The security condition in the South and East China Seas has worsened over the past few years as territorial disputes have increased and mistrust deepened. China has grown increasingly assertive in each of the seas, which has caused suspicion among key states in the region. Moreover, regional institutions have had little impact, international law is being disregarded, and Sino-American relations appear increasingly driven by competition rather than shared interests.
The stakes for the United States in the South China Sea are high. Freedom of navigation through the sea facilitates $5.3 trillion in global trade each year, $1.2 trillion of which passes through American ports. The South China Sea is considered by many to be a “strategic bellwether” for assessing the future of American leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.
According to some analysts, whether the Western Pacific remains a peaceful maritime commons or a flashpoint for conflict between the U.S. and China, reminiscent of Cold War tensions, is likely to be decided in the South China Sea. The U.S., therefore, must preserve free access to these critical sea-lines of communication (SLOC) to maintain peace and prosperity throughout the region. However, the inability for the U.S. to project sufficient military power into the South China Sea would dramatically alter the state of affairs for the entire Asia-Pacific region. The balance that must be assessed is the ability of the U.S. military to project whatever military power it might require to prevail in a future armed confrontation with China. Equally, China’s ability to disrupt or deny U.S. force projection must also be assessed.
A cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy since World War II has been the ability to rapidly project military power worldwide to protect the nation’s interests. These interests include, but are certainly not limited to, spreading and protecting democratic governance, preserving access to strategic trading partners and resources, and reassuring allies and partners who cooperate with the United States in protecting common interests. Throughout the Cold War era, the Soviet Union presented a formidable military challenge to American power-projection capabilities. Fortunately, the superpowers succeeded in avoiding a major conflict. Even so, the U.S. military’s unrivaled ability to project and sustain large military forces around the globe was demonstrated in wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, as well as in numerous other, smaller conflicts. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s downfall the U.S. military’s power-projection abilities in defense of the nation’s interests were essentially uncontested.
This state of play is clearly coming to an end, with major implications for U.S. national security. With the diffusion of innovative military technologies to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, the U.S. military’s ability to maintain military access to the Western Pacific region is being increasingly tested. While China proclaims nonthreatening intentions, “it is an old military maxim that since intentions can change overnight—especially in authoritarian regimes—one must focus on the military capabilities of other states.”
Without question, preserving the U.S. military’s power projection capabilities will be crucial to maintaining military preeminence well into the twenty-first century. Since force projection remains foundational to U.S. defense strategy, the nation’s rebalance to the Asia- Pacific region not only revalidates this posture, but it also marks a shift that stresses the necessity for far-reaching naval and air force capabilities. This shift was made clear in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, which stressed that “U.S. maritime forces will be characterized by regionally concentrated, forward deployed task forces with the combat power to limit regional conflict, deter major war, and should deterrence fail, win our Nation’s wars as part of a joint or combined campaign.”
There were two events in the 1990s which served as the impetus for China to develop an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. First was the overwhelming success of the U.S.-led 1991 Persian Gulf War. PLA analysts were forced to rethink their ability to fight an adversary armed with technologically advanced weapons. Operation Desert Storm did conform to the Chinese view of modern wars as being fast and intense. However, the effectiveness with which the U.S. military employed airpower and joint operations to destroy an Iraqi army that was sometimes armed with Chinese weapons caused worry within the PLA that it was grossly ill prepared (both in terms of technology and military doctrine) to fight and prevail in a similar kind of war. According to one Chinese analyst:
[w]hat PLA analysts saw was not a war of the future, but a war as it could be fought today by a post-industrial power. Little the PLA had achieved by reorganization, modifying its force structure, building a better educated officer corps, reconceptualizing the manner it planned to conduct future wars, and more realistic training could offset the impact of technology on operations by well-trained, properly organized joint forces exploiting the technological sophistication of their armaments and supporting systems.
The PLA study of the Gulf War devoted significant attention to the role of the U.S. military’s intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) assets. The role of airpower garnered attention for its ability to destroy air defense and command-and-control (C2) nodes, while the U.S. use of stealth aircraft and cruise missiles underscored the problems the PLA would have in defending against an attack from a technologically advanced air force.
The U.S. reliance on force projection and forward deployment to prosecuting that successful campaign was not overlooked by PLA planners. Should a technologically and militarily superior adversary such as the U.S. be allowed to “arrive in force and on time, it will almost certainly prevail.”12 Moreover, for the U.S. to arrive in force and on time, it must have the “ability to deploy forces into theater with little risk of hostile interference.” Likewise, should war occur with the United States, PLA planners have concluded that “The U.S. military deployment process must be disrupted or neutralized and [the PLA] have successfully developed and fielded military capabilities designed to fulfill this need.”
The second event motivating the development of A2/AD strategies was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. Furious that Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui had been granted a visa to speak at Cornell University, China, fearing promotion of his nation’s independence movement, conducted missile tests in the Strait to deter the island nation from promoting its pro- independence inclinations. Consequently, the U.S. responded by deploying two aircraft carrier strike-groups into the area as a reminder of its commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of hostilities. The U.S. response “lit a fire under the Chinese military and civilian leadership,” which convinced them to develop “a variety of capabilities intended to target American aircraft carriers.” Therefore, China concluded that it was necessary to “limit America’s access to critical battlefield areas.”
The means for the United States to project sufficient military power in response to a new crisis in the South China Sea or anywhere else along China’s littorals rests largely on three pillars: carrier strike-groups, bases in Okinawa, Japan and the U.S. island territory of Guam. As China continues to invest heavily in new A2/AD capabilities, all three will become increasingly vulnerable.16 Therefore, it is worth recalling the warning issued by US Pacific Command (PACOM) in 2010:
China continues to develop weapons systems, technologies and concepts of operation that support anti-access and area denial strategies in the Western Pacific by holding air and maritime forces at risk at extended distances from the [People’s Republic of China] coastline. The PLA Navy is continuing to develop “Blue Water” capability that includes the ability to surge surface combatants and submarines at extended distances from the [Chinese] mainland.
Some ways to measure the balance
A. What are the long-term strategic goals of the U.S. and China in the Western Pacific?
B. Is it possible for both to achieve its goals short of armed conflict?
C. How has China’s A2/AD strategy developed since 1995 and how has the U.S. responded militarily, economically and politically?
D. What will the competition will look like in 5-10 years based on the previous twenty? Who has/will have the advantage?
E. How would the U.S. and Chinese fight? Knowing how critical force projection is to the U.S. military, would China attack preemptively to deny U.S. access to regional basing? Should the U.S. attack preemptively to ensure access to basing?
F. Have the Chinese embarked on a cost-imposing strategy vis-à-vis the U.S. by pitting inexpensive missiles against expensive missile defenses?
G. What is the role of U.S. allies and partners in the region?
The nature of China’s emergence as a strong regional power has presented the United States with a major challenge. Although China has been a great beneficiary of the U.S.-led international order in the Asia-Pacific, it has been reluctant to embrace all aspects of that system. Indeed, China perceives aspects of the system as threatening and objectionable, and because of its growing power it is increasingly willing to challenge the status quo – from unification with Taiwan to territorial claims and maritime rights in the South China Sea – make
China a formidable rival. China’s external objectives are clearly to exercise greater control over its periphery, achieve unification with Taiwan and to become the dominant power in Asia – objectives that will necessitate the diminishment of U.S. power and influence throughout the region. China’s achievement of these objectives would severely damage U.S. security by enabling China to become the first East Asian power to threaten the Western Pacific and the U.S. homeland since 1941.
