China’s newest anti-ship missile just won the war over Taiwan without firing a shot.
As recently as 2005, Robert Ross wrote, “Taiwan is as secure as ever,” because of the U.S. having the ability to intervene in any conflict from both Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, and the 7th carrier group, also based in the region. A mere six years later, the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait is shifting. The Chinese are now perfecting anti-satellite and anti-ship missile capabilities that, while giving it the defensive capabilities needed by any large country to feel secure, it gives China the ability disrupt the projection of U.S. power in the region, leaving Taiwan vulnerable to attack. The “Dong Feng” 21D, or DF-21D, a long-range ballistic missile developed by the Chinese, is, according the U.S. Defense Department’s 2010 report to Congress, “intended to provide the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) [with] the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.” If the PLA is able to destroy a U.S. aircraft carrier at sea, it will challenge the projection of U.S. power in the region. Indeed, according to an unclassified 2008 RAND report titled Air Combat Past, Present, and Future, which sought to articulate U.S. prospects in likely combat scenarios, “Air superiority is [the] foundation for all U.S. conventional military operations. Without air superiority U.S. Joint [concept of operations] unravel.”
In China’s Search for Military Power, James Fravel attributes such a development to China’s interest in “strengthening or developing three general military capabilities: internal control, area denial around its periphery, and limited regional force projection.” According to Fravel, at sea, “China’s military preparations for potential conflict over Taiwan have focused on delaying or slowing the deployment of U.S. forces to the theater.” By deploying a single weapon with the capability of destroying the heart of the United States’ 7th Fleet, (or at least present the credible threat of destruction), China can effectively challenge three decades of rhetoric from the United States, declaring it is ready to shed its own blood for the physical security of Taiwan.
Until recently, the standard line has been that the Chinese are militarily 20 years behind the United States, ever since the United States’ rapid technological expansion of the U.S. military in 1991’s Revolution in Military Affairs. According to Columbia University Professor of Chinese Foreign Policy, Andrew Nathan, China has monitored U.S. military technology closely and is very aware of their comparative weaknesses. In light of this, China has sought ways to turn their disadvantages into opportunities for innovation. For instance, one Chinese military education manual emphasizing the principle that, “[The Chinese must] explore the art of the inferior defeating the superior under high-tech conditions.” As Thomas Christensen, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University points out, “by being more innovative than the United States by necessity, China might then skip levels of technological development in the ongoing revolution in military affairs and quickly close the gap with [the] United States.” For this reason, these missiles are critically important to China, as they enable it to create a defensible position against the United States despite being outgunned tactically, logistically, and technologically.
These technologies, however, are yet to be perfected. As global strategist and former advisor to the Defense Department, Thomas Barnett, points out that, “One missile on one ship in the beta-testing phase does not a deployment make.” He also underscores more conservative estimates that indicate a fully functional deployment may still be four years off. The debate continues, with the crux of the issue being over China’s intent. Is it a “peaceful rise,” as China puts it? Or is it a shot across the bow, a harbinger of the next cold war?
According to Christensen, there are several reasons why a weaker China might want to challenge the United States. While his article Posing Problems without Catching Up about the so-called “counter-revolution in military affairs” was written in 2001, long before either of these capabilities appeared as a threat, the principle of his argument remains relevant. If China views their window of opportunity closing, says Christensen, either from an intolerable delay in diplomatic reunification, or they think that the U.S. unwilling or unable to go to war over Taiwan, they may feel inclined to take swift action against the island.
Optimists elect to view the development of these weapons not from the perspective of the United States, but from that of a China that feels boxed in, militarily. Strategists like Fravel argue that China would be guilty of neglect if it denied itself these capabilities for the sake of not making the U.S. uncomfortable. “China sees its own military posture as defensive and nonthreatening.” Says Fravel, while Barnett sees it more as a matter of fairness.
China parks no carriers off our coast, nor does any war games up close, nor has any air force bases within strike range. We have all those on China, and we publish war plans in detail saying we’ll bomb their entire country and destroy all their shipping and sink all their naval vessels – for starters! [So] I don’t think its particularly “provocative” for the Chinese to develop [the DF-21D]
Nevertheless, for Realists the debate over propriety is a moot point. However benign the threat is in reality, as Time Magazine points out, “Anything that seriously threatens U.S. aircraft carriers in the western Pacific calls into question the Pentagon’s entire war plan for defending Taiwan against aggression from the Chinese mainland.” That is why Realists and Optimists find themselves overlapping by default. Even without trying to match U.S. power in the region China will unavoidably trigger fears that these weapons have not just defensive, but offensive aims. Fravell points out that “Chinese texts on military operations stress ways of defeating stronger opponents.” In that vein, it should be no surprise that the Chinese have also adapted technology from the DF-21 to create the SC-19 anti-satellite missile.
