The USS Gerald R. Ford was supposed to help secure another half century of American naval supremacy. The hulking aircraft carrier taking shape in a dry dock in Newport News, Va., is designed to carry a crew of 4,660 and a formidable arsenal of aircraft and weapons.
But an unforeseen problem cropped up between blueprint and expected delivery in 2015: China is building a new class of ballistic missiles designed to arc through the stratosphere and explode onto the deck of a U.S. carrier, killing sailors and crippling its flight deck.
WSJ's Nathan Hodge reports on a new fleet of Chinese ballistic missiles that can strike warships nearly 2,000 miles offshore and are intended to keep U.S. warships. AP Photo/Xinhua, Pu Haiyang
Since 1945, the U.S. has ruled the waters of the western Pacific, thanks in large part to a fleet of 97,000-ton carriers—each one "4.5 acres of mobile, sovereign U.S. territory," as the Navy puts it. For nearly all of those years, China had little choice but to watch American vessels ply the waters off its coast with impunity.
Now China is engaged in a major military buildup. Part of its plan is to force U.S. carriers to stay farther away from its shores, Chinese military analysts say. So the U.S. is adjusting its own game plan. Without either nation saying so, both are quietly engaged in a tit-for-tat military-technology race. At stake is the balance of power in a corner of the seas that its growing rapidly in importance.
Pentagon officials are reluctant to talk publicly about potential conflict with China. Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Beijing isn't an explicit enemy. During a visit to China last month, Michele Flournoy, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, told a top general in the People's Liberation Army that "the U.S. does not seek to contain China," and that "we do not view China as an adversary," she recalled in a later briefing.
Nevertheless, U.S. military officials often talk about preparing for a conflict in the Pacific—without mentioning who they might be fighting. The situation resembles a Harry Potter novel in which the characters refuse to utter the name of their adversary, says Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank with close ties to the Pentagon. He says.
"You can't say China's a threat. You can't say China's a competitor."
China Unveils New "Carrier-Killer" Anti-Ship Ballistic Missle
Beijing's interest in developing anticarrier missiles is believed to date to the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996. The Chinese government, hoping to dissuade voters in Taiwan from re-electing a president considered pro-independence, conducted a series of missile tests, firing weapons into the waters off the island. President Bill Clinton sent two carrier battle groups, signaling that Washington was ready to defend Taiwan—a strategic setback for China.
China's state media has said its new missile, called the DF-21D, was built to strike a moving ship up to about 1,700 miles away. U.S. defense analysts say the missile is designed to thwart our defenses in two key ways:
- Come in at an angle too high for U.S. defenses against sea-skimming cruise missiles.
- Com in too low for defenses against other ballistic missiles.
Even if U.S. systems were able to shoot down one or two, some experts say, China could overwhelm the defenses by targeting a carrier with several missiles at the same time.
As such, the new missile—China says it isn't currently deployed—could push U.S. carriers farther from Chinese shores, making it more difficult for American fighter jets to penetrate its airspace or to establish air superiority in a conflict near China's borders.
U.S. Response To New China Threat
In response, our military is developing:
- The Navy is testing long-range pilotless, drone aircraft that can hover 70,000 feet above aircraft carriers and allows fleet commanders to track suspicious vessels across vast expanses of sea. A prototype of the as-yet-unnamed drone, referred to as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system, is in action with the Navy’s 5th Fleet in the Pacific and, according to one naval expert, could help keep tabs on any Iranian threats to shipping in the Persian Gulf.
- The Air Force wants a fleet of pilotless bombers capable of cruising over vast stretches of the Pacific. The Air Force presently has an extensive arsenal of medium-range pilotless drones, including the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, and used in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Now on the Pentagon wish list is a proposed fleet of 80 to 100 nuclear-capable bombers that could operate with or without a pilot in the cockpit. Pentagon weapons acquisition chief Ashton Carter met separately with representatives of Northrop, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. These companies are expected to vie for the estimated $55-billion contract that is expected to provide jobs and decades of work for Southern California’s aerospace industry.
China Also Presents A Cyberspace Threat
The gamesmanship extends into cyberspace. U.S. officials worry that, in the event of a conflict, China would try to attack the satellite networks that control drones, as well as military networks within the U.S. The outcome of any conflict, they believe, could turn in part on who can jam the other's electronics or hack their computer networks more quickly and effectively.
In May 26, 2011, at a recent press conference held by the Defense Ministry, Geng Yansheng, spokesman of China's Defense Ministry, explained the role of "China's Blue Team," a team of hackers created to twart cyberattacks. He said.
"At present, Internet safety has become an international issue. It not only affects our civil societies but also the military. China is also a victim of Internet attacks. Right now our Internet protection system is still relatively weak. Improving Internet safety is one of the most prominent tasks of our military training. The purpose of the "Cyber Blue Team" is to improve our ability to safeguard Internet security."
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The Defense Ministry also emphasized that the "Cyber Blue Team" are not hackers and that the International community should not misunderstand the purpose of it. "Cyber Blue Team" is just a nickname used within the military training routines and is not an actual unit within the PLA.
