January 15, 2011

The Chinese "Stealth" Fighter is Not Really a Fighter After All

A few days ago I wrote a post about the new Chinese J-20, in which I expressed concern that this thing appeared out of nowhere and caught us totally by surprise. SecDef Gates has confirmed that he didn't know about it.

But what's interesting is that it apparently isn't a fighter at all; it's a medium-range attack bomber, sort of an updated version of our F-111 Aardvark. The F-111 entered service in 1967,and was used a few times in Vietnam. We used it to attack Libya in 1986, and it saw extensive service in the 1991 Gulf War. It was retired by the USAF in 1996, it's place being taken by the F-15E Strike Eagle. The Australians used it, but retired their last models last year.


Here, again, are the photos of the Chinese J-20 that are making the rounds:

Chinese J-20

Go to my Jan 8 post for details.

The Real Mission of the J-20

From Air Power Australia (h/t TWS):

The emergence of China's new J-XX [J-20] stealth fighter will have a profound strategic impact, for both the United States and its numerous Pacific Rim allies. There can be no doubt that it is proof positive of the absolute and complete failure of the current OSD driven plan for recapitalisation of the United States tactical fighter fleet, and the fleets of its allies. Like the Russian T-50 PAK-FA, the J-XX [J-20] is a "game changer" in the sense that the large scale deployment of operational production examples of these aircraft invalidates all of the key assumptions central to United States and allied air power and force structure planning and development, since the early 1990si.

In terms of gross sizing the [J-20] most closely resembles the smaller configurations proposed for the "theatre bomber" [version of the F-22 Raptor], which was to be a dedicated bomber and [surveillance] airframe, intended to supercruise to targets at combat radii in excess of 1,000 nautical miles, a niche occupied by the...F/FB-111 family of aircraft during the Cold War. Claims that the Chengdu design is a "Sino-F-22A" make little sense, if the latter were true the aircraft would be considerably smaller....

In technological strategy terms the combination of stealth and [sustained supersonic flight, known as] supercruise yields high lethality and survivability, supercruise yields high per-sortie productivity, and the sizing and thus combat radius of the airframe provide a basic design with the flexibility to be used effectively across the spectrum of roles covered by the Cold War design F/FB-111 and proposed FB-22 families of aircraft.

Thomas Donnelly of the TNS article linked to above explains further:

To translate from geek-speak: The new Chinese plane is a revival of an idea championed by former Air Force Secretary James Roche to build an enlarged version of the F-22 to fulfill the medium-range bomber role of the old F-111. It can go a long way, carry a lot of ordnance, and penetrate modern air defense networks. The F-22B project was scrapped in the Bush years and, of course, the Obama administration in 2009 chose to end F-22 production altogether, but it seems the Chinese thought it was a good idea.

Such a capability would add an important new arrow to the People's Liberation Army's quiver, allowing it not only to reach farther - possibly as far as Guam, where immense investments in new facilities (for submarines, B-2 bombers and a supply hub) are being made - but to sustain a punishing air campaign of the "shock and awe" variety. We should expect the Chinese to build a large fleet of these planes, more than the 187 Raptors of the U.S. Air Force. The J-20 will complement but ultimately prove far more decisive than the large fleet of cruise and ballistic missiles that the PLA has been building for more than a decade.

The big brains in the Pentagon have been arguing that the Chinese military buildup is designed to "deny access" to current U.S. forces in the Western Pacific, but the J-20 seems to be more of an instrument of traditional power projection. In other words, the PLA not only wants to kick us out but to move into the resulting security vacuum.

Last November I wrote a post about how our bases in the western Pacific were vulnerable to attack by conventionally-armed Chinese ballistic missiles. Now it looks like the threat will get even worse.

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January 8, 2011

The Chinese Jet We Missed

The appearance of fifth-generation J-20 Chinese fighter has shocked the Defense Department


The aircraft looks eerily like our own next-generation stealth fighters:

This is the Northrop/McDonnell Douglas YF-23, the plane that in 1991 lost the competition to the F-22


And the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the Air Force's current top of the line fighter. It was meant to be our main fighter, replacing the F-15 for use in the most high-threat environments. Until President Obama, in his infinite wisdom, stopped production of this fighter at 187 units, that is. This is not nearly enough planes to meet various global threats, but Democrat constituency groups needed the money more so it was an easy decision for him.


And finally for the U.S., the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. This aircraft grew out of the JSF, or Joint Strike Fighter, program. It will be used by all services; a traditional version by the Air Force where it will replace the F-15 (now that the future production of the F-22 has been canceled) and F-16, a naval version where it will replace the F-18 Hornet, and a VSTOL (Vertical and/or Short Landing and Take Off) version for the Marine Corps where it will replace the AV-8 Harrier. It looks like the military will be allowed to have this plane to replace their fleet of very old fighters, all of which first flew in the 1970s. It's pretty good, but not top of the line like the F-22. Too bad, because with fewer F-22's than expected will have to be our top fighter in most situations, a role for which it was not designed. No worries, if our enemies don't make too many of their new jets most of our guys will survive.


Not to be outdone, the Russians are developing their own fifth-generation stealth fighter, the PAK FA. It'll be like all recent Russian fighters; good performance but lacking in electronics. Their cockpit technology is about 20 years older than what you see in Western aircraft. They also have problems with reliability, that is, their jets require a lot of maintenance meaning that their readiness rates aren't as good as ours. But see my discussion below about Vietnam...


Ok, So What Does It Mean?

Bill Gertz has a great piece in the Washington Times explaining the background so I'll quote all of it:

The Pentagon is scrambling to explain what appears to be an intelligence failure after Internet photos made public recently showed a faster-than-estimated advance of China's new fifth-generation warplane.

U.S. intelligence estimates previously concluded the jet, dubbed the J-20, will not be deployed until 2020.

Vice Adm. David Dorsett, director of Naval Intelligence, told a group of defense reporters on Wednesday that the new Chinese fighter program was not a surprise, but "the speed at which they are making progress ... we underestimated."

"Across a broad array of weapons systems, they are making progress," the three-star admiral said.

Progress on the J-20 is among several other Chinese military developments that U.S. intelligence agencies have been accused of missing over the past decade. Others include the failure to detect a new class of Chinese submarine called the Yuan and shortcomings related to Beijing's long-range cruise missiles and a new anti-ship ballistic missile.

Pentagon spokesman Marine Col. Dave Lapan confirmed to Inside the Ring that recent photos of a new Chinese jet show "taxiing tests" on a prototype aircraft apparently photographed by people who saw it pass by.

"This is evidence that a fifth-generation fighter program is proceeding," Col. Lapan said.

"However, progress appears to be uneven: Open-source reports show that China has been seeking jet engines for its fourth-generation fighter from Russia, indicating that they are still encountering some difficulties in working toward fifth-generation capabilities," he said.

The faster development of the J-20 was first discussed by Chinese Gen. He Weirong, deputy commander of the Chinese air force last year. He predicted deployment as earlier as 2017.

The jet is expected to rival the U.S. F-22 superfighter whose production was canceled by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates after 187 jets were built. In scrapping the F-22, Mr. Gates stated publicly that one reason for his decision was that the Chinese would not deploy a comparable jet until 2020, thus more F-35 jets would be built instead of the more capable F-22.

Richard Fisher, a military analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center who was among the first to spot the J-20 photos months ago, said the aircraft is manufactured by the Chengdu Aircraft Co.

"Chengdu's goal is to beat the F-22 and then build their own F-35 when the 18-ton thrust engine is ready. It is a full challenge to the U.S. strategy for air power," Mr. Fisher said.

Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations are to blame for not continuing production of the F-22, which is needed if there is ever a conflict with China over Taiwan, he said.

"Absent a better combat aircraft, this constitutes one of the most serious U.S. intelligence and leadership failures since the end of the Cold War," Mr. Fisher said.

Mr. Fisher said the images of the jet reveal that China is advancing rapidly toward fielding a credible and competitive fifth-generation fighter. The photos show a large fighter with radar-evading stealth features, an advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and "supercruise" -- the ability to fly at supersonic speed for long distances using less fuel, he said.

"With refueling, this fighter can carry the fight out to Guam," Mr. Fisher said.

As for the Pentagon's claim that the Chinese are having problems developing an advanced engine for the jet, Mr. Fisher said China is ground-testing a new, more powerful jet engine and, as a result, could deploy the new jet by 2017.

"If the United States wishes to remain an Asian power capable of deterring Chinese aggression, or preventing future generations from becoming victims of China's dictates, it is essential that an improved version of the F-22 be put into crash development, as well as putting a sixth-generation fighter into formal development," Mr. Fisher said.

It's impossible to know if this jet really caught us off guard or if we're just saying that because we don't want the Chinese to know how much we know.

Before You Get Too Cocky

Too many Americans, I think, assume that we'll clean up in any air-to-air war, because, you know, we're the United States. Oh sure, we may have a hard time dealing with a bunch of guys in black pajamas or turbans on their heads, who shoot and run and hide, but our technology is so good that we'll dominate any aerial campaign. After all, we showed Saddam what's what twice, right?

Not so fast. Let's take a little walk through history.

The air war in Korea was mostly between our F-86 Sabre and the Russian built Mig-15 flown by Chinese pilots. Each aircraft had an advantage over the other in certain areas, but they pretty much equaled each other out. Our pilots shot down the Mig at a rate of 11 or 13 to 1 (the fog of war and all that, this not being Hollywood). Were were impressed with ourselves, and rightly so.

We went into Vietnam convinced that it's be Korea part 2 and we'd blow the North Vietnam out of the sky in droves.

Much to our surprise, in the 1964-68 period we only achieved a 2 to 1 ratio over the North Vietnamese, and probably only 1 to 1 against their premier fighter, the MiG-21. This greatly disturbed us because we knew that if we could only do this well against the North Vietnamese, we'd surely do much worse against the Russians.

There were two main reasons we did so poorly; one, our pilots had lost the art of dogfighting. We assumed that most fights would be at long to medium range with missiles and that dogfighting was a thing of the past. We didn't even put guns on our aircraft. When practiced aerial combat, it was one American squadron fighting another; i.e. similar or exactly the same aircraft with pilots using the exact same tactics against each other.

The second reason was problems with missile reliability. All too often our guys would squeesze the trigger and the missile would not leave the rail. If it would, as often as not it would fail to track.

The Russian built Mig-17 and especially the Mig-21 proved worthy adversaries when flown by competent North Vietnamese pilots. One thing that saved us from too many aerial defeats is that as often as not the communist pilots weren't very good and relied heavily on direction from controllers on the ground.

During the bombing halt after 1968, we corrected all of the problems. We formed Top Gun for the Navy and Red Flag for the Air Force, and got our missiles to work. At each fighter school the respective services formed dedicated Red Teams, or "opposition forces," who studied in detail the tactics that Russian (and other potential enemies) pilots actually used. They used aircraft different than what U.S. fighter squadrons used, aircraft with different performance characteristics to try and throw our guys off.

When we went back north again in 1972-73 we shot enemy planes down at the rate of 13-1, which was more like what we had achieved in Korea. We learned our lesson the hard way.

On The Other Hand...

All of the above works the other way around, too. If we haven't fought a serious air war in 38 years, the Chinese haven't fought one in 58. Further, that the Israelis shoot down the Arabs in droves every time they clash shows that you can have all of the sophisticated hardware you want and if you can't properly use it it's just so much junk.