In 2007, China “shocked” the world when it announced that it had destroyed a dying weather satellite with a kinetic strike weapon designed specifically for that purpose. The Defense Department describes this as part of the PLA’s desire for the capability to “blind and deafen the enemy.” The same PLA analysis of U.S. and Coalition military operations also states that, “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors…will deprive the opponents of initiatives on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision guided weapons into full play.” Despite a press release saying that the missile was not meant to target any specific country, it is clear that the Chinese wanted to send a message to any country that values their satellites that they should not expect those satellites to remain operational if one of these countries interferes militarily in Chinese affairs (e.g., Taiwan).
As Andrew Nathan writes in China’s Search for Security, U.S. military capabilities are heavily reliant on technology to corral the mountains of data provided from field based, space based, and air based sensors. Nathan, when asked about the capability to render those technologies useless with anti-satellite weapons, stressed that, “One satellite [shot down] does not necessarily mean that they can blind the U.S. completely.” Indeed, there are technological responses being developed to counter such efforts. One emerging technology could allow for a small and simplified version of today’s larger satellites to be constructed in days or hours, and launched into orbit soon after. According to The Economist, there are even technological innovations to permit the launching of a satellite from the undercarriage of fighter jets, meaning that a navy finding itself “blinded” in a Chinese attack could replace its own satellite within hours. It should also be noted that different kinds of satellites fly at different altitudes. While spy and military communications satellites must fly in a low orbit of only several hundred miles, the higher end of the SC-19’s target range, “global positioning” and other satellites, fly at tens of thousands of miles in altitude and are thus still safe.
At this point, applying these new technologies to possible conflict scenarios best demonstrates how the balance of power that favors the United States in the Western Pacific may not be as certain as it once was. Going back to Robert Ross’ piece in 2005, a time when the U.S. still was basking in the warmth of the Revolution in Military Affairs, “Chinese leaders know that should there be a war in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. Navy would intervene and the cost to China would be intolerable.” But the situation may now be just the opposite.
According to Christensen, a September 1999 article in the PLA daily, Jiefangjun Bao, argued against the American willingness to fight a high casualty war.
“Hegemonists fear, first of all, personnel casualties…The strong reaction of the American public to the death of 16 Rangers during the U.S. invasion of Somalia forced the U.S. Army to withdraw its troops from Somalia…. The defensive side should make good use of the dread of the enemy, and choose the right methods of operation… including distant air attacks, long-range raids, concealed sabotage by secret service personnel, network break-in, and sneak attacks against enemy warships.” (The same author faults Saddam Hussein for not striking American and Saudi bases in the multi-week staging process prior to Desert Storm.)
This is particularly relevant in any simulations that pit the PLA against the United States in a bid for Taiwan. For the U.S., military conflicts in recent memory have been against forces that can only offer the occasional sniper’s bullet or roadside bomb. It has not suffered a heavy bombardment against its force for more than forty years. The possible costs of going into conflict with a so called “peer power” over Taiwan will make U.S. policy makers very wary of intervention if it means risking the sinking of a ship with 6,250 personnel on board, and the Chinese factor this into their calculations.
Using the RAND report assessing the practicality of American air power against a quickly modernizing China, a simulation of such a conflict was run in January by Popular Mechanics. It focused on how emerging technologies like the DF-21D will undermine present security strategies in the region, particularly in the case of Taiwan. In their simulation, the Taiwanese military awakens one morning to missile attacks on their airbases, rendering them unusable. Before the U.S. has time to scramble its F-22s from Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, thirty-four short-range ballistic missiles crater the runways and taxiways, destroying or stranding 75 percent of aircraft, according to RAND.
As the closest American aircraft carrier at the time, the U.S.S. George Washington races towards Taiwan, a volley of DF-21Ds fires off into space from the Chinese mainland. The missiles reenter the atmosphere traveling as fast as 8,000 miles per hour and tracking the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. George Washington as it responds to the attack. At that speed, it penetrates the 50km of atmosphere in a mere 22 seconds. While some Defense officials claim that it is not an Achilles heel for the fleet, it is hard to believe that any system, even new laser based defenses, can do much against the missile if it is a kinetic energy weapon which is not vulnerable to small explosives or lasers. A single strike from the DF-21D could incapacitate the carrier by destroying its surface runway without sinking it but forcing it to turn home. In this scenario, China would count on the United States’ aversion for high casualties to enable a Taiwanese surrender.
China’s calculations that the conflict would be over within hours and relatively bloodless could convince them that the political fallout of an unprovoked attack on Taiwan would be worth the engagement. Worse yet, they could very well win such a campaign with the U.S. fatigued by more than a decade of combat, causing them to hesitate committing fully to war with a “near peer” and the high-casualties that come with it. This is why the emergence of a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile represents such a shift in Pacific power. For all intents and purposes, the DF-21D puts an end to more than six decades of U.S. dominance in the Pacific, making the future of U.S. global hegemony anything but certain.