Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What will be the impact of the Chinese ASBM on the US-Japan alliance?

Reports are emerging that in the process of enhancing its short- and medium-range ballistic missile forces, China is also developing the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile, similar to the DF-21, a ballistic missile with a range of 1800 kilometers. (Whether the new version will have a similar range remains to be seen — it may in fact have a longer range.)

This could pose a major threat to US naval forces in East Asia in the event of a crisis.

As Richard Fisher, Jr. writes at the International Assessment and Strategy Center (Hat tip: NOSI):
China's new ASBMs pose a strategic as well as a tactical challenge to U.S. forces in Asia. At present the U.S. does not have anti-missile capabilities to defend large U.S. ships against this threat, so vulnerable targets, most importantly aircraft carriers, will have to remain out of missile range in order to survive. This factor will further limit the effectiveness of their already range-challenged F/A-18E/F fighter bombers. U.S. Aegis cruisers and destroyers now being outfitted with new SM-3 interceptors with upgraded radar and processing capabilities may in the future be configured to deal with this threat, but if so, they may not be available for other missions, like protecting people. The fact is that no anti-missile system is going to come close to providing reliable defense. For China, ASBMs provide a means for saturating U.S. ships with missiles. While ASBMs are bearing down from above, their attack can be coordinated with waves of submarine, air and ship-launched anti-ship cruise missiles.
Sam Roggeveen at The Interpreter recently noted that the US is waking up to the threat posed by a Chinese ASBM. Roggeveen notes that for the moment one saving grace is that it is difficult to find an aircraft carrier at sea. He also notes that the US is shifting its priorities to reflect the new threat.

But what Roggeveen doesn't address is the threat posed by the new ASBM to US naval assets berthed in Japanese ports, most notably US fleet activities Yokosuka, the future home of the USS George Washington and the headquarters of the US Seventh Fleet. It may be difficult to find an aircraft carrier and its escorts at sea, but it is considerably easier to find them in their home port, as the accompanying image from Google Maps shows. (That's the USS Kitty Hawk to the right side of the map.)


View Larger Map

Google Maps also tells me that Yokosuka is less than 1400 kilometers from Tonghua in China's Jilin province, home to some Chinese DF-21 launchers.

The question I have is whether the Chinese ASBM will render US naval forward deployments in Japan obsolete, in that homeporting an aircraft carrier in Yokosuka may leave it vulnerable to a crippling first strike before even leaving port. Are anti-ballistic missile deployments in Japan — both by the US military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces — reliable enough to protect US forces while in Japanese ports?

If not, hadn't the US and Japan be having a serious discussion about the impact of China's ASBMs on the future of US forward deployments in Japan, and with them, the future of the US-Japan alliance? Should the US consider relocating more assets from Japan to Guam to put them out of the range of ASBMs?

This is all speculative given that next to nothing is known about the specifications of the new missile, but its impact is potentially drastic. It's certainly something to watch.

10 comments:

MTC said...

Mr. Harris -

If a U.S. Navy vessel is hit by a Chinese missile while that ship is sitting at dockside in Yokosuka or Sasebo, the result is an act of war.

Nobody is going to take such a step.

As for the anti-ship ballistic missile, it is a fiction - vaporware - scare literature material. The planners of the Soviet Union, who had a far a greater incentive to find an asymmetric response to the U.S.A.'s overwhelming superiority in carriers and a far greater latitude as to what was and what was not acceptable in terms of warfighting, gave upon the concept.

As yourself a few questions:

1) How is targeting information collected, if the ships are in the mid-ocean?

2) How is the information sent to the warhead (remember, as a ballistic missile, it is flying hundreds of kilometers up in space) expecially after the warhead dips over the horizon?

3) How does the warhead maneuver to meet up with the moving ship? T'is a bit trickier to lock on to a moving ship than to place a kill vehicle in the paty of a satellite hurtling along known trajectory.

When you look at the complete package needed to make the anti-ship ballistic missile system viable: visible light satellites, radar satellites, transmission links, maneuverable warheads - the costs become prohibitive.

A simple Sung-class submarine with standard anti-ship cruise missiles lurking 500 nautical miles out from Taiwan is a far cheaper and realistic means of carrying out the attack.

Tobias Harris said...

MTC,

Of course it would be an act of war — no less an act of war than if a Chinese missile struck a US ship at sea.

I too am sanguine about the possibility of a US-China war that draws in Japan, but the possibility exists at some level.

If the ASBM exists — and you're right, for now it is fictional — it seems prudent to consider what impact it could have on existing arrangements.

So I take your point, but given how little we know about the PLA, I wouldn't rule out the possibility entirely.

(Then again, the whole story could be something fabricated by the defense industry to ensure more money for missile defense programs.)

REM said...