Sizing up China's electronic-warfare capabilities is more difficult. China has invested heavily in cybertechnologies, and U.S. defense officials have said Chinese hackers, potentially working with some state support, have attacked American defense networks. China has repeatedly denied any state involvement.
How China Plans To Control The Seas Through "Anti-Access, Area Denial" Technologies
Throughout history, control of the seas has been a prerequisite for any country that wants to be considered a world power. China's military buildup has included a significant naval expansion. China now has 29 Song Class electric submarines armed with antiship cruise missiles, compared with just eight in 2002, according to Rand Corp., another think tank with ties to the military. In August, China conducted a sea trial of the "Varyag", its first aircraft carrier —a vessel that isn't yet fully operational.
At one time, military planners saw Taiwan as the main point of potential friction between China and the U.S. Today, there are more possible flash points. Tensions have grown between Japan and China over islands each nation claims in the East China Sea. Large quantities of oil and gas are believed to lie under the South China Sea, and China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations have been asserting conflicting territorial claims on it. Last year, Vietnam claimed China had harassed one of its research vessels, and China demanded that Vietnam halt oil-exploration activities in disputed waters.
A few years ago, the U.S. military might have responded to any flare-up by sending one or more of its 11 aircraft carriers to calm allies and deter Beijing. Now, the People's Liberation Army, in addition to the missiles it has under development, has submarines capable of attacking the most visible instrument of U.S. military power.
Eric Heginbotham, who specializes in East Asian security at Rand says.
"This is a rapidly emerging development. As late as 1995 or 2000, the threat to carriers was really minimal. Now, it is fairly significant. There is a whole complex of new threats emerging."
The Chinese military embarked on a military modernization effort designed to blunt U.S. power in the Pacific by developing what U.S. military strategists dubbed "anti-access, area denial" technologies.
Adm. Gary Roughead, the recently retired U.S. chief of naval operations, last year said.
"Warfare is about anti-access. You could go back and look at the Pacific campaigns in World War II, [when] the Japanese were trying to deny us access into the western Pacific."
In 2004, Chinese President Hu Jintao unveiled a new military doctrine calling for the armed forces to undertake "new historic missions" to safeguard China's "national interests." Chinese military officers and experts said those interests included securing international shipping lanes and access to foreign oil and safeguarding Chinese citizens working overseas.
At first, China's buildup was slow. Then some headline-grabbing advances set off alarms in Washington. In a 2007 test, China shot down one of its older weather satellites, demonstrating its ability to potentially destroy U.S. military satellites that enable warships and aircraft to communicate and to target bases on the Chinese mainland.
The Pentagon responded with a largely classified effort to protect U.S. satellites from weapons such as missiles or lasers. A year after China's antisatellite test, the U.S. demonstrated its own capabilities by blowing up a dead spy satellite with a modified ballistic-missile interceptor.
Last year, the arms race accelerated. In January, just hours before then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat down with Chinese President Hu to mend frayed relations, China conducted the first test flight of a new, radar-evading fighter jet. The plane, called the Chendu J-20 (see video below), might allow China to launch air attacks much farther afield—possibly as far as U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam.
The aircraft carrier China launched in August was built from a hull bought from Ukraine. The Pentagon expects China to begin working on its own version, which could become operational after 2015—not long after the USS Gerald R. Ford enters service.
American military planners are even more worried about the modernization of China's submarine fleet. The newer vessels can stay submerged longer and operate more quietly than China's earlier versions. In 2006, a Chinese Song class submarine appeared in the midst of a group of American ships, undetected until it rose to the surface.
China's technological advances have been accompanied by a shift in rhetoric by parts of its military. Hawkish Chinese military officers and analysts have long accused the U.S. of trying to contain China within the "first island chain" that includes Japan and the Philippines, both of which have mutual defense treaties with the U.S., and Taiwan, which the U.S. is bound by law to help defend. They now talk about pushing the U.S. back as far as Hawaii and enabling China's navy to operate freely in the western Pacific, the Indian Ocean and beyond.
Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, one of China's most outspoken military commentators, told a conference in September.
"The U.S. has four major allies within the first island chain, and is trying to starve the Chinese dragon into a Chinese worm."
The Pentagon Conducts War Games
China's beefed up military still is a long way from having the muscle to defeat the U.S. Navy head-to-head. For now, U.S. officials say, the Chinese strategy is to delay the arrival of U.S. military forces long enough to take control of contested islands or waters.
Publicly, Pentagon leaders such as Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said the U.S. would like to cultivate closer military-to-military ties with China.
Privately, China has been the focus of planning. In 2008, the U.S. military held a series of war games, called Pacific Vision, which tested its ability to counter a "near-peer competitor" in the Pacific. That phrase is widely understood within the military to be shorthand for China.
Retired Air Force Gen. Carrol "Howie" Chandler, who helped conduct the war games says.
"My whole impetus was to look at the whole western Pacific. And it was no secret that the Chinese were making investments to overcome our advantages in the Pacific."
