In a growing military rivalry with Beijing, U.S. commanders are looking for new anti-ship missiles and rewriting their war-fighting doctrine in the Pacific.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
Worried about China’s increasing naval might, the U.S. Navy is scrambling to buy new anti-ship missiles for the first time in decades and throwing out its old playbook for war strategy in the Pacific.
Since the end of the Cold War, the American military has enjoyed unrivaled dominance on the high seas, with no other navy posing a serious threat. But over the past decade, China has rapidly built up a naval force to be reckoned with, spending tens of billions of dollars annually to produce dozens of new warships of every size, and a formidable arsenal of missiles aimed at undercutting America’s naval reach.
Russia also has begun to flex its muscle at sea after a long decline, launching cruise missiles last week at targets in Syria from its new stealth submarine, the Rostov-on-Don.
The emerging threat from China in particular has prompted American naval commanders to reevaluate their war-fighting strategy and to rush work on a new anti-ship missile for surface ships. The Pentagon plans to modify existing missiles that initially had been designed for other purposes, starting with the Tomahawk, which traditionally had been used against stationary targets on land.
Naval officers are also recognizing that the United States can no longer assume it will rule the waves or avoid significant casualties in a possible conflict with China. The old idea of a methodical campaign to take out air and other defenses is being replaced by a scenario in which U.S. forces move quickly and more stealthily, countering an adversary without necessarily achieving outright victory.
As part of the new approach, defense officials are focused on securing access to air bases scattered across remote Pacific islands to reduce the vulnerability of large bases within China’s missile range.
The last time the American Navy sank another ship was in 1988, when the Perry-class frigate USS Simpson knocked out an Iranian gunboat four days after an Iranian mine struck an American vessel in the Persian Gulf. The Simpson was retired from the Navy’s fleet this past September.
In the years since that showdown, the American fleet developed sophisticated missile defenses, drones, sonars, new fighter jets, and other hardware. But the Navy still has the same Harpoon anti-ship missiles that were first fielded in 1977.
Military officers believe Chinese warships could possibly shoot down or outmaneuver the aging Harpoon in a conflict, and that more sophisticated weapons are needed to provide the United States with a credible counterweight.
As a result, the Navy is pushing to arm its surface vessels and submarines with more effective anti-ship missiles with longer ranges — and better chances of evading high-tech defenses. Researchers tested a converted Tomahawk last January to see if it could hit a moving target at sea, and defense officials said the test was a success. The Navy plans to start deploying the weapon in “the fleet in the next few years,” said Lt. Robert Myers, a Navy spokesman.
The Navy is also studying the possibility of modifying a newer weapon, the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, which is designed to be fired from an aircraft. Other options include a Norwegian manufactured naval strike missile that is already in production, or rejigging a sophisticated air defense missile, the SM-6.
In an escalating contest for power and strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. commanders appear determined to stay ahead of China’s military. The urgent need to bring more firepower to U.S. surface ships – instead of relying mainly on aircraft carriers and submarines to launch attacks — is captured in an unofficial slogan among senior naval officers: “If it floats, it fights.”
Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s Surface Force Commander, is calling for adding more offensive power across the fleet, including possibly arming logistics ships that are not equipped with weapons.
By deploying new missiles that can strike at enemy ships, adversaries “will wake up and instead of just worrying about aircraft carriers or torpedoes from subs, they now have to worry about all surface ships and their ability to attack them,” Rowden told Aviation Week this month.
Some perspective is important. The United States has the most technologically sophisticated navy in the world, operating in virtually every corner of the globe. It boasts a total of 272 ships and submarines, along with more than 150 vessels in the reserve fleet. The Chinese navy still lags far behind, but Beijing’s ship-building spree means that it could rank as the second most powerful maritime force by 2020, according to some estimates.
After a steady rise in military spending over the past decade — an average increase of 9.5 percent a year — China now has more than 300 naval ships. With about a third of its $165 billion defense budget devoted to the navy, it has poured money into new classes of destroyers, cruisers and submarines, as well as its first aircraft carrier.
Russia poses even less of a near-term threat, and only recently has begun to make improvements to its 280-strong fleet, which includes outdated, Cold War-era vessels that in many cases lack the manpower and gear to deploy. Military analysts say it remains unclear if Russia — with its deteriorating economy — will be able to sustain its current ambitious level of operations, including keeping a battle group in the Mediterranean.
Warnings about China closing the gap with the American military and the Pentagon’s plans for anti-ship missiles are music to the ears of defense contractors and U.S. lawmakers whose states host key manufacturing hubs. At a time of increasing budget pressures, the Navy has an incentive to highlight the Chinese maritime threat to help secure funding. But skeptics say they have sometimes exaggerated the threat.
The state of the Navy was a point of contention during the 2012 presidential campaign. Republican nominee Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of neglecting the American fleet, saying the number of ships had slipped to a perilously low number. But Obama mocked Romney’s criticism.