MTC made some good observations. A couple of things I'd like to add to his points:
1) The missile would be targeted prior to launch, with fine adjustments made in the terminal phase using some sort of guidance system (presumably a radar seeker, but I don't know). To be honest I'm not particularly well-versed on ballistic missiles, but some rough calculations: if an ICBM can get almost anywhere in the world in about an hour, conservatively figure a 15-20 minute flight time for the DF-21. In that time an aircraft carrier going 35 knots is going to move about 10 miles - not a huge adjustment for an object on a high-altitude ballistic trajectory, I wouldn't think.
2) No communication with the missile would be required after launch: it would be guided internally in the boost phase using pre-launch targeting data, then by an onboard guidance system in the final stage of its descent.
3) The particular charm of a 200 kT nuclear warhead is that you don't have to hit the nail on the head to get a mission kill.

As for Tobias's initial post:
There's no need for an ASBM to attack a carrier that's pierside: any standard ballistic missile will do the job. A moored ship is no different to a building as far as targeting is concerned. The DF-31 can hit Yokosuka, Guam, Pearl Harbor, Bremerton, and San Diego - anywhere in the Pacific that you might like to park an aircraft carrier.

Obviously the PLA's strategy for now is primarily one of area denial. An effective ASBM would be one more tool that could be used to that end. Their submarine construction and training program, combined with improved submarine-launched cruise missiles and expanded over-the-horizon targeting capabilities, probably pose the greater threat.

The PLAN has not yet demonstrated an ability to operate undetected east of the 1st island chain undetected for extended periods, but as MTC noted, cruise missile-armed SONGs, YUANs and KILOs in the vicinity of Taiwan would be a concern. It is for that reason that the U.S. is developing its capabilities in full spectrum anti-submarine warfare.

At the end of the day, even if the carrier operating areas to the east of Taiwan are denied to the U.S., there's plenty of maritime interdiction (counter-invasion) and strike capability available in the submarine force. There's an air wing's worth of firepower in an SSGN's missile tubes, and nobody knows they're there.

Tobias Harris said...

Rem -

I'm much obliged for your comments.

Between you and MTC, I've gotten a bit of an education from this post (which I clearly need).

REM said...

I'm happy to be able to contribute. Thanks for the excellent work you do every day with this blog.

Anonymous said...

"hadn't the US and Japan be having a serious discussion about the impact of China's ASBMs on the future of US forward deployments in Japan, and with them, the future of the US-Japan alliance? Should the US consider relocating more assets from Japan to Guam to put them out of the range of ASBMs?"

The key question to us Japanese is the fact that not all of us would be put out of the range of hostile missiles in case of emergency,yet we must obey the occupation day constitution and ally that insist us not to build the system of counter measures.

Anonymous said...

The US cannot expect the 7 fleet to be parked in the Yellow sea/south china sea
and launching tomahawk missiles at China without being attacked.What would the US/pentagon do if the chinese navy lying off LA and shooting missiles at the US?
The PLa is making sure in a Taiwan war scenario the US canoot expect to be immune from attack if strikes China.China is no more defenceless and will be able to devastate the US if it were to lose the war.
The sooner the Pentagon realizes it is no more dealing with a weak and defenceless PLA the better

Anonymous said...

So the PLA anti ship missile is a threat and must be neutralized. Well what would the Pentagon do if the roles were reversed? They will be doing exactly what the PLA are doing.
For starters the US must know China is not Vietnam where the Americans can bomb NV at will without fear of reataliation.
The days like the 50s and 1996 are long gone.The Chinese are not so defenceless now.If the US attacks China it will have to take into account PLA counter attack.
The PLA are modernsising whether the US likes it or not .Granted China will lose but the point is they will keep on upgrading until the us knows it better not meddle in Tibet and Taiwan.

Anonymous said...

MTC said if a US ship is hit in the harbour of yokosuka,the result is war.if the US attackes PLA ships, it's ok because it is strong and can do what it wants.
Well,the PLA is not waiting for the US navy to attack if there is war in the Taiwan area.Any US navy ship with hostile intent is liable to be attacked.
China is not Iraq/kosovo where US ships and planes are free from counter attack.

Anonymous said...

So the US will have anti missile sites in the Pacfic ocean/yellow sea/SCC/all oceans to prevent any attack on the US.The best course of action will be not to attack China/NK/Iran. You can't have the cake and eat it.
The US must know any attack on NK will lead to 30% of South Korea being destroyed to facilitate regime change in NK.Attacking China is a different proposition. The PLA will retaliate on the US homeland. This is the 21st century not the 19th or 20th century where the western powers e.g Britain/US/france and could do as they like with their gunboats.Yes the gunboat diplomacy of the US navy is still alive.
Hang on. Any gunboat sorry carrier
loitering in the vicnity of waters close to China mainland with hostile intent will be sunk. The PLA won't bother whether it will ignite ww3 where the US is expected to carry out retaliation.
The PLA have factored in this and are ready for any US reaction. The US president will have to find a face saving way to punish the PLA without trigerring ww3.
Of course the US will prevail if it decides to go all out but i believe saner heads will prevail because even if the Chinese mainland were destroyed the US will have to accept unacceptble damage . This is the stark reality and even there were a ten fold increase in anti missile shield it is unlikely to have much impact on damage limitattion.