The U.S.-China strategic competition is therefore driven by competing visions for Asia and how to achieve national security. The objectives of the U.S. are to preserve the post-war status quo in the Asia-Pacific. That is, a region that consists of strong, independent, democratic, and free-market states that are free from domination by China or any regional hegemon. Alternatively, China’s overriding objectives are to safeguard the Chinse Communist Party’s (CCP) hold on power; maintain domestic stability; sustain economic growth and development; defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity; secure China’s status as a great power and, ultimately, reacquiring regional preeminence; and safeguard China’s interests abroad. It has seemingly determined that these key strategic objectives are best served by completing its task of recovering territory lost in past wars, controlling its periphery, and slowly becoming the dominant power in Asia – for reasons of strategic culture China believes this is a position it should naturally assume.
Should China succeed in becoming the dominant hegemon in Asia the consequences for the U.S. could be quite severe. An Asia-Pacific dominated by China would likely develop economic and military spheres of influence where the U.S. would be essentially “boxed-out” – an outcome that would radically alter the international economic and security orders.24 The U.S. therefore has a vital interest in both preventing a hegemonically dominated Asia and in promoting an Asia “whole and free,” consisting of democratic nations trading among themselves and incorporated into the international economy. For the foreseeable future at least, the U.S. will need to maintain its role in preserving the status quo in the Asia-Pacific. For it to do so, it is incumbent upon the U.S. to develop new and innovative ways to continue to deter conflict and coercion, reassure allies, and to project military power into the Western Pacific in the event of conflict.
If the U.S.-China strategic competition is about competing visions for Asia, then it is also about access. China’s objective is to deny the U.S. access into many critical areas of the Western Pacific where the U.S. military will need to continue operating. The primary implements for the U.S.-China military competition will be maritime and shore-based forces with the ability to influence events in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese have two mutually supporting concepts that appear to drive their strategic approach to areas on their periphery. First, the PLAN’s objective is to establish “control” over the waters extending 200 nautical miles out from China’s coast to freely conduct what it calls “independent operations.” These operations include the ability to attack Taiwan for the purposes of reunification and to secure and develop claims to maritime resources in those waters. Second, the Chinese have been shifting slowly to an “offshore defense strategy” meant to engage potential enemies at greater distances from its major urban areas along its coast. This strategy not only emphasizes the Second Artillery Force’s (SAF) missile-centric approach to both denial and coercive operations but also its so- called string of pearls strategy of establishing relations along the Indian Ocean to lay the foundation for greater control over the Malacca Strait and other critical transit nodes (air, sea and land) into East Asia.
Considering China’s aggressive military modernization plans and its stated objective to “contest” the “second island chain,” it is wise to expect that China will seek to develop capabilities that both deny U.S. access to areas within the Western Pacific and pose a credible conventional threat to the U.S. homeland to discourage U.S. intervention in a potential Chinese sphere of influence closer to China’s littorals.
Indeed, one of the key takeaways for China from the Taiwan Strait crisis was that “aircraft carriers [are] a key element of the U.S. ability to project power.” Therefore, considerable effort is being dedicated to ways of neutralizing the combat effectiveness of carrier battlegroups. Chinese analysts are studying what they believe to be key vulnerabilities of carriers and their supporting vessels. According to these analysts, carrier battlegroups are especially vulnerable when being redeployed, during resupply, transiting a narrow waterway, [such as the Malacca Strait] or during poor weather conditions. The PLAN has observed that the U.S. derives as much as 80 percent of its airpower from carrier based aircraft during combat operations in littoral areas. Consequently, the PLAN describes U.S. carrier battlegroups as “a great threat to anti-air operations in littoral areas and should be resolutely countered.”
Looking out to 2020-2025, the military competition will be characterized by increasing Chinese efforts to control its periphery for extended periods, to intimidate U.S. allies and attempt to weaken U.S. influence, and to project power to defend its increasingly widespread economic interests.The U.S. will work to preserve its position in the region, reassure allies of its willingness and ability to defend them, and complicate China’s capability to project power in ways that threaten U.S. interests.
Trends and asymmetries
China is making substantial investments in military programs and weapons designed to improve extended-range power projection, anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), and operations in emerging domains such as cyberspace, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. China’s military modernization has already weakened the U.S. ability to project power into the Western Pacific, a trend that will be difficult to reverse given the prevailing technological, geographic, and financial constraints. Recent trends in China’s weapons development not only improve China’s capabilities to deal with contingencies along its periphery, such as a new Taiwan crisis, but will also allow the PLA to conduct a range of military operations in Asia outside China’s traditional territorial claims. According to one China analyst, “A key trend in [Asia-Pacific] is the shift from a traditional focus on territorial defense towards power projection – [t]his is new for the region and is likely to increase military-to-military contact between states.”
China’s defense spending is expected to balloon to $233 billion in 2020, up from $123 billion in 2010, according to a new report by IHS Jane’s. Important systems that either have been fielded or are under development include ballistic missiles (including anti-ship versions), anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, new surface ships, nuclear submarines, and an aircraft carrier.
The necessity to protect key trade routes, principally petroleum supplies from the Middle East, has driven the PLAN to conduct counterpiracy operations around the Horn of Africa. Clashes with Japan over maritime claims in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian claimants to all or parts of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea have caused increased tensions in these areas. Volatility on the Korean Peninsula such as the collapse of the North Korean regime could also produce a regional crisis involving the PLA. The CCP has also tasked the PLA with developing the expertise required for missions such as UN Peacekeeping Operations (UN PKO), Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR), and counterterrorism operations. These capabilities will enhance China’s options for using its military influence to support its diplomatic agenda, press regional and international interests, and resolve disputes in its favor. Simultaneously, China is surrounded by other regional powers that likely have an incentive to balance against its rise, many of whom are already U.S. allies or emerging strategic partners. Furthermore, even more so than the U.S., China is confronting a number of challenges (social, economic, demographic) that cast doubt over its ability to sustain its decades-long growth – challenges that could spark widespread internal dissent.
As of this writing U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump maintains that his goal of abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be his first order of business upon entering the oval office in January 2017. TPP (which excludes China) aims to deepen economic ties between its twelve member states, reducing tariffs and promoting trade to spur growth.
Members had also hoped to develop a closer relationship on economic policies and regulation. The agreement was designed to potentially create a new single market, something akin to the EU. TPP members have a population of roughly 800 million people (nearly twice the size of the EU market) and presently account for 40% of global trade – therefore the significance of the agreement is difficult to understate.
Although TPP is an economic agreement it is considered by some in the U.S. defense community to have significant security value. In a speech delivered on April 6, 2015 regarding the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter commented on the strategic value of the agreement to the U.S.:
[TPP] is probably one of the most important parts of the rebalance, and that’s why it has won such bipartisan support. In fact, you may not expect to hear this from a Secretary of Defense, but in terms of our rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier. It would deepen our alliances and partnerships abroad and underscore our lasting commitment to the Asia-Pacific. And it would help us promote a global order that reflects both our interests and our values.