So that the new Chinese aircraft carriers that are due to hit the water in 2015 are a big concern, it's one thing to build a ship and take nice photos of aircraft on it, quite another to engage in high-intensity launch-and-recovery operations over a sustained period, and especially under the pressures of combat, without blowing yourself up. We almost lost the USS Oriskany in 1966, the USS Forrestal in 1967, and the USS Enterprise in 1969 due to flight deck fires before we revamped procedures and got our act together.

Maybe we've retained the lessons of Vietnam and maybe not. Top Gun and Red Flag are still around, and our military takes them very seriously. That's the good news.

The Strategy

Wars do not take place in a vacuum. They are fought over something, and most likely that something will be Taiwan, the Chinese democracy on the island of Formosa.

If the mainland Chinese decided to take Taiwan by force, they could pursue any number of options, but all involve keeping United States forces at bay just long enough for them to succeed. In other words, at the end of the day they do not need to control the ocean; they just need to keep us from controlling it long enough to defeat Taiwan.

We, on the other hand, must be able to rapidly prevail in any war. Time is not on our side.

Sounding The Alarm?

On the one hand, China is not the Soviet Union, as their expansionist goals are much more modest. They are much more nationalist and authoritarian than communist and totalitarian.

On the other, remember that the bully boys around the world are watching, and if they see us humbled in one place they'll figure they can do the same. Just as wars do not take place in a vacuum without political objectives, neither do the results of individual wars not cascade around the world.

So while this new Chinese jet is not the equivalent to the Japanese Zero which was clearly superior to all of our aircraft at the time of it's introduction and a clear threat from a hostile power, neither is it to be ignored. If we sit still and do not produce advanced figther aircraft our potential adversaries will move forward. And if it comes to a shooting war, we may not do as well as we think we will.

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November 16, 2010

U.S. Pacific Bases Vulnerable to Chinese Conventional Missiles

Most of my posts on the military threat from China have concentrated on:

  • Methods the Chinese could subdue Taiwan
  • US Navy/Air Force v People's Liberation Army/People's Liberation Army-Navy
  • The ongoing Chinese attempt to achieve hegemony in the southwestern Pacific

All very real, but I've been missing a large piece; the ability of the Chinese to destroy many U.S. bases in the Pacific with their large inventory of medium-range conventionally-armed ballistic missiles. I've been aware of their ability to use them to destroy Taiwan's ability and will to resist, but had underestimated the threat to U.S. bases from these weapons.

A story in yesterday's Washington Times tells the tale. The chart below is from a report released last summer by the Department of Defense titled "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China."

Chinese Missile Ranges

Chinese missiles can ravage U.S. bases
by Bill Gertz
Sunday, November 14, 2010 (appeared in Monday's paper)

China's military an destroy five out of six U.S. bases in Asia with waves of missile strikes as the result of its large-scale military buildup that threatens U.S. access and freedom of navigation in East Asia, according to a forthcoming congressional report.

"The main implication of China's improved air and conventional missile capabilities is a dramatic increase in the [People's Liberation Army's] ability to inhibit U.S. military operations in the region," a late draft of the report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission concludes.

The U.S. government has growing concerns over what the report says are "China's improving capabilities to challenge the U.S. military's freedom of access in East Asia." ...

The United States also could face a Chinese missile strike on its bases and ships in a future conflict with China over Taiwan, according to the China commission report.

The report says that in the event of a conflict, China missiles alone would be enough to attack and shut down five of the six major U.S. military bases in the region. Guam is the exception because it is 1,800 miles from China.

China's growing long-range bomber arsenal, however, means the "PLA Air Force's bomber fleet soon could allow it to target Guam, where the sixth U.S. Air Force base is located," the report says.

Guam is the site of a major U.S. military buildup in Asia, with the addition of new submarines and bombers and spy aircraft.

U.S. bases vulnerable to Chinese missile attack include two in South Korea, namely Osan and Kunsan air bases, the report says. Each could be destroyed with attacks by 480 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and 350 ground-launched cruise missiles for each base. The bases are some 240 to 400 miles from China.

In Japan, U.S. bases at Kadena, Misawa and Yokota could be knocked out with 80 medium- and short-range ballistic missiles and 350 ground-launched cruise missiles, the report says. Those bases are between 525 miles and 680 miles from China.

For the past 20 years, China's missile and naval forces have been transformed from an outdated military to "one with modern aircraft and air defenses and a large, growing arsenal of conventional ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles," the report says.

China is thought to have 1,150 short-range missiles with ranges between 180 and 375 miles, and 115 medium-range missiles with ranges between 1,000 and 1,800 miles.

Those who automatically assume that "we're the United States, no one can defeat us" would be in for a rude surprise if push came to shove with China.

Our military is large, and capable, no doubt about it. But there's not anything we could do about a rain of conventionally-armed Chinese ballistic missiles raining down on our Pacific bases. Our anti-ballistic missile capability is very limited, and we have no similar weapons with which to hit China with, even if we were inclined to do so.

So while our carriers and subs might win a war against the Chinese Navy, they would have no regional bases to go back to.

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August 9, 2010

Not Sailing Into the Yellow Sea
On the Meaning and Importance of Freedom of the Seas

A few weeks ago the navies of the United States and South Korea (Republic of Korea) conducted naval exercises in the Sea of Japan. This was in response to the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan by a torpedo fired from a North Korean(Democratic People's Republic of Korea) Yeono class miniature submarine. The centerpiece of the U.S. forces that engaged in the exercises was the U.S.S George Washington, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

The purpose of the exercise was to send a message to the DPRK that they are messing with a superior force that has the capability to destroy them. It was as much a show of force as it was a chance the the navies to practice fighting battles.

But the message may have been lost, or at least muddled. South Korea wanted to hold the exercises in the Yellow Sea, but China objected. According to this story at Fox News, "at the last minute, word came from the exercises would happen east of South Korea (and well east of China) in the Sea of Japan. U.S. officials denied to us there was any cave-in to Beijing."


Yellow Sea

This isn't just a matter of where to hold naval exercises, or "respecting China's request," or whatever. This involves freedom of the seas and who will have hegemony, or primary influence, in this area.

The fact is that the values and policies of the government of the People's Republic of China are antithetical to our own. While we are hardly perfect in who we support and the governments we help create and influence, at the end of the day we'd like to see other countries with a pluralistic systems of government. China doesn't care about these things. It is therefore not good if they are the ones who determine who may sail where.

Freedom of the sea is a good thing. It is good for economics, politics, and a stable world order. We need to be able to ensure all of these, and doing so requires a strong navy that can sail in international waters everywhere.

So the first problem we have is a United States government that caved to the wishes of the Chinese. Not too long ago we would have just bulled through and have been done with it. Our messages would certainly not have been mixed.

Beyond Politics

It has been reported that the Chinese are fielding or preparing to field an medium range ballistic missile called the Dong-Feng 21

Dong Feng 21D

An Associated Pres story carried by Yahoo got much attention last week. Money quote

U.S. naval planners are scrambling to deal with what analysts say is a game-changing weapon being developed by China -- an unprecedented carrier-killing missile called the Dong Feng 21D that could be launched from land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even the most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles).

According to Wikipedia, the latest version has a range of some 1,900 miles, and allegedly has a terminal guidance system capable of targeting large ships. It might have been tested in 2005 or 2006, though results are uncertain.

Certainly it makes sense to try and develop such a weapon. Asymmetric can make sense, and investing in this technology may be a better bet than to try and develop their own carrier and come after us World War II style; they've read about the Battle of Midway too. Reports I have read have it that the Soviets tried but abandoned the concept.

Whether the DF-21 is a viable concept I do not know. It might be a modern V-1 or V-2. Those Nazi "wonder weapons" were terrifying in concept and caused much destruction in and around London, but had no effect on the outcome of the war. All the Chinese may get for their investment are large splashes in the ocean. Hopefully of course our intelligence services have discerned the truth.

In the end though it might not matter whether the DF-21 will work or not. What matters is whether we think it will work. Between that and our new found timidity, the end of U.S dominance may be upon us and we've barely begun to recognize it.

There will always be new technical challenges to overcome. If the DF-21 is indeed a threat, we can certainly find a way to counter it, whether it be an upgraded Standard 3 missile on board our Aegis-equipped ships (Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Burke-class destroyers) or something new is something for the technocrats to figure out. But to lose our dominance through choice, that would be a real tragedy, and the world will be the worse off for it.


Stuart Koehl, writing at The Weekly Standard, gives some good reasons why missiles like the DF-21 do not spell the end of the aircraft carrier but are simply another threat we can successfully counter. It won't be easy, as the weapon is nothing to take lightly, but neither is it the wonder-weapon it's advocates seem to think. Koehl explains that carriers are amazingly hard to find, and even if targeted can employ a plethora of active and passive defenses.

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April 11, 2009

American Dominance of the Seas Under Threat

It's worth revisiting the issue of China as a potential adversary in the wake of this week's release of President Obama's first defense budget. One of my biggest problems with the budget is that it seems to be focusing around building a military that's mostly suited to fighting insurgencies. While surely this is something we will need to do, we need to be ready for all contingencies.

A military force that's out of balance can get itself into trouble. I remember years ago reading Chaim Herzog's account of the 1973 Yom Kippur War in his book The Arab-Israeli Wars (1982 edition). One reason the Israelis had gotten into so much trouble during the early days of the war was that they "overlearned" the lessons of the 1967 Six Day War. Airpower had been so decisive in 1967 that they cut back on traditional gun artillery and thought they could use their new American aircraft as "flying artillery." What they didn't count on was the effectiveness of of the Egyptian AA system, recently bolstered by Soviet SA-2 and SA-3 surface to air missiles. Soviet made AT-3 Sagger anti-tank missiles were also more deadly against Israeli tanks than had been imagined. They lost many aircraft and tanks before recouping and eventually winning the day. But for awhile it was a near run thing.

We pretty much knew how a conventional and even nuclear war with Soviet Russia would turn out. We knew what weapons we'd need. We weren't well prepared for Vietnam, not having quite the right weapons to fight it.

The lesson of today is that we just don't know who we might have to fight. But one adversary we may well have to fight is China, and while we're cutting back on our air and naval forces, they're building aircraft and ships like there's no tomorrow.

Let's start out with an excerpt from an article in Wednesday's Weekly Standard by Michael Mazza, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

The future of America's long-running dominance of the seas is under threat. The Department of Defense reported recently that the Chinese navy is continuing to modernize at a rapid clip. It is adding guided missile destroyers and nuclear and diesel-electric attack submarines to its fleet, and is developing over-the-horizon radars and next-generation anti-ship cruise missiles, and possibly even the first ever anti-ship ballistic missile. Not only have Chinese ships recently harassed unarmed U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea, but according to reports emanating from Japan, China will likely complete construction on two conventional aircraft carriers by 2015, and will begin construction on two more nuclear carriers in 2020.

...it is important to consider the downsides of China's future naval plans. Protection of China's merchant fleet is certainly not the PLA Navy's only reason for building carriers and deploying ships far outside its territorial waters. China is acting to alter the balance of power in Asia and working to diminish U.S. presence in the region. The PLA has engaged in a significant build-up over the past twenty years. China's Air Force is on pace to have the largest air fleet in the region within the next decade. Their navy is developing blue-water capabilities, deploying new submarines at an unparalleled rate, and, now, is determined to add aircraft carriers to its fleet. And the PLA has modernized and grown its strategic conventional and nuclear missile force. In short, China is developing considerable power projection capabilities at a time when it faces no discernable external threats.

