Wednesday, January 20, 2010

China's ASBM: Dragon's New Claw

Here's a link to my article on China's ASBM capabilities published in today's Deccan Herald.

The trend in Chinese military strategy is worrisome. In the last few years, it has focused on the area denial strategy.

Development of anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities are significant given the fact that these systems do have the potential to damage or destroy large ships, including US carrier battle groups operating in the region.

The Chinese approach to finding technological or military solutions to geopolitical problems can be a dangerous trend.

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. If China succeeds, it could alter the military equation in the Asia-Pacific region.

Development of ASBM 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.

The anti-ship missile systems are believed to be using the modified DF-21 missile 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 km, 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 scepticism among analysts as to whether China has advanced to such a 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 the 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 in the seas even 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.

Pentagon reports suggests that there were at least half a dozen such incidents in the very same week, where US surveillance vessels were “subjected to aggressive behaviour, including dozens of fly-bys by Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft.”

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 in the seas.

Need for 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 US has been seeking an incidents at sea agreement, similar to the 1972 US-Russian Incidents at Sea Agreement.

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, restraining the ability of another country to use a particular space or facility, 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.

It also has a significant number of surface combatants, including air-defence guided missile destroyers such as Luyang-II and Luzhou class vessels, several powerful multi-role vessels (Sovremenny class destroyers) like Hangzhou, and 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 PLAN could possibly destroy some ships of the US carrier battlegroups, including US aircraft carriers.

Development of these weapon systems has 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 defences.

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

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