, from a Chinese point of view, it appears that they want to develop advanced and sophisticated capabilities, particularly in the naval arena, to deny access to other modern navies that could be operating in the region, anticipating a crisis on the Taiwan Straits. In fact, General Xu Caihou, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, who was visiting the United States in October noted that its “rapid military modernization, including the deployment of advanced weapons in the Pacific, is only to meet the minimum requirements of national security.” In their perception, advanced navies such as that of the US and Japan need to be denied access to the region and therefore an increased focus on access control/denial strategies in the last few years.

While it may appear justified from a Chinese point of view, development of anti-ship missile and area denial weapon systems have upped the ante in the region and beyond. First, development of such capabilities by China could potentially lead to arms race in Asia, with countries wanting to develop systems that can counter Beijing’s ASBM capabilities. The US Navy is already looking at responses, in terms of building deep water ballistic defence destroyers. It is moving away from a strategy of building a fleet that would operate in shallow waters near coastlines to developing capabilities for deep sea anti-ballistic defenses. The US Navy is actually looking at Zumwalt DDG 1000 destroyer as the answer to the latest Chinese weapon. Admiral Lyons, while analysing the situation, wrote that the destroyer is the best option, given that it is stealthy (thereby improving the survivability), and also has “the power, cooling, space and weight margin to meet the full spectrum of future threats, both known and unknown.” While this may be the best response, the US Navy, for a variety of factors including costs, has decided to put a cap and limit production of the Zumwalt class DDG 100 to just three ships with no ballistic missile defence capability. The US Navy, instead, is planning to build more of the 30-year old design Aegis Arleigh Burke class DDG 51 destroyers which have only the most basic BMD capability. Unless the US Navy reverses the decision, this will have repercussions not only for the US but also for its allies, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Militarization of the conflict-response mechanism on Taiwan by Beijing is therefore leading to dangerous games, with arms race as a predominant feature in the coming years. US’ counter-measures to the Chinese ASBM will inevitably evoke response from Russia.

Although unlikely, a Sino-Russian conflict on the port of Vladivostok cannot be ruled out in the future. Chinese penetration into the Russian Far East, its increasing footprint in Central Asia are areas of friction between the two countries that could get sharpened in the years to come.

Similarly, Chinese assertiveness in the Indian Ocean region, its increasing presence in all the littoral countries, could spiral conflict with India. Additionally, the Chinese approach to finding techno-military solutions to these problems can lead to a destabilizing situation emerging in Asia.

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