Right now only the U.S. and French navies possess serious aircraft carriers, and the latter only has one. As noted in the article, aircraft carriers are used for power projection. Other surface combatants are force protection with limited projection capabilities. So if all China wanted to do was protect their merchant marine fleet and petroleum supplies from Somalia, destroyers and frigates would be sufficient.

The Chinese goals are simple; one, achieve hegemony in the south-western Pacific, and two, acquire Taiwan. There are many reasons they want to dominate the area, but they include national pride, dislike of America as the world power, and to acquire and secure economic assets. Indeed, it was in late December that for the first time in modern history, China sent warships abroad to secure their interests in Somalia. They are a nation on the move.

Why Should We Care?

It is in our national interest that Chinese influence not spread. The reason for this is that one of if not our prime foreign policy goals should be to the spread of liberty. Under the current Chinese government, the values that they will spread are antithetical to ours. As such, they should be resisted.

We must also protect our friends. Countries must know that an alliance with the United States means more than just words. If they go out on a limb for us we have to be there to help them as well. It's not that we should foot everyone's defense bill, more that we cannot abandon allies to the mercies of powerful nations like China.

In addition there is old fashioned protection of our various economic interests, which yes include petroleum from the Middle East and elsewhere. No matter what we do on the alternative energy front, we're going to need foreign oil for a long time. Further, it is in our economic interests to protect general shipping from everything from pirates to unfriendly nations.

FAS and More

One of the best overviews of the Chinese military is at the Federation of American Scientists. Their page on the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)is not to be missed. See, for example, their page on the new Type 039 Wuhan C, or "Song," class submarine, in which they state that it

...is said to be as quiet as the American Los Angles nuclear submarines. But its overall performance is constrained by the use of 1980s technology, and the fact that the PLAN purchased the Russian Kilo-class submarines suggests that there are problems with the Song-class. Various upgrades to the Song are reported under development, and an improved version may have already entered service.

So while we shouldn't overrate PLAN forces, neither should we ignore them. As with Iranian and North Korean missiles, they're not there yet, but not for want of trying.

Almost as good is StrategyPage, which has an excellent database of navies from around the world.

I've gone over China's military in much more detail elsewhere so won't repeat it all here; see "China / Taiwan" under "Categories" at right.

Winning Without War

Finally, like any nation, China can achieve it's objectives even if there is no war. Bill Gertz, writing in the Washington Times, tells us the inside story of what happened with the harassment of the USNS Impeccable last month:

A U.S. defense official said the recent confrontation between five Chinese military vessels and the USNS Impeccable, an ocean survey ship, in the South China Sea resulted in the setting of a bad legal precedent for the Navy's freedom of navigation in international waters.

According to the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named because of the political sensitivity of the issue, the Impeccable's captain withdrew from the area rather than hold fast and assert the ship's freedom-of-navigation rights. Worse, the captain also radioed one of the five Chinese naval vessels to ask permission of the Chinese navy to exit the area.

Both steps were viewed as weakening U.S. Navy efforts to assert the right to transit international waters freely and to counter Chinese claims to a 200-mile economic exclusion zone claimed by Beijing as sovereign territory.

Beijing claims the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters.

The U.S. defense official said the Chinese harassment was part of what has been termed legal warfare, or "lawfare," the use of international laws to try to deny access to areas near coasts by foreign ships and aircraft.

The official said it is important for the Navy not to give in to such harassment because of the risks of limiting freedom of navigation, which is a vital interest for both the United States and its allies in Asia.

Remember that the Chinese are students of their own Sun Tzu, who about 2,500 years ago said

To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.

And as Karl von Clausewitz said

"When one force is a great deal stronger than the other, an estimate may be enough. There will be no fighting: the weaker side will yield at once. . . Even if no actual fighting occurs . . . the outcome rests on the assumption that if it came to fighting, the enemy would be destroyed."

The military budget proposed by President Obama and SecDef Gates sacrifices our Navy for counterinsurgency weapons, while both are important and needed. They would reduce our aircraft carrier fleet from 11 to 10, and 11 is way too low as it is. The next generation cruisers would be delayed, and the overall number of ships reduced to below 300. No more F-22 Raptors will be produced. All of this sends the wrong message to China.

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March 14, 2009

A Challenge From China

Last Saturday, March 8, Chinese "fishing trawlers" harrassed an unarmed US Navy ship, the USNS Impeccable. From the original story March 9 on Fox News

Chinese ships surrounded and harassed a Navy mapping ship in international waters off China, at one point coming within 25 feet of the American boat and strewing debris in its path, the Defense Department said Monday. The Obama administration said it would continue naval operations in the South China Sea, most of which China considers its territory, and protested to China about what it called reckless behavior that endangered lives.

At one point during the incident Sunday the unarmed USNS Impeccable turned fire hoses on an approaching Chinese ship in self defense, the Pentagon said. At another point a Chinese ship played chicken with the Americans, stopping dead in front of the Impeccable as it tried to sail away, forcing the civilian mariners to slam on the brakes.

PLAN/Trawlers & USS Impeccable

Photo Fox News

It's pretty obvious that China is testing President Obama. How he responds to this and other challenges will determine much of what happens internationally over the next 4 or 8 years.

What exactly the Impeccable was doing is anybody's guess. It's mission is described as "surveillance" and it is part of the Navy's Special Missions Program, which includes a variety of innocuous tasks as well as "Submarine and Special Warefare Support." According to the Wikipedia article linked to above, "The mission of Impeccable is to directly support the Navy by using SURTASS passive and active low frequency sonar arrays to detect and track undersea threats." It is outfitted to tow a sonar array, which as all Tom Clancy fans know is the best way to detect submarines. The ship has a civilian crew, and is unarmed.

Interestingly, while reading the official Pentagon statement I found that the March 8 incident was only the latest in a series of incidents in which the PLAN (People's Liberation Army/Navy) had harassed US Navy ships in the area:

On March 4, a Chinese Bureau of Fisheries Patrol vessel used a high-intensity spotlight to illuminate the entire length of the ocean surveillance ship USNS Victorious several times, including its bridge crew. USNS Victorious was conducting lawful military operations in the Yellow Sea, about 125 nautical miles from China's coast. The Chinese ship then crossed Victorious' bow at a range of about 1400 yards in darkness without notice or warning. The following day, a Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft conducted 12 fly-bys of Victorious at an altitude of about 400 feet and a range of 500 yards.

On March 5, without notice or warning, a Chinese frigate approached USNS Impeccable and proceeded to cross its bow at a range of approximately 100 yards. This was followed less than two hours later by a Chinese Y-12 aircraft conducting 11 fly-bys of Impeccable at an altitude of 600 feet and a range from 100-300 feet. The frigate then crossed Impeccable's bow yet again, this time at a range of approximately 400-500 yards without rendering courtesy or notice of her intentions.

On March 7, a PRC intelligence collection ship (AGI) challenged USNS Impeccable over bridge-to-bridge radio, calling her operations illegal and directing Impeccable to leave the area or "suffer the consequences."

Again, it's plain for all to see; the Chinese leadership is testing President Obama.

Why Do We Care?

The far right and far left say that we have no business in the area anyway, and we should content ourselves with homeland defense. This is wrongheaded for several reasons.

We need to protect our interests around the world. Our interests are political, economic and moral. By political I mean fighting the War on Jihadism (choose another term than "political" if you like, I'm just trying to make a point). The War on Jihadism requires a global presence where our forces can operate without being seriously threatened.

Economics means trade, and yes that includes access to energy such as oil. Whether we like it or not we are and will be dependent on petroleum for the foreseeable future. It is also in our interest to have friendly nations that we can trade with freely. We do not want countries to be intimidated by the likes of China, Iran, or Venezuela. It is bad enough that the (temporarily) reemerging Russia is causing trouble, we don't need to add to the list.

It is in our moral interest because although we are not the world's policeman we must counter egregious threats to our sensibilities. Democracy stands no chance if anti-democratic regimes rule the waves. Further, we need to have the capability of providing humanitarian relief, and as we have seen, when a tsunami hits somewhere no one can coordinate activities better than the US Navy.

Diplomacy without military power is powerless. No one will listen to you if you can't back it up with at least some military power. This is not to denegrate the importance of economic or "soft power" (two somewhat different things). They are very important as well. But they are more useful when coupled with military force.

So we need to maintain the ability to project power around the globe.

The Chinese Objective

China wants three things:

  1. Regional hegemony
  2. Reincorporation of Taiwan/ROC into mainland China/PRC
  3. Control of sea lanes to and from energy producing regions of the world

I base this and what follows upon everything I have read and heard over the past several years, see China/Taiwan under "Categories" at right for background.

Achieving the first objective will lead to two and three. In order to achieve the first they need to do three things

  1. Become the strongest military power in the region
  2. Remove the US Navy as a regional threat
  3. Ensure that no other regional power emerges that can challenge the PLA/PLAN

They are on their way towards the first with a massive shipbuilding program (details here and here). While the number of ships in the US Navy has been going down, the number of PLAN ships has been increasing. Further, while the quality of US ships has been increasing, so has that of the Chinese. As Mark Helperin pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last year, do not assume US supremacy in a shoot-out. While Helperin's recommendations for a US building program go a bit far, there is little doubt in my mind that we are in a very dangerous position with our current forces.

If Obama backs down, and/or cancels or cuts back on U.S military programs mentioned below, China may make a move to take Taiwan. This move could come in many forms, which I've discussed at some length before, but either way China needs to remove the United States as a military threat before they proceed.

China, like other regional players, are sensitive about Japanese military power. This may have made sense as late as 20 years ago, but the "another World War II" holds little water today. They use it more as a stick with which to beat Japan, and keep the latter from getting any ideas about helping the United States or Taiwan in case of war. Nevertheless, US, Japanese, Australian, India and Singapore held very large military exercises in the Bay of Bengal a year and a half ago to demonstrate resolve in the face of challenge.

Not only is China seeking hegemony in it's own backyard, for the first time in it's history it has sent large military forces abroad. two Chinese destroyers and a supply ship were dispatched dispatched to Somalia last December to counter the threat from pirates. On the one hand we should be glad for the help, on the other it represents a potential challenge to our interests.

I do not expect Obama to significantly increase spending on defense. I do expect him not to cut the U.S. programs mentioned above.

The U.S. Response

While China demanded that we end surveillance missions off their coast, Obamasent a warship:

Chinese Navy officers reacted with annoyance today when it emerged that the United States had sent a destroyer to back up a surveillance vessel in the South China Sea after it was harassed by People's Liberation Army sailors.

The decision by President Obama to send an armed escort for U.S. surveillance ships in the area follows the aggressive and co-ordinated manoeuvres of five Chinese boats on Sunday. The vessels harassed and nearly collided with the unarmed USNS Impecccable.

This is encouraging. Of course, we hear the usual talk about "the need to reduce tensions" and "face-to-face dialogue in Beijing and in Washington will go a long way to clearing up any misunderstanding about this incident," and it's impossible to know what's really going on behind the scenes.

If Obama orders that we reduce our surveillance missions, China will have won a large victory. If we don't, we keep the status quo, with which we have a check on Chinese ambitions.

Just as important is what President Obama does with the defense budget. We're currently in a situation where we're understandably concentrating on counterinsurgency. This is fine and good with regards to the War on Jihadism, but we need to be aware that we face a variety of threats around the globe. Just recently Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez offered his country as a temporary base for long-range Russian bombers. Iran is on a mad dash to develop nuclear weapons. A shoot out with either Venezuela or Iran, let alone China, will require every bit of high-tech weaponry we can lay our hands on. A year and a half ago I wrote

Let's not also be overconfident or arrogant with regard to our own capabilities. This attitude got a lot of US pilots killed during the early days of the Vietnam War, when we discovered that the MiG-21 was the equivalent of our F-4 Phantom, and their pilots nearly as good.

