Gaps in China’s area-denial strategy

For Asia Times Online

TAIPEI – Much is being said about the Chinese military dramatically improving its combat capability to keep United States forces at arm’s length.

Anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) is the magic slogan, meaning that the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) new shore-based artillery, aircraft and naval assets could deny a rapid deployment by United States forces into the Pacific in the event of a conflict, since the US would face heavy losses. But exactly how concerned is the US?

A US military exercise that took place in April known as Operation Chimichanga provides some of the answers, but if it

wasn’t for the journalists David Axe and Noah Shachtman, nobody would have likely taken note of it outside the US army.

In an article for the American magazine Wired, the pair described a US Air Force drill in Alaska in early April, during which F-22 Raptor stealth fighters supported by older F-16s paved the way for B-1 bombers, which reduced an imaginary enemy’s air defense into rubble. As this impressive drill was pronouncedly put into a long-range strike context, it was plainly obvious that the exercise was aimed at China, according to the article.

“Officially, Operation Chimichanga was meant to validate the long-range strike capability of the B-1s as well as the F-22s’ and F-16s’ ability to escort them into an anti-access target area,” Axe and Shachtman wrote. “Unofficially, Operation Chimichanga was a proof-of-concept for the air force’s evolving tactics for battling China over the vast western Pacific … the air force would never say that.”

When North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led forces took on Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011, there was no such a thing as A2/AD strategy to worry about. Allied warships and submarines could get easily into waters off the North African coast, fire cruise missiles against Libyan commando posts and together with fighter jets destroy that country’s air-defense systems in no time at all. Once the latter was achieved, Gaddafi’s days were numbered as NATO fighter jets and attack helicopters roamed Libyan airspace with near impunity.

In the unlikely event of a US attack on China, things wouldn’t be as simple. One-and-a-half decades have passed since then-US president Bill Clinton ordered the USS Independence and USS Nimitz carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait right at China’s doorsteps to stop the Chinese from muscling Taiwan, and such a deployment will not happen again.

Since the PLA was humiliated by Clinton in the mid-1990s, it has honed the A2/AD doctrine to perfection, with the flag weapon of choice being the Deng Feng 21D (DF-21D), the ballistic “carrier killer” anti-ship missile.

Together with the Beidou satellite system, which from the end of this decade will provide the PLA missile force with precision targeting capabilities, in addition to countless other weapon systems, the DF-21D will be used to protect China and its vast territorial claims reaching from Tibet and Xinjiang to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

There also is China’s nuclear arsenal. But an American attack on China is only feasible if it was over the PLA trying to get its hands on places such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan or Australia; it is highly doubtful that the Chinese leadership would choose to press the red button in order to facilitate such a PLA crusade.

In their article on “Operation Chimichanga”, Axe and Shachtman explained what problems the US would face when taking on China with conventional weapons.

“While the Alaska test apparently proved that the stealthy strike team can defeat determined enemy forces at long range, it also underscored America’s vulnerability against the fast-growing Chinese military”, they wrote. “It takes the latest stealth fighters and upgraded bombers flying as a team to beat China, and thanks to developmental problems America has only so many of those airplanes to work with.”

The two added that while the US Air Force has about 150 bombers, only a handful of B-2s are fully stealthy. That makes the lion’s share of the bomber force vulnerable to China’s thousands of air defense positions. In theory, F-22s or the F-35s could first knock these out. But the US has fewer than 200 F-22s operational, which would be hardly enough, while the delay-plagued F-35 hasn’t even been built.

Nonetheless, experts interviewed by Asia Times Online believe that the edge the US always had over China is not gone.

According to Oliver Braeuner, a China and security expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), the notion that China’s A2/AD-protected zones have become impenetrable is greatly exaggerated.

“The United States remains the world’s number one military power and still accounted for around 41% of global defense spending in 2011,” Braeuner said.

He added that the US’s allies in the region could be destined to take over part of the dirty work.

“With the recently announced ‘pivot to Asia’, Washington has reaffirmed its commitment to regional security in the Asia-Pacific. However, this approach does not rely on US military power alone,” Braeuner said. “It will probably mean that in the future America’s regional allies will have to take over greater security responsibilities themselves as well.”

Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, thinks Beijing is misguided in its assessment on the PLA’s A2/AD capability.

“Having an operational anti-ship ballistic missile [DF-21D] will not in fact be as critical as many in Beijing think. The US Navy and Air Force will expect to suffer significant losses if the US became involved in a military confrontation with a near peer competitor,” Tsang said.

He said that the prospect of major combatant ships, such as aircraft carriers, being badly damaged or even lost would not be sufficient to deter US forces from fulfilling the orders of their political leadership.

According to Tsang, the US already has plans to deal with the A2/AD capabilities of the PLA, the most effective of which at the moment are PLA submarines. He sees the Chinese and the Americans playing a cat and mouse game that will continue to develop and change as technologies evolve.

“A ‘game changer’ is not the same as something that will put an end to the game,” Tsang said.

“This applies to when the PLA can demonstrate that its anti-ship ballistic missiles are accurate, effective and operational. The US will just respond in ways that will minimize the risk to its assets and adopt different tactics and weapon systems.”

James Holmes, an associate professor at the US Naval War College, also said that operating in China’s forbidden zones, though dangerous, has not yet become a suicide mission for US forces.

“Navies have always taken risks operating within reach of shore-based gunfire. In the age of sails, it was about cannon firing from the ramparts of fortresses,” Holmes said.

“Today, the anti-ship ballistic missile and other anti-access weaponry should be viewed as a very extended-range version of the same thing.”

Holmes sees this is a serious challenge not “because the Chinas or Irans of the world can lock the US military out of certain areas on the map”, but because they can impose steep costs for daring to enter these areas.

“Unless US decision-makers are willing to pay these costs, they may not send forces into harm’s way in times of strife. China, to name the main anti-access player, is betting that Washington values Taiwan less than it does the US Pacific Fleet.”

He then expounded on a school of thought gaining momentum in the US, called “offshore balancing”. According to Holmes, this is the notion that the US can retire from its commitments in Eurasia, entrust them to nations to balance any big power that seeks to dominate the region, and return only if local powers can’t restrain the would-be hegemon.

“That means arms [for US allies]. But what the specific arms packages should look like is another question.”

Holmes concluded on a confident note. “We are certainly working on things, and on doctrine and tactics, to overcome the Anti-Access/Area Denial challenge – to return the costs of entry to an acceptable level for us.”

John Pike, director of, a US think-tank, say the US military’s seeming lack of concern is particularly telling.

“One of the primary defenses against anti-shipping cruise missiles is the CIWS Goalkeeper gun system [which fires from ships against incoming missiles and ballistic shells],” Pike said.

“If you were worried about saturation attacks, you might add more of them to each ship. This is not happening. In contrast, during World War II the US Navy was worried about Kamikaze [pilots], and ships were absolutely encrusted with anti-aircraft guns.”

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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