China's new missile capability raises tensions
BY YOICHI KATO NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT
Adm. Robert F. Willard (The Asahi Shimbun)
China has successfully developed new ballistic missiles that can destroy aircraft carriers, according to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Coupled with China's growing submarine fleet, it is the weapon system that the United States is most concerned about.
Combined, these two weapon systems could pose a serious threat to the freedom of movement of the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific and even neutralize its power projection capabilities. This is also a grave concern for Japan.
The U.S. Department of Defense explained in its annual report to Congress last year that China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) based on an existing medium-range ballistic missile known as the CSS-5, or DF-21. It is mainly intended to deter and attack U.S. aircraft carriers from a great distance. This ASBM is called DF-21D in the United States.
Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, said in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, "An analogy using a Western term would be 'initial operational capability' (IOC)," explaining the status of the development of DF-21D.
According to Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, "IOC" means "it's already tested successfully and it's already deployed."
He went on to say: "At least one Chinese unit must have already received the DF-21D. While doubtless an area of continuous challenge and improvement, the DF-21D's C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, information, surveillance, and reconnaissance) infrastructure must be sufficient to support basic carrier strike group targeting capabilities. Based on previous deployment patterns, ever-better performing versions of the DF-21D will likely be deployed in 'waves' to different units until the majority of ASBMs reach a level of capability the People's Liberation Army (PLA) deems sufficient to meet its present deterrence objectives."
The DOD report says "the missile has a range in excess of 1,500 kilometers."
The first island chain, which runs from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan and the Philippines down to the South China Sea, is within the range.
This island chain is one of the demarcation lines that China often refers to as its own defense perimeter.
While a regular ballistic missile flies in a constant parabolic orbit once it is launched, the ASBM can change its flight path using an on-board seeker to home in on the moving target.
It is also designed to disperse submunitions over the target to maximize the area of impact and damage. If one hit the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, fighter jets and other aircraft would not be able to take off or land--even if the ship survived the attack itself. The enormous power projection capabilities of the aircraft carrier would be lost.
The ASBM is the main pillar of the weapon systems, along with submarines, which support China's "anti-access/area denial" (A2/AD) capabilities.
China decided to acquire such capabilities after it was forced to face up to the power of U.S. aircraft carriers during Taiwan's presidential election in 1996.
China staged a large-scale military exercise and fired missiles into the East China Sea off the coast of Taiwan, apparently to intimidate the candidate and his supporters, who were inclined toward independence from mainland China.
The Clinton administration dispatched two carrier strike groups to the vicinity of Taiwan to provide some sort of balance, thereby putting pressure on China and offering reassurance to the Taiwanese population. China realized it lacked the military capability to prevent such intervention by the United States and started to develop its own A2/AD capabilities mainly against U.S. aircraft carriers.
China's growing A2/AD capabilities have already had a serious impact on the freedom of movement of the U.S. Navy.
Japanese government sources said they heard U.S. government officials say that the United States would not be able to conduct "the same kind of operations it did back in 1996" because it would involve too much risk now.
Aircraft carriers symbolize U.S. power projection capabilities and deterrence. If one of those carriers were to be attacked, much less sunk, the magnitude of the shock would be immense. For U.S. friends and allies like Japan, the credibility of U.S. military capability would be shaken at its foundations.
The offsetting strategy that the United States has come up with is called "joint air-sea battle concept." It was first introduced in the Quadrennial Defense Review, which was released in February last year. According to this strategic document, "The concept will address how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across all operational domains--air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace--to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action."
A Japanese government source explains how this concept could be translated into an actual scenario of defense of Japan. If the deterrence broke down and China launched missile attacks on Japan, high value U.S. units would move or stay beyond the enemy's threat ranges. After the reorganization of the units, both air and naval forces would jointly launch counterattacks.
The report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, released last November, points out that the PLA has the capability to stage an attack with conventional missiles and close down five of six main U.S. air bases in East Asia.
The five facilities are the Misawa, Yokota and Kadena air bases in Japan and Osan and Kunsan in South Korea. The only U.S. Air Force base that is currently free from theater ballistic missile threats is Andersen in Guam.
Toshi Yoshihara, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, says: "Most people are beginning to agree that we've lost our sanctuary in the Ryukyu Island chain. Some would argue that the high volume of precision strike capabilities that the Chinese could bring to bear in terms of ballistic and cruise missiles, could render American access to Kadena obsolete."
He went on: "That is why the air-sea battle concept has come into currency in the United States. Part of it is a response to the presumption that the United States will have difficult access to these bases that were long considered sanctuaries. The United States, in conjunction with Japan, would have to fight back and regain command of the commons and access to these bases."
Last December, Japan released its new 10-year defense plan, or National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG). The document does not, however, offer any assessment of China's enhanced A2/AD capabilities in the Western Pacific. Nor does it provide any reference to the air-sea battle concept.
One Ministry of Defense official offered the following explanation: "The U.S. concept is not yet worked out in detail."
Some people in the Japanese government even express skepticism as to if and when the concept will actually be materialized into policy and plan by the United States.
Another government source points out a gap between the U.S. air-sea battle concept and Japan's "dynamic defense" concept, which made its debut in the revised NDPG.
While the U.S. concept premises a high-end war, "dynamic defense" is devised to deal with mainly what officials call a "gray zone conflict" which is neither a full-blown war nor perfect peace. China's recent provocative actions in the South China Sea and North Korea's shelling of an island off South Korea are cases in point.
Even though the United States emphasizes the importance of Japan's active participation in this new strategy, it does not seem to have a clear view on how to coordinate with Japan's new defense strategy or what kind of role Japan is expected to play. When asked about Japan's role right after he gave a speech at Keio University in Tokyo earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates only answered: "Our expectation of Japan is, first of all, they will do what is necessary in terms of their own interests, to defend Japan. But, we also welcome their broader interpretation of Japan's international responsibilities as well."
The policy of Japan's Defense Ministry is in line with the view espoused by Gates. The policy focus of Japan is in the following three areas: ballistic missile defense, anti-submarine warfare and a hardening of bases against possible attacks.
The Defense Ministry does not believe it is effective or necessary to design an artificial bridge over the conceptual gap between the strategic plans of two countries, because as Japan makes progress on these three focus areas, Tokyo automatically can meet the expectations of the United States.
Jim Thomas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense and currently vice president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington, D.C., says Japan can make two major contributions in complementing the U.S. air-sea battle plan.
"First," he said, "Japan could develop its own A2/AD defensive barrier to preclude hostile forces from threatening its southwestern islands, for example by stationing Ground Self-Defense Force anti-ship missiles on the islands to create a 'no go zone' for hostile naval ships.
Second, he went on, "Japan can improve its ability to receive and support reinforcing U.S. forces in crisis, for example by 'hardening' more airbases, improving its defenses against missiles and hostile aircraft, and establishing stockpiles of precision munitions, jet fuel and other needed materials in secure underground caches."
The situation is beginning to echo the Cold War era, when Japan could make substantial contributions to U.S. strategy of containing Soviet Union by just working on a "three straits blockade" for Japan's own defense.