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A One-Sided Arms Race

China’s military ambitions are boundless.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL and MIKE MAZZA
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Last week, Beijing decided that Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s fence-mending trip to China was the perfect time to unveil new military capabilities. In the lead-up to Gates’s trip, Admiral Robert Willard, the commander of U.S. Pacific forces, revealed that China’s “carrier killer” antiship ballistic missile is nearly ready for deployment. Then, just hours before Gates’s January 11 meeting with President Hu Jintao, the Chinese Air Force conducted a test flight of the J-20, a fighter jet that appears to have radar-evading stealth capabilities. Washington had an almost perfectly perverse answer, one symbolic of the shape of the emerging Sino-American rivalry: It announced another round of defense cuts. So there is a Sino-American military competition, but only China is competing.

A One-Sided Arms Race

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The contours of the strategy driving China’s military buildup are clear enough to allow for a serious U.S. response. First, China is pursuing the ability to coerce and intimidate countries along what it calls the “first island chain.” This geographic area includes such stalwart U.S. allies and friends as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Second, China is seeking more control over what it calls the “near seas,” which include the waters closest to its coasts—the Yellow, East China, and South China seas. Third, it is looking to project power into the Indian Ocean to protect the large volume of maritime trade that flows from the Persian Gulf to Shanghai.

China is developing a layered military capability, which will allow it to strike decisive blows against adversaries closer to the mainland and then employ harassing “guerrilla” air and sea tactics deeper in the Pacific to slow U.S. forces rushing to the region.

This strategy relies heavily on China’s advanced missile program. China’s missile force is not just large in number, but ever more technologically sophisticated. The Second Artillery is developing precision strike capabilities and missile-defense-evading technologies such as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The missile force will be used to “kick down the door” during an attack to allow for China’s fourth-generation fighter-aircraft (and, in the coming years, fifth-generation fighters) to conduct mop-up operations against remaining targets in the first island chain and to establish air supremacy. 

At the same time, China will interdict U.S. reinforcements by launching cruise and ballistic missiles against surface ships, jamming Aegis-equipped destroyers’ command and control capabilities, and launching torpedoes and cruise missiles from submarines. China’s robust mining capabilities provide yet another layer of defense in the “near seas.” The idea is to deliver a knockout punch quickly against Taiwan or Japan and then entangle the U.S. military in a web of defenses closer to the homeland.

Many U.S. analysts use the confusing term “anti-access” to describe -China’s strategy, which makes it sound purely defensive. Yes, China wants to deny U.S. access to Asian airspace and waters. But in doing so the Chinese military will itself gain the maneuver space to control the sea and air closer to the mainland and begin to project power farther from its shores.

Indeed, the Chinese military is looking to project power into the Indian Ocean. China is building a nuclear submarine force, much of it based on Hainan Island, which will allow for undetected movement into the Indian Ocean. China is also set to build aircraft carriers. It may be some time before China can perfect the use of flattops and naval-based carrier aviation, but in the meantime nuclear-powered submarines will at least provide China with retaliatory capabilities should its own shipping come under threat.

But while China’s strategy is beginning to take shape, a serious U.S. response is not on the horizon. Instead we are hollowing out our air, naval, and Marine forces at a time when we should be reinforcing and modernizing them, so as to reassure allies that we will maintain the capability to deter Chinese aggression and defeat Chinese forces should they attack. Washington needs to resist the temptation, made stronger by the Chinese ability to attack our forward deployed forces, to adopt an offshore defense strategy. Pulling the bulk of our forces back to Hawaii, Guam, or other Pacific islands would be a mistake. Such an approach would encourage a nuclear arms race in Asia and weaken our alliances. Our presence in the region is also the surest way to push our allies to bone up their own defenses and operate more closely together. 

An offshore defense also rests on questionable operational assumptions. There is no way to project the kind of power we have historically needed in the region from offshore. We need forward bases and the intelligence collected from near-constant patrols of the air and waters around China to shape and influence the region. The forward force in Asia allowed us to project power onto the Asian continent when we fought in Korea and Vietnam and intervened to quiet -China’s intimidation of Taiwan.

With these principles in mind, the Pentagon could take the following steps to redress a balance of power now tilting toward Beijing:

Hardening, dispersal, and diversification of bases. Survivable bases will do much to negate China’s missile threat. Existing air and naval bases in Japan, Guam, and Korea should be hardened and dispersed. The secretaries of state and defense should also launch efforts to find more nations to host bases and naval facilities, as Singapore volunteered to do this past decade.

More stealthy fighters sold to and positioned in host nations. With more hardened bases, we should revive the F-22 line both to export to Japan, South Korea, and Australia and to add to our own aging fleet. There is no aircraft like the F-22 for air-to-air missions, and with China developing its own stealthy aircraft, the days of air-to-air combat are unfortunately not over. The Department of Defense should also commit to the “short takeoff and vertical landing” variant of the F-35. The F-35B, as it is known, which Secretary Gates recently put “on probation,” is exactly the plane most needed as a response to China’s missile force.

A stronger commitment to a long-range bomber. The next-generation bomber program should be accelerated and bought in small blocks as soon as possible. Such a bomber, conceived to have an unrefueled range of approximately 4,000 nautical miles and equipped with stealth technology, would be useful for reinforcing forward operating forces during a time of conflict and for striking targets (such as mobile missile assets) deep within Chinese territory.

More attack submarines and renewed emphases on antisub-marine warfare and offensive mining. Even as China retires antiquated boats, its submarine fleet has been growing. It now has more than 60 subs, all based in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. attack submarine program should be ramped up well beyond the current plans for a steady state of 48 boats. The Virginia-class submarines should become the workhorses of the Pacific, primed to conduct antisubmarine warfare, undersea surveillance, and undersea cruise missile launches. As a complement to attack submarines, we must restore our offensive mining capabilities to make Chinese submariners think twice before leaving port.

A regional security headquarters that can coordinate coalition operations. We need a forward-based regional headquarters that can prod allies to work together consistently. Many of our allies have very capable militaries, but they lack collective training, collective planning, and an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) system that only we can provide. A network of allies operating common, U.S.-produced ISR platforms and sharing intelligence through a regional headquarters will provide military operators with a common operating picture. The ability to watch China at all times and from all angles will immeasurably enhance deterrence.

Commitment to the Marine Corps. Recently announced cuts to the Marine Corps bode ill for maintaining a military edge over China. Though the Marines have been used for many critical missions since 9/11, they have historically played an integral role in the Asia-Pacific theater. They are able to conduct forced-entry operations, amphibious landings, and base seizures. They operate well in what are called “nonpermissive” environments. In most Asian conflict scenarios they would be called upon to be on the ground first.

There are, of course, other programs currently unfunded that would help keep the peace in Asia (e.g., directed energy for missile defense). Many once thought the Gates cuts to defense programs would free up resources for China-related defense investments. Instead, the cuts will weaken defense programs useful in the Pacific without adequate investment in other systems that are badly needed. China’s military modernization program is destabilizing the region. It’s time we woke up to that fact.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow and Mike Mazza is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

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