In fact, Carter may be understating the strategic value of TPP in that the agreement is probably as important as several aircraft carriers. The collapse of TPP leaves a void in Asia that certainly undermines U.S. economic power and possibly its military power as well – a void that will certainly be filled by China. The objective of TPP was always partially strategic. The U.S. and others alongside it, from Australia to Singapore, hoped the agreement would allow them to shape the structure of international trade in Asia and beyond. It was also meant to signal the U.S.’s long-term commitment to the region – something that allies and China are now understandably questioning. Consequently, the collapse of TPP may represent a fait accompli for China in damaging U.S. power and prestige in the Asia-Pacific.
Asymmetries to Consider
Although it is outside the scope of this writing to provide a complete and comprehensive assessment of all the trends and asymmetries defining the U.S.-China military competition, the author believes there are two that are especially challenging to U.S. forces and thus deserve special attention. First, is the transformation of the Second Artillery Force (SAF) – the branch of the PLA responsible for most of China’s conventional and nuclear ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles – one of the pillars of China’s military modernization effort. China has rapidly advanced from a limited and vulnerable nuclear ballistic missile capability to one of the most imposing nuclear and conventional ballistic missile programs in the world. According to a recent U.S. Department of Defense report on the PLA, “China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile programs in the world.” In doing so China has managed to exploit restrictions placed on the U.S. under the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. As a signatory to the treaty, the U.S. (and Russia) is prohibited from producing nuclear and conventional ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 300-3,400 miles and was forced to destroy existing stockpiles. Chinese ground launched cruise missiles at the upper limit of these ranges have the ability to hold at risk or attack fixed bases and ships at distances well beyond the second island chain.
With the overarching goal of denying the U.S. military access to the Western Pacific in mind, the PLA has paid particular attention to acquiring systems with the capability to detect, track and engage U.S. carrier battlegroups at greater distances from its littorals – increasing the costs of entry for the U.S. at minimal cost to China. According to the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), China is “developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading certain missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.” To accomplish the goal of increasing the cost of entry China has embarked on a cost imposing strategy vis-à-vis U.S. carrier battlegroups. According to U.S. naval strategist James Holmes, the U.S. is burdened by a huge cost disadvantage in its maritime competition with China. In The State of the U.S.-China Competition, Holmes points to the estimated $10.5 billion cost of building the next generation aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford – not including its air wing or escort ships. He estimates that if the average PLA antiship cruise missile (ASCM) costs as much as a U.S. Navy Harpoon Block II ASCM (which he doubts) the PLA Navy could afford 8,750 missiles for the price of a single Ford-Class carrier.
This is clearly an unfavorable ratio and considering the cost of the USS Gerald R. Ford has ballooned to nearly $13 billion since Holmes’ writing, it is even more so.
Second, the Chinese have made significant investment in various types of antiship mines with an arsenal estimated to range from 50,000 to 100,000 individual weapons. Sea mines are growing more sophisticated and their development is outpacing countermeasures in mine detection and clearing technologies. Modern sea mines possess stealthy shapes and nonmagnetic materials to prevent detection, delayed activation timers, ship counters, rocket propulsion, and sophisticated multisensory detonators. More advanced versions will have the capability to bury themselves in the seabed and reposition after initial planting, while others will target ships with torpedoes.
The U.S. Navy has acknowledged the severity of the sea mine threat. According to the 2010 Navy Operations Concept (NOC), the sea mine is considered “the greatest area-denial challenge in the maritime domain … capable of constraining maneuverability from deep waters past the surf zone to the maximum extent of the littoral.” James FitzSimonds agrees. A research professor with the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College, FitzSimonds posits that “among all the naval warfare areas, the mine versus mine countermeasures competition might represent the most radical war-fighting asymmetry and the most disproportionate offense-defense cost exchange ratio.” That is, a mine costing a few thousand dollars has the potential to achieve at the very least a “mission kill” against a U.S. aircraft carrier costing several billion dollars. Even so, U.S. and Chinese mine capabilities are moving on opposite trajectories as the U.S. has significantly underinvested in this area. Although the U.S. confronts a potentially severe mining threat from China, it has no comparable capability either to deter China or to divert China’s military resources. FitzSimonds concludes that the principal reason for this huge disparity is a culture within the U.S. Navy that has failed to embrace mine and countermine operations as a primary focus. Unlike surface ships, aviation and submarines, there is no officer career path in mine warfare and therefore no established body of expertise that is developed and maintained within the U.S. Navy officer corps. Consequently, it may require the outbreak of hostilities to incent the U.S. Navy to develop a competitive mine warfare strategy vis-à-vis China.
HOW CHINA VIEWS THE MILITARY BALANCE
The History of the U.S.-China Maritime Competition
Although the U.S.-China strategic competition dates back to the Chinese Civil War when the U.S. (1945-1949) directly supported Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces against Mao’s communists, the military competition as we understand it today began in earnest for the Chinese in the early 1990s. As was noted above, there were two events that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership regarded as pivotal to its long-term strategic competition with the U.S. – the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis – the latter event fully exposing PLA weaknesses vis-à-vis the U.S military. It was the Chinese response to these events a quarter century ago which largely defines today’s U.S.-China military competition in the Western Pacific.
The overwhelming success of the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War forced PLA analysts to rethink their ability to fight an adversary armed with technologically advanced weapons.
Although the war did conform to the Chinese view that modern wars were fast and intense, the effectiveness with which the U.S. military employed air power and joint operations to destroy an Iraqi army that was sometimes armed with Chinese weapons, caused worry within the PLA that it was grossly ill prepared (both in terms of technology and doctrine) to fight and prevail in a similar kind of war. Chinese strategists studied the failings of the Iraqi army in great detail and concluded that China must build a professional, mechanized, and “informatized” military to compete with the U.S. in the Western Pacific.
As surprising as the outcome of the Gulf War was to the PLA, it was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis that set in motion today’s maritime competition. In an attempt to intimidate Taiwanese voters who were preparing to elect pro-independence presidential candidate Lee Teng-hui, the PLA Second Artillery Force lobbed several ballistic missiles into the Strait.
Consequently, the U.S. responded by deploying the USS Nimitz and USS Independence aircraft carrier battlegroups into the area to deter further Chinese aggression. The PLA found itself unable to detect or even target the enormous U.S. task forces patrolling the waters of Taiwan. The U.S. response “lit a fire under the Chinese military and civilian leadership,” which convinced them to develop “a variety of capabilities intended to target American aircraft carriers.” Determined to prevent a repeat of this humiliation, the Chinese military concluded that it must deny the U.S. Navy some control over its coastal waters and deter it from intervening in future crises. Therefore, from the perspective of China’s leadership, the long-term competition with the U.S. has already been underway for several decades.
How China Views U.S. Maritime Strategy
The 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, stresses that “U.S. maritime forces will be characterized by regionally concentrated, forward deployed task forces with the combat power to limit regional conflicts, deter major wars, and should deterrence fail, win our Nation’s wars as part of a joint or combined campaign.”
Although China is never mentioned specifically, many Chinese strategists, such as Lu Rude, perceive U.S. maritime strategy in the Western Pacific as part of a ploy for “implementing strategic encirclement of different kinds of maritime flashpoints and ‘potential enemy’ through military deployment in ‘chokepoints’ of navigation and strategic nodes.”
