A few of us (here and over at Galrahn‘s site) have been banging the drum for the last few years re. the potential threat posed by China’s ASBM (Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile) which appears to be a variant of the DF-21 (itself, an apparent derivative of the Pershing II MRBM). There has been limited releasable (e.g., unclassified) information from DoD agencies, most of it in the annual DoD report on China’s capabilities. What little else can be gleaned from the open press is primarily Chinese in origin and oft times, in Chinese. Most of the extensive writings have tended to be more generalistic as a result, focusing at the strategic-political level on the implications and challenges such a weapon would pose in a future Taiwan Straits scenario (or some other that takes place at or inside the first island chain). Chief focus has been on the aspect of sea denial to US carriers and the attendant impact that would have on providing tactical airpower in the face of land-based PLAAF forces conducting bluewater ASUW and land attack strikes. The most recent open press article was that found in the May 2009 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings
With the autumn 2009 issue of the Naval War College Review, that body of knowledge has been significantly expanded via two articles. The first, “Using the Land to Control the Sea?” (link directly downloads a PDF of the article) addresses the larger technical and political challenges, opening with an argument is a familiar to readers of this and the aforementioned blogs:
For China, the ability to prevent a U.S. carrier strike group from intervening in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis is critical. Beijingâ€™s immediate strategic concerns have been defined with a high level of clarity. The Chinese are interested in achieving an antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) capability because it offers them the prospect of limiting the ability of other nations, particularly the United States, to exert military influence on Chinaâ€™s maritime periphery, which contains several disputed zones of core strategic importance to Beijing. ASBMs are regarded as a means by which technologically limited developing countries can overcome by asymmetric means their qualitative inferiority in conventional combat platforms, because the gap between offense and defense is the greatest here.
Today, China may be closer than ever to attaining this capability. In addition to numerous outside reports suggesting Chinese efforts in this area, technical and operationally focused discussions on the topic are appearing in increasing numbers and in a widening array of Chinese sources, some clearly authoritative. This suggests that China may be close to testing and fielding an ASBM systemâ€”a weapon that no other country currently possesses, since the United States relinquished a distantly related capability in 1988. In the view of Chinese and Western analysts, even the mere perception that China might have realized an ASBM capability could represent a paradigm shift, with profound consequences for deterrence, military operations, arms control, and the balance of power in the western Pacific.
Discussion that follows is worth the read, but of particular interest is the end analysis where the authors contemplate the impact a range of US responses would have, spanning from indifference to measured and then major response,and what the implications would be if the Chinese were to go ahead and conduct an operational tes:
Responding to the unprecedented strategic challenge presented by an ASBM capability would require the American military and civilian leadership to face hard truths, and continue to develop innovative new capabilities. The United States has many options here, and it must be prepared to exercise them. The most perilous approach would be to neglect such military innovation while continuing to insist that the United States maintained its ability to keep the peace, when in fact the military capabilities that underpin that ability were diminishing, at least in a relative sense. Such a discrepancy between rhetoric and reality would erode Americaâ€™s regional credibility and fuel Chinese overconfidence. The prospect of documenting that discrepancy publicly might motivate China to conduct a demonstration of an ASBM; a successful test could create the impression that American power projection capabilitiesâ€”and the regional credibility that depends on themâ€”had been dramatically diminished. Managing the proper response to this potential â€śgame changerâ€ť will demand close scrutiny from scholars, analysts, and policy makers alike, as it will critically influence Americaâ€™s place in the Pacific for decades to come.
Two events point to the efficacy of such a scenario: one, the operational ASAT test conducted in 2007 and the other (and used by the authors) – the bombing tests off the VACAPES prompted by General Billy Mitchell and carried out by Army and Navy aircraft against stationary capital ship targets. In the case of the former, it clearly illuminated not only China’s tchnological capabilities, but some have said that it also demonstrated a certain ascendancy of the military and its ability to veto civilian policy makers who were not favoring an operational test. In the case of the latter – there were major budgetary, policy and even changes in tactics as the nascent Army Air Corps received substantive funding boosts, the Navy began to seriously investigate the use of dive bombers as a means to attack ships and other nations, notably Japan, began to redraw their force structures.
But what of the system itself? How much of it is real and how much is just vaporware? Maskirovka designed to confuse and direct US allocation of forces and funding down blind alleys? The second article, “China’s Antiship Ballistic Missile: Developments and Missing Links” (same warning as above re. the hyperlink) takes a systemic approach to assessing this ‘system of systems’ by an extensive analysis of available open-press Chinese literature. It is worth noting that when conducting a content analysis, one not only focuses on what is found in the body proper of individual texts, but as that body grows, there are larger trends and directions that can be ascertained and from which, judgments as to the status and progress of a program may be made – even absent declaratory supporting statements. As the authors point out, for example, early literature tends to view the problems presented in the complex kill chain of an ASBM with a wider aperture, with wide-ranging, generalist discussions that identify problem areas. As sub-groups of supporting literature grow in number while parsing ever-finer details, say in developing algorithms used to detect, identify and track large surface vessels using space-based assets, or there is wider discussion of the problems associated with exo-atmospheric maneuvering while maintaining targeting (as is the case in the civilian space program and the problems associated with unmanned docking), the fact that such bodies of literature exist lends credence to assessments of the state of development and deployment of a weapons system.
Beyond the ASBM, the authors see far-reaching impacts on the larger military capabilities and force structure. Developing, building and deploying an operational ASBM with all of the technical, operational and even political challenges posed along the way would have reverberating effects throughout – from Command and Control, to multi-spectral imaging, rapid re-targeting, battle assessment and more – every bit a modern revolution in military affairs and industry as the US experienced in the late 80′s and 90′s with technology crossovers from the space and micro-computer industries.
Points to ponder while working on a “balanced” approach to forces…
(cross-posted at steeljawscribe.com)
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