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China's Asymmetrical Strategy By: Eric Sayers
The Weekly Standard | Friday, December 28, 2007


THE IMPRESSIVE CONVENTIONAL military strength post-industrial states have procured in the past half-century has helped to determine the shape and nature of modern warfare. In a geostrategic environment where conflict continues to persist between advanced militaries and their substandard adversaries--either rogue states or terror cells--the latter have been forced to develop asymmetric ways of challenging the superior with the inferior.

The extent of America's sweeping success during the Persian Gulf War had the unintended consequence of convincing would-be adversaries that they must reconstitute new strategies in order to compete with and challenge U.S. power. In essence, American military predominance had become so extensive that it has altered the face of the battlefield by forcing others to adapt--to prevent America from playing the game but its rules.

This is evident in both Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. continues its struggle to contain disconnected networks of al-Qaeda militants and Shia militias armed with AK-47s and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As much as the United States had hoped it could defeat extremist elements using sophisticated weapons and other advanced technologies, the supposed superiority of network-centric warfare proved insufficient against Islamist tactics. Similarly, Venezuela and its despotic leader Hugo Chavez, who frequently warns of a pending invasion by the United States, has placed asymmetric warfare at the center of his countries national defense doctrine. Former Venezuelan General Alberto Mueller has argued in favor of the doctrine, "because conventional war is ceasing to exist."

Although it is terrorism--and in the case of Venezuela, "guerilla war"--that is so often discussed in the realm of asymmetric warfare, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has also embraced the precepts of this strategy to counter American superiority. As Robert Kaplan has explained, terrorists and their crude tactics fall on the low end of asymmetric strategy. For America, the even greater challenge will be those states like China that are able to confront the United States at the high-tech end of the unconventional sphere.

While in the coming decades China anticipates that the continued success of its economic expansion will allow it to take a much more assertive geopolitical posture--projecting force far beyond its coastal waters--in the near-term the issue of Taiwan will remain the primary focus for Chinese policymakers. While ensuring Taiwan does not entertain ambitions of secession from the mainland, PLA military planners will also be forced to concern themselves with defeating a U.S. military that remains committed to the defense of Taiwan.

Just how does the PLA believe it can achieve this? Chinese strategists are not naive. They recognize that their military is only a decade or two removed from operational obscurity. And a Chinese conventional force able to challenge the United States is at least another decade away by the estimates of the most generous analysts. In summary, Chinese leaders face a strategic quandary where their interests in Taiwan are at risk, yet for the foreseeable future they cannot obtain the traditional military capabilities to secure those interest.

Should either a political or military event threaten the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. will respond by diverting a Carrier Strike Group to the region. Chinese analysts understand that if this is allowed to happen, the United States will almost certainly achieve its objectives, emerging victorious should hostilities commence.

To deal with this dilemma the PLA has chosen to put its trust in an asymmetric strategy aimed at battlespace denial, or anti-access as it is more commonly known. Rather than confront the United States directly, the PLA believes it can acquire the capabilities to deter an American entrance into the Taiwan Strait, or, should this fail, delay U.S. forces the freedom to operate within the theatre.

Some observers have concluded that China's development of anti-access capabilities neither undermines U.S. sea control nor contributes to a war-wining capability. Such assertions may have been accurate as recently as earlier this decade, but at present, and increasingly in the next several years, this conclusion will appear to be guided more by an overconfidence in American capabilities than by pragmatic realism.

Consistent with the teachings of ancient Chinese warfare, anti-access is comprised of both military and political elements. The Chinese theoretician Sun Tzu wrote that, "supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." This would appear to be the primary aim of anti-access: successful diplomatic coercion through expanded asymmetric capabilities.

In attempting to defeat a technologically superior adversary such as the United States, China does not need to control the sea or achieve ultimate military victory. A truly efficient implementation of anti-access doctrine would use the weapons systems at China's disposal in a manner that translates into a bloodless political victory.