Furthermore, Chinese experts view the 2012 U.S. rebalance from Europe to Asia “as an offensive policy meant to contain the rise of China as a world power.”77 China’s 2013 defense white paper explicitly mentioned the U.S. in this way, indirectly criticizing the U.S.’s growing presence in the Asia-Pacific region as well as stressing the growing complexity of international relations:
There are signs of increasing hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism. Local turmoils occur frequently. Hot-spot issues keep cropping up. Traditional and non- traditional security challenges interweave and interact. Competition is intensifying in the international military field. International security issues are growing noticeably more abrupt, interrelated and comprehensive. The Asia-Pacific region has become an increasingly significant stage for world economic development and strategic interaction between major powers. The US is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes. ….
Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser. On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some neighboring countries are taking actions that complicate or exacerbate the situation….
Major powers are vigorously developing new and more sophisticated military technologies so as to ensure that they can maintain strategic superiorities in international competition in such areas as outer space and cyber space.
China’s media and population have also voiced apprehension over the US rebalance to Asia. China does not publish official assessments of U.S. military strategy and plans like those the U.S. Department of Defense publishes on Chinese strategy and military forces. At the same time, China does firmly dictate what its press is allowed to publish, and the following quotes – characteristic of many comparable examples – suggest that China’s strategic patience with the U.S. has limits that are important in considering how China may view the military balance:
Renmin Ribao, January 30, 2013:
The United States is boosting old military alliances, damaging the political foundation of East Asian peace, sharpening the territorial sovereignty contradictions between China and the countries around it, building a united front aimed at China, forcibly pushing the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership, and disrupting the self-determined cooperation and regional integration process between the East Asian countries…in order for China to achieve strategic balance in the Asia Pacific region, it must greatly increase its military presence…. [China] should give full play to the strategic role of Russia and DPRK.
People’s Daily Online, April 10, 2013:
Ever since U.S. President Barack Obama proposed the high-keyed “return to the Asia- Pacific” at the end of 2011, the U.S. has begun to frequently organize joint military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region. For those exercises conducted in 2012 by the U.S. in the Western Pacific region alone, there were as many as 17 code names. Why is the U.S. so interested in Asia-Pacific region? Why does it frequently conduct such “exercises”? In a geostrategic sense, containing China in the Asia-Pacific region is the basic content of the U.S. policy toward China. There are three major means for the U.S. to conduct deep involvement in the Asia-Pacific region: first, wide alliance to win over various countries in the Asia-Pacific region; second, military forward deployment to realize strategic “rebalancing”; and third, occupy a “leading” position in the region to play “pro-active role.”
Scenarios and implications
Although it is beyond the scope of this assessment to cover the full breadth of possible scenarios in the U.S.-China military balance, this section will briefly examine one of the most persistent: a major conflict with China over Taiwan
Taiwan appears to represent an imbalance of sorts between the U.S. and China. For China the matter of Taiwan is clear – it considers Taiwan a breakaway province and it wants the island unified with the mainland. For the U.S. the issue is one of strategic ambiguity. Policy statements say little more than committing the U.S. to the peaceful resolution of differences between China and Taiwan. Therefore, an imbalance exists in how the U.S. and China view the value of Taiwan and to what extent each will go to achieve its objectives. For China there appears to be far more at stake, which would affect its decision calculus to go to war over the issue as well as the capabilities it may bring to bear in a war.
As the U.S.-China competition intensifies, however, it is possible that Taiwan could play a more prominent role in U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy in the years ahead. President-Elect Trump’s recent telephone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen challenges the decades-long “One China” policy and it could mark the beginning of an increasingly confrontational U.S.-China relationship under the new U.S. administration. According to An Fengshan, a spokesman for China’s policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office, he has warned of more serious consequences should the U.S. alter its policy. Mr. An commented:
Upholding the “One China” principle is the political basis of developing China-US relations, and is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.”If this basis is interfered with or damaged then the healthy, stable development of China- U.S. relations is out of the question, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait will be seriously impacted.”
The circumstances under which the CCP has historically warned it would use force have evolved over time in response to Taiwan’s declarations of its political status, changes in PLA capabilities, and China’s view of Taiwan’s relations with other countries. These circumstances have included:
• Formal declaration of Taiwan independence
• Undefined moves toward Taiwan independence
• Internal unrest on Taiwan
• Taiwan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons
• Indefinite delays in the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue on unification
• Foreign intervention in Taiwan’s internal affairs
• Foreign forces stationed on Taiwan
Article 8 of the March 2005 Anti-Secession Law states that China may use “non-peaceful means” if “secessionist forces… cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China,” if “major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession” occur, or if “possibilities for peaceful reunification” are exhausted. The ambiguity of these “redlines” preserves China’s flexibility.
For U.S. allies and partners in the region, the forcible reunification of China and Taiwan could be seen as an advanced warning that China may also use force to settle other disputes. China scholar Dan Blumenthal suggests that an attack on Taiwan could be perceived as an attempt to alter the balance of power in Asia for four reasons. First, although U.S. policy toward Taiwan is intentionally ambiguous, allies in the region have long considered Taiwan an ally of the U.S. and the Taiwan Relations Act essentially as a defense commitment. A scenario in which China forcibly unifies with Taiwan may be viewed by allies as irreversible Chinese domination. Second, key allies such as Japan could view the prospect of Chinese control over Taiwan as a serious threat to Japanese security. Should China militarize Taiwan, it could pose a direct threat to Japan’s sea-lanes of communication and on the Ryuku island chain. Third, control of Taiwan would enable China to exert far greater control over the South China Sea. Lastly, China’s concept of operations concerning Taiwan may have the effect of forcing the U.S. into a war.
Although China could try to limit an attack to Taiwan, it could also carryout preemptive strikes against U.S. bases in the region and Japan to prevent forces from these countries from intervening. Indeed, China could carry out air and missile strikes on the Kadena and Iwakuni air bases in Japan, despite the escalatory risks of striking Japanese territory. Should China deem it necessary to engage U.S. forces to prevail in Taiwan, the PLA will certainly execute a sea denial strategy that threatens U.S. aircraft carrier battlegroups. China can use land-based attack aircraft to launch cruise missiles, attack submarines, and land-based ballistic missiles equipped with maneuverable warheads against ships at sea. The PLAN is likely to use submarines armed with ASCMs and torpedoes to attack carrier battlegroups operating within tactical aircraft range of China’s mainland. The PLAN’s submarine force could also try to execute a blockade that threatens commercial shipping in and out of Taiwan. In conjunction with its sophisticated mining capabilities, PLAN submarines have the capability to effectively cutoff maritime trade to Taiwan.
Because China has developed effective air and missile capabilities, the U.S. cannot rely upon purely defensive measures to end an air and missile assault against Taiwan. The U.S. Navy and Air Force would likely be forced to “shoot the archer” rather than the arrow to stop or at least limit those assaults. This scenario raises the risks of serious escalation. Shooting the archer requires striking a large number of targets on mainland China (command and control nodes, storage facilities, ISR, airbases and industrial facilities) that directly support PLA air and missile operations. Carrying out deep strikes against a nuclear China might represent the sort of risk that the U.S. may be unwilling to take.