“You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said at the final presidential debate.
Republican hopefuls in the 2016 campaign for the White House now are echoing Romney’s appeals for ramped up ship-building — but without explaining how they would pay for it. At a September debate, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina got a boost in the polls and media attention after she called for expanding the Navy to up to 350 ships from the current 273-strong fleet.
Apart from a push to develop new weapons to install on naval ships, the threat posed by China’s expanding missile inventory has turned strategic thinking on its head at the Pentagon.
The impressive number and range of China’s anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles mean the U.S. military can no longer assume it will have unfettered access to the western Pacific in a conflict. Missiles in China’s military have an effective range from 100 to up to 900 nautical miles, which could potentially keep the U.S. Navy pinned down or locked out of a contested area in the Pacific.
The Pentagon is particularly worried about the so-called “carrier killer” Dongfeng DF-21D ballistic missile, which was on public display at a September military parade commemorating China’s victory over Japan in 1945. And China has started to deploy a supersonic YJ-18 cruise missile that is expected to be installed on submarines as well. Both missiles could undercut the ultimate symbol of America’s military might, the aircraft carrier, possibly forcing the huge ship and its fighter jet wing to stay at an impractically long distance from a battle zone.
That means the old American approach of spending days knocking out an adversary’s air defenses and then enjoying free reign in the air and at sea is no longer feasible, said David Ochmanek, a former senior Pentagon official.
In war game scenarios in which China seeks to seize military control of Taiwan or to stage other action in the South China Sea, U.S. air and naval forces – concentrated on carriers and a few large bases in Japan or Guam — have proven vulnerable to Chinese missiles. By the time American forces establish the upper hand in the air, it could be too late as the Chinese have already achieved their goal, said Ochmanek, now a defense analyst at RAND Corp. think tank.
To take into account the reach of medium and long-range missiles, U.S. forces would no longer be able to count on outright victory but instead seek to move rapidly to prevent China achieving its objective, relying in part on radar-evading aircraft.
Under that scenario, U.S. forces would suffer more casualties. “You’re going to lose ships and jets and people,” Ochmanek said.
“Our military establishment came to this realization reluctantly,” he told Foreign Policy. “The challenge is as much conceptual as it is hardware related.”
Even before China’s naval buildup got the attention of the Pentagon, Iran’s tactics in the Persian Gulf — relying on speedboats armed with anti-ship cruise missiles — had forced the U.S. Navy to take a second look at its doctrine and war planning. American commanders were dismayed when war games showed swarms of Iranian speedboats could inflict serious damage and casualties on larger, slower-moving U.S. warships. The Iranian threat has led the Navy to start deploying laser weapons and to develop plans to equip smaller Littoral Combat Ships with Hellfire missiles.
To reduce the potential risk of missile attacks grounding squadrons of fighter jets or bombers in the Pacific, U.S. military planners now favor spreading warplanes and other weapons across more numerous air bases, and to conceal their movement where possible.
The strategy does not require large, permanent bases, but instead access to a variety of airfields in the Pacific, even relatively crude runways without much other infrastructure, Pentagon officials said.
As part of that effort, the United States hopes to have access to several air bases in the Philippines under a landmark defense cooperation agreement signed last year with Manila. The agreement is now under review by the Philippines’ supreme court.
The U.S. military is also weighing plans to build additional facilities on remote Pacific islands that once played a prominent role in World War II, officials said.
A U.S. military officer told FP that one proposal, which is awaiting the outcome of an environmental impact report, would clear the way for military exercises and emergency landings on the islands of Saipan and Tinian, part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, an American territory.
In World War II, Saipan and Tinian saw bloody battles between American and Japanese troops. After seizing control, the Americans set up a vast airbase on Tinian. The B-29 bombers that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 took off from there.
American forces already have access to airfields on the island of Palau, an independent nation that grants the United States responsibility for its defense, offering another option for dispersing aircraft.
“It’s not that any of these places are out of range in an attack. But if you put small numbers of aircraft in many places and you disperse the aircraft on the base itself, you limit your liability and raise the cost of a suppression attack,” Ochmanek said.
Although a conflict with China is considered only a remote possibility, Pentagon officials and analysts believe the mere perception that the United States has lost its military edge could have a damaging psychological impact among allies and partners. Any sign of weakness could also embolden China’s military at a time when Beijing is pursuing expansionist territorial claims in the South China Sea and other disputed waters.
China has made no secret about its goal of building a robust navy with global reach, able to operate in “far seas” and not just in waters close to its shores. And according to an official military strategy China released just last May, Beijing is placing a top priority on building up its naval clout.
“The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests,” the Chinese document said.
To safeguard the country’s sovereignty and key shipping lanes, China needs to be “building itself into a maritime power,” it said.
Photo credit: Jordon R. Beesley/U.S. Navy via Getty Images