Further, some of our weapons are getting very old. The F-15 first flew in 1972. The F-16 in 1979, and the F-18 1982. The first Los Angeles class sub was launched in 1976. The CH-53 first flew in 1981, and the H47 in 1962. You get the point.

Yes all of the above systems have undergone major upgrades. I know all this. But you can only do so much with an old airframe. Sure, we could build a new helicopter instead of the tilt-rotar V-22 and it would be better than what is in the inventory. But we are really at about the limit of what you can do with helicopter technology, so it would be an exercise in the point of diminishing returns.

Instead of the F-22 Raptor we could rely on the somewhat less expensive F-35 Lightning II. This, however, would have been the equivalent of canceling the F-15 and relying on the F-16. Ask any pilot about the wisdom of that potential decision.

Among other things, I concluded that we needed to

We need to do two things. The first is to ensure that we have a balanced force. We need Special Forces, and we need F-22s. We need Virginia Class submarines and we need the MRAP. We cannot predict with any certainly who we might have to fight in the forseeable future, and different wars will require a different set of weapons.

The second thing we need to do is to simply spend more. Critics have a point when they say that the Army is stretched thin. The solution, however, is not to pull out of Iraq or anywhere else, but to build up the force. As the editors of National Review reminded us a few months ago how much our forces have shrunk recently:

From 1974 to 1989, the Army had 770,000 to 780,000 active troops (all of them volunteers). Today, we have around 508,000. The Navy had 568 ships in the late 1980s; today it has 276, and its manpower is so reduced that it often has to helicopter sailors from homebound ships to outbound ones in order to keep them staffed. The Air Force's number of tactical air wings has shrunk from 37 to 20, and the average age of its aircraft is 24 years (as compared with nine years in 1973).

There is disagreement about whether the armed forces should be restored to their Cold War size, but there is consensus among military analysts across the political spectrum that they are too small. Today's strategic environment requires them to be able to engage in multiple regional wars and peacekeeping operations simultaneously, and still have enough resources left over to deter threats and respond to unforeseen dangers.

During the last part of the Cold War I think we spend about 8% of GDP on national defense. Today it's at about 3.7% or so. While we don't need to go back to Cold War levels, we do need to do more. The unfortunate fact of history is that there will always be another war.

The only thing I'd add to this list is missile defense. We badly need to move forward with the new sites we are planning for Europe; ABM missiles in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic,. We also need to maintain if not add to our radar and ABM missiles in Alaska. None of thse will help us much with regard to China, but are meant to counter the threat from countries like Iran and North Korea.

Hopefully President Obama will not cut vital systems such as those mentioned above. The Chinese are not sitting still, and are building new aircraft and rumored to be building or buying an aircraft carrier. In addition, Russia and other countries are still producing a variety of new fighter aircraft at breakneck speed.

How Would You Like It If...

Let's address this one and get it out of the way before we go any farther. You'll occasionally hear the far left or far right make an argument along the lines of "how would you like it if they did the same thing to us?"

This is moral equivalency, and as such must be swatted down. The argument presupposes that all nations are as chess pieces, with the differences being superficial.

The difference between the US and China, the UK and Iran, or France and Syria for that matter, is the same as that of the police officer vs the gang member. It is right and good that the police officer be armed and conduct surveillance of gangs; it is wrong and bad for gang members to be armed and harass police officers. This does not mean that the police officer can do anything, there are and must be limits on what the police can do. Likewise, it is right and good that democracies are armed vis a vis nations like China, Iran, or Syria. Continuing the analogy, it does not mean that there are no limits to what we should do.

In Conclusion

So far Obama doesn't seem to be backing down, which is good. What's going on behind the scenes, though, is anybody's guess. The Senate is moving ahead with the Law Of The Sea (LOST) treaty, which some say will help and others hurt our ability to project power around the globe. It is in our interests to control sea lanes, and while we must avoid belligerence we cannot back down in the face of challenges. China has challenged us, and we must stand firm.


Commenter jason and I disagree on a lot of social and economic issues, but he sees pretty clearly on energy policy and foreign threats to our nation, and I like guys like that. Mostly though I'm jealous because he and his wife are taking something of a world tour and I'm stuck here in northern Virginia. Check out his travelblog.

Anyway... in a comment below he links to an excellent FAS article that explains much of the Impeccable was surveilling where it was (yes I know the Federation of American Scientists are a bunch of liberals, but they still put out some good stuff). Text and pictures are from the FAS article:

Impeccable Incident Map

The incident that unfolded in the South China Sea Sunday, where the U.S. Navy says five Chinese ships harassed the U.S. submarine surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable, appears to be part of a wider and dangerous cat and mouse game between U.S. and Chinese submarines and their hunters.

News media reports cite Pentagon reports of half a dozen other incidents just within the past week in which U.S. surveillance vessels were "subjected to aggressive behavior, including dozens of fly-bys by Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft."

The latest incident allegedly occurred in international waters only 75 miles south of a budding naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island from where China has started operating new nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines. The U.S. Navy on its part is busy collecting data on the submarines and seafloor to improve its ability to detect the submarines in peacetime and more efficiently hunt them in case of war.

The U.S. Navy's description of the incident states that "a civilian crew mans the ship, which operates under the auspices of the Military Sealift Command." Yet as one of five ocean surveillance ships, the USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS 23) has the important military mission of using its array of both passive and active low frequency sonar arrays to detect and track submarines. The USNS Impeccable works directly with the Navy's fleets, and in 2007 operated with the three-carrier strike battle group in Valiant Shield 07 exercise in the Western Pacific

USNS Impeccable is equipped with the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS), a passive linear underwater surveillance array attached to a tow cable. SURTASS was developed as a floating submarine detection system for deep waters, and the Navy wants to add an active Low Frequency Array (LFA) to improve long-range detection of submarines in shallow waters.

Impeccable Sonar

mong Chinese submarines the USNS Impeccable was monitoring is probably the Shang-class (Type-093) nuclear-powered attack submarine, a new class China is building to replace the old Han-class, and which has recently been seen at the Yulin base.

A commercial satellite image taken September 15, 2008, shows two Shang-class submarines present at the base, the first time - to my knowledge - that two Shang-class SSNs have been seen at the base at the same time.


Posted by Tom at 1:30 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

October 1, 2007

Chinese Threat Update - The Window of Vulnerability

This story in today's Washington Times says it all; we've been caught flat-footed

While the United States has been tied up in Iraq, China has been modernizing its military and its air defenses are now nearly impenetrable to all but the newest American fighters, the senior U.S. military official in Japan said.

Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, commander of the roughly 50,000 U.S. forces in Japan, Washington"s biggest ally in Asia, said in an interview last week that the Iraq war is reducing the availability of U.S. troops and equipment to meet other contingencies.

It"s also eating funds that could go toward replacing or upgrading planes that are being pushed to their operational limits, he said.

China, meanwhile, is rapidly filling the skies with newer, Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27 "Flankers" and Su-30s, along with the domestically built J-10, a state-of-the-art fighter that Beijing just rolled out in January.

The proper response is to spend more money on the US military, not to pull out of Iraq. I've gone over a million times why we we need to stay in Iraq.

The bottom line to this article is that until new systems come on line we face a window of vulnerability. Consider:

Right now the most advanced aircraft on our carriers is the F-18 Super Hornet, E and F versions. A larger varient of the F-18 Hornet, it fills the role that the cancelled A-12 was supposed to fill.

To replace the ageing F-18s we're developing the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, but it won't go into widespread production for a few years. The F-35 will once again give our carriers the punch they need, but until then we're vulnerable.

On the Air Force side, our F-15s and F-16s are getting old. The F-15 first flew in 1972, and the F-16 in 1976, and the F-18 in 1978. Yes they've been upgraded, but you can only do so much with an old airframe. The F-22 Raptor is superb, but we've only got a few. As the article above indicated, it's about the only fighter in our inventory which can reliably penetrate Chinese defenses.

Our submarine force is effective, but also showing it's age. It is mostly composed of Los Angeles-class boats, the first one of which was launched in 1976. We built 3 super-advanced Seawolf-class boats, but canceled the design as too expensive. The new Virginia-class boats will beat anything anyone else can put in the water, but we've only got 3 built so far, and authorization is for only 2 per year.

"War with China: 2008 - 2010?"

In April 2005 I wrote a lengthy post called "War with China: 2008 - 2010?" I based my estimate on two Naval War College papers which talked about a "window of vulnerability" that we face before these new weapon systems come on line.

Be aware that nothing is guaranteed, and Democrats and weak Republicans in Congress can cut funding for any of the above. A President Hillary would certainly find cutting the military attractive to fund her massive health care programs.

War with China is certainly not inevitable. But the best way to ensure it doesn't happen is for us to have overwhelming strength so that they do not become tempted to strike.

Posted by Tom at 9:51 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

April 27, 2006

Some People Still Don't Get It

Chinese President Hu Jintao refuses to back santions against Iran for continuing to develop nuclear weapons and ignoring international pressure to stop.

Big surprise.

China's foreign policy is to distract the United States from it's objective of taking back Taiwan. During the 1990s it used the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons to do this. China could have easily pressured the Koreans into halting it's program, but did not do so. China probably doesn't want to see North Korea obtain nukes, but it doesn't want to end their program, either. They are playing a double game, the objective of which is to distract the United States.

China is doing the same with regard to Iran. Now that Iran is in the news front and center, they see this as a means of distracting the West. As such, they are not going to take any action that might actually convince the Iranians to end their nuclear program.

Some in Congress Get It

Fortunately, this is one area in which our Congress actually gets it right

The House yesterday overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill that toughens sanctions against Iran until the country dismantles its nuclear programs, with supporters saying the move is a "key component of our war on terror."

Lawmakers voted 397-21 for the Iran Freedom Support Act, created "to hold the current regime in Iran accountable for its threatening behavior and to support a transition to democracy in Iran."

The bill sends the message "the United States expects Iran to be a responsible member of the international community," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

So far so good.

Unfortunately, Some People Still Don't Get It

There was opposition to the bill, and it came from both sides of the isle

Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, said the measure reminds him of a 1998 congressional resolution that called for regime change in Iraq, which he thinks was the first step to the "very unpopular, expensive" Iraq war.

The Civil War was unpopular among many people in the North, and it too was expensive. Only 1/3 of Colonists supported independence, 1/3 were loyal to the crown, and 1/3 didn't care. Until Dec 7 1941 the vast majority of Americans wanted nothing to do with the war in Europe, and didn't want to give any aid whatsoever to Britain. But sometimes you do what you have to do. It's called leadership, Representative Paul.

Further, he is saying that he though that the 1998 resolution was all feel-good words but heaven forbid we actually take it literally. Sorry, Rep, but there's a new sheriff in town and he means what he says.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrat, noted all lawmakers "hate this regime," but he favors "strong, smart, constructive, diplomatic efforts" -- characteristics that he says are not present in the bill. "I am very worried about where this all ends," he said.

Heaven help us if this guy gets any real power.

Rep. Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, said Congress must take such threats seriously. "This bill should be the first step and not the last," the Virginia Republican said.

That's what opponents fear.

Fear what?

"It is bad for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but there are things that are worse," such as giving the country a reason to use one, said Rep. Jim Leach, Iowa Republican.

