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By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. naval dominance of the Western Pacific has remained largely unchallenged until recently. The U.S. Navy established itself as the dominant player in the region by defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II. That was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its naval forces.
Now, a new naval threat has arisen. Chinese naval power has been increasing in the Pacific region since Beijing began a vigorous naval expansion program in the 1990s.
Growth of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in China
Until the mid-1990s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was essentially a coastal protection force or a “brown water” force in naval parlance. During that time, the Chinese acquired a number of former Soviet Kilo-class submarines and Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with the S-22 Moskit anti-ship missile, referred to as an “aircraft carrier killer.”
The Chinese navy has built its fleet in a systematic way based on a three-fleet concept – the North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet. The development can be split into specific time frames:
- From 1995-2005, planners concentrated on the East Sea Fleet.
- From 2005-2010, the focus was on the South Sea Fleet.
- While less open-source material is available about the North Sea Fleet, it contains at least two destroyer flotillas consisting of four destroyers/four frigates and five destroyers/six frigates respectively.
Recent Chinese activity suggests an increased emphasis on the South Sea Fleet. China currently has one small secondhand carrier, the Liaoning, which it purchased from Russia. The Liaoning is the mainstay of a carrier battle group, although it is an aging platform. China is now building a second carrier.
U.S. naval planners must consider the possibility that China is slowly developing a blue water (global power projection) fleet. Beijing is not yet close to posing that level of naval threat, but activity during the past two decades suggests China is headed in that direction. At present, the PLAN poses only a regional threat to the U.S. and its allies.
Goal of PLAN Is Part of a Larger Chinese Defense Strategy
The goal of the PLAN appears to be part of a larger Chinese defense strategy aimed at becoming the dominant naval power in the region. Part of this plan is based on future energy needs.
There are significant oil deposits in the disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam and around the islands claimed by a number of Asian countries such as the Spratly Islands. China has also had regional disputes with the Philippines.
China Building Defenses in the South China Sea
There is also the need to keep the sea lanes open for the transit of natural resources from the Middle East. China has built a number of artificial islands in the South China Sea, turning them into logistical or military bases as part of its power projection into that region. If those artificial islands have airfields, they could in effect become static “aircraft carriers.”
This increased activity suggests that China is attempting to build naval land fortresses. In coordination with other Chinese land, air and sea elements, these fortresses could seal off parts of the South China Sea to international trade and nullify the larger U.S. naval presence there. The U.S. strategy has been to seal off the PLAN and thus limit its influence and power projection capabilities.
New Technologies Threaten US Carrier Task Forces
Since the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy in WWII, the aircraft carrier has dominated naval sea power. The Soviet Navy had many surface ships and posed a real naval threat that included its nuclear-armed submarines. However, no major power has been able or willing to compete with U.S. carrier production; there are 11 aircraft carriers currently in operation.
Congress mandated that the U.S. carrier force cannot drop below 11 vessels. Carriers from other navies typically are smaller and are designed to launch only a few aircraft.
In the case of China, at least until it can rival U.S. naval forces, the goal seems to be to deploy what are called “carrier killer” missiles. They are a threat, but they fall short of any actual parity with U.S. naval power.
The newest Chinese anti-ship missile, the DF-26, has a reported range of approximately 2,500 miles. That makes it a threat the U.S. must take seriously.
The DF-26 is touted as leveling the naval playing field by potentially eliminating U.S. carriers. But almost any intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by nature is a long-range weapon and nothing new.
US Carriers Have Their Own Defenses against Missiles
U.S. carriers are not as heavily armed as their WWII counterparts. However, they have significant defenses that minimize the risks associated with the DF-26.
U.S. carrier task forces are equipped with a defense system called Phalanx, which can shoot down Chinese missiles that are still tracked by radar. U.S. naval forces also utilize the SeaRAM anti-ship missile defense system.
Conversely, the new DF-26 missiles travel at a very high speed, which makes them more difficult to shoot down than earlier-generation missiles. Locating launch vehicles for these missiles on the artificial islands in the South China Sea would be one way China could deny access to some areas. However, the missiles would also be more vulnerable to retaliatory attack.
WWII established the dominance of the aircraft carrier as the determining factor of national naval power in the world. Does the development of so-called “carrier killer” missiles change naval warfare to the same degree that the rise of the carrier did? Experts say no because of the defenses a modern carrier battle group can bring to bear against any missile threat.
While missiles might be able to damage or destroy a U.S. aircraft carrier, the consequences for the attacker would not be minor. Carriers do not operate alone. They are part of a massive task force with many capabilities and defenses. The situation is not one missile versus one type of ship, but missiles against a highly specialized and effective range of ships and weapons systems functioning as an integrated whole.
Political Consequences of Any Attack by China
For the present, China’s PLAN poses an expanding, regional naval threat to the U.S. and its allies in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Much of China’s naval expansion is based on economics and the political reality of a still free Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a rogue province of China.
The West can expect China to continue building a blue water navy and attempting to acquire new territory in the region. China will likely continue to build up islands and perhaps other areas to restrict international access and thus control local politics and trade.
The U.S. has been engaged in asymmetric warfare since 9/11. However, history often repeats itself, but with different variables.
History is a reliable indicator that at some point, there will be a return to traditional nation-state on nation-state warfare. The West and its allies should take note and plan accordingly. Naval funding for ships and systems is immense, but a failure to accurately predict future conflicts and to be prepared for them is done at the West’s peril.
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He is an Assistant Editor for the International Journal of Risk and Contingency Management (IJRCM). He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army officer, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.
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