For China to carry out a successful operation against Taiwan, it may have to inflict extensive damage on the U.S. and Japan. Successful strikes against U.S. bases and maritime forces would force the U.S. to project power from distances beyond the second island chain to suppress China’s air defenses and air and missile forces. For the U.S. to mount an effective
counterattack it may have no alternative to striking targets on mainland China.
Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese should assume a high nuclear threshold in such a scenario. Punishing strikes on the mainland or on U.S. bases and maritime forces that inflict heavy losses could increase the potential for miscalculation leading to potentially grave consequences.
Overall, the balance of power between China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities in the first and second island chains, and the ability of the U.S. to project power into the Taiwan Strait to defeat a Chinese attack, has significantly shifted, and in a way that raises doubts about strategic stability. China has the capability to carry out devastating preemptive strikes against U.S. forces throughout the Western Pacific and on Taiwan. It can raise the costs of entry considerably for U.S. aircraft carrier battlegroups and other forces attempting to intervene in the conflict, conduct a blockade against Taiwan, and shield its strike assets behind a sophisticated air defense system. China may determine that these capabilities will prevent the U.S. from defending Taiwan. However, it is also possible that the U.S. will view a Chinese attack on Taiwan through the lens of increased Chinese assertiveness and a perception that China is attempting to dominate the Western Pacific. In this scenario, the U.S. retains several advantages it can leverage to sustain its power projection capabilities. Among the most important are its numerous allies and partners who share U.S. concerns about an aggressive and potentially hegemonic China.
Conclusions and final thoughts
China’s apparent goal of exercising military control over significant parts of the Western Pacific is certain to be the cause for increased regional tensions and instability in the coming years. China has invested heavily over the past two decades in order to challenge U.S. military dominance in the Asia Pacific. During this time the U.S. has been focused mostly on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has only responded in recent years to the shifting military balance. The overall assessment is that the military balance in the Western Pacific has shifted dramatically in favor of China and against the U.S. and its allies.
Although it is generally believed that the U.S. combined with its allies far outspends China in overall defense, this net assessment briefly analyzed two key asymmetries in the areas of ASBMs and sea mines that reveal a disturbing trend in the military balance – large U.S. defense expenditures may not translate into military effectiveness. Naturally this raises not only serious questions concerning the ability of the U.S. to maintain the status quo in the Western Pacific, but also to assure allies as well as defend U.S. territory in the region from attack. If over the next five to 15 years, U.S. and PLA forces continue on approximately current trajectories, “Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance,” one RAND Corporation report concludes. To shift the balance back in its favor, the U.S. must take measures to restore its historic advantages in power projection. To do so, it will have to develop not only more innovative alliance strategies that exploit both their growing capabilities and their weariness of China, but the U.S. will also need to develop innovative military capabilities to restore its dominance.
Military Modernization of ASEAN States: The New Agenda
The discourse about the international security and defense affairs have always been impregnated with the dynamics of security dilemma. Even today, when complex interdependence has connected states in multiple ways, the global politics still tends to favor Machiavellian norms. Therefore, it is forcefully propagated that the security of the state depends upon the strength of their armament. Apparently, it sounds perfectly reasonable, to have the recent generations of arms in abundant quantity to deter the ‘enemy. But what if a state has no enemy? Or at least does not have any immediate enemy in the general sense of the term. Should such a state focus its resources to build a mighty defense sector and take part in an arms race? The answer that might pop in our minds is No. Unfortunately, this is true in the case of South East Asian states. In the last few years, the ASEAN states’ military spending has nearly doubled. Most notably, Thailand and Indonesia’s military budget has been snowballing at the rate of 10% on a year by year basis. It is interesting to note that Vietnam arms import has spiked 700% over a decade, making it one of the top 10 purchaser of arms. Other ASEAN states have been increasingly importing fighter jets, frigates, helicopters, submarines and the like.
The emerging situation in the region could be analyzed from these three different perspectives. Firstly, South East Asian states have increased their military spending as a consequences of US withdrawal from the region and mounting concerns about China’s growing regional as well as global influence. As ASEAN states generally enjoy cordial relations among themselves and the spirit of regionalism is very much prevalent in both their bi and multi-lateral relations. Besides, these states have, by and large, remained peaceful in world affairs. Therefore, considering this first perspective has its own problems, it might be true to some extent, that the recent surge in spend spending is aimed at countering China, with which they share friendly ties, or filling some security void. Secondly, some experts argue that south East Asian states’ military spending is according to their GDP rate, and has remained stable over the period. Therefore, this ‘surge’ is normal. Lastly, according to some scholars, we need to look at what these states are actually buying to understand the whole situation. These scholars argue that, these states have been spending the money on ‘modernizing’ their armament that have, otherwise, been hardly functional for years. So, for this standpoint, this surge in military spending is nothing more than normal efforts to modernize state weaponry.
Nonetheless, this is where the actual problem lies. Why should states seek to modernize their weaponry when there is no such apparent reason and when this weaponry has been “barely functional for years”? Armaments, like other machineries, need constant maintenance, supervision and regulation. And all of this requires a lot of resources. Even if a state’s military spending is in accordance with its GDP, armament or its modernization, whether qualitatively or quantitatively, must not be ‘justified’. Since cold war, international politics has seen many disarmament efforts, be it conventions on chemical or biological weapons, denuclearization zones, Arms trade treaty or Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty. It is a high time that instead of making it customary to have some modern armament, states must come together to break this norm. Particularly, South East Asian states, that have no deeply embedded antagonism, neither within the region nor outside it, could have reversed the norm of owing “modern military weaponry”, that would most likely again remain ‘barely functional for years’ on end.
Moreover, as previously mentioned, what these states have been importing is telling. However, how this modernization in armament has been reoriented is equally important, as many of the regions military strategies are shifting their focus away from countering insurgency to external defense and conventional warfare. While domestic factors do play a key role here. For instance, Thailand doubled its military spending after the military coups of 2006 and 2014. And Myanmar has justified its arms buildup on the pretext of having to deal with various insurgent groups within the state. Though particularly in Myanmar’s case, instead of spending heavily on military and committing gross atrocities against its very own Rohingya community, it should have provided shelter to them.
Although various studies refute that there is any instrumental link between armament and warfare. But given that, when such efforts are aimed at strengthening capabilities for external warfare, it is likely that it might spike some mutual distrust at some point in the future. But it’s not simply the matter of the conflict that ‘might emerge’, the problem here is, an undaunted prevalence of spending on weapons at international level that has quietly legitimized, justified and warranted the buying and selling of lethal weapons. So much so that, such a state of affair is usually vindicated and rationalized into a ‘broader context’ of necessities of owning vast weaponry to secure stability. Sadly, such broader context is rarely ‘broad enough’ to include human rights and humanitarian perspectives in the contours of world politics.
The South East Asian States are engulfed in an unending arms race for their survival. To sum up, the discourse on international security and defense that focuses so much on arms buildup needs to be realigned with the new realities of the time. South East Asian states should come up as a norm changer by diverting their resources from extensive defense spending to the human resource development. Progress and development in economy, society, science and technology will pay off in much better ways than investment of precious resources in arms race.