What the...? Does this Leach guy not read the papers? The president of Iran, "Mad Mahmoud" Ahmadinejad, says every week that he'll blow Israel off the face of the earth as soon as he nuclear weapons.

Oh but it gets better

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich said the Bush administration has "made a mess of international relations," with the war in Iraq.

"Don't we have enough problems in Iraq to clean up before setting the stage for another conflict with Iran?" the Ohio Democrat asked.

I see. And by this logic we shouldn't have done anything about Hitler because we had our hands full in the Pacific with the Japanese.

Morons and idiots. What will their excuse be if Iran does nuke Israel and kills millions of Jews?

Did you notice that about half of these fools were Republicans?

Tell me again why I should work to make sure the GOP keeps control of Congress.

Posted by Tom at 9:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 23, 2006

China Update - The Mid-Term Threat

The way I see it, the United States faces four threats from foreign entities. From near term to long term, they are:

1) Islamic Terrorism

2) Iranian nuclear weapons

3) China

4) An increasingly Islamic Europe

That last one may be a bit surprising to some people, but the fact is that if current demographic and political trends continue, there will be a seriously large, and fortunately radical Islamic, element in Europe by mid-century. The Islamists could well gain enough political power in Europe to present us with a military threat. Kinda out there, I know, but not outside the realm of reason.

China Threat Update

China is a threat to us because they are determined to take control of Taiwan. Although they would like to do so peacefully, they could decide to use force if peaceful means fail, or if certain events occur, such as the government of Taiwan declaring itself independant of the mainland.

The United States will come to the aid of Taiwan no matter who is president, for historical, political, and moral reasons.

Assume that for whatever reason, China decides that they need to use force to gain political control of Taiwan. What exactly will they do?

The Foreigner in Formasa
links to an article in The Weekly Standard by Christian Lowe that summarizes a Rand Corporation study that poses four actions, or "counter-transformation options", that China might take to defeat or deter the US military.

Following are Lowe's summaries of the four options identified in the Rand study and my comments on each

* Conventional Modernization "Plus": A defense strategy marked by further purchase and development of submarines, aircraft, space weapons, and anti-ship missiles "to strike at perceived U.S. vulnerabilities." The study suggests this is the most likely strategy for China to adopt, largely because of the availability of sophisticated Soviet-bloc weaponry. To counter this the American military needs to boost its defensive training and continue developing anti-missile and anti-sub countermeasures.

Although this is their mostly likely strategy, it is also, I believe, the one least likely to lead to success. To be sure, China is building up it's military at a pace that would astound the uninformed. Further, they've done it without much fanfare, and it has caught our intelligence agencies by surprise. As I wrote in War with China: 2008 - 2010?, the problem China faces is that while their capabilities are growing arithmatically(2, 4, 6, 8), ours are growing exponentially(2, 4, 8, 16). Chinese military analysists watched US capabilities grow from the 1991 Gulf War to OIF in 2003, and what they saw worried them. Even worse, the US is slated to bring several new high-tech weapons systems on-line by the end of this decade, such as the F-22 Raptor, the F-35 JSF, and Virginia class submarines. Even the newest Russian technology will be a generation or two behind these systems.

More to the point, a fight on the high seas plays to US strengths. We got very good at this during World War II, and had fifty years worth of planning to do it again against the Soviet Union. Despite all the hoopla, the PLAN is not yet a threat, and may well be a paper tiger.

* Subversion, Sabotage, and Information Operations: An offensive strategy that aims to scare the population of Taiwan into believing it has no option but capitulation. This, coupled with computer network attacks to cripple U.S. logistics, could "delay U.S. intervention long enough to allow information operations and other coercion against Taiwan to have the desired affect." Rand researches suggest increased training for American logistics forces without the use of computer networks to simulate a potential attack and work through it.
This would certainly be in keeping with the great Chinese theoretician Sun-Tsu, whos 6th-century BC work The Art of War remains a classic of military theory. He emphasized just such things as subterfuge, believing that the best way to defeat an enemy was to attack his weak points, not to attack him head-on, as option #1 would entail.

The disadvantage of this approach is that I wonder of the Taiwanese population is as weak as would be required for this method to work. It is highly time-dependant, and therefore more risky. Further, US planners are well aware of our vulnerability to computer attack, and just as with a fight on the high-seas, computers are our specialty.

* Missile-Centric Strategies: Continue the development and deployment of conventional ballistic and cruise missiles to overwhelm Taiwan at strategic points and deny U.S. forces' defense in depth. This approach attacks "weak points in the enemy rear, denies the U.S. military the ability to use regional bases (Guam for example) as sanctuaries, changes the dynamics in the early stages of a conflict and provides an effective response to strategic attacks by American conventional forces." In response, the American military might have to create even more missiles and missile defenses to counter Chinese threats, change its basic strategy to confront China "to render irrelevant the capabilities of the missile forces," or even pull back from a potential conflict.
I've always thought that this would be the strategy that China would employ. Missile defense will not be able to stop more than a handful of attacks in the near-future, and China has hundreds of short-range conventially-armed missiles aimed at Taiwan. This, coupled with the announcement of a naval blockade, might frighten the Taiwanese population into the acceptance of a polically-acceptable "solution".
* "Network-Centric Warfare" strategy: A Pentagon-invented term, network-centric warfare (NCW) envisions weapons systems and sensors tied together with a computerized network of communications and intelligence gear that will give a commander a wider and deeper view of the battlefield. It would allow for rapid and complex decision-making in combat, helping to overwhelm an adversary's ability to react. China's development of similar technology and operational concepts could threaten America's major military advantage and put some of its most important assets--such as aircraft carriers--at great risk. But the Rand researchers admit China is a long way from matching the United States in this kind of complex technical challenge.

I haven't read the Rand Corporation study (you have to purchase it), but rather doubt that China is capable of challenging us in this field. I remember that before the 1991 Gulf War the newspapers were full of articles that compared US and Iraqi weapons. On paper, it looked about even, with the US holding perhaps a slight edge. Of course, the way it played out, we might as well have been fighting a 19th-century force. Dittos for the invasion of Iraq in March and April of 2003.

The reason we were so successful in both operations had less to do with our weapons than how we "put it all together." Now is not the place for a complete discussion of topics such as C4ISTAR and "network-centric warfare", but suffice it to say that these are not exactly the strong points of a military just now entering the 1980s technology-wise.

The Bottom Line

All this having been said, Lowe says that "the (Rand) study paints an alarming picture of Chinese military progress and a dogged focus on countering American military advances." However, we have one major advangage; people.

"Ironically, a confrontation between two technologically advanced, network-centric militaries willlikely reduce the importance of technology in favor of people and their ability to make rapid but accurate decisions with incomplete or overwhelming amounts of information," Rand notes. "In such a contest, volunteer military personnel drawn from an open, educated society like that of the United States would appear to have the advantage over a stove-piped military embedded in an authoritarian state. But the blinding pace of social, cultural and technological change in China strongly suggests that this conclusion will not always remain true."

Not to sound condescending, but the Chinese threat is not on most people's radar screens now. It ought to be.

Posted by Tom at 8:31 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 9, 2006

China - Taiwan: Endgame

Here's the short version of how a war over Taiwan might go. I will expand on this later when I have more time.

China will not, in my opinion, attempt an amphibious or airborne attack, because they do not have the logistical capabalities to support any troops they manage to get across the straights. Rather, they will announce a blockade of Taiwan, enforced with submarines and air power.

Commerce to and from Taiwan will immediately end. It doesn't really matter whether the PLA has the military capabilities or not, for no shipping company in the world will take such a risk.

China will then bombard Taiwan with a few hundred of the medium-range missiles, all armed with conventional warheads. The targets will mostly be military, along with ports and civilian airports. The damage will not be great, or even "military significant", but this is not the point. Their purpose is do demoralize the Taiwanese and convince them that they are helpless and that their leaders cannot defend them.

The United States will quickly bring forces to bear by sending as many carrier battle groups into the area as possible. I don't think it really matters whether a Republican or Democrat is in office, either will feel obliged to respond unless Taiwan did something particulally egregious to bring on the criris. Of course, we will already have submarines in the area, and China will already be missing several of theirs.

In the meantime there will be furious battles in the skies above and around Taiwan. I'm not sure how well the Taiwanese will do, and some of the reports I read are not encouraging. Losses on both sides will be severe, but in the short run I think the Taiwanese can hold their own. The US Air Force will be engaged with aircraft based in Japan, Guam, and Okinawa. Depending on the year this takes place (my theory is late 2008 - 2010), we will either have mostly F-15s, or a mix of F-15s, F-22s, and maybe some of the JSF F-35. If the latter aircraft are involved, the Chinese will find themselves short of planes very quickly.

At this point the Chinese will be demanding that the ROC government accept their terms for a cease-fire, which will amount to reunification under mainland rule. I don't know enough about Taiwanese politics or the people there to say how firm their resolve is, for right now I'm just stating the issues. Either way, the point is that China will try to force and an end favorable to itself before the US Navy arrives.

The Chinese military has a saying; "sink a carrier, win the war". It is important to note that this is not meant in a traditional military sense. What they mean is that by sinking or heavily damaging a carrier they believe that the American people will say "this isn't worth it", and will demand an end to hostilities. Given that there are some 6,000 sailors on one of these behemoths, the casualties would be astronomical whether the ship is sunk or not.

I don't know that the American people would definately respond in this manner, because it is also possible that they (the majority) will respond in by demanding the destruction of the entire Chinese fleet. It all depends, I think, on the circumstances that lead up to the conflict.

Assuming the Chinese are unsuccessful in inflicting serious damage on the American fleet, the war will soon turn against them. Time will work against China. The presence of several carrier battle groups will bolster morale on the island nation. We will turn the tables on the Chinese, blockading their ports, and sinking their ships or forcing them to hold up in port.

At this point the Chinese leadership will be desperate, and the most dangerous part begins. They will feel much pressure to threaten, or even use, nuclear weapons. They will certainly threaten the continental United States and our bases in the Pacific. They will also threaten Japan, whose navy and air force will be involved, albeit in limited roles.

The US response will be cautious. Having been successful up to this point, it would be foolhardy to provoke the Chinese leadership into making a rash decision. We will probably issue a statement saying that we will not attack the Chinese mainland, and will put forth a strong diplomatic effort to convince the parties to return to the status quo, perhaps with the promise of further negotiations in the future. Depending on the military situation, we might even announce that we were pulling a carrier battle group back a bit farther from China.

The big question is whether the Chinese leadership will get so desperate that they feel that they will use nuclear weapons in some limited fashion to "save face". If they do, they will most certainly not hit the United States itself, they might try to hit a carrier battle group, or come close enought to cause some damage. Lobbing a few missiles and then claiming a propaganda victory is not out of the question. Another, more frightening scenario, is that they hit Guam or Okinawa (where they could hit both the US and Japan).

All conjecture, of course. Heaven forbid it should come to any of this.

While you're hear, hop on over to The View from Taiwan, where Michael Turton has written a lengthy and very intesting fictional account of a war over Taiwan. Interestingly, his scenario also takes place in 20008.

Posted by Tom at 9:37 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 8, 2006

Chinese Threat Update

Readers of this blog know that I have been worried about the possibility of conflict with China over Taiwan. In April of 2005 I wrote War with China: 2008 - 2010?", in which I set forth my reasons why I believe that if China makes a move, it will come shortly after the 2008 Olympics in Bejing. Nothing I have seen since then has changed my mind.

