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NavWeek: Chinese Fireworks

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As the U.S. takes sharper aim at the Asia-Pacific, China has American military vulnerabilities more squarely in its sights, according to regional geopolitical and military experts.

And China’s growing strength should give U.S. commanders pause, they say. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the PLA Navy (PLAN) defensive network have made the waters approaching China –- even some of the disputed maritime territories -– dangerous for American ships and aircraft, especially in the traditional way they have been used.

“China’s military modernization program, begun in earnest after PLA planners carefully studied the results of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crises, has been specifically designed to exploit the vulnerabilities in U.S. force structure, doctrine and planning,” analyst Robert Haddick says in its recent book, “Fire on the Water  -– China, America and the Future of the Pacific.”

“Assumptions that U.S. commanders have long taken for granted will no longer be operative by the end of this decade,” Haddick says. “Under these conditions, U.S. military forces in the region, while on paper still the most formidable, will be vulnerable to frustration and defeat in a potential conflict against China. Should China’s policymakers and military planners reach this conclusion, it would result in greater Chinese aggressiveness during a crisis and increased chance of conflict.”

He contends, “Military doctrine, long-ingrained service cultures, and defense acquisition practices have resulted in U.S. military forces that are far too heavily weighted toward short-range weapon systems unsuited for the vast operational distances in East Asia. Military commanders and planners have become too comfortable with the assumptions that their lines of communication between forward theaters and the continental U.S. will remain unchallenged as they have been since 1945. Military planners continue to assume that they will be able to sustain in future conflicts the ‘American way of war,’ centered on maximizing the number of combat aircraft sorties from centralized air bases and aircraft carriers, just as their predecessors have consistently done since 1945.”

Chinese military planners have studied U.S. operating methods and have developed weapon systems and plans of their own to thwart them, Haddick says, adding that by next decade, China will have the capacity to inflict substantial damage on U.S. forces in the Western Pacific, out to about 2,000 km from China’s coast.

“Long-standing practices built up over many decades have resulted in a U.S. military posture in East Asia that is not prepared for the challenge China will present by 2020,” he says.

There are more than a few Navy officials who agree with Haddick.

“China is exploiting a revolution in conventional missile and sensor technology that is greatly expanding the ability of tis forces, mostly land-based, to threaten even well-established warships and military targets thousands of kilometers from its territory,” Haddick says. “The rapid maturation and falling cost of the technology associated with the missile and sensor revolution is allowing the PLA to greatly expand on the techniques and tactics the Soviets began developing four decades ago.”

The Navy’s culture places a very heavy weight on its aircraft carriers and associated carrier air wings, which are also dominated by short-range fighter-attack aircraft, Haddick says.

With this in mind, he says, the Chinese are stealing a page from the old Soviet playbook. 

“Russians developed the ‘reconnaissance strike complex’ –- long-range and land-based threat to the Navy’s aircraft carriers entailed three components: ocean surveillance satellites, submarines and reconnaissance aircraft that would find the American aircraft carriers; the Tu-22M Backfire maritime strike bomber and the KH-22 M Kitchen supersonic antiship cruise missile,” he notes. “Operating from bases near the Murmansk or the Soviet far east, the Backfire had a combat radius of about 5,000 km. Added to this, the Kitchen’s range of about 460 km … outranged the carrier’s strike aircraft by a factor of at least four.”

In the late 1970s and extending into the Reagan administration in the 1980s and then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, Navy commanders and planners acquired platforms, weapons and tactics to fight back against the threat presented by the Soviet reconnaissance strike complex, he says.

The U.S. planned to use F-14s armed with long-range Phoenix air-to-air missiles as well as the Aegis combat system and new surface-to-air missiles on its cruisers and destroyers for fleet air defenses and tactics designed to find and shoot down the Backfires before they could launch their antiship missiles.

“Because the Cold War ended without a shootout between the Backfires and the U.S. Navy, we will never know which side had the advantage,” he says.

China has improved on the old Soviet plan.  It will use “a wide variety of ballistic and cruise missile types, land-based aircraft, missile-armed patrol craft, submarines, surface warships and naval mine warfare to dissuade U.S. and allied naval forces and airpower from approaching the near seas during hostilities.”

By next decade, he contends, the missile-and-sensor revolution will allow China to dominate the sea from the land out to unprecedented distances. “China plans to control its maritime approaches without having to match the U.S. Navy warship for warship.”

He says, “Chinese Flanker aircraft, armed with the latest models of ASCMs [anti-ship cruise missiles], will present the first, and perhaps most dangerous, threats to U.S. surface ships, such as those in carrier and expeditionary strike groups.’

As noted military analyst and China expert Michael Pillsbury says in his 2000 book, “China Debates the Future Security Environment,” China has been working on this kind of approach for a while.

He says a Chinese “asymmetric approach to defeating a more powerful navy is to use shore-based missiles and aircraft instead of developing a large (symmetrical) naval fleet.

Chinese thinking, he says, runs along these lines: “As land-based weapons will be sharply improved in reaction capacity, strike precision and range it will be possible to strike formations at sea, even individual warships.”

And while Aegis has become the gold standard for shipboard missile defense -– with plans for improvement –- China very well may be able to overpower the combat system with the technology if not the sheer number of its missiles.

A Naval College Review says Aegis could be “ineffective against these supersonic cruise missiles,” Pillsbury points out in his book, “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower,” published earlier this year.

The Pentagon worries, Pillsbury says, China has enough missiles to wipe out the Navy’s carrier battle groups.

But what is China’s end game in all of this? According to Pillsbury, the Asian giant wants to wipe out the century-long humiliation the country has suffered in the international arena and supplant the U.S. as the world’s major national force by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the communist revolution.

China’s supremacy, experts predict, may be more economic in nature. But be assured –- the military component will be a major part of any future power equation. And to gain credibility, the Chinese know they need to be able to face down the U.S., especially in Asia-Pacific waters.

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