Gambling with the Nuclear Button in South Asia
Over the last decade, India’s rapid expansion of its conventional and nuclear arms capabilities have presented a worrying dilemma with regard to the South Asian region’s security and stability. This holds especially true considering how its clear ambitions to translate its economic rise into a menacing projection of hard-power have remained on full display particularly under the BJP’s tenure. While many observers have come to regard these ambitions as the ruling party simply pandering to the populist vote, the steady consistency with which this policy has been carried throughout the last decade represents a dangerous mindset that appears to have become deeply engrained within India’s civil and military bureaucracy. This mindset and its obsession with external hard-power is further evident in the institutionalization of concepts such as Cold Start and Surgical Strikes both of which have been formalized as part of the Indian State’s official policy as well as its military doctrine.
For instance, both these concepts have been defined at length in the Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces that was released in April 2017 as well as the Indian Army’s Land Warfare Doctrine that was published the following year. As a clear signal of its regional ambitions, both these documents have also unmistakably identified Pakistan and China as India’s principle source of threats. In order to counter these threats these same documents advocate the development of military strategies aimed at pre-set and purportedly restrained instances of minimal force projection that allow India to remain well within the nuclear threshold. This threshold that currently pervades throughout India’s strategic rivalry with both Pakistan and China is arguably the key to maintaining the delicate strategic balance that currently pervades throughout the South Asian region. A region that otherwise comprises of a key locus for the world’s future economic growth and development.
However, the fact that India’s stated policy is to radically alter this strategic balance represents a dangerous mindset, that is based more on its own solitary potential for growth rather than that of the wider region. In what can be termed as nothing short of a myopic outlook to the entire region’s trajectory, India’s efforts at enhancing its force projection capabilities and tilting this delicate balance in its favor is replete with risks. Risks that are in turn deeply rooted in unqualified and broad-ranging premises that assume both Pakistan and China to remain as passive spectators to its aggressive military posturing.
Hence, by constantly aiming to raise the nuclear threshold, the above-mentioned concepts of cold start and surgical strikes are in essence aimed at downplaying the risks of a potential nuclear exchange in South Asia. From a purely rational perspective, this policy while appearing as nothing short of madness, openly flirts with the grave sanctity of the escalation ladder on which the region’s strategic planners and decision-makers rely on when calculating the possibility of a potential nuclear first-strike. As a Nuclear Weapons’ State (NWS) that shares disputed borders with two other Nuclear Weapons’ states, India’s dangerous posturing is thus heavily dependent on it being perceived as a responsible Nuclear power to both Pakistan and China. However, it is this perception of being a responsible NWS which India is actively working to negate as evident in its leaders’ jingoistic saber-rattling.
These include regular statements by Indian leaders in which by openly alluding to the death and annihilation of its strategic rivals, one can witness a certain normalization of nuclear brinkmanship which has become a modus operandi of sorts for Prime Minister Modi. Similar allusions to India possessing the ‘Mother of all Bombs’(in the form of perhaps thermo-nuclear weapons) also represents a kind of posturing that is aimed at upending the status-quo and provoking a response. These statements when coupled with the Indian military-bureaucracy’s clear allusions to reneging its No First Use policy, have further led to even greater ambiguity with regard to India’s strategic calculus. As a result, all these instances represent a dangerous precedent being set for what is considered as ‘acceptable risk’ by India’s strategic planners.
While such negative posturing has been successful in communicating India’s increased risk-appetite to its strategic rivals, what’s unclear is whether these risks are based on a credible deterrence capability or quite simply, the egoistic hubris of its elected leaders and bureaucratic machinery. In what can perhaps only be described as an infantile staring contest; in which one’s sole chance of survival from a nuclear holocaust is counting on the other party’s willingness to blink first, the Indian state’s projection of hard-power seems to be based on more of a wild gamble than the well-thought out contingencies of a major nuclear power.
Hence, with the Indian leadership’s official preference of a defence policy steeped in the risks of nuclear exchange, the merits of institutionalizing its approach to brinkmanship is something that appears downright non-sensical in this day age. Especially during a time where economic growth and human development remain as some of the region’s most pervasive challenges, India’s aggressive regional posturing hark back to the politics of a bygone era in times that otherwise require a visionary approach to fostering regional peace and stability.
The Global Hypersonic Race
Prominent Western politicians have launched a global discussion about the risks associated with Russia developing hypersonic weapons. Arms control experts are attempting to estimate the potential of these new weapons, but attempts at this stage are hindered by the absence of important technical data and the lack of specialized terminology in this field.
The discussion of the threats posed by hypersonic weapons was triggered by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, who in his address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, described the impressive capabilities of Russia’s new Avangard and Kinzhal strategic missile systems as follows: “The glide vehicle strikes its target like a meteorite, like a fireball, with its surface temperature reaching between 1600 and 2000 degrees Celsius, while remaining completely controllable at the same time.”
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany Heiko Maas attempted to take the lead in discussing the destabilizing new technology. In March 2019, he hastily organized the “2019. Capturing Technology. Rethinking Arms Control” international conference in Berlin. In his opening speech, Maas said: “Manoeuvrable missiles travelling at many times the speed of sound barely leave time for considered human responses. The fact that we are not just talking about science fiction here is demonstrated by Russia’s announcement that the first Avangard systems will be entering service this year. I would therefore also like to seize this conference as an opportunity to establish an international missiles dialogue that takes into account both the challenges posed by new technologies and the dangers of their proliferation. The experts gathered here today could form the backbone of this kind of global Missile Dialogue Initiative.”
However, the subsequent discussion at the conference demonstrated that many of the participants were unfamiliar with the topic of hypersonic weapons. Recognized experts on missile control proved unprepared to hold a substantive conversation about hypersonic technology. As a result, the dialogue was reduced to discussing the INF Treaty.
At the end of the conference, the ministers of foreign affairs of Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden signed a political declaration stressing the “need to build a shared understanding of how technologically enhanced military capabilities may change the character of warfare and how this will influence global security.”
In the United States, where hypersonic technology has already been developing at a rapid pace, including as part of the Prompt Global Strike programme, Putin’s announcement was used as a pretext for investing more in the Pentagon’s projects. “We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics [but] we have not lost the hypersonics fight,” said Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva. Meanwhile, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, for his part, has identified hypersonics as his top priority and called for an industrial base to be established that could support the development and production of thousands of deterrence hypersonic vehicles.
Mike White, the Pentagon’s assistant director for hypersonics, announced that the department had a three-step plan for the development of hypersonic weapons that involves investing generously in offensive capabilities, then in defensive systems, and finally, at least ten years from now, in reusable airborne hypersonic vehicles. The Pentagon’s spending on hypersonic projects has increased from $201 million in 2018 to $278 million in 2019, and the overall cost of the program is estimated at $2 billion.
China has been no stranger to this “war of words,” with several fantastic reports emanating from the country about “successful tests of hypersonic flight vehicles,” the creation of a material capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 3000 degrees Celsius, and even the development of a universal engine that can accelerate a vehicle from zero to hypersonic flight. Japan has stated its intent to create a High-Speed Gliding Missile, an equivalent of Russia’s Avangard.
Minister of the Armed Forces of France Florence Parly has announced the country’s plans to use the ASN4G supersonic air-to-surface cruise missile as the baseline for the V-MaX supersonic glider that could travel at a speed of over 6000 km/h. The project is being led by ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran, and the first test flight could take place in late 2021.