The good news is that the US military in general, and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld in particular, are well aware of the danger.

In this post I am going to review some of the political and military developments since I wrote that post.

The Third Goal

Chinese foreign policy under the communists has centered around taking back three territories that they say they lost during the "century of humiliation": Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. China (People's Republic of China, or "PRC") took back Tibet in the 1950s, got Hong Kong in 1997, and now only Taiwan is left.

Getting back Tibet and Hong Kong were relatively easy, there was no one to oppose the former, and the British lease was up on the latter anyway. Taiwan poses a challenge. The United States has always said that it will oppose reunification by force, and indeed in 1979 Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, making this policy legally binding on the president.

Taiwan (the Republic of China, or "ROC") was for decades run by the authoritarian Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek. Starting in 1987, however, has evolved into a democracy. Although the Chinese communists have moderated since the days of Mao Tse-Tung, the spectre of a totalitarian giant attacking a peaceful democracy will not play well on the world stage.

The Chinese Military Build-Up

Those who accuse the United States of being recklessly adventuristic would do well to cast their eyes on the immense growth of the Chinese Army and Navy (PLA - Peoples Liberation Army, and PLAN, Peoples Liberation Army/Navy).

As Bill Gertz documented the massive Chinese ___ in his book "The Chinese Dragon Awakens", excerpted in the Washington Times last June. Gertz told about what he heard from Pentagon officials

China is building its military forces faster than U.S. intelligence and military analysts expected, prompting fears that Beijing will attack Taiwan in the next two years, according to Pentagon officials.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials say all the signs point in one troubling direction: Beijing then will be forced to go to war with the United States, which has vowed to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.

China's military buildup includes an array of new high-technology weapons, such as warships, submarines, missiles and a maneuverable warhead designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses. Recent intelligence reports also show that China has stepped up military exercises involving amphibious assaults, viewed as another sign that it is preparing for an attack on Taiwan.

The Problem with China

John Derbyshire, a longtime China watcher who writes for National Review, said the other day that "I try to keep tabs on the China watchers and their moods. The current mood is darkening." Indeed so. He pointed to a BBC article in which the Chinese announced a 14% increase in military spending, a huge amount by western standards. Derbyshire also quotes Australian sinologist Geremie R. Barme from the Jan '06 China Journal:

"With the accession of Hu Jintao ... many presumed that the relatively lax ideological rule of the Jiang Zemin years would continue. Ever-optimistic observers even thought that here, finally, China had a Soviet-style reformist of its own (recall putative Sino-Gorbachev's past, Qiao Shi for example).

"It was probably the 2003 commemoration of the 110th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth, and the speech that Hu Jintao made at the Great Hall of the People in December that year, that put paid to such a notion..."

In other words, forget about a Chinese Gorbachev, much less a Yeltsin.

China is in an unusual situaion, one that I believe is without parallel this past hundred years, at least for a large nation. It is an officially communist country that has almost totally abandoned the economic tenants of communism. Yet the Communist Party of China maintains absolute rule, and immediately represses any perceived threat to it's power. It's only idiology is power for it's own sake.

The Chinese communists now practice a sort of "crony capitalism", whereby one can start a business and make money, but only by the grace of the state. An independent judiciary and what the West calls "rule of law" are non-existent.

This offers the average Chinese nothing to believe in. A seek out new religions such as Falun Gong, but given the persecution of believers by the state few take the risk. Most are apparently happy, for now, just trying to take part in the new Chinese semi-capitalist economy.

Chinese leaders are attempting to deal with this problem through the "Three Represents" campaign. As outlined in a paper last year by Jia Hepeng, published by the Cato Institute,

The Three Represents Campaign has long been considered to ensure that the Party expand its membership to include private entrepreneurs, redefine its societal role, modify its core tenets, and institutionalize its rule. The constitutional status of the slogans seems to corroborate that conclusion. The assertion, however, overlooks another side of the ideological movement: the CCP’s desire to absorb capitalists into a preexisting Party line and to indoctrinate them with the Party ortho-doxy. By doing this, the CCP is in fact strengthening its orthodox ideology so as to increase its authority and legitimacy.

Hepeng concludes that the ability of the communists to bring the capitalists into it's fold and get them to buy into their idiology (whatever it is these days) is "very limited". Thus the party will "continue its pragmatic policies in economic and social fields" but will relaunch similar campaigns everytime it detects a threat to it's legitimacy.

But the state knows that this will not work over time. It therefore does what all totalitarian nations eventually do; play the nationalism and anti-foreigner cards. In the case of China, this means making it appear that the "century of humiliation" (the 19th) and World War II were only yesterday. Their solution is to whip up popular passions over Taiwan, and at the same time whip up anti-Japanese and anti-American sentiment.

Chinese Threat Update

A recent BBC story headlines "Military Balance Goes Against Taiwan"

In its annual report to the US Congress in July last year, the Pentagon said China had 450 short-range ballistic missiles - considerably more than was previously thought - and was expected to deploy 75 additional missiles a year for some years to come.

All of them are based in the Nanjing military region opposite Taiwan.

These missiles are mostly equiped with conventional warheads. What China will do is use them in conjunction with an attempted naval blockade of the island. The Chinese know that their chances against the US Navy are dicey. However, they can rain missiles on Taiwan with relative impunity. Their hope is that they can force Taiwan into making favorable concessions that would lead to de facto reunification.

Chinese shipyards have been busy turning out ships, both civilian and military. In the past 10 years they have gone from being a minor player to the third-largest builder of ships in the world. Take a look at this chart of Chinese warships and it becomes apparent that China is busy replacing older ships and submarines with new models at a rapid pace.

China is not only on a building spree, they have been purchasing advanced Russian submarines at an alarming pace. Last year they purchased 8 Russian Kilo class diesel-electric subs, the best the Russians have to offer. No one should dismiss these simply because they are not nuclear powered. Since the Chinese are only going to send them to the waters around Taiwan, they do not need the range that nuclear power offers. Diesel-electic subs are very quiet when running on batteries, and in a few instances have been able to get within torpedo range of US carriers.

However, despite their growing numbers and new technologies, Chinese ability to use these new naval weapons effectively is open to serious question. They are currenly able to only keep a tiny fraction of them at sea at any one time. While they can "surge" during a crisis, it would appear that they do not have much confidence in their abilities as of yet.

The US has engaged Japan as an ally against China, something China has noted with growing alarm. In response, the Chinese have played the World War II card, as noted above, trying to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment at home, and playing to historical fears regionally in an attempt to scare off the Japanese. So far it has not worked.

The Japanese have the world's second largest defense budget, something that is not widely known, and put most of that money into their navy and air force, the two branches that would be the most useful in a war over Taiwan.

In an October 2005 interview in the Taipei Times, retired Japanese Rear Admiral Sumihiko Kawamura said that he does not yet see the PLAN as being a threat yet to the US or Japan. Commented Admiral Kawamura

Regarding PLAN's ability to project power, its range only extends to the waters around Taiwan. PLAN's submarines have a very limited ability to prevent the US and Japanese navies from projecting their power to the waters around Taiwan.

As for its ability to control sea lanes, it would be impossible for PLAN to control the waters between China and Taiwan if it faced a US and Japanese joint naval force. In contrast, within the so-called first island chain [islands including the Aleutians, Japan, South Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore], PLAN has a very limited capability to deny the US and Japan command of the seas.

So if China invaded Taiwan, PLAN would not be able to sustain logistic support from China because it cannot control the waters between Taiwan and China.

Finally, China also has a limited capability to conduct a blockade of sea lanes.

While certainly true, it may be irrelevant. As noted above, China has been building not only naval forces but medium-range missiles as well. They will use these to bombard Taiwan and demoralize the population into demanding that it's government agree to terms favorable to the mainland Chinese. Even with the most aggressive anti-missile development and deployment, no system that I am aware of will be able to stop but a fraction of these weapons.

Chinese-Russian cooperation has become significant also, with the two countries engaged in sevaral joint military operations. Several times the two militaries have engaged in joint exercises. The issue is not that Russia would help China in a showdown, for they would not. The issue is that, one, China is learning advanced techniques from Russia, two, this provides Russia an opportunity to "show off" the weaponry they hope to sell China, and three a show of ideological unity over issues such as Taiwan and a joint desire to see the US replaced as having dominant influence in that part of the world.

China is also in bed with several African dictators, most notably those who govern Sudan, where they see a reliable supply of oil to feed their growing economy. China has several thousand troops in Sudan to guard the oil terminals, which is rare for a country that has traditionally not sent soldiers far from home. Zimbabwe is another country that has received much Chinese attention. Both the Sudan and Zimbabwe are among the most repressive regimes on the Aftican continent.

Let's not forget about the Internet, or "cyberwarfare", as it is sometimes called. Although these things are difficult to prove, there is much evidence that China is behind a series of attacks on US military computers. The biggest and most organized hacking was the 2003 "Titan Rain" incident

This was a massive and well organized attack on American military networks. The people carrying out the attack really knew what they were doing, and thousands of military and industrial documents were sent back to China. The attackers were not able to cover their trail completely, and some of the attackers were traced back to a Chinese government facility in southern China.

In 2005 they attacked the British parliament network, although the report cited above indicates that the "defense won the round". The US and British governments have stepped up security in the wake of these incidents. All of this, however, is just a test run for what will be all-out cyberwarfare if things get hot around Taiwan.

The US Response

GlobalSecurity provides a link to the US Pacific Fleet here. The Pacific Fleet consists of the 3rd Fleet and the 7th Fleet. The 3rd Fleet covers the eastern and northern Pacific, while the 7th is responsible for the western Pacific and Indian oceans.

The 7th Fleet consists of the following Battle Groups;
# Kitty Hawk Battle Group
# Nimitz Battle Group
# Vinson Battle Group
# Lincoln Battle Group
# Stennis Battle Group
# Reagan Strike Group

Each Battle Group consists of one aircraft carrier, two cruisers, two or three destroyers, one or two frigates, two attack submarines, and a supply ship.

In addition, the Pacific Fleet consists of Submarine Group 7 and Submarine Group 9, with a total of 31 attack boats. Attack submarines would, of course, operate on their own when not assigned a carrier. Surface force strike groups may be formed also, but likely would not operate this way in a war over China.

In a move designed to bolster our defenses in the western Pacific,StrategyPage reported recently that over the next 4 years, the US Navy will transfer six Los Angeles Class boats from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This brings the total number of Pacific fleet boats to 31, as opposed to 21 for the Atlantic fleet.

The United States also maintains much air power in the region, most notably on Guam , where we have a variety of aircraft stationed, including B-1bs and B-52s.

The Japanese maintain a fairly powerful navy, and a complete list of their ships can be found on the Global Security website. They lack aircraft carriers, and so their ships would need to be covered by aircraft based out of Japan.


Again, I see no reason to change my view that if China moves against Taiwan, it will be in 2008. I will quote the Naval War College paper cited in a previous post:

China’s military power will peak relative to that of Taiwan and the regional forces of the United States sometime between 2005 and 2008. In this window, improved naval and air capabilities—including ballistic and cruise missiles—will give China its best chance to effect Taiwan’s acquiescence. After 2008, Taiwan’s expected defensive gains and the seemingly exponential military advances of the United States will preclude a successful attack on the island

By "exponential military advances of the United States" the author is referring to US weapons systems like the F-22 fighter and Virginia class submarines.

