05 January 2011

China Targeting U.S. Deterrence

Michael Richardson, China Targeting U.S. Deterrence,” Japan Times, 5 January 2011.

In 1996, China fired ballistic missiles and held military exercises in waters close to Taiwan to warn the electorate not to vote for a pro-independence candidate in presidential elections. In response, the United States sent two aircraft carriers and their warship escorts to the area. It was a display of American naval might and striking power that Beijing could not counter.

Since then, China has given top priority to developing a defense system known in military jargon as anti-access area denial. A key part is the world’s first hypersonic ballistic missile armed with a high-explosive warhead capable of tracking and hitting U.S. carriers 1,500 km or more from the Chinese mainland. …

Since World War II, America’s global nonnuclear deterrent power has rested heavily on its ability to send carrier groups to far-flung trouble spots, including the Asia-Pacific region, without serious risk that they would be damaged or sunk. If China could challenge such deployments with its anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), the basis of U.S. deterrence in Asia might be questioned and the value of its alliances in the region called into doubt.

But would they? In a Japanese newspaper interview published Dec. 28, the head of U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Robert Willard said that China’s increasingly powerful military had “achieved initial operational capability” with its ASBM, although full flight testing might take several more years. Exactly what he meant by “initial operational capability” of the land-based Dong Feng-21D missile is not completely clear. U.S. military manuals say it means that some units scheduled to get the weapons have got them, and can maintain and use them.

Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who follows China’s ASBM development, said that the Second Artillery, China’s strategic missile force, “already has a capability to attempt to use the DF-21 D against U.S. carrier strike groups, and therefore likely expects to achieve a growing degree of deterrence with it.” Other analysts say that even if the ASBM is in the early stages of deployment, there is still enough time for the U.S. to develop effective missile defenses or take other countermeasures.

However, some of the latter would be profoundly destabilizing. … Indeed, if China hit and sank a U.S. carrier with an ASBM it would be “bigger than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined,” according to John Pike, founder of the Washington-based think tank Global Security. “America would want payback,” he added. “Would Beijing want to go there?”

With such high stakes involved, under what circumstances, if any, would China use ASBMs to attack the U.S. Navy? …