In the meantime, the global expert community has yet to come up with a clear scientific definition for the term “hypersonic vehicle.” Hypersonic flight is conventionally understood to mean atmospheric flight at speeds higher than Mach 5, that is, five times the speed of sound. The second important feature of a hypersonic aircraft is its ability to maneuver with the use of aerodynamic forces, rather than merely adjusting the target accuracy. This entails longer atmospheric flight times and greater susceptibility to the destructive factors associated with atmospheric flight.
At present, only a handful of countries are close to creating effective hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons engineers are faced with some very unique technical challenges. To begin with, there is the problem of ensuring controlled and sustained flight in a rarefied atmosphere whose density varies with altitude. Among other things, this creates difficulties for propulsion systems that consume oxygen.
Also, the friction created by the hypersonic airflow around the vehicle’s surface generates a sheath of ionized plasma, with the nose fairing temperature reaching up to 3000 degrees Celsius. Even vehicles made of ultra-heat-resistant alloys or composites lose their shape and original aerodynamic characteristics due to the heating and ablation. For example, the U.S. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird high-altitude supersonic reconnaissance aircraft would become 10cm longer in flight owing to thermal expansion, and fuel would seep from its seams on landing.
Controlling a hypersonic vehicle from launch to target impact is a separate problem, as the plasma sheath blocks radio signals. Solving this problem requires complex and expensive research. Even US engineers have not yet found a solution to this problem.
Another challenge is linked to the fact that the plasma sheath significantly complicates navigation, which for a strike vehicle must be autonomous, prompt and very accurate. Plasma makes electro-optical and radio-frequency homing impossible. Inertial navigation systems cannot provide the required accuracy at long distances. A solution to this problem has yet to be found.
The traditional types of aviation fuel (jet fuel and methane) are unsuitable at hypersonic speeds. A hypersonic vehicle needs a special kind of fuel. Also, a universal propulsion engine capable of accelerating a vehicle from zero to hypersonic speeds has not yet been created. At present, militaries have to make do with rocket boosters or supersonic aircraft to accelerate vehicles to speeds at which their supersonic combustion ramjet engines can be engaged.
When it comes to the flight mode, there are three different types of hypersonic vehicles. The first type is an unpowered glide vehicle, which rides a ballistic missile to an altitude of approximately 100km, separates, and performs a maneuverable flight in the upper atmospheric layer at speeds between Mach 8 and Mach 28. By skip-gliding along the atmosphere like a skipping stone along the water surface, such a vehicle can increase its flight range by several times. The second type is a scramjet-powered vehicle, which can only fly in the atmosphere because its engine needs oxygen. The third type is a quasi-ballistic or semi-ballistic missile that mainly follows a shallow ballistic trajectory but can also maneuver to evade enemy missile defenses. One example here is the Russian Iskander-M missile, which flies at hypersonic speeds of between 2100 and 2600 m/sec (Mach 6 to Mach 7) at an altitude of 50km.
Experts sometimes use the term “aeroballistic.” However, this definition is not applied to the speed of flight, but rather to the mode of travel: namely, it implies a combined mode of partially traveling along a ballistic trajectory and partially employing aerodynamic control surfaces and jet vanes for steering. An aeroballistic vehicle does not necessarily have to be hypersonic, as the term can also be applied to slower vehicles, although it is now widely used in the context of the hypersonic Kinzhal and Iskander-M missiles.
Hypersonic vehicles have one distinct feature which traditional exo-atmospheric ballistic missiles do not. While most ballistic missiles develop speeds of dozens of Machs (i.e., they also travel at hypersonic speeds), they are not described as hypersonic unless they or their warheads are capable of aerodynamic maneuvering in the atmosphere.
Some ballistic missile warheads are capable of terminal trajectory corrections. They are not classed as hypersonic vehicles, since the purpose of their maneuvering is not to increase the flight range or evade an anti-missile attack, but merely to reduce the circular error probable (CEP).
All hypersonic vehicles can be subdivided into five categories depending on their mission:
- Manned aircraft (the first and so far only example here is the U.S. North American X-15, which set the world airspeed record of Mach 6.72 in 1967)
- Unmanned vehicles (mainly experimental projects such as the Boeing X-43, which reached Mach 9.6 in 2004)
- Scramjet-powered hypersonic missiles (such as the Russian 3M22 Zircon)
- Hypersonic glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard or the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon)
- Air- or ground-launched spaceplanes (the Soviet Buran and U.S. Space Shuttle vehicles, which reach speeds of Mach 25 upon re-entry).
Military hypersonic vehicles fall into the following three categories:
1. Reconnaissance vehicles
At present, only one purely reconnaissance hypersonic vehicle is known to be under development: the Lockheed Martin SR-72, which can theoretically travel at speeds of up to 7400 km/h. This vehicle is expected to be better at monitoring mobile missile systems than reconnaissance satellites. It could also eventually be equipped to carry a charge for a pinpoint strike.
Another experimental orbital hypersonic vehicle is the Boeing X-37B. Although little is known about its intended mission, it could also serve as a reconnaissance platform.
2. Hypersonic kill vehicles
Scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missiles that can be launched by an aircraft, a sea-surface ship or a submarine (the Russian 3M22 Zircon or the U.S. X-51A Waverider, which is currently under development) can be used to destroy enemy missile early warning systems, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses, airfields, hardened command posts and critical facilities.
Glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard; the U.S. Lockheed Martin Falcon, HIFiRE and HSSW/TBG [High-Speed Strike Weapon/Tactical Boost Glide]; and the Chinese WU-14/DF-ZF) are primarily intended as nuclear strike weapons.
Quasi-ballistic missiles (the Russian Kinzhal and Iskander-M; the Indian Shaurya tactical missile; and the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile) are relatively difficult to detect by radar thanks to their shallow trajectory. Their warheads can change trajectory, so enemy missile defenses cannot calculate the exact target, and the warhead’s maneuverability considerably complicates interception.
3. Hypersonic interceptors
These are surface-to-air missiles designed to intercept ballistic missile warheads, normally in their terminal, atmospheric phase of trajectory. The most advanced interceptors can engage ballistic missiles at exo-atmospheric altitudes and even shoot down low-orbit satellites.
To stand a chance of intercepting a ballistic target, an interceptor must not only develop a high speed, but also launch promptly and maneuver actively. U.S. RIM-161 SM-3 Block IIA missiles of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System can travel at speeds of up to Mach 15.25; the Russian S-400 48N6DM missiles have a speed of Mach 7.5, and the future S500 77N6-N1 missiles will be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 21.