Chinese military analysists watched US capabilities grow from the 1991 Gulf War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and are alarmed at the increase in US capabilities. Any war over Taiwan will play to US strengths, unlike a situation like the insurgency in Iraq, which arguably does not. The US is at it's best in a tradional shoot-out, and the Chinese know full well that we spent over forty years studying how to fight the Soviet Navy

The reason I believe that China will wait until 2008 is that the Olynmpics will be held in Bejing that same year. They will not risk a boycott by attacking sooner.

In summary, there is a very real threat from China over Taiwan. We will come to the island's defense if it comes to war, and we have the military power to stop a Chinese attack or attempted blockade. A missile barrage aimed at destroying the morale of the Taiwanese people introduces an asymettrical concept whose results are problematical.

However, we should caution ourselves against "mirror image" thinking. Just becase our studies show that we can blunt a Chinese advance does not mean that they share our assumptions. By our way of thinking, the Chinese would not possibly want to risk the immense damage to their economy that would result from even a successful war. But as some of the evidence above indicates, ideology may be stronger than reason, and so we must be prepared for the worst.

Posted by Tom at 9:30 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 27, 2005

Part II: "Thefts of U.S. technology boost China's weaponry"

Today the second part of Bill Gertz' series was published in the Washington Times, "Thefts of U.S. technology boost China's weaponry"

As with Part I, it is Gertz at his best:

China is stepping up its overt and covert efforts to gather intelligence and technology in the United States, and the activities have boosted Beijing's plans to rapidly produce advanced-weapons systems. "I think you see it where something that would normally take 10 years to develop takes them two or three," said David Szady, chief of FBI counterintelligence operations.

Again, the good news is that the FBI is aware of China's efforts. The bad news is that their efforts are massive:

To counter such incidents, the FBI has been beefing up its counterintelligence operations in the past three years and has special sections in all 56 field offices across the country for counterspying.

But the problem of Chinese spying is daunting.

"It's pervasive," Mr. Szady said. "It's a massive presence, 150,000 students, 300,000 delegations in the New York area. That's not counting the rest of the United States, probably 700,000 visitors a year. They're very good at exchanges and business deals, and they're persistent."

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Tom at 8:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The "Chinese Dragon Awakens"

Yesterday was the first part of Bill Gertz' three part series on China, "Chinese Dragon Awakens", published in the Washington Times.

The gist of the series can be found in the opening paragraphs:

China is building its military forces faster than U.S. intelligence and military analysts expected, prompting fears that Beijing will attack Taiwan in the next two years, according to Pentagon officials.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials say all the signs point in one troubling direction: Beijing then will be forced to go to war with the United States, which has vowed to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.

China's military buildup includes an array of new high-technology weapons, such as warships, submarines, missiles and a maneuverable warhead designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses. Recent intelligence reports also show that China has stepped up military exercises involving amphibious assaults, viewed as another sign that it is preparing for an attack on Taiwan.

Gertz is the National Security reporter for the Times and over the years has written of number of highly informative books on military and foreign policy matters. He regularly appears on Fox News also, in addition to his articles in the Times. His ability to get detailed information up-to-date about security threats is second-to-none, and it is obvious he has some very good contacts in the defense establishment.

How dangerous is China?

"We may be seeing in China the first true fascist society on the model of Nazi Germany, where you have this incredible resource base in a commercial economy with strong nationalism, which the military was able to reach into and ramp up incredible production," a senior defense official said.

Fortunately, the US military is well aware of the problem. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has spoken recently about the Chinese threat, and wondered aloud, obviously in a rhetorical question, why China would build up it's military when it faces no military threat to itself.

The two-year timeframe Gertz mentions is in line with what I've seen elsewhere. In a longish post last April, "War with China: 2008 - 2010?" I examined some open-source literature and came to a similar conclusion. However, given that the 2008 Olympics would be held in Bejing, my theory is that China will wait until after the games are over to make their move. They will not want to suffer the fate of the Soviets, who's Moscow games in 1980 were boycotted by many nations in reponse to their invasion of Afghanistan.

Gertz has much more to say in his article, so you'll want to read the whole thing.

Posted by Tom at 8:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 11, 2005

War with China: 2008 - 2010?

In an earlier post called "The Looming Threat", I wrote that China would likely attack Taiwan sometime "before 2015". In light of better information, I am revising my estimate to say that if there is a war it will occur sometime between 2008 and 2010.

I've changed my time estimate because of two factors; first, additional research has let me to conclude that the military "window of opportunity" for the Chinese will start to close in 2008, and second I have given more thought to the meaning of the 2008 Olympic Games, which will be held in the Chinese capital of Beijing.

I. Why a Chinese Attack?

Many would dismiss a Chinese attack as improbable. The point out that from a logical standpoint, China has no need to occupy or control Taiwan. By attacking China risks throwing their economy into chaos, being isolated on the world stage if not becoming an outright pariah, risking a nuclear escallation, and even if the succeded they would lose the ability to use the issue of Taiwan to whip up popular sentiment at home. And, as the outcome of war is never certain, if they lost it might spark a revolution at home that could topple the leadership. Certainly this is enough to give the pause.

At the same time that we take these objections seriously, we must remember the fallacy of "mirror image" thinking. If we have learned nothing else since 9-11 is should be that others do not share our way of thinking. What we consider logical others see as illogical. Facts we consider important are not even in other people's mental universe. Not everyone else works off of our set of assumptions.

Let us therefore consider reasons why, in light of the above objections, China might still make a move against Taiwan:

Saving Face

The Oriental concept of "face" is very important and something that we often underestimate. The simple fact is that rightly or wrongly the Chinese feel that they were embarrassed by the West in the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th century and that they must recover. This is no place to recite Chinese history, but suffice it to say that during this time China was colonialized by foreign powers and her people often treated quite shabbily. The Chinese also believe that they lost several territories during this time and to regain face need to reacquire them.

The "lost territories" are Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The Chinese reacquired Tibet by force in the 1950s and Hong Kong by diplomacy in 1997. Only Taiwan remains, and by all accounts that I have come across they are bound and determined to get it back. For example, I recall an article several years ago by John Derbyshire, writing in National Review, in which he said that the one thing that struck him during a visit to China is that despite disagreement on a variety of issues, all of the Chinese people he spoke with were unanimous in their attitude toward Taiwan: "We want it back."

Isn't it the Economics, Stupid?

The biggest objection that I can find is that a military move on China, even if successful, would result in boycotts and embargoes (and maybe even a blockade) that would cripple their economy. And in normal circumstances this would keep them from attacking. However, as I will show below, there may come a time in which the leadership ignores the danger and starts to believe their own propaganda. In short, they may become overconfident.

II. Why Defend Taiwan?

It is reasonable to ask why we should defend Taiwan in the face of Chinese aggression. Some, like the libertarian Cato Institute, say that we ought to let Taiwan defend itself. This is not the place for a full treatment of Taiwan's own actions and drift towards declaring independence, so suffice it to say that I believe that we ought to defend Taiwan for the following reasons:

We have obligated ourselves to help defend the island democracy with the Taiwan Relations Act (1979). American presidents, including President Bush, have given their word that we would help to defend Taiwan. We must be good to our word or need to abrogate the treaty and speak clearly that we will not come to Taiwan's aid.

The government of Taiwan ("Republic of China") is now a democracy. We should defend democracies against tyrannies. Even when Taiwan was ruled by the authoritarian Kuomintang, it was still better than the Communists on the mainland, thus worth defending under the concept of comparative justice.

Defense of Taiwan easily meets the requirements of Just War Theory.

Taiwan will not sit still and let us do all of the fighting. They will, in fact, end up doing most of the fighting and dying. It is often forgotten, for example, that during the Korean War the South Koreans suffered more casualties than did Americans.

III. The Preparation

We are currently seeing signs that the Chinese are preparing to make a move. The preparation falls into three categories; the legal, the military, and the morale

The Legal

Last month China's rubber-stamp "National People's Congress" passed an "anti-secession law" authorizing the use of "non-peaceful means" against Taiwan. It was assumed by many analysts that China is setting the legal grounds for action against Taiwan, military or otherwise.

The Military

Under Deng Xiaoping China embarked on a modernization program. One of the "four modernizations" was the military. During the Cold War, the bulk of China's military was oriented towards the Soviet threat. When the USSR dissolved, the military threat went away also. As such, China has been free to move her forces to face new challenges. One of those is retaking Taiwan.

The Chinese are engaged in a crash program to build up their navy, the branch that would have the biggest role in an attack.

Nevertheless, as this Navy War College paper makes clear, the Chinese will not have the ability to stage a "D-Day" style amphibious invasion of Taiwan:

The most dramatic but least feasible PRC threat is an amphibious attack with hundreds of thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops supported by ballistic missile barrages, aircraft, naval forces, and all manner of modified merchant ships. A host of analysts and government reports have poured cold water on this frequently discussed scenario, revealing China’s sea and airlift shortcomings, the numerous force-concentration problems associated with Formosa beach landings, and, not the least, Taiwan’s super-hardened land defenses. Piers Wood and Charles Ferguson, for example, persuasively argue that China lacks not only the amphibious assault ships to bridge the strait with enough firepower and men but also the port capacity to employ hundreds of potentially useful civilian craft.12 Their conclusion was shared by Admiral Dennis Blair, former commander of the U.S. Pacific forces, who not long ago reported that “the PLA is still years away from the capability to take and hold Taiwan.”13
By comparison, a naval blockade could bring Taiwan to its knees with relative ease and minimal international protest. A sustained interruption of key sea lines of communications would be economically disastrous for the Taiwanese economy, which relies heavily on shipping for its lifeblood trade and energy needs, some two-thirds of which are fulfilled by fossil fuel imports.14 Even a temporary closure would likely prove debilitating for the import/export-dependent economy. Shortly prior to Taiwan’s 1996 election, for example, all merchant marine traffic to Taiwan was halted for days after China fired several unarmed DF-15 short-range missiles toward the island’s two largest ports, the closest of them falling approximately twelve miles from land. Traffic into Taiwan’s northern port was similarly blocked the previous year after China lobbed six DF-15s into the strait some eighty-five miles north of the island.1

Most likely, therefore, the Chinese would force Taiwan to negotiate "at missile point" and would come away with favorable terms if not outright annexation. Amphibious invasion or airborne attack is extremely unlikely.

Another Naval War College Paper puts it in starker terms still:

Given the many weaknesses of the PLA Navy, the U.S. Navy will remain superior to the Chinese fleet for many years to come. That is not the issue. The danger, rather, is the possibility of an expansive, even bellicose, Chinese foreign policy provoking open conflict with a weaker neighboring state. Arms races and exacerbated regional tensions, on the one hand, and an entangling of American armed forces, on the other, are opposite evils to be avoided. However, the Chinese navy has markedly improved in capabilities and is clearly aiming for a blue-water capacity. It has already developed an "active defense and inshore warfare" strategy commensurate with its improving ability to deal with limited wars and regional conflicts, at the same time as the U.S. Navy is concentrating on the world's littorals in support of its own new maritime strategy. The U.S. Navy's recent white papers ". . . From the Sea" and "Forward . . . from the Sea" have changed its focus to operations near land. There is irony in the fact that while the U.S. Navy is slowly shifting away from its sea control mission, the PLA Navy is actively pursuing command of the regional waters.

Window of Opportunity

According to the authors of the first Naval War College paper cited above, the Chinese will have a "window of opportunity" that will begin to close in or around 2010:

PRC - People's Republic of China. The official name of Communist China. Typically called just "China"
PLA - People's Liberation Army. All branches of the military are referred to as the "PRC" as in "PLA Navy" or "PLA Air Force"
ROC - Republic of China. The official name for the government of Taiwan, on the island of Formosa.