Over the last decade China has committed itself to a deliberate and focused expansion of the PLA's capabilities, aimed primarily at acquiring the necessary platforms to serve this area-denial strategy.

Due to the importance of U.S. Carrier Strike Groups, the PLA has chosen to focus much of their attention on deterring and, if need be, delaying the entry of these floating sea bases into the Taiwan theatre. At the center of this effort is the PLA submarine fleet, which is growing at a rapid rate and, with the increased sophistication of its submarine classes, could pose a significant threat to American carriers. In the past decade China has commissioned 31 submarines. The majority of these are of the Song- and Yuan-class, which are outfitted with the 'air-independent propulsion" system that permits them to operate underwater for up to 40 days. In addition to enabling conventional submarines to avoid the costs of nuclear technology, the system allows the submarine to remain virtually undetectable to U.S. anti-submarine surveillance efforts. The sophistication of these new submarines became evident in October 2006 when a Chinese Song-class submarine was able to surface within torpedo range of the USS Kitty Hawk off the coast of Okinawa.

China also has three new nuclear-powered submarine designs and construction programs. The Type-093 Shang-class nuclear attack boat and the Type-094 Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine, represent the basis of the nuclear submarine programs. The Type-095, a larger version of the Shang/Jin-classes, is also under construction. These numerous programs represent a submarine development campaign that is unprecedented in peacetime.

The development of maneuverability reentry vehicle (MaRVs) technology, capable of allowing ballistic missiles to destroy moving targets, will also contribute to expanding and overlapping the layers of the PLA anti-access strategy. These missiles, in coordination with a maritime surveillance and targeting system, could pose a direct threat to U.S. carriers patrolling in the Asia-Pacific. According to Pentagon estimates, Chinese missiles armed with MaRV technology could be deployed as early as 2015. China has also purchased Russian-built SS-N-22 Sunburn and SS-N-27 Sizzler anti-ship cruise missiles, designed specifically for targeting U.S. carrier strike groups and defeating the Aegis anti-missile system.

Chinese strategists, including PLA Major General Dia Qingmin, have written extensively on battlespace-denial, arguing that the true dominance of the U.S. military is in fact the result of its impressive integrated network of command, control, and communications systems. America's C4ISR network provides everything from target detection and identification to navigational information.

But just as this capability is its greatest asset, in the realm of asymmetry, it is also its greatest vulnerability. For this reason, the PLA has concluded that attacking information systems could offset U.S. capabilities much more efficiently than attacking traditional combat systems. In the event of a pending conflict in the Taiwan Strait, destroying a series of U.S. satellites--the central node of U.S. networks--could effectively paralyze U.S. combat capabilities, denying them the initiative on the battlefield and leveling the operational playing field. China's January 2007 anti-satellite test, which displayed the ability of the PLA to target and destroy satellites in orbit, represents a significant achievement for PLA anti-access capabilities.

The capability to severely disrupt America's C4ISR network, coupled with the deployment of advanced submarines and anti-ship missiles, presents a new form of strategic deterrence that is only recently receiving the attention it deserves. In a scenario where it is suspected China may play a belligerent role, the United States would be faced with a difficult decision concerning its commitments to Taiwan's defense. Acting too aggressively could trigger a Chinese preemptive attack on American satellite and communication systems, potentially disrupting the U.S. military's war-making ability in the Taiwan Strait and seriously jeopardizing ongoing operations around the globe. Alternatively, too weak of a response by the United States may only invite a more offensively inclined approach by the PLA, further increasing the potential danger facing the island democracy. The inevitable hesitation on the part of America may provide Beijing the time and space it needs to secure its objectives.

Should it come to war, Chinese strategists have determined that they need only inflict sufficient costs to force the United States to lose its willingness to continue the conflict. Chinese analysts Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, among others, have concluded that "smashing the adversary's will to resist" is now more important then defeating its military forces--a maxim that resonates across the entire asymmetric sphere.