Those games tested the ability of the U.S. to exercise air power in the region, both from land bases and from aircraft carriers. People familiar with the exercises say they informed strategic thinking about potential conflict with China. A formal game plan, called AirSea Battle, now is in the works to develop better ways to fight in the Pacific and to counter China's new weapons, Pentagon officials say.
U.S. Navy Developing New Weapons And Expanding Bases
The Navy is developing new weapons for its aircraft carriers and new aircraft to fly off them. On the new Ford carrier, the catapult that launches jets off the deck will be electromagnetic, not steam-powered, allowing for quicker takeoffs.
The carrier-capable drones under development, which will allow U.S. carriers to be effective when farther offshore, are considered a breakthrough. Rear Adm. William Shannon, who heads the Navy's office for unmanned aircraft and strike weapons, compared the drone's debut flight last year to a pioneering flight by Eugene Ely, who made the first successful landing on a naval vessel in 1911. "I look at this demonstration flight…as ushering us into the second 100 years of naval aviation," he said.
The Air Force wants a longer-range bomber for use over the Pacific. Navy and Air Force fighter jets have relatively short ranges. Without midair refueling, today's carrier planes have an effective range of about 575 miles.
China's subs, fighter planes and guided missiles will likely force carriers to stay farther than that from its coast, U.S. military strategists say.
Andrew Hoehn, a vice president at Rand says.
"The ability to operate from long distances will be fundamental to our future strategy in the Pacific. You have to have a long-range bomber. In terms of Air Force priorities, I cannot think of a larger one."
The U.S. also is considering new land bases to disperse its forces throughout the region. President Barack Obama recently announced the U.S. would use new bases in Australia, including a major port in Darwin. Many of the bases aren't expected to have a permanent American presence, but in the event of a conflict, the U.S. would be able to base aircraft there.
In light of China's military advances and shrinking U.S. defense budgets, some U.S. military officers have begun wondering whether the time has come to rethink the nation's strategic reliance on aircraft carriers like the USS Ford. A successful attack on a carrier could jeopardize the lives of as many as 5,000 sailors—more than all the troops killed in action in Iraq.
Navy Captain Henry Hendrix and retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Noel Williams wrote in an article in the naval journal Proceedings last year.
"The Gerald R. Ford is just the first of her class. She should also be the last."
COMMENTARY: In two blog posts dated February 7, 2011, July 16, 2011 and November 8, 2011 and have extensively covered the new cyberspace threat posted by China, including the U.S. USCYBERCOM or CYBERCOM and its Chinese counterpart "Blue Cyber Team." In 2011, President Barack Obama established cyberattack rules of engagement and could respond to such an attack by an attack of its own, including the use of military weapons.
China has just finished test flying its new Chendu J-20 stealth fighter jet, so not much is known about the new Chinese stealth fighter specifications and capabilities, but it is believed that the America's F-22 and new F-35 stealth fighters are more than a match. However, the J-20's stealth capabilities, larger armament payload and longer range could present a serious threat U.S. bases in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
China's navy is growing rapidly, and includes submarines (both conventional and nuclear), surface combat ships, coastal warfare, amphibious warfare and minewarfare vessels. U.S. military experts estimate there are approximately 63 submarines in its fleet, of which 10 are nuclear. They include two classes of nuclear attack submarines (SSN)--Type 091 and 093. China also has two classes of nuclear ballistic missle submarines (SSBN)--Type 092 and 093. China is also building a newer, larger nuclear ballistic missle submarine (SSBN), the Type 095. Here's an estimate of China's latest naval inventory.
The following chart may help explain why the U.S. Naval Pacific Fleet is supporting Taiwan and patrolling the East and South China Seas.
Obama's bow to China's President not withstanding, the U.S. is not sitting on its butt while China ramps up its military. We have the largest naval fleet of any country, largest air force, largest nuclear arsenal, both day (F-22 and F-35) and night stealth fighters (F-117), and stealth bombers (B-2).
The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined, including China's. The U.S. Navy also has the world's largest carrier fleet, with 11 in service, one under construction (two planned), and one in reserve. The service had 328,516 personnel on active duty and 101,689 in the Navy Reserve in January 2011. It operates 286 ships in active service and more than 3,700 aircraft.
Our nuclear submarine fleet numbers 71, giving us a 7-to-1 superiority in nuclear submarines. We have 12 super aircraft carriers to China's lone "little" aircraft carrier. The U.S. is also developing a fleet of very fast Littoral ships that can operate off costal waters and can be used in different missions, an electronic rail gun that can shoot a projectile 100 miles with precise accuracy (and shoot down China's DF-21 carrier-killer missile), and we are working on numerous secret aircraft and military weapons systems that very few people know about.
The U.S. also has the world's largest, and most sophisticated fleet of unmanned drones, many of them being used in combat over the skys of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. is now testing two unmanned, long-range, nuclear-capable bombers. When completed, that bomber fleet will number 80-100.
Courtesy of an article dated January 4, 2011 appearing in The Wall Street Journal