...China’s military power will peak relative to that of Taiwan and the regional forces of the United States sometime between 2005 and 2008. In this window, improved naval and air capabilities—including ballistic and cruise missiles—will give China its best chance to effect Taiwan’s acquiescence. After 2008, Taiwan’s expected defensive gains and the seemingly exponential military advances of the United States will preclude a successful attack on the island.
For a full discussion of the military details see the two papers cited above.

Barring a major technological surprise, espionage action, or plain bad luck on our part, the US Navy will be able to successfully defeat the PLA Navy and Air Force, even during the "window of opportunity." We will suffer losses, perhaps serious.

But as the author of the NWC paper above stated, the question is speed; can the United States get enough forces into the area fast enough, and defeat the Chinese fast enough, before Taiwan is forced to capitulate?

The Nuclear Wildcard

One cannot discuss war between the United States and China without discussing nuclear weapons. Indeed, some have used the threat of escalation as a reason why China would not attack. This may well be so. But it also may be an example of the "mirror image" thinking that we need to avoid.

During the Cold War we adopted the theory of MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD said that neither side would dare to attack the other because both would end up destroyed. But while the Soviets gave lip service to this theory, a review of their internal literature showed that they did not necessarily buy into it. They conducted war games with the express intent of finding a way to fight and win a nuclear war.

So it may be with China. Not that they would want to fight such a war, but they may well believe that they can "absorb" losses better than we could. During the 1950s, when the Soviets and Chinese were still on somewhat friendly terms, the former "...professed not to fear nuclear war because they did understand the force of nuclear weapons, but the believed they could afford to lose a few hundred million of their people, people being the one thing they had in abundance." (Operation Solo, p 94). Although the days of Mao's rule are long gone, his government is still in place.

Lastly, there is the October 2000 testimony by Senator Jon Kyle that in 1995 "...General Xiong Guangkai warned a visiting U.S. official that China could use military force to prevent Taiwan's gaining independence without fear of U.S. intervention because American leaders `care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan.' An editorial in a military-owned newspaper this March was more blunt, warning that, `The United States will not sacrifice 200 million Americans for 20 million Taiwanese.'"

IV. The Olympics

The 2008 Olympics will be held in Beijing. Although it is a matter of national pride for any country to host the Olympic games, it assumes special importance for totalitarian regimes. One will recall that the Soviets felt more hurt by our boycott of the 1980 games than we did by their boycott of the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Likewise, the Chinese will place great importance on putting forth the best front during the games. The entire thing is a chance for them to showcase their "national greatness" and to show the world that they are not "backward".

If China makes a military move against Taiwan before the games they risk a boycott by large numbers of countries, regardless of how the war turns out. The US would certainly boycott, and would put great pressure on other countries to do likewise. Even if most countries attended despite US pressure, the games would be forever marred. Given the importance the Chinese put on "face", I cannot believe that they would allow this to happen.

I therefore do not believe that China would attack Taiwan before the 2008 games. Given the military "window of opportunity" cited above, I do not think that they can wait much after 2008 either. This leads me to the conclusion that if they move it will be between 2008 and 2010.

The Propaganda

Discussion of the Olympics leads to another observation, one about the importance of setting the stage for an attack; the importance of propaganda. China will not only use the Olympics to make themselves look good, they will use the occasion to remind us of how Taiwan should be part of the PRC. Unfortunately, there will be all too many Western journalists who will lay their critical faculties aside during the games.

The Hitler Analogy

The 1936 Olympic games were held in Berlin, Germany. Hitler saw them as an occasion to showcase his regime, which is exactly what he did. Although many Americans believe that runner Jesse Owens spoiled Hitler's plans, the fact is that is not so. Although the story of Owens winning a gold medal and Hitler refusing to shake hands with him is literally true, it was not seen as important at the time. The story did not gain prominence until the 1950s, when the civil rights movement picked up in the United States. Rather, the Olympics were seen at the time as a huge propaganda victory for Nazi Germany.

The benefit to Germany of a successful Olympics was that it raised their "self esteem" and made them feel that they could, in fact, conquer the world, or at least the European part of it. This, of course, is precisely what they set out to do.

V. The Allies

The United States had two allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. We can most likely count on the former to help us, but assistance from the latter will probably not be forthcoming.

The Japanese have shown great interest in recent years in missile defense. They are extremely worried about both China and North Korea. Their military is larger than I think is commonly believed, a fact well-known by the Chinese. Politically, they have shown the will to "step out" beyond their traditional post-World War II military isolation, sending troops to Iraq, for example.

South Korea has moved in the opposite direction. With the ageing of the Korean War generation, the youth do not feel beholden by past American sacrifices. Anti-American demonstrations have become more and more common in recent years. The South Korean government's "Sunshine Policy" towards the North is often at odds with US goals. They will likely not risk antagonizing China by aiding the US during a war.

VI. Summary and Conclusion

Here are the main points made in this paper:

  • The Chinese want to incorporate Taiwan into their country, and will do so by force if they believe they can be successful.
  • The United States should come to the aid of Taiwan in the event of a crisis
  • Chinese military action, if it occurs, will come by way of blockade and threat of missile attack, not by traditional amphibious or airborne attack.
  • The United States will be able to defeat the PLA forces, but perhaps not in time to prevent Taiwanese capitulation.
  • If the Chinese decide to take military action, it will occur sometime shortly after the 2008 Olympics.
  • The United States will have the assistance of Japan but not South Korea
In conclusion, the best way to prevent a war is to take the following steps:
  • State clearly and unambiguously that we will defend Taiwan if the Chinese attack.
  • Maintain a high level of military preparedness in the western Pacific region.
  • Conduct regular military exercises in the western Pacific region.
  • Sell Taiwan advanced weaponry, but with an eye towards not unnecessarily provoking the Chinese.
  • Encourage, even demand, that the Taiwanese not declare their independence. To do so would be unnecessary and might provoke Chinese military action.

Be sure to check out By Dawn's Early Light's most recent post on a possible war with Taiwan. While you're there, check out his past articles on the subject too (listed in the sidebar at right). Bill takes on several issues that I have not, including "why the US will create strong alliances with India and continue to strengthen its Japanese and Australian security arrangements to avert a war over Taiwan and wait out for a democratic China."

In my post I argued that China would use the 2008 Olympics to showcase their regime and demoralize Taiwan. In the comments section to a post of his last week I asked Bill about this and he responded:

I think it is more likely that Taiwan will use the Olympics than China. What if Taiwan declares independence a month prior to the Olympics? That makes much more sense than China invading immediately before or after.
I hadn't thought of that, but it makes sense to me too.


As per Bill Rice's comment, the Taiwanese angle was actually made by Dan.

Posted by Tom at 11:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 16, 2005

The Looming Threat

Several times I've said on this blog that China is a threat that is lurking in the background. The situation appears peaceful now, but appearances are deceiving. The Chinese are bound and determined to take back Taiwan, by force if necessary. Right now they are laying low, stockpiling weapons and working to lay the political groundwork. Sooner or later they will likely force the situation, and I think this will occur sometime before 2015, though not for a few years yet.

Last week China passed a law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan if the latter declares it's independence. While China has since said that the law is "misunderstood" and is a "law for peace" it seems clear that they are laying the legal groundwork for military action.

Likewise, over the past ten or fifteen years China has become much more aggressive on military acquisitions. From the break with the Soviet Union in the late 50s to the end of the Cold War, the bulk of the Chinese military was oriented towards a war with Russia. They could not afford a two-front strategy in anything but name. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it's military came apart also, freeing the Chinese to concentrate on Taiwan.

For a more complete strategic analysis see my July 2004 post "China, Taiwan, and Concepts of Sea Power"

The other day China's "Prime Minister" held a press conference in which he laid more political groundwork for action against Taiwan. The PM gave the standard Chinese line on their view of history. John Derbyshire describes what the PM said

Tensions with Japan? Must be Japan's fault: "The fundamental problem is that Japan should correctly view history. ... take history as a mirror and face forward to the future. This year marks the 60th anniversary of China's victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-45). This part of history reminds us of the untold sufferings the war brought to the people in China..." Also, of course, a by-product of U.S. meddling: "The security alliance between Japan and the United States is a bilateral matter between these two countries. Yet we are concerned in China because it is related to the question of Taiwan..."

The anti-secession law? Why, the people of Taiwan want to be united with the mainland: "We have enacted this law to give expression of the will of the entire Chinese people, including the 23 million compatriots in Taiwan, their will to safeguard national unity and territorial integrity and oppose secession of Taiwan from the country." In any case, the law really has nothing to do with force or intimidation: "This law is meant to strengthen and promote cross-Straits relations."

And always, always, that self-righteous, self-pitying whine: "In the recent hundred of years, China was subjected to bullying and humiliation. Yet till now our country has never sent a single soldier abroad to occupy an inch of foreign land." (Ask a Tibetan about that.)

You would never know, unless you looked at the past 56 years of Chinese history, that the smooth-taliing Mr. Wen is front man for a gang of lawless cutthroats.

China the victim, you see, is only pursuing justice to right historical wrongs.

What exactly does China want? Derbyshire again:

What they want is regional hegemony. They want to be in East Asia — perhaps in all of Eurasia — what the U.S.A. has been in the Americas this past couple of hundred years. In their dreams, Russia will be their Canada: huge, underpopulated, cold, and not very consequential. India will be their Brazil.** Laos (say) will be their Guatemala (say). There are some holes in the analogy. The U.S.A. never had to contend with an offshore nation a tenth as populous yet ten times wealthier than itself, as China has to keep Japan in mind. Nor do the Indians look to be slipping quietly into their assigned role as providers of coffee, nuts, and salacious dances to the new superpower. Still, it is plain from their visible diplomatic strategy that the Chinese think they can pull it off
That's part of it, I'll agree. But it's not "hegemony" as a European or American would understand it. Not is is simply the pursuit of natural resources as was the Japanese goal some 80 years ago with their "Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere". It's a little of the latter, to be sure (witness the China-Philippines squabble over the possibly oil-rich Spratley Islands), but I think it's more ideology.

North Korea is the asian threat that dominates headlines, but my thoughts are that China is using them as a diversion. Tom Donnelly, writing in the Weekly Standard, seems to agree, chastising the Clinton and Bush Administrations for ignoring the problem:

In short, the United States continues to look through the wrong end of the telescope. We're thus blinded to a whole host of worrying developments that reveal China's progress as a geopolitical--and increasingly global--competitor. The Chinese "legislature" just passed an "anti-secession law" that not only "legitimizes" an attack on Taiwan but greater internal repression as well; the Beijing government sees secessionists everywhere. China is beginning to string together a necklace of client states in the oil-rich Middle East--Iran and Sudan, to name two--and even into the Americas, cozying up to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. Venezuela supplies about 13 percent of daily U.S. oil imports, and just as Beijing fears the U.S. Navy's ability to sever China's connection to international energy markets, China wouldn't mind being able to return the favor with Chavez's help.
Disturbing also are trends within our own military budget. The Navy and Air Force being starved to feed the hunger in the Army and Marine Corps for ground troops. While this helps us today in the War on Terror, a lack of Aircraft Carriers could come back to haunt us in the years ahead. Money is always finite and the business of policy is to make hard choices. Let's hope and push our politicians to make ones that keep the Chinese threat in mind.

Posted by Tom at 11:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack