in China's area-denial
strategy By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - Much is being said about the
Chinese military dramatically improving its combat
capability to keep United States forces at arm's
Anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) is
the magic slogan, meaning that the People's
Liberation Army's (PLA's) new shore-based
artillery, aircraft and naval assets could deny a
rapid deployment by United States forces into the
Pacific in the event of a conflict, since the US
would face heavy losses. But exactly how concerned
is the US?
A US military exercise that
took place in April known as Operation Chimichanga
provides some of the answers, but if it
wasn't for the journalists
David Axe and Noah Shachtman, nobody would have
likely taken note of it outside the US army.
In an article for the American magazine
Wired, the pair described a US Air Force drill in
Alaska in early April, during which F-22 Raptor
stealth fighters supported by older F-16s paved
the way for B-1 bombers, which reduced an
imaginary enemy's air defense into rubble. As this
impressive drill was pronouncedly put into a
long-range strike context, it was plainly obvious
that the exercise was aimed at China, according to
Chimichanga was meant to validate the long-range
strike capability of the B-1s as well as the
F-22s' and F-16s' ability to escort them into an
anti-access target area," Axe and Shachtman wrote.
"Unofficially, Operation Chimichanga was a
proof-of-concept for the air force's evolving
tactics for battling China over the vast western
Pacific ... the air force would never say that."
When North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO)-led forces took on Muammar Gaddafi's Libya
in 2011, there was no such a thing as A2/AD
strategy to worry about. Allied warships and
submarines could get easily into waters off the
North African coast, fire cruise missiles against
Libyan commando posts and together with fighter
jets destroy that country's air-defense systems in
no time at all. Once the latter was achieved,
Gaddafi's days were numbered as NATO fighter jets
and attack helicopters roamed Libyan airspace with
In the unlikely event of a
US attack on China, things wouldn't be as simple.
One-and-a-half decades have passed since then-US
president Bill Clinton ordered the USS
Independence and USS Nimitz carrier
battle groups into the Taiwan Strait right at
China's doorsteps to stop the Chinese from
muscling Taiwan, and such a deployment will not
Since the PLA was humiliated
by Clinton in the mid-1990s, it has honed the
A2/AD doctrine to perfection, with the flag weapon
of choice being the Deng Feng 21D (DF-21D), the
ballistic "carrier killer" anti-ship missile.
Together with the Beidou satellite system,
which from the end of this decade will provide the
PLA missile force with precision targeting
capabilities, in addition to countless other
weapon systems, the DF-21D will be used to protect
China and its vast territorial claims reaching
from Tibet and Xinjiang to the Taiwan Strait and
South China Sea.
There also is China's
nuclear arsenal. But an American attack on China
is only feasible if it was over the PLA trying to
get its hands on places such as Taiwan, South
Korea, Japan or Australia; it is highly doubtful
that the Chinese leadership would choose to press
the red button in order to facilitate such a PLA
In their article on "Operation
Chimichanga", Axe and Shachtman explained what
problems the US would face when taking on China
with conventional weapons.
Alaska test apparently proved that the stealthy
strike team can defeat determined enemy forces at
long range, it also underscored America's
vulnerability against the fast-growing Chinese
military", they wrote. "It takes the latest
stealth fighters and upgraded bombers flying as a
team to beat China, and thanks to developmental
problems America has only so many of those
airplanes to work with."
The two added
that while the US Air Force has about 150 bombers,
only a handful of B-2s are fully stealthy. That
makes the lion's share of the bomber force
vulnerable to China's thousands of air defense
positions. In theory, F-22s or the F-35s could
first knock these out. But the US has fewer than
200 F-22s operational, which would be hardly
enough, while the delay-plagued F-35 hasn't even
interviewed by Asia Times Online believe that the
edge the US always had over China is not gone.
According to Oliver Braeuner, a China and
security expert at the Stockholm International
Peace Research Institute), the notion that China's
A2/AD-protected zones have become impenetrable is
"The United States
remains the world's number one military power and
still accounted for around 41% of global defense
spending in 2011," Braeuner said.
that the US's allies in the region could be
destined to take over part of the dirty work.
"With the recently announced 'pivot to
Asia', Washington has reaffirmed its commitment to
regional security in the Asia-Pacific. However,
this approach does not rely on US military power
alone," Braeuner said. "It will probably mean that
in the future America's regional allies will have
to take over greater security responsibilities
themselves as well."
Steve Tsang, director
of the University of Nottingham's China Policy
Institute, thinks Beijing is misguided in its
assessment on the PLA's A2/AD capability.
"Having an operational anti-ship ballistic
missile [DF-21D] will not in fact be as critical
as many in Beijing think. The US Navy and Air
Force will expect to suffer significant losses if
the US became involved in a military confrontation
with a near peer competitor," Tsang said.
He said that the prospect of major
combatant ships, such as aircraft carriers, being
badly damaged or even lost would not be sufficient
to deter US forces from fulfilling the orders of
their political leadership.
Tsang, the US already has plans to deal with the
A2/AD capabilities of the PLA, the most effective
of which at the moment are PLA submarines. He sees
the Chinese and the Americans playing a cat and
mouse game that will continue to develop and
change as technologies evolve.
changer' is not the same as something that will
put an end to the game," Tsang said.
applies to when the PLA can demonstrate that its
anti-ship ballistic missiles are accurate,
effective and operational. The US will just
respond in ways that will minimize the risk to its
assets and adopt different tactics and weapon
James Holmes, an associate
professor at the US Naval War College, also said
that operating in China's forbidden zones, though
dangerous, has not yet become a suicide mission
for US forces.
"Navies have always taken
risks operating within reach of shore-based
gunfire. In the age of sails, it was about cannon
firing from the ramparts of fortresses," Holmes
"Today, the anti-ship ballistic
missile and other anti-access weaponry should be
viewed as a very extended-range version of the
Holmes sees this is a serious
challenge not "because the Chinas or Irans of the
world can lock the US military out of certain
areas on the map", but because they can impose
steep costs for daring to enter these areas.
"Unless US decision-makers are willing to
pay these costs, they may not send forces into
harm's way in times of strife. China, to name the
main anti-access player, is betting that
Washington values Taiwan less than it does the US
He then expounded on a
school of thought gaining momentum in the US,
called "offshore balancing". According to Holmes,
this is the notion that the US can retire from its
commitments in Eurasia, entrust them to nations to
balance any big power that seeks to dominate the
region, and return only if local powers can't
restrain the would-be hegemon.
arms [for US allies]. But what the specific arms
packages should look like is another question."
Holmes concluded on a confident note. "We
are certainly working on things, and on doctrine
and tactics, to overcome the Anti-Access/Area
Denial challenge - to return the costs of entry to
an acceptable level for us."
director of GlobalSecurity.org, a US think-tank,
say the US military's seeming lack of concern is
"One of the primary
defenses against anti-shipping cruise missiles is
the CIWS Goalkeeper gun system [which fires from
ships against incoming missiles and ballistic
shells]," Pike said.
"If you were worried
about saturation attacks, you might add more of
them to each ship. This is not happening. In
contrast, during World War II the US Navy was
worried about Kamikaze [pilots], and ships were
absolutely encrusted with anti-aircraft guns."
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based
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