Advantages of Hypersonic Missiles
Hypersonic missiles have several obvious advantages over ballistic missiles. First, they follow significantly shallower trajectories, so ground-based radars detect them later into the flight. Second, thanks to their maneuvering, high speed and unpredictable trajectory, the enemy cannot be certain of the hypersonic vehicle’s target, whereas the trajectory of a ballistic missile is currently fairly easy to calculate. Third, ballistic missile interception experiments have been conducted since the 1960s, and there are plenty of reports on successful trial intercepts. However, intercepting a high-speed maneuvering atmospheric target is extremely difficult and is believed to be impossible at present. Also, the mass production of hypersonic vehicles is expected to be cheaper than that of ballistic missiles. Despite the challenges associated with developing scram engines, such jets have virtually no moving parts and their cross-sections represent special configuration tubing. According to analysts at the U.S. company Capital Alpha Partners, “If hypersonic weapons can be produced with unit costs of $2 million, or less, they will impact some of the outyear weapons plans. A weapon that travels at Mach 5, or faster, and that can maneuver will see strong U.S. demand in the later part of this decade.” Finally, the kinetic energy of a hypersonic missile is so high that its release will be enough to destroy certain types of targets even without using a charge. This gives experts reason to state that hypersonic missiles might become an alternative to nuclear weapons in certain situations.
Shortcomings of Hypersonic Missiles
As for the shortcomings of hypersonic missiles, experts point out that they cannot offer high target accuracy because it is almost impossible to fit such a missile with a homing head, and its high speed will result in an increase in targeting error. A hypersonic vehicle is believed to have a CER of between 30 and 50 meters. Furthermore, high-speed missiles will have a large infrared signature due to frictional skin heating, making them easily detectable by IR sensors. Designers will need to find a compromise between the high impact speed and the high probability of standoff detection. Also, a scramjet-powered missile must be initially accelerated to a speed of about Mach 3. This complicates the use of such weapons, which require a rocket booster or a high-speed air-launch platform. Experts believe that, due to a plethora of technological problems, hypersonic weapons currently have a relatively limited effective range (some 1000km for scramjet-powered missiles). However, the veil of secrecy surrounding this type of weaponry provokes rumors and excessive fears, and this destabilizing factor could prompt the enemy to resort to a pre-emptive strike.
Challenges for International Security and Stability
The U.S. expert community has carefully studied the potential of Russian hypersonic weapons in terms of how they could affect the balance of forces and concluded that, in general, they do not pose an existential threat to major nuclear powers. Thus, fitting Avangard missiles with glide vehicles will not increase the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal, nor will it extend the effective range of the missiles, their range of action or their strike speed. The United States and other nuclear powers will still be able to respond to a Russian nuclear attack.
U.S. experts admit that maneuvering hypersonic vehicles are almost impossible to intercept. However, given that the U.S. missile defense system has very limited intercept capabilities when it comes even to Russian ballistic missiles, the introduction of Avangard hypersonic missiles changes little in the nuclear war scenario. For the United States, this is more of a technological challenge, with which both the Pentagon and the White House are fairly unhappy. Dominance in military technology has remained a priority for the United States for decades, ever since the launch of the first Soviet satellite. Therefore, the news of Russia’s hypersonic achievements does not sit well with Washington. At the same time, it has provided the United States with an opportunity to study the possibility of extending missile defense to near space. Megawatt laser weapons are believed to be capable of destroying both ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The current level of U.S. technology already allows for equipping different types of ground transport with lasers generating in excess of 50kW of power, while sea-based lasers can generate over 150kW. Under the current trend, laser power increases tenfold every three years. In this sense, within five years, we can expect U.S. laser technology to reach a level that where the Pentagon may be confident in the possibility of building lasers that are capable of shooting down hypersonic devices. The next step will then be to deploy laser weapons in the Earth’s orbit.
In light of the above, the emergence of hypersonic weapons will introduce a number of destabilizing factors for international security. First, countries possessing such weapons will have an asymmetric advantage over other developing countries. Second, it will trigger the deployment of the space-based laser component of the missile defense system. Third, it will provoke a new global arms race, including with regard to laser weapons, hypersonic anti-missile systems, cyber-weapons, railguns and unmanned delivery platforms for strike weapons. Moreover, for non-nuclear powers, hypersonic missiles may become a serious instrument of deterrence or power projection. It should also be noted that hypersonic missiles could be used in a pre-emptive strike against an enemy whose main weapons are situated within their effective reach (at present, within a radius of up to 1000km). That is, the deployment of hypersonic weapons can be considered as a critical threat to the country’s immediate neighbors. Finally, there are global risks to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The secret hunt for missile components such as fuel, alloys, electronics and airframe blueprints has never stopped. In the new environment, even those countries that are signatories to the MTCR are interested in obtaining prompt global strike technologies.
The current leaders of hypersonic weapons research are, in addition to Russia, the United States and China.
Despite its ambitious statements, China has not yet rolled out a reliable prototype of a hypersonic vehicle. Chinese engineers have developed the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, but the country’s military currently only has subsonic ground-based cruise missiles in service. It may be the case that Beijing hopes to leap from subsonic straight to hypersonic, skipping supersonics altogether.
China is believed to be working on at least two hypersonic programs. Since 2014, it has been testing the DF-ZF (dubbed Wu-14 in the United States) hypersonic glide vehicle complete with the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile for the launch vehicle (eventually to be replaced by the DF-31 missile). The second project, the air-launched CH-AS-X-13 missile, is primarily intended against aircraft carriers. According to a representative of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Mechanics has created a turbine-based combined-cycle engine capable of accelerating a vehicle to Mach 6.
As part of the High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the United States Air Force are working on three hypersonic concepts. The Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) combat vehicle riding a solid-fuel rocket booster, under development by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, is planned as an equivalent to Russia’s Avangard. The Boeing Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) will have a combined-cycle engine (the turbine will accelerate the vehicle to Mach 2, after which the scramjet will further propel it to hypersonic speeds). According to some reports, the vehicle may be reusable. Northrop Grumman Corporation is working to design the combined-cycle Advanced Full Range Engine (AFRE) for HAWC under a contract with DARPA. Finally, the reusable unmanned craft under development as part of the HyRAX project and the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane program will be used as an inexpensive launch vehicle to insert dual-use satellites into low-Earth orbits.
The HSSW program is aimed at designing and testing a hypersonic strike vehicle by 2020. The key specifications include speeds of Mach 6 to 10, an effective range of over 1000km, a CEP of under 5m and a variety of warhead types (penetrator, HE-fragmentation or cluster).
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is looking into the possibility of creating a combined-cycle propulsion system for reusable vehicles, including by way of integrating scramjets with reheated bypass turbojets.
In addition to DARPA, hypersonic weapons are being developed by the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command in conjunction with the Sandia National Laboratory under the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon project, which calls for the creation of a hypersonic glide vehicle with a precision terminal guidance system.
Russia’s breakthrough in the hypersonic weapons race may have shaken the global balance of forces, but it has not reshaped it. The United States is not far behind Russia technologically, and may even be ahead in certain aspects of hypersonic weapons, including when it comes to making combined-cycle or hybrid propulsion systems for hypersonic vehicles that would allow a reusable reconnaissance/strike vehicle to be created. Nevertheless, the Russian achievements came as an unpleasant surprise for all the leading world powers.
The situation appears different for those nations that do not command massive nuclear arsenals. The Russian example opens a window of opportunities for them. Hypersonic weapons may appear to be an excellent solution for ensuring a decisive military advantage over a technically lacking adversary. Those countries lagging behind in the arms race may perceive hypersonic weapons as a critical and potentially disarming threat to an unfriendly neighbor.
In the art of war, uncertainty often drives progress. As the leading analytical centers are working to collect relevant information and understand the scale of possible threats, politicians and militaries are approving investment in new defense programs. A new item on defense budgets around the world has appeared.
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