Both the civilian and military leadership in the United States begrudgingly recognize the opportunity cost phenomenon that affects democratic societies at war. If the PLA were to preemptively invade Taiwan, while conducting simultaneous battlespace-denial operations against the United States, how would American leaders respond after several weeks of costly engagements? When the United States eventually breaks through, would it then look to liberate Taiwan, or, more likely, conclude that risking a wider war with China over the small island democracy falls far outside its calculated national interest?

PLA officer Jiang Lei analyzed the opportunity cost scenario further in his doctoral dissertation: "it is possible for the side with inferior equipment to strive to gain the initiative on the battlefield [ ] and compel the superior enemy to pull out of the conflict. Because the superpower must cope with the influence of its other fundamental strategic interest, the level of its intervention is limited; moreover, it will seek to win victory in the war at minimum cost." Successful area-denial operations, therefore, would enable Beijing to achieve its primary political objectives through a concerted effort to restrain America's will to fight an escalated war.

Clearly, a competitor armed with the ability to challenge America at the high-end of asymmetrical warfare poses a substantial dilemma. Is the United States prepared? Over the past decade anti-access has been accounted for and increasingly discussed in almost all high-level military documents. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review committed the U.S. military to countering "political anti-access and irregular warfare challenges." Indeed, the Navy's "Sea Shield" concept--part of its Seapower 21 vision--is solely intended to ensure continued freedom of access by countering enemy anti-access threats.

In addition to identifying the increased potential of area-denial strategies, the United States has invested itself in a number of political and military measures to ensure it remains adequately prepared in the coming years.

To help search out and destroy China's growing fleet of submarines, the United States has turned to the P-8A Poseidon, a modified Boeing 737-800 able to conduct area-wide anti-submarine warfare. The innovative capabilities of the Poseidon ensure it will be at the center of America's effort to counter China's area-denial efforts.

The Pentagon has also announced a $225 million upgrade for its Raytheon-built MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS), a radar controlled gun designed to defend against low and high flying, maneuvering anti-ship missile threats. The Phalanx is also being sold to Australia as part of the deal, extending the anti-missile defensive capabilities of one of America's most important Pacific allies.

Finally, the U.S. and Australia have agreed to partner in the deployment of the Wideband Global Satellite Communications system (WGS). The Wideband satellite constellation, which will include six satellites by 2013, aims to provide advanced communications capabilities for U.S. and Australian warfighters. By jointly operating and owning the WGS system, the United States will not only increase its interoperability with a steadfast ally, but it will also create a geostrategic dilemma for China by forcing the PLA to target both U.S. and Australian military satellites in order to comprehensively paralyze American's command and control network. This implicit attempt to bind the space-based capabilities of both the United States and Australia is an example of the shrewd maneuvering the Pentagon must continue to make to stay ahead of the anti-access curve.

These measures represent only a variety of the steps being taken to deal with the anti-access threat. Because of the susceptibility of U.S. information networks, perhaps the greatest preparations the United States can make is to conduct military exercises without the use of continuous, high-bandwidth communications between units. This would enable the various military components (carriers, battleships, submarines and aircraft) to experience acting independently, or in a semi-autonomous state, more adequately preparing them to meet the requirements of a C4ISR-less environment.

While Washington continues to debate the potentiality of China becoming a "responsible stakeholder," the ways in which to successfully 'manage" its rise, and how best to increase PLA transparency, the PLA has remained committed to modernizing, expanding, and deploying an increasingly sophisticated military capable of seriously challenging American power. In the near term, instead of concerning themselves with the strengths of the U.S. military, PLA planners have diverted their attention to its weaknesses. In Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting an enemy that has deliberately exploited America's military and political weaknesses has proven to be an arduous task. Is America prepared to face the high-end asymmetric strategies being deployed by a Chinese state readying itself at all levels--political, military, and economic--to challenge U.S. predominance? The answer to this question will undoubtedly shape the geostrategic environment of the Asia-Pacific theater in the coming decades.


Eric Sayers is recent graduate of the Political Science M.A. program at The University of Western Ontario.


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