A High-Stakes Game
For the past year, the advent of a Chinese “carrier killer” antiship ballistic missile (DF-21D) has been gaining enormous attention. Chinese web chatter about how three salvos of such missiles could sink a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was taken very seriously in the United States. A Chinese admiral reportedly offered the U.S. Navy freedom of action in the Eastern Pacific because it would surely not be free to act on the other side of that ocean; the United States had better yield to China in matters concerning East Asia, including of course Korea and Japan, but particularly Taiwan.
Carriers really are important; we lose a great deal if we cannot use them freely. Only an air base near the action can provide the intense, continuous air presence we need to overcome massed theater forces. The only air base we have that is not subject to a local veto is a carrier. It could be (and was) argued during the Cold War that this aspect was not so important in Europe, where we would be fighting as part of a coalition with numerous land bases near the likely battle, but even then those fixed bases would be a good deal easier to target than a 30-knot carrier, and NATO commanders facing threats in southern Europe particularly valued flattops.
In the Far East, there are few land bases, and it is easy to project scenarios where many of the ones we typically use will be denied to us. It is much easier, for example, to imagine U.S. carriers helping the Taiwanese resist a Chinese amphibious operation than to envision the Korean or Japanese governments volunteering their own land bases for that purpose. Conversely, Taiwanese who believe that the new Chinese missile neutralizes our carriers will find it much more difficult to imagine that the United States will help them if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) attacks.
In effect, the Chinese are playing the kind of poker that became a dominant theme during the Cold War. Actually firing a missile at a U.S. carrier before the United States was involved in hostilities would entail some very difficult choices for a Chinese government. However, a U.S. administration contemplating backing Taiwan in a crisis would have to reckon with that possibility, and it might become convinced that it should not take the chance. A Taiwanese government wondering whether the United States could or would intervene might not rate its own chance of survival in the face of the invasion so highly. Should the Chinese arrange a public demonstration of their missile, it would become harder for governments throughout East Asia to resist their demands. The missile might provide China with the fruits of victory without war.
The reality is that the U.S. Navy has never viewed its carriers as invulnerable. Since their invention, it has considered them valuable assets that require protection. In some forms of carrier tactics, the carrier is both the bait for enemy antiship forces as well as the means to destroy them. During the latter part of the Cold War, for example, it was assumed that the carrier strike force in the Norwegian Sea would attract the cream of Soviet antiship forces, including bombers and submarines, which NATO surface escorts might find overwhelming. Part of the reason for sending carriers north was to set up a battle in which exactly those Soviet forces would perish. Otherwise, they could disrupt the Atlantic shipping without which the NATO ground battle would have been lost.
The NATO maritime strategy was practicable because the carriers had very effective long-range anti-bomber fighters (F-14s) and because their Aegis-equipped escorts could deal with any missiles the surviving Soviet bombers managed to launch. The U.S. development of these weapons was intended to foil considerable Soviet efforts to wipe out the carrier force, which the Soviets rightly understood was a key danger to their own ambitions. The Soviets got the message, and concentrated largely on repelling the expected carrier attacks. One major reason why was a series of successful U.S.-NATO exercises in the Norwegian Sea.
Aegis to the Rescue
It happens that the Chinese are preparing to deploy their anti-carrier missile at about the same time the U.S. Navy is deploying the obvious countermeasure, in the form of the ballistic-missile-defense (BMD) version of Aegis. The Chinese claim that their missile is more difficult to intercept than most, because it follows a non-ballistic trajectory (presumably to give it time to acquire its target using an onboard sensor). But last year Aegis demonstrated its ability to deal with an extremely random trajectory, in the form of a tumbling satellite. It is by no means clear that a limited number of Chinese anti-carrier missiles can deal with multiple Aegis BMD ships supported by the global sensing system the United States has been deploying for other ballistic-missile defense roles.
What has changed is the nature of the Aegis BMD program. Until the Chinese began advertising their new missile, critics of the U.S. ballistic-missile program sometimes asked exactly what threat it was countering. Many Third World countries have operational short-range weapons like Scud, but some of them are working on much longer-range missiles that can directly threaten our allies or even the United States. In the past, opponents of the program have argued that it is useful only to protect our allies from potential missile-armed enemies. That is by no means a trivial role, and it is an essential argument against our allies’ own missile and nuclear proliferation (i.e., defense in this case is probably much more stabilizing than deterrence). It is only fair to point out that Aegis BMD was also an important way to protect our forward-deployed forces, particularly amphibious forces at a beach, from existing ballistic missiles, but that was a much less immediate threat.
Now the Chinese have provided a direct, immediate naval threat. Unless we can reliably confront it, we really may feel compelled to withdraw our carriers—and much of our influence—from the Far East. That is not likely to be palatable. Several countries in the region are key allies, both military and economic. Many see East Asia as the greatest growth area of the next few decades.
Right now the PRC is very much part of that growth and, except for the Taiwan issue, it usually is not counted as a regional threat. Should we really care about our ability to keep our fleet in that area? That depends in part on how we see the future of the PRC. Everywhere else in East Asia, prosperity brought demands from the new middle and upper classes for political power. Two decades ago countries like Korea and Singapore seemed to exemplify the idea that prosperity and democracy need not go together, but events since then appear to show the opposite. What happens in China when (almost certainly not if) its ruling party feels this kind of pressure? To the extent that Taiwan exemplifies the alternative democratic path of development, those in Beijing may well feel that eliminating that example is urgent business. It is not too great a leap to imagine that the same Chinese regime that would overrun Taiwan would also close down our ties with other countries in the area, such as Korea and Japan.
If we were effectively ejected from the region, what would happen in Korea? To what extent does our presence deter the North Koreans from trying to solve their problems by attacking the South? The North Koreans can probably count on the Chinese not wanting to have a prosperous, capitalist Korea directly on their border, as an example of how much better a combination of capitalism and democracy can be than their own hybrid system.
Thus the Chinese are making naval BMD the most important current Aegis mission, because it deals with a very obvious and important threat. Moreover, Aegis enjoys a considerable advantage in that anyone trying to intercept an incoming ballistic missile has a much easier time of it if he controls the missile’s aim point. As for poker, U.S. demonstrations of effective sea-based BMD may be seen by many governments as proof that the Chinese, not the U.S. Navy, are holding a losing hand.
There is, of course, a lot more to the story. A missile does not in itself create the ability to destroy a distant, maneuvering carrier. To attack our carriers in the open sea the Chinese need not only ocean surveillance, but also sufficient timeliness and precision to cue a missile with a relatively narrow targeting window. The missile itself needs a terminal seeker, either infra-red or radar (or both).
One commentator made much of the contrast between the successful Chinese satellite interception (a “van-size target moving at Mach 20”) and the apparently much easier problem presented by a huge carrier moving at a mere 25 to 30 knots. That comparison omitted the much easier sensing problem faced by the satellite-killer: The satellite had no reflecting background to confuse the seeker, it was not equipped with countermeasures, and it was following a predictable path. Unless the sea is somehow subtracted, it is a confusing background at best. The U.S. Navy learned a great deal about deception during the Cold War. Deception (anti-surveillance) may actually matter more than anything else, but ironically it buys little from the international-poker point of view, because it is difficult for any outside observer to evaluate.
Obviously we are vulnerable if we do nothing or if we abandon development of Aegis ballistic-missile defense. Surely, however, that is